Tommy Lee Jones and Peter
Boyle in True West
The Smiling Assassins
Westbeth Theater Center
“The country’s on a tilt, and all the loose screws end up in California.” So goes the old saw. What Sam Shepard has to say in True West isn’t much different. Where else could you find an Ivy League graduate who thinks that his “only shot” is the screenplay for a “simple love story” he’s trying to hustle to a graying producer who wears Hawaiian shirts unbuttoned to the navel and isn’t averse to making creative decisions based on golf bets? California is still the last frontier for American dreamers, the place where cults and careers skyrocket overnight and where would-be contenders grow old and desperate waiting for that one lucky break.
But Shepard is digging for myth out there, not panning gold, and his perseverance pays off. If the cowboys have turned into commercial types, there’s still plenty of competition inside the corral. The stakes may be money or property (real or reel or reel-to-reel) but more often manhood or the modern-day mystery of identity. Men do battle in the ring – dirt-floor, hand-to-hand combat. And not just men: brothers. It’s the classic confrontation, good guy and bad guy. But there’s no woman in the picture, no new world to be built, no land to be settled – there’s the form of the cowboy showdown without the content. They’re out there stalking each other in the desert. They might as well be animals. They might as well be one guy. Just good and bad tussling on metaphysical territory. The true West is in the mind. No, the true West is in the soul.
True West is actually Shepard’s most straightforward play, but what’s daring is that he has set his mythical masculine struggle in such mundane circumstances. A 30ish hunk, Austin, is camped out at his mother’s house (she’s vacationing in Alaska) slaving over a screenplay – or maybe just a synopsis – that he’s pitching this producer Saul Kimmer. He is being distracted by his older brother Lee, a slovenly drifter who, by all accounts, takes after the old man who is holed up somewhere out in the desert with no money, no teeth, and no excuse for living. While the producer is meeting 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 Kimmer lost a wager or whether Lee threatened the guy – and Kimmer decides to drop Austin’s story and do Lee’s. The brother switch roles, but it’s ridiculous. Lee can’t spell, let alone type, and Austin’s idea of crime is stealing all the toasters in the neighborhood. Mom arrives, disappointed from Alaska, just in time to catch Picasso at the local museum (she thinks – but how could she? – it’s Picasso himself). She takes one look at her ravaged bungalow and her drunken, brawling boys and decides to check into a motel. The coyotes, who we’re told team up in packs to lure innocent suburban pets to slaughter, yap hysterically. 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. His contemporary Cains and Abels struggle to integrate two contrasting images of masculinity: the idealized Western movie-hero and the all-too-real average (or even lousy) All-American dad. In Shepard’s work the successful son isn’t embarrassed by the failure father, nor is the good-for-nothing son intimidated by the successful father’s example. There is no blame laid. The son 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. In other words, heritage doesn’t make you into something; it just gives you a model you can accept or reject but never leave behind.
This impulse is obviously autobiographical – Shepard’s father was apparently a kind of 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 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 and follows his instincts into a deeper exploration of human identity. “I wanted to write a play about double nature,” he told the NY Times about True West. “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.”
The production at the Public is still in previews and not officially up for review; the opening has been postponed twice, director Robert Woodruff has “resigned,” and rumors have been flying that the show is “in trouble.” But a recent matinee gave no such evidence. As Austin, Tommy Lee Jones (who looks an awful lot like Sam Shepard) never quite makes the crucial transformation from middle class to lowlife, but that’s the script’s thorniest point. Shepard gives Lee material reasons for wanting to change places with his brother; Austin’s reasons may be more vague and mystical than the play is set up to handle. As Lee, Peter Boyle is – in a word – perfect. He is a total scuzzbucket in his oversized lime-green shirt, Salvation Army pants, fake alligator shoes with no socks, and that head that looks like it was fried clean by electroshock leaving just a fringe of dry matted hair. I won’t say anything more about the production, except that Hank Williams has never sounded more eerie than when “Ramblin’ Man” plays between acts of True West
I’ve been trying to determine what, if anything, younger playwrights have picked up from Shepard. I know what I’d like them to pick up: his theatricality. The most stunning thing about Buried Child was the way Shepard expertly dramatized two mutually exclusive realities (he pulled a similar trick with Suicide in B-Flat). Even without any stylization of those loony visual metaphors Shepard is fond of, True West kept me on the edge of my seat just through its language: not Pinter’s sinister, elliptical dialogue or Ntozake Shange’s vivid word-castles but just direct talk between two people so thoroughly at odds that tension gnaws at your stomach, as if you’re a scared kid sitting in the principal’s office.
