After recent posts about Sam Shepard and Philip Seymour Hoffman it occurred to me that the pair had “True West” in common — Shepard’s Pulitzer Prize nominated play was first produced in 1980, and in the year 2000 Hoffman and John C. Reilly starred as estranged brothers Lee and Austin in another celebrated production of the play. That said, the best known version of “True West” was the Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s 1982 production which starred Gary Sinise and John Malkovich. That version of the play eventually left Steppenwolf’s Chicago home to run Off-Broadway for almost 800 performances. The production’s success resulted in a PBS American Playhouse production of the play.
Here’s a bit from The New York Times review from that production which came two years after the play’s first New York run in 1980….
The new version – using the same script – is an exhilarating confluence of writing, acting and staging. As performed by John Malkovich and Gary Sinese, two members of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater Company making their New York debuts, and as directed by Mr. Sinise, this is the true ”True West.” The compass needle is