True West by Pink Banana Theatre Company
More real than real. Along with Sam Shepard’s plays Buried Child, Curse of the Starving Class and Fool for Love, True West is part of an examination of people in desperate situations during the most raw and vulnerable time of their lives. The playwright/actor notoriously rips characters apart and puts their worst qualities on display. This sparse tale of two embattled brothers is no exception.
True West explores the notion that you have to actually live a life in order to write about one. Austin is an educated but struggling screenwriter. His older brother Lee is a wanderer, refined as a piece of dirt. Previously estranged, the two attempt to watch their mother’s place while she’s away. They bicker and argue, like brothers do, about pretty much everything. When Lee impresses Austin’s Hollywood producer with a story of his own — a Western no less — the competition between the brothers “hits pretty close to home,” as Lee states. An underlying current of built-up jealousy, resentment and frustration finally explodes in the final act.
As Lee, Karl David Conoff is a play within himself; the actor inhabits the role like a second skin. The other actors are competent in their roles, but are haunted by some stilted delivery and pale in sincerity compared to Conoff.
James Boland plays the screenwriting-brother Austin. Boland is also the play’s director. Directing yourself in a play is like trying to give yourself a haircut; it might come out okay but could be much better with an objective eye and hand at work. Given the possible budgetary constraints of the small company, perhaps casting himself in the lead was an economic decision. But it reads like narcissism and/or an inability to trust his directing skills. Without this outside perspective, it feels like the production suffers. The pacing is slow through the first act; characters often upstage themselves, and Boland plays his role like he’s extremely bored instead of possessing the irritated verve necessary. His performance does pick up in the last half of the second act during a drunken rage, but overall the show could have been better served with another director or actor handling the role alone.
The production is not without some merit. The site-specific setting (the play is performed in an actual studio apartment) makes for the interesting theatrical experience of putting the audience literally in the middle of the action. The characters seem to really live in this space, as the set and entrances extend all the way to the back of the house. Story beats happen with extreme subtlety, and characters merely putter about in silence to mark transition scenes rather than the standard trite lighting cues. The whole production is performed as if the audience wandered into someone’s house, sat down and the brothers living there went on as if nothing was different. At the end, there’s not even a curtain call by the actors.
Pink Banana Theatre Company’s True West continues through Oct. 30 with pay-what-you-can nights on Oct. 19 and 26. Due to limited seating, reservations are recommended. Visit the Pink Banana Theatre website for more information.