You wouldn't think it nowadays, but there was a time -- not so long ago -- when Sam Shepard was the king of American theater. His vision of America as a metaphysical and spiritual desert haunted by dark ghosts of violence was preeminent in the restless 1970s and '80s as the culture, following the turmoil of the '60s and the Vietnam era, searched for new directions. His plays, more than 45 of them, often use ordinary realistic contexts -- middle-class American households -- that are subverted by wilder, more radical impulses. The Mosaic Theatre of Plantation is having a go at Shepard with the often-produced True West, Shepard's 1980 "comedy of menace," which takes on a number of themes -- the blood ties of family, the intertwining myths of Hollywood and the Old West, and the constant restless longing in contemporary American life. At its heart is an endless conflict between two brothers. Austin, a midlevel screenwriter with some success but a lot of anxiety, is housesitting his mother's Los Angeles home while she's off in Alaska. Focused and professional, Austin is trying to work on a new screenplay, but he's interrupted by his ne'er-do-well brother. Lee, a loner who has been living out in the Mohave Desert, is an ex-con and petty thief who plans to burgle Mom's suburban neighbors. Austin is concerned about what Lee plans to do but even more concerned that his brother will be in the way when Saul, a Hollywood producer, drops by to chat about Austin's script. Sure enough, Lee muscles in on Austin's conversation with Saul, and the next thing you know, Lee has a deal to write his own screenplay while Austin's is put aside. Lee is suddenly the insider while Austin's out in the cold.
The idea of Hollywood as a fickle funhouse is certainly not a unique one, and Shepard's tale of battling brothers isn't either. But Shepard's exploration of the chaotic unacknowledged forces beneath modern American life is his lasting contribution. There's an unsettling menace under the comedic structure of True West, an absurdist streak that surfaces late in the story, turning what appears to be realistic narrative into pure myth. That's the beauty of Shepard's work. He starts with one thing, usually a pretty normal thing, and it morphs into something else, something rich but strange. That's also, not incidentally, the danger in True West, a play that, despite its funny riffs and situations, doesn't hold up so well merely as comedy. If you don't hook into the spooky stuff behind the laughs, what you get is half a play.
It's precisely that restless dangerous undertow that's missing from the Mosaic production, a curious fault for this company, which has demonstrated considerable finesse and skill in its short history. Here, though, artistic director Richard Jay Simon and company seem rather clueless. A quick scan of Shepard's biography might have tipped them off. Born Samuel Shepard Rogers VII, Shepard grew up on a Southern California farm in the shadow of his complex tormented father, a World War II bomber pilot turned Fulbright fellow, then high school teacher, then farmer, and finally full-time alcoholic. As the family disintegrated, the teenaged Shepard left home, repeating his father's cycle as a restless jack-of-all-trades. In 1964, at age 19, he landed in New York's East Village, where he found an anchor of sorts in the theater world and his voice as a writer. Working as a waiter at the Village Gate, Shepard cranked out a manic stream of experimental short plays. His first, Cowboys, established themes that he has returned to ever since -- the disintegration of the American family and the haunting myths of the West.
Shepard's career took off. He wrote and acted for such New York companies as La Mama, the Open Theatre, and the American Place, and he got caught up in the creative anarchic swirl that was the theater scene in the 1960s. He won a string of Obie Awards, beginning in 1965, before kiting off for four years to London, where he wrote Tooth of the Crime, a tale of battling rock stars. Then came a series of "family plays": The Curse of the Starving Class, Buried Child (Pulitzer Prize winner in 1979), True West, and Fool for Love. Shepard became a part-time musician (he was into jazz and rock 'n' roll, and he played drums for the iconoclastic Holy Modal Rounders) and a respected film writer and performer (he cowrote Zabriskie Point for Antonioni and Paris, Texas for Wim Wenders and scored as an actor in Days of Heaven, The Right Stuff, and Black Hawk Down). Along the way, Shepard struggled with several issues that reoccur in his plays -- the enduring power of his ever-absent father and Shepard's own dual nature. He was a steady and domestic wordsmith who was also a tortured erratic outsider. His wilder exploits are the stuff of theatrical legend, especially with his onetime lover, wild woman Patti Smith, who also carried on another reckless romance with artist Robert Mapplethorpe. Shepard and Smith battled and romanced in bars, on stage, and in Shepard's room at the Chelsea Hotel. They recorded their histrionics in Cowboy Mouth, a play they wrote in two nights by shoving a typewriter back and forth between them. Shepard was a wild child in his day, using his creative skills to work through his demons like his berserker brethren, gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson or the late, lamented, excitable music boy Warren Zevon.
While the Mosaic production is marked by clarity and competence, it completely misses those live-wire underpinnings. The comedy is carefully wrought, but the play's anarchic menace is missing. The four-actor cast is thoroughly competent, but there's little chemistry. Terrell Hardcastle plays Austin as an intelligent, somewhat repressed professional trying to cope with an outlandish situation. It's a solid enough performance but a recycled one. Hardcastle has been doing essentially the same character in the same way in a string of area productions. Michael St. Pierre plays Lee, one of a long line of Shepard's dangerous charismatic drifters, more as a teddy bear than a predator, offering little threat or fire. Linda Bernhard, normally so reliable, seems lost here, bringing little impact to the brief role of the returning mother. As Saul the Hollywood producer, David Vargo fares best, aided by the fact that Shepard flips the usual stereotypes, making the Hollywood producer the most normal character in the bunch.
Most of the problems here must be laid to Richard Jay Simon's naturalistic staging, which offers meticulous detail where manic gonzo energy is required. When Lee destroys the house in his search for a pen or pencil to write with, his search feels carefully staged, not crazed. The same applies to the play's long monologues, extended word riffs that come across as constructed, not booze-fueled improvisations. David Sherman's kitchen set seems decidedly non-L.A., with its tacky Southwestern/Santa Fe décor, but at least the use of Native American pottery and artifacts suggests some mythic elements. The production might have been better off without the languid music score, mostly Allman Brothers and Hank Jr. at their drowsiest. But the soundtrack says it all. Shepard refers to two external forces in his L.A. nighttime setting, the yin and yang of his tale: the lulling normalcy of crickets and the enticing spooky menace of prowling coyotes. This Mosaic show has lots of crickets but no coyotes. It whirs and chirps, but there are no howls echoing through them thar L.A. hills.
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