True West presented by Dark Side of Saturn at Orlando Shakes
As any parent who has ever threatened to "turn this car around right now" knows, siblings stuck in close quarters can swiftly slide into savage violence. But unless your last name is Corleone or Knowles, you've probably never experienced fraternal fighting like the battling brothers of True West, now being presented at Orlando Shakes by Nick Baniewich's Dark Side of Saturn (Key of E, Hedwig and the Angry Inch).
Austin (Chaz Krivan) is a successful, responsible family man, plant-sitting for his Alaska-bound mother while working on his latest screenplay. Lee (Corey Volence) is an estranged ne'er-do-well who emerges after months alone in the desert, demanding Austin's truck and attention. As the plot progresses, a curious role reversal occurs in this Cain and Abel tale; a pitch for a contemporary cowboy picture pulls the prodigal Lee up to Austin's high-dollar Hollywood world, while the former stolid screenwriter slouches into appliance-absconding alcoholism. By the end of their epic confrontation, nothing in set designer Tom Mangieri's middle-class kitchen is safe -- not even the houseplants.
Director Kevin Becker (Bach at Leipzig, Jett Backpack) has done a solid job of staging Sam Shepard's Tony-nominated script, emphasizing the humor and physicality at the occasional expense of subtext. Krivan, pecking away at an 80s-era typewriter in his Cosby sweater, is insufferably ineffectual at first, but makes a sharp detour into drunken debauchery during the second act once the whiskey comes out. Volence is excitingly unrecognizable with his leathery tan and shaggy hair, sharing more in common with the coyotes who howl outside the house than with his human hermano. In trusth, the pair don't really look or sound much like brothers, but they have a caustic chemistry seemingly born from decades of simmering sibling rivalry.
Rounding out the cast, Jim Cundiff is appropriately smarmy as Saul, the movie producer over whose approval the brothers come to blows, but Barbara Blake's Mom is so awkwardly uninvolved that her climactic appearance serves to deflate the tension, rather than ratchet it up. The most important supporting player is fight director Bill Warriner's combat choreography, which delivers a satisfyingly savage final conflagration.
This interpretation of True West is both muscular and mirthful, though I missed some of the metaphorical poetry beneath the boozing and battling. My most significant critique is that the pacing is somewhat sluggish, particularly during scene changes, which are scored with 1980s classics and cleverly choreographed but still show-stoppingly long. Flaws aside, this production makes a fine introduction to Shepard's most accessible show, and at the very least is sure to make you salivate for shitty vintage beer -- or at least a slice of toast.
presented by Dark Side of Saturn
Through June 8 at Mandell Theatre (Orlando Shakes)