Every play has two lives, as a script and as a production, a piece of writing and a living organism, but most theatergoers don’t make that distinction. Plays often close after brief runs not because they were bad but because the Broadway productions were – look at Chris Durang’s Beyond Therapy and Beth Henley’s The Wake of Jamey Foster – and it usually takes extraordinary Off-Broadway or regional theater revivals to salvage their reputations. In fact, the birth of Off-Broadway in the ‘50s had everything to do with reclaiming plays that had been misunderstood or mishandled in earlier mountings. But no contemporary play has dramatized the dichotomy between play and production more vividly than Sam Shepard’s True West, currently at the Cherry Lane.

When it opened at the Magic Theater in San Francisco during the summer of 1980, True West was the latest of several original scripts the Magic had produced by a popular local playwright – Shepard lives across the bay on a farm with his wife, son, and mother-in-law – and it was treated as such. The comic performances by leading actors Peter Coyote (the man with the keys in E.T.) and Jim Haynie, both San Francisco Mime Troupe veterans, thoroughly entertained hometown audiences. But by the time the play opened in New York at the Public Theater that fall, it had become a media event, breathlessly anticipated as the latest work by “the hottest young playwright in America” since Shepard (who’s 39) won a Pulitzer Prize for Buried Child in 1979.

That ill-fated New York production of True West starred Tommy Lee Jones and Peter Boyle with Robert Woodruff directing, as he had in San Francisco. After three weeks of previews, Woodruff quit, Shepard denounced the production by long-distance telephone, the reviews were poisonous, and after a mere eight weeks, the play more or less limped offstage and out of sight. Then this April, Steppenwolf Theater, an enterprising young acting ensemble, mounted a rip-roaring comic production of True West in Chicago, featuring the beyond-Animal House performance of John Malkovich. Commercial producers brought the show back here to the Cherry Lane, where the New York Times was quick to pronounce it “the true True West.”

Perhaps True West was destined for such a self-and-shadow existence, for the play is all about elusive questions of identity. The story in brief: Austin is holed up at his mother’s house in southern California (she’s on vacation in Alaska) finishing a project he’s pitching to a Hollywood producer. He is being distracted by his older brother Lee, a slovenly drifter and cat burglar who takes after his father, now living “out on the desert,” drunk and broke. While the producer meets with Austin, Lee butts in, claiming that he has a good idea for a Western. Something happens over a game of golf – you’re not sure whether Mr. Producer lost a bet or Lee threatened the guy – and he decides to drop Austin’s story and do Lee’s. The brothers switch roles, but Lee can’t spell, let alone type, and Austin’s idea of crime is stealing all the toasters in the neighborhood. Mom arrives home from Alaska (the new Western frontier?), takes one look at her ravaged bungalow and her drunken, brawling boys, and decides to check into a motel. Moonlight settles on the two brothers circling each other in silent, deadly combat. 

The good son/bad son motif runs through Shepard’s plays under various guises – from the androgynes of Cowboy Mouth to the rock stars of Tooth of Crime to the blood relations of Buried Child – but his characters don’t act out your typical sibling rivalry. His Cains and Abels struggle to integrate contrasting images of masculinity: the idealized Western movie-hero and the disappointingly average (or even lousy) all-American dad. In True West, a distillation of all Shepard’s identity showdowns, the characters’ quest for the “true West” has a lot to do with what it means to be a real man. Austin faces this challenge as a suburban husband-and-father and aspiring screenwriter – a tamed Wild Westerner. Lee is a wilder creature, a degenerate cowboy with a bulldog instead of a bronco. But with the pathetic specter of his desert-rat Daddy hanging over him, the outcome of Lee’s maverick antics is all too predictable. In the new West they “swallow the smog”; in the true West, real men bite the dust.

But in the play Shepard avoids recriminations on the order of “Mother always liked you best” by allowing for the possibility that these guys are, on some level, the same person. Each man has to face the other side of himself, the person he might have been if he had (or hadn’t) followed in his father’s footsteps. This impulse is obviously autobiographical – Shepard’s father was apparently sort of a loser, and the playwright has done his share of hell-raising as well as prize-winning – but it’s hardly uncommon. It’s a chief obsession for Bruce Springsteen or, for that matter, any kid from a working-class family who out-achieved his father just by going to college. By internalizing this conflict, Shepard steers clear of the facile Freudianism and soap-opera sentimentality that floods most American family drama. “I wanted to write a play about double nature,” he once said. “It’s a real thing. I think we’re split in a much more devastating way than psychology can ever reveal. It’s not so cute. Not some little thing we can get over. It’s something we’ve got to live with.”

True West’s production history has become a saga almost as fascinating as the play itself. Although the Public Theater production may seem like old news, a cloud of mystery still hangs over it. At the time, I had heard rumors about the production, whose opening had been postponed twice: the show was in trouble, the stars were feuding, without Shepard’s presence Woodruff was a terrible director, the first previews were disastrous. To my surprise a preview matinee that I saw was anything but “disastrous” – it was a quite respectable rendering of a difficult play. Peter Boyle was perfectly skuzzy as Lee, and there was a rough-hewn quality tucked into Tommy Lee Jones’s gentlemanly jeans that made his slide into bestial rage plausible; if Jones never quite completed the transformation from tidy suburbanitie to lowlife, well, that’s the script’s thorniest point. In any case, the production seemed fine to me, which made the rumors of disaster puzzling.