More likely what younger playwrights get from Shepard are the more superficial things – the penchant for monologues, the aimless structure of the early plays, the masculine mythos. The Smiling Assassins, a play written by Yale graduate Peter Crombie under the pseudonym Donald Blyth, concerns two brothers who are heirs to a bustling construction company (their name is Bilden so they’re into buildin’). Daniel has discovered that his real father was his grandfather Abe, an eccentric who lived in a cabin out in the woods and who hanged himself 15 years ago. Daniel is determined to give up the family business and resume the work of his grandfather, a man he barely knew or liked. Part of this work seems to include selling off some of the surrounding forest for pulp wood to an obviously incompetent hillbilly named Cot Skimmer, who has a bright son named Reb. (The Skimmers’ fantasy of city-slicker prosperity is an interoffice intercom; they stimulate one around the dinner table.) Daniel’s brother Jason arrives to urge him back to the city and disapproves of the pulp-wood scheme. He is also, it turns out (after laborious hinting around), Reb’s father. Daniel, who’s tormented because his real father was kept from him, nags Jason to tell Reb he’s his father (“Tell him!” he says over and over. “Tell him!”) By the end of the play Jason has convinced Daniel that knowing who is father was is no big deal (“Why did I find this truth so terrible?” wonders Daniel, and the audience), but not before Reb’s mother has spilled the beans to Reb.
The issue of paternity seems awfully old-fashioned – particularly when it’s ultimately proven to be a non-issue – but I think what playwright Crombie wanted to do was repudiate the notion that “The truth must out.” The truth, he seems to say, sometimes doesn’t mean anything at all. Not that it’s painful or dangerous or anything, it’s just irrelevant. (I feel this way when the news gives details of some celebrity’s cancer ailment.) This is not a bad idea to base a play on but Crombie does it clumsily, with a murky, drawn-out kind of dialogue that I can only interpret as an attempt to duplicate the enigmatic quality of Shepard’s writings. There are also a couple of Shepard-like monologues and a rather savage portrait of a poor country family. But the story just doesn’t make as much sense as it pretends to – why does Daniel get so worked up about this 15 years after Abe dies? Why would anybody do business with an obvious cretin like Cot? Why would Cot’s sturdy wife Venice stay with him so long? Maybe there are plausible explanations to these questions, but the play doesn’t present them. Then, too, the Tyson Studio’s production is so unflattering it’s hard to find any merit in the play at all. The performances are terribly stagey, with the notable exception of Keith Reddin’s as the eager, appealing country lad who grows up in the last minute of the play.
I don’t know if Len Jenkin considers Sam Shepard an influence or not, but he has had plays done at San Francisco’s Magic Theater, where Shepard’s plays routinely premiere, and the chief characteristic of his plays is that they consist almost entirely of monologues. Jenkin doesn’t use monologues as intensifications of character; they are the characters. It’s the mind turned inside out, I suppose. Inside your head it’s only you talking.
Jenkin’s last play, New Jerusalem, produced at the Public almost two years ago, was a sprawling, episodic, unwieldy but very interesting mess, spectacularly staged by Garland Wright. Limbo Tales, currently at Westbeth, is on a smaller scale but equally interesting – three monologues about men in transit. “Highway” concerns an anthropology professor carrying on a disintegrating relationship with a woman who lives two hours away by car. Driving there at night, rehearsing his next lecture on Mayan culture, he begins to worry that Margaret might be driving to his house, so he turns around, then turns around again, etc. It’s very funny, and it’s staged like parts of New Jerusalem – a miniature highway on a long table, with houses, phone booths, gas stations and billboards lit up along the way, as well as a … pyramid dripping blood? The brief “Intermezzo” enumerates the performers who weren’t able to appear on the program, such as Baron Campoletto, Italian midget; Art Hubbell, the Human Balloon; and the Bold Grimace Boy. “Hotel” depicts a down-on-his-luck encyclopedia salesman’s last day in a filthy fleabag – eating take-out Chinese, taking cryptic phone calls, listening to the poor souls lodged on either side of his room. Every aspect of this strange little evening is beautifully done – Jenkin’s direction, Norman Coates’ lighting, and the acting by Bill Sadler, John Nesci, and the beautiful Will Patton.
