Director Hope Alexander's approach to playwright Sam Shepard's 20-year-old knock-down, drag-out True West, about two brothers in conflict, is serviceable enough but timid. Call it the not-so-wild West. Alexander's rendering transforms the foul-mouthed, explosive text into something like Harold Pinter, wrapping the dialogue and action in pregnant pauses and meaningful glances. The tepid tempo means that the inevitable chaos and mounting violence play like a flat line instead of the volatile trajectory the anarchy demands.
Michael C. Smith's confused scenic design makes matters worse by turning the battleground into a suburban back yard instead of the combination kitchen/alcove requested in the script. Whatever the intention behind that decision, the lawn furniture, dirt and meager plant life open up the play, seriously diluting the claustrophobia that creeps into the script.
As the sober screenwriter Austin, who is watching his mother's house while she is on vacation in Alaska, Cameron Dye is all fearful glances and avoidance maneuvers in Act One; his toaster-thieving booze-hound makeover in Act Two rings false. It's quite the opposite for Paul Perri's menacing petty criminal Lee: in the beginning, his affected line readings and hulking performance suggests one too many viewings of Of Mice and Men. In the second act, he's much more interesting because he cuts loose and becomes the wicked, raging volcano he's supposed to be.
Shepard has written a lot of plays since True West. South Coast Repertory's decision to mount this overproduced play—especially in an unexceptional, take-no-risks production like this—is more than a little disappointing, considering the writer's latest work, Simpatico, still hasn't been staged in Orange County or Los Angeles.
True West at South Coast Repertory's Second Stage, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555. Tues.-Fri., 7:45 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2 & 7:45 p.m. Through Oct. 24. $26-$45.
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