Good boys

Kitchen Dog plays nice with True West

In many ways, Sam Shepard's rigorously honed dramedy True West is more evocative of the funhouse floor on which the author stands than any of his other plays. Perhaps the most purely comic of Shepard's quartet of family safaris (Curse of the Starving Class and Buried Child came first, A Lie of the Mind came after), True West is the luridly riotous tale of two very different brothers that might as well be a sonogram of Shepard's artistic schizophrenia. He is a working-class American trapped inside a poet, or maybe vice versa. By extension, his body of work contains the poetic dreams of white trash, the noble yearnings of schemers and boozers, and, every once in a while, a glimpse of the epic bravery inside the disadvantaged, the wounded, and the wounding.

He is that most American of writers because even as he joined the ranks of the artistic aristocracy, he insisted on marching his flea-bitten, occasionally rabid underdogs through the gilded hallways of art. The degenerates Shepard favors seem to be a compromise for abandoning the poetic monologues of early efforts like La Turista and Tongues. Shepard realized he must practice semi-linear storytelling if he was to graduate from the avant-garde of his early days in New York City and London. But he insisted on a warped, almost mythological perspective, mundanity split open like an atom.

In his youth, Shepard dreamed of being a rock star (a fantasy exorcised in his first widely acclaimed play The Tooth of Crime), so he understands how important illusion is to people with broken homes and empty pockets. In Shepard plays, illusion is a currency that can buy anything--fame, wealth, sex, death, love, respectability, stability. It's also the central gear that drives his beleaguered families to disintegration or reconciliation.

The two brothers at the center of True West, Kitchen Dog Theater's latest production, have yoked their lives to idealized images--hallucinations, almost. The mild-mannered Austin (Joe Nemmers) is a screenwriter who will come to feel that his cautious, bookish nature has created the plastic mold of an authentic life, not a life itself. Thieving, temperamental Lee (Dan Day), Austin's older brother, has just emerged from three months in the Mojave Desert with a brightly burning resentment of his baby bro's Hollywood career, wife, and kids.

Austin and Lee are two archetypes of masculinity--one degreed and logical, the other independent and impulsive--who gaze into each other's eyes and secretly envy what they see, or think they see. As much as anything else, True West reveals the fragility of individuals who stake their understanding of themselves on manufactured notions of identity. Shepard's bloody brothers covet each other's lives so intensely, they grapple like toddlers in a crib over a toy that belongs to both but can be claimed exclusively by neither.

The instrument that stirs this jealous conflict is artifice itself, a vaguely described movie idea by Lee that he boldly pitches to Austin's smarmy manager (Chris Carlos). This story, about two men chasing each other across Texas, is declared compellingly real by its originator but scorned as pure hokum by his brother. The manager bites, and with the sudden entrance of foul-breathed, felonious Lee into Austin's diligently landscaped psyche, Austin's sense of himself is scrambled.

The program for True West contains a marvelous introductory essay by the director, David Irving, that frames the play as eloquently as any theater critic could. I was reminded of the equally lucid, articulate essay Irving wrote for the last Kitchen Dog show he directed, Chay Yew's Porcelain. This, in turn, made me wonder how two such incendiary plays could feel so deliberately paced. Let me be clear--True West is a far more effective show than Porcelain was. And yet, the first act doesn't hit the ground running, like Shepard's spare, abrupt sequence of scenes would seem to dictate. Nor did a lingering thought that I was watching two talented actors spar through a series of character exercises disappear.

Dan Day and Joe Nemmers' straightforward approach to their characters doesn't detract from this gasoline-soaked ode to fraternal rivalry, but neither do the actors bring anything urgent or intuitive to them. This brisk, uncluttered style has served them well in the past, particularly with roles that other actors have obscured in trickery. Dan Day reinvigorated Hamlet as a smartass with an obsessive streak in Kitchen Dog's last show, and it reminded us just how important wit was to the Dane's equation; Nemmers played an anthropomorphic fowl in the company's production of Elizabeth Egloff's cynical fairy tale The Swan, and his single-minded drive for affection from the heroine was one part bird-brained stud to three parts infant yearning.

What felt clean and focused in those roles feels polite and controlled here. These are not unqualified criticisms--God knows, the script for True West extended repeated invitations to Day and Nemmers to emote the roof off the McKinney Avenue Contemporary, but they resisted and maintained a minimum simmer that selectively erupted in flame. As Lee, Dan Day looks like Daniel Stern on a mean drunk. To his credit, he makes a short fuse go a long way; it's impressive when any actor plays a man who's constantly on the verge of lashing out for two hours and manages to dodge monotony.

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