Somewhere in the thick of True West, Sam Shepard's classic tale of brothers, alcohol, Hollywood -- and toasters, ne'er-do-well Lee tells his younger, Ivy League-educated, screenwriter brother, Austin, about an idea he has for a movie. Lee's story is a preposterous riff on Steven Spielberg's first full-length film, Duel, in which Dennis Weaver is stalked by the mysterious driver of a menacing 18-wheeler. Like Weaver and the truck in Duel, Lee's pair tear up a lot of asphalt. Unlike the characters in Duel, Lee's cartoon daydreams dodge twisters in the Texas panhandle, run out of gas on cue, and then continue their four-wheel struggle on four legs. (Did I mention that both drivers are conveniently pulling horse trailers?)
Austin, the artiste, is appalled by the stupidity of his oafish older brother's story, embarrassed that he could even be related to someone whose mind could harbor such implausibly idiotic plot twists. But Lee has a metaphysical side. "The one who's chasin' doesn't know where the other one is takin' him," Lee explains. "The one who's being chased doesn't know where he's going."
That just about sums up the relationship between Lee, played with authority and passion by director Ray Renati -- who stepped into the role two weeks before the show's opening, following the withdrawal of the actor originally cast -- and Austin, who is brought to impatient, exasperated, cowering, and gloriously drunken life by John Romano. Renati and Romano don't look a lot like real brothers -- Renati, with his bad posture and wife-beater wardrobe, is a hulking, hair-trigger presence, whereas Romano is more of a John Hodgman type. But brothers are usually as different as they are alike, and Shepard's sibs hew to that immutable rule. That's not the play's surprise.
Lee is a petty thief by trade and temperament. A man who can live by himself in the Mojave for months on end, Lee prefers a world in which interactions with his neighbors occur in the dead of night when his hosts are safely asleep. How many color television sets and silver services do these people need, anyway? Lee reasons. He's an angel of sorts, relieving mortal souls of the burden of too many earthly possessions. He's Kris Kristofferson's "walking contradiction," a man who bristles when Austin offers him a cash handout, but is not too proud to badger his brother until the poor sop loans him his car.
Austin is the mama's boy who made good. When it's time for mom to vacation in Alaska, it's Austin who gets the call to house-sit and tend her precious plants, even though Lee lives close by.
As the play opens, Lee is sipping a mid-morning beer in their mom's kitchen and thinking through, as best his thick brain will permit, this latest familial slight. Having nothing better to do, he proceeds to annoy the crap out of his brother. Austin is preparing for the prototypical "big meeting" with a big-time Hollywood producer. Working by candlelight, his preferred work affectation when it's time to conjure the muse, Austin is struggling. Somewhere amid the piles of paper scattered about his typewriter (True West premiered at The Magic Theatre back in 1980), is a love story that Austin has been pouring his heart into. For all his college training and smarts, this is hard work that does not necessarily come naturally.
Lee, it turns out, is something of a savant when it comes to thinking up crazy scenarios that people will pay good money to watch with a bag of popcorn. It takes Lee just one conversation with producer Saul Kimmer, played with bravado and bluster by Kevin High, to land himself a golf game with the mini mogul. Lee has been underestimated all his life, so he uses the producer's low estimations of his golfing abilities to snare Kimmer into a bet to make his movie. Before Austin knows what's happened, his deal with the producer has turned into an assignment, which he refuses, to write his barely-literate brother's screenplay. Even though Saul has arrived at this uncomfortable place through Lee's trickery, he recognizes that Lee's idea is actually better than Austin's. For all Lee's ostensible outsiderness, he is more in tune with the tastes of the American movie-going public than his hot-shot brother.
A great deal of drinking ensues, which was my favorite part of the play because Romano is a terrific drunk and Renati's multi-layered portrayal of Lee's vulnerable side gives that character its required arc. While Lee struggles at the typewriter, Austin pinches a dozen or so of his neighbors' toasters during an all-night crime spree. Austin, it seems, can beat Lee at his game, too. Does that make them even? Only inasmuch as their mutual jealousy and contempt for each other is about par.
By the end of the play, Shepard is channeling Albee, with the brothers literally at each other's throats, rolling in a sea of beer cans, toasters, garbage, and the remains of a golf-clubbed typewriter. Austin and Lee are caught in a final face-off. Austin having played his final card to make good his escape; Lee standing between Austin and the door. Each has been chasing the other, neither knowing where the other would take him, let alone where he might be headed.
True West continues at The Pear Avenue Theatre, 1220 Pear Ave., Unit K; Mountain View, 650-254-1148, through February 3. For tickets and information visit thepear.org.