Soho News, December 10, 1980
The saga of the Public Theater’s production of true West has become almost as fascinating as Sam Shepard’s play itself. The play, Shepard’s first since he won the Pulitzer Prize for Buried Child and the impetus for a great swell of media hype and critical anticipation, began performances Nov. 18 with a cast headed by Tommy Lee Jones and Peter Boyle and directed by Shepard’s longtime associate Robert Woodruff. By the time the play’s official opening had been postponed twice, rumors were flying: the show was in trouble, the stars were feuding, Woodruff was a terrible director and was lost without Shepard around, he couldn’t handle the actors, the first previews were disastrous. Having read the play and looked forward to seeing it, I became curious about these tales of doom and bought a ticket to the Saturday matinee preview Dec. 6. That performance was hardly “disastrous”; it was, I would say, 90 percent finished, a perfectly respectable rendering of a difficult play, so both the rumors and the continued delays in opening the play seemed baffling.
Then I learned that Woodruff had resigned from the production Dec. 5. The Village Voice proclaimed on its cover “Joe Papp’s ‘True West’ Is False,” and inside quoted Shepard as disavowing the public’s production as “in no way a representation of my intentions” (even though neither Shepard nor any Voice critic had yet seen the production). Previews continued with Woodruff credited as director, although Papp had stepped in and begun making alterations. On Saturday, Dec. 20, a rather long article appeared in the Times pitting Papp against Shepard. Papp offered specific criticisms of Woodruff’s “indecisive” direction, and Shepard – ever-loyal to Woodruff – decried Papp’s intervention, claiming that Papp had insisted on casting choices unacceptable to the playwright and the director. The play finally opened last week, and when I saw it again Christmas Eve – it was the day the Times review came out, calling the show a “failure” – the production was, sadly, in shambles. 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. Papp had made a number of changes in how the play looked, some arbitrary but harmless and some weirdly wrong, and the play’s poetic final tableau had been restaged so ineptly that you can’t tell what it’s supposed to be.
This unhappy story is full of gossip potential (show-biz scandal! Feuding stars!) and grist for hasty conclusions. Woodruff took a walk, therefore he’s a terrible director. The production’s a dog, therefore Shepard’s not everything he’s cracked up to be. Papp commandeered the production, therefore he has no respect for playwrights. The truth is simpler and a lot less glamorous. “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. If the play is better than what you’ve got, why not do it that way? I have very high standards – maybe too high when it comes to Sam’s material. If it works for you, that’s wonderful. If it works for Frank Rich or Joe Q. Public, that’s wonderful. But it’s still gotta work for me. It’s unfair to blame the actors. This is a really visceral piece and makes incredible demands on actors. Peter and Tommy really struggled with that stuff. I just don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying, ‘Hey, it didn’t work.’”
Woodruff would have been happy, he says, to shut down the production entirely or start all over with different actors or a different director. This alternative was apparently unacceptable to Papp; he had already done that once this season with David Rabe’s Goose and Tom-Tom, and there had already been too much advance publicity on Shepard and True West not to exploit the production for all it’s worth. But it seems that the scheme has backfired; the production is terrible, and it’s hard to imagine it running any longer than its scheduled closing date of Jan. 11. Should Papp have closed the show at Woodruff’s and Shepard’s request? Could his desperation to find another commercial vehicle like A Chorus Line be getting the best of him? True West is an important play, and I hope it bounces right back onto the boards the way John Guare’s Broadway flop Bosoms and Neglect did. But for now I don’t know who is the bigger loser – the public or the Public.
Soho News, December 30, 1980
See also: The True Story of “True West”