If Sam Shepard remains fixed in his reported determination, Joseph Papp and The New York Shakespeare Festival will never present another Shepard play after the current "True West." The playwright and director Robert Woodruff, who resigned in the course of previews, have disavowed the production that has just opened at the Public Theater Martinson Hall.
Whatever Messrs. Shepard and Woodruff may have intended, "True West" turns out to be two acts of tedious wrangling, recrimination, and vicious infighting. The mordant and bizarre stage piece contains occasional hints of "Pinteresque" menace. The improbable plot concerns the rivalry between two brothers -- reunited after five years -- as they attempt to collaborate on the script for a Hollywood western.
The play includes familiar Shepard themes, devices, and symbols. The confrontation and its placid domestic setting seem to be ironically contrasting metaphors for the fragmenting of the American family and the emptiness of the American dream. There are extravagent verbal flights at which Mr. Shepard is so adept. There are references to an absent alcoholic father, fantastic anecdotes, and a good deal of slovenly drinking and eating. The humor is harsh and abrasive. Frenzied second-act violence destroys a typewriter and reduces to shambles the neat kitchen alcove area of the suburban Los Angeles house their mother has loaned to one of the brothers. As the play ends, the two are locked in apparently mortal combat. While the fratricidal implications are clear, trying to discover what Mr. Shepard considers true and false in this tale of unbrotherly hate is frustrating and unrewarding.
The play's central roles are vigorously acted by Tommy Le Jones as the beleagered professional writer and Peter Boyle as the scruffy, cunningly aggressive small-time thief and hustler who sells his outlandish story to a Hollywood wheeler-dealer (Louis Zorich). Georgine Hall behaves with understandable perplexity as the siblings' mother who returns untimely from an Alaska vacation, takes one look at the debris-strewn premises, and sensibly departs for a motel.