Then I learned that Woodruff had resigned from the production the day before. The Voice ran a story headlined “Joe Papp’s ‘True West’ Is False, Says Shepard,” and the Times published a big news piece. In it, Papp complained that Woodruff was an “indecisive” director, and Shepard maintained that he had wanted the original cast but movie stars had been shoved down his and Woodruff’s throats. When the play finally opened, I went back to see it on Christmas Eve – it was the day the Times review came out, calling the show a “failure” – and the production was now in shambles. Papp had made a number of changes in how the play looked, some arbitrary but harmless and some weirdly wrong. More shocking, Boyle and Jones simply walked through the play, speeding through their lines without shading or sincerity and taking the shortest curtain call I’ve ever seen. 

This unhappy story is full of gossip potential and grist for hasty conclusions, but when I called up Woodruff for his side of the story, he indicated that the truth of the matter was simpler and less glamorous than the press had suggested. “I didn’t feel it was going to work,” says Woodruff. “I’d worked with the show for close to seven weeks, we’d all busted our asses on this thing, and whatever chemistry it takes to make a production do what it’s going to do wasn’t there. You can’t fix something like that. Yeah, you can change the lights, you can repaint the set, all the things Joe eventually did, but that’s cosmetic. We’re talking about what the play needs to work.” (Note how closely Woodruff’s words echo Shepard’s discussion of the theme of True West.)

The general perception that lingers to this day is that Joe Papp fucked up True West, and maybe it’s true that he should have closed the show if Woodruff felt it didn’t work. But it seems more fair to say that it was Shepard himself who sabotaged the production by telling The New York Times that Papp hired movie stars over his objection. Woodruff told me: “I cast the play, he (Papp) didn’t.” No wonder the actors were so demoralized; it must be tough when the author goes around saying publicly you’ve ruined his work, especially since Shepard never even saw the production.

Gary Sinise never saw True West in New York, either, but as artistic director of Steppenwolf Theater and a Shepard fan (he had directed Action and performed in Curse of the Starving Class) he was eager to acquire the rights for his company. The production this spring won critical acclaim for Sinise as director and Jeff Perry and especially John Malkovich as the leading actors; it sold out a six-week run and later moved to a larger commercial theater for another 12 weeks.

Success was no stranger to Steppenwolf – in Chicago, the independent 12-member ensemble has an awesome reputation – but when a commercial producer named Wayne Adams, who presented Say Goodnight, Gracie Off-Broadway, offered to bring the production to New York, Steppenwolf could think of plenty reasons not to accept.

“See, we’re very different,” Malkovich said when I talked to him and Sinise (young guys, 28 and 27) over a burger brunch recently. “We’re spoiled because we get paid better than Off-Broadway actors, we choose the plays, and we get to do a variety of roles. So we’re sort of immune when people say, ‘Yeah, but this is a chance to act in New York!’” Also, the initial plan had all four actors from the original production plus director Sinise plus his and Malkovich’s wives (actresses with the company) all coming to New York, which freaked the rest of the company out since Steppenwolf had just built a $100,000 theater and announced an ambitious five-play season ranging from Three Sisters to Cloud 9. Finally, it was decided that Sinise would play Austin, the two supporting roles would be recast in New York, the spouses would commute, and Steppenwolf would continue business as usual in Chicago. Of course, as Sinise put it, “The tension was eased somewhat by the success we’ve had here.”

Their production has certainly given True West a second life, at least in New York. The Blues Brothers routine that Sinise and Malkovich have made the comic centerpiece of the show forges a strong link between True West and Shepard’s earlier, more jaggedly poetic and anarchic plays. But the actors are less concerned with proving a point about the play – frankly, they sniggered, they didn’t see how anybody could fuck it up – than with prolonging the life of the theater they helped found. “Steppenwolf wants to do new plays, but so many playwrights won’t let them be done first except in new York, because the press is here,” said Malkovich. “This was a way for us to get exposure to playwrights, agents, and directors as a company. That’s what the people in the group finally got behind and realized.”

Is Steppenwolf’s the true True West? Entertaining as it is, the slapstick business in the second act goes on too long, and the production never engages the play on the mythical level, which was apparently the strong suit of the production Robert Brustein’s American Repertory Theater took to Europe this summer. One critic said of that show that the actor “captures both the punk and the mystic in Lee; it makes some sense that Austin would, in a frenzy of drink and despair, decide Lee possessed some secret, some desert wisdom.” And another True West directed by a woman is currently running in Buffalo – who knows what insights might emerge from that production? One of the strengths of the play is that for all its seeming tidiness it invites and supports a variety of interpretations.

“The play is a little unfinished, I think, in Sam’s mind,” Malkovich volunteered. “People kept saying True West is so commercial, but I think it’s a more personal play than most of his. Shepard, like Lee, defies all the things we’re told we have to do to be successful. He spent years in a loft picking his nose and writing really punk stuff with Patti Smith, and then he wins a Pulitzer. He’s like Austin when he shrugs off his writing to go make all these movies, but then he’ll turn around and, like, trash Papp in the New York Times – that’s such a Lee-like thing to do.” He laughed and put the whole thing in a nutshell. “Lee is the side of Shepard that’s always being strangled but never quite killed.”

Village Voice, November 30, 1982