Theatre Mirror Reviews - "True West"

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note: entire contents copyright 1999 by John Geoffrion

"True West"

A Review by John Geoffrion

It's truly a tribute to the spirit of theatre and to the dedication of the director, cast, and crew that this production took place. Ed Langlois and his Edwin Booth Project are mounting a production of Sam Shepard's "True West" in a cramped hallway outside of a Dover NH bookstore, and only serves to bring to life one of my all-time favorite quotes about the theatre (from Mamet's "A Life in the Theatre")

"Two actors, some lines, and an audience. That's all you need. F*** em all."

Truly, theatre is where you make it; any place where there are people acting and people watching. Langlois's previous foray was a production of "Death of a Salesman" two years ago in an empty room in a renovated mill building, which I had the honor of being in.

In this dark comedy, Ed has reassembled his "Salesman" team of Biff and Happy, Brian Peters and Chris Verdi, as brothers Lee and Austin. Austin is an uptight Ivy-League educated Hollywood screenwriter on the verge of a breakthrough, ne'er do well Lee has stumbled in from many years drifting through the desert, surviving on drinking and stealing. Lee crashes a meeting between Austin and a producer (Danny Gerstein as the fey, oily Saul), pitches him a concept for a Western, beats him at golf, and suddenly is fielding offers from major studios, much to the chagrin of Austin.

The play progresses into an alcoholic haze, where Austin and Lee reveal their jealousy of each other's lives, while their roles reverse. Lee cracks under the pressure of having to write a screenplay while Austin tries to prove himself by robbing houses. Sam Shepard's recurring themes of alcoholic/abusive/absentee fathers, familial dysfunction, and mythologizing of the West, abound.

There is certainly a lot to commend in this production; chiefly the fact that it went on at all. Director/producer/designer Langlois had tried in vain for months to find a venue. While certainly a hallway is not an ideal place, particularly when it comes to sightlines and limited capacity (about 25 chairs), the claustrophobic setting actually suits the play well.

It was evident, however, since the set had to be built to be completely stuck after every performance, that Langlois's trademark for dramatic and brilliant visual imagery was hampered. The limited edition posters, nonetheless, of which there are about 20 scattered around the most visible locations in the seacoast, are true works of art and serve to reveal what he could not put onstage.

Langlois even finds room on the tiny stage for live musicians; singer Michelle Brochu and guitarist Chris Curtis perform appropriately western cowboy-folk tunes, many self-penned, in between scenes. Their added value is immeasurable.

The production's only fault, in the view of this critic, is that the cast is so intent on their own characters that they rarely gel as an ensemble. Peters is so focused on being wild and crazy that he occasionally lapses into caricature. Verdi has many strong moments, but occasionally grasps at emotions inappropriate to the scene. Except for moments specifically called for in the script or by the director, the brothers rarely interact. Some moments of humor in the script are missed, and too frequently the actors resort to gross-out and burp jokes. Sandi Woodworth, as the mother, has an opportunity to accentuate the source of the brothers' dysfunction, but doesn't. All four cast members are talented actors who have done better work in the past.

Those faults aside, The Edwin Booth's "True West" is an event that should be experienced, particularly by those who need to be reminded what theatre is at its most basic and raw level. It's a hot ticket if you can get it. Good luck.

"True West" by Sam Shepard, a production of the Edwin Booth Project, runs April 9-25 in the lobby of Baldface Books, 83 Washington St., Dover NH. Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 7pm. Tickets are $12.00. Call (603) 749-2300.

"True West" (till 25 April)
Baldface Books (lobby), 83 Washington Street, DOVER, NEW HAMPSHIRE

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide