Review - True West (Vaudeville Theatre)

It’s the 80s, and somewhere in the oppressively hot suburbs of SoCal, Ivy League educated screenwriter Austin sits hunched over a typewriter, penning his latest screenplay and periodically stopping to give the potted plants surrounding him an obligatory spritz of water.

Kit Harington and Johnny Flynn in True West
Photo credit - Marc Brenner
It’s in this environment of simmering pressure, where life (and livelihoods) balance precariously on the precipice, ready to give in at any moment, that True West blooms and wilts. Sam Shepard’s family drama, a 1983 Pulitzer Prize finalist, explores the rocky reconnection of two estranged brothers. The aforementioned Austin is a mousy type, dressed in variations on beige, he’s nervy and dweeby, and thoroughly intimidated by Lee, his older brother. Lee has a prickly feline quality to him, like an alley cat on the prowl. And he’s got an idea for a screenplay too.

Harkening back to the time of the pioneers, who headed West in search for land and gold, the play’s title acts as a metaphor for the dilemma each character faces. Austin is financially stable but craves freedom, whilst Lee is a roaming criminal who seems to harbour a secret desire for financial security and normalcy. Austin’s screenplay is a romance, described as a period piece. It’s leagues away from the wild adventure of the blockbuster Western Lee pitches, and leagues away from the sort of life Austin comes to realise he wants.

Johnny Flynn in True West
Photo credit - Marc Brenner
As the warring brothers Austin and Lee, Kit Harington and Johnny Flynn respectively hold the piece together with strong, charismatic performances, but both characters feel rather two dimensional, as does the force which drives them. Shephard’s script suggests that the brothers are on the verge of trading places, as Austin discovers a vicious reckless side to himself, but the idea never fully forms.

As a result, the play ambles towards its finale, with no clear sense of where it is going. Although each individual scene is entertaining enough, they all connect rather disjointedly, and beyond the surface levels of humour and angst, haphazardly stitched together, there’s not much to latch on to in True West.