True West

Screenshot (16)The incessant, nagging chirp of crickets.

It’s the iPhone noise that never reached the popularity of the classic marimba ringtone. It underscores many a painful, unending awkward silence in our imaginations and in TV and film. Crickets also supply the unofficial soundtrack for much of the Duquesne Red Masquer’s milquetoast production of True West. Unfortunately, that is not solely as a recurring component of Nick Cipriano’s overbearing sound design but also as the audience’s prevailing reaction to the show.

Director Michael Makar chisels some striking tableaus out of Sam Shepard’s solid-as-a-rock, Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-nominated script. In True West, Shepard ignites fireworks by repeatedly smashing beer can-shaped circle hole Lee (Evan W. Saunders) into Ivy League-educated square peg Austin (Max Begler). While screenwriter Austin is away from his own wife and children, house sitting for his mother, his brother Lee blows in like a tumbleweed to disrupt his creative process and repeatedly ask to borrow his car.

Their five-year estrangement makes the tension between the brothers positively palpable. The arrival of flashy Hollywood agent Saul Kimmer tacks on a professional layer to the bitter blood feud. When Kimmer is unexpectedly intrigued by Lee’s half-baked concept for an authentic story about men in the west, Austin’s world begins to crumble. As they question all the choices they’ve made in life, they have only the fickle and dangerous call of the wild to give them answers.

Whether the characters are embroiled in heated face-to-face conflicts or unable to look at each other in the eye, many of the images, created by Makar’s occasionally meticulous hand, are dying to be photographed—pre-show, anti-cell phone announcement be damned. Despite the literal extended setup of the toaster scene in Act II, the punchline, like the bread, truly popped as a refreshing bit of slapstick.

Makar wears not one but two cowboy hats with the production. But his works as a set designer is anything but picturesque. He deploys an enormous swath of white fabric against the back wall that succeeds only in cannibalizing the rest of the simple scenery and accentuating Antonia Gelorme’s garish, unfocused lights.

With his casting of the two leads, Makar emphasizes the ways in which Lee and Austin are more alike than they’d care to admit. They share something thicker than blood or water—an all-encompassing desire for what the other has.

If you thought it was hard to direct and set design for a single production, be prepared to marvel at Saunders’s ability to manspread, smize, pout, and constantly shrug hair out of his face all in a single performance. He’s not always convincing when he talks tough or takes a physical jab at Austin, but he most definitely looks the part of the hard-bitten desert drifter in a Canadian tuxedo and black tank top designed by Clare Rahill. Saunders’s chops aren’t strong enough to chew on any scenery, but he makes easy and hilarious work of a prop with his teeth. It is in such moments of mild mania that he embodies Lee’s truth most honestly.

Begler too relishes the chance to unleash Austin’s id in the character’s increasingly violent and desperate outbursts. For much of the first act, he relies too heavily on hands-in-pocket acting to appear uptight. But, as if he got a jolt from sticking a fork in one of Austin’s beloved toasters, Begler plays drunk and downtrodden almost too well.

I instantly remembered hearing about a production of True West where Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly occasionally alternated in the roles of Austin and Lee. I think Begler would be more than up for the challenge. As Lee attempts to begin writing a screenplay, Begler hurls insults across the room like darts and hits a bullseye every time. No matter who has the keys to Austin’s car, the actor who portrays him is firmly in the driver’s seat of this production.

You’ll find Hayden Lounsbury and Christina McElwee riding in the back playing two small, yet pivotal roles. As Saul Kimmer, Lounsbury more than holds his own with the strong lead actors. McElwee, who plays Lee and Austin’s mother, is upstaged by a dying plant in the corner.

In the pursuit of truth, the Duquesne Red Masquers are on the right track. But they’ll need a stronger compass (along with more polished design elements and a more cohesive cast) to locate true west.

Thanks to the Duquesne Red Masquers for the complimentary tickets.

True West runs at the Genesius Theater until Sunday April 30th. For more information, click here.