I had the great fortune to spend a day in London with my niece, Pippa, during my early-January 2019 trip to England. We both love theatre and we were able to get amazing ( center, few rows from the stage) seats to see Sam Shepard’s True West at the Vaudeville Theatre. I have since learned that there is also a production of the 1980 play currently running on Broadway. I imagine that this might be in tribute to Shepard, who passed away in 2017.
True West takes place in Southern California, a short distance from where I live. I got a kick out of the mention of familiar cities, including the lead characters heading out to the nearby desert. Seeing the show in London, I wondered how many of the other audience members had visited the areas mentioned in play. I wondered what their imaginations were conjuring, when I have such an intimate knowledge of the area. One of the best lines in the show, which got a belly laugh from me, seemed so quintessential Southern California: I can’t remember the exact phrasing of the line, but it described a certain time of day (dusk) as “coyote feeding on pets time.” This cracked me up, as it is so true! We actually have a pair of coyotes that scavenge in our yard every night.
One of the biggest draws for this production was the cast. Namely, one cast member: Kit Harington from Game of Thrones. I think he’s a great actor and easy on the eyes too! In True West, he plays Austin, a middle-aged screenwriter who is working on his latest script while house-sitting for his mother. A mix of the 80’s fashion, with glasses and gelled back hair, render Harington nearly unrecognizable. He physically looks and plays a character that is about as far from Jon Snow as he can get and he is fabulous.
Harington is co-billed with Johnny Flynn, who plays Austin’s brother, Lee. Lee is a drifter and conman, who shows up to his mother’s home to discover his brother, quickly becoming outraged that he was not asked to housesit. The story gets complicated when Lee is still in the home during an important meeting that Austin has arranged with a Hollywood producer. Lee turns on his charm and pitches an idea to the producer, who is quite receptive. The producer decides to focus on Lee’s idea, rather than the script that Austin has nearly finished.
Austin, who is the calmer, older brother, becomes unglued over Lee’s story idea. He is furious that his hard work has gone down the toilet and that his brother has managed to waltz in and steal the deal. Plus, he thinks Lee’s idea is ridiculous, far inferior to his own. Initially, he agrees to help Lee, but soon decides that it is better to step back and watch Lee dig his own grave. Lee may have been able to pitch an ideal, but he doesn’t have the slightest idea of how to write a screenplay. The madness continues when Lee makes an off-the-cuff remark that Austin couldn’t steal (One of Lee’s specialties) and he throws out a challenge to Austin, betting him that he couldn’t break into homes and steal toasters. Of course he does not actually expect that Austin will rise to the occasion and is shocked when he wakes up to find toasters littering the living room.
The second act, when the brothers both come undone, locked into a struggle that neither can win, is the best part of the show. I enjoyed the first act set-up, but the pay-off in the second act is outstanding. There is a scene with a loaf of toasted bread that is hilarious. Flynn and Harington are both fabulous actors, who bring a dynamic energy as they battle each other on stage. I also want to note that Flynn plays a rather intimidating and scary character. I got the feeling that he could lash at at any moment, beating Harington to a pulp or perhaps break the forth wall and attack the audience! One of the most satisfying elements of the play is to see the timid Austin, rise up and lash back at his brother. After losing his screenplay, he has nothing else to lose and he is done taking crap from Lee.
Speaking of the relationship between Austin and Lee, I began to really wonder what the dynamic was between these two brothers when they were children. What had brought them to this point? This is a testament to Shepard’s excellent storytelling: He has created a play that is complete, without holes, but one that leaves the audience thinking about the characters.
True West is absolutely hilarious and unexpected. The London cast is outstanding and I highly recommend that you catch this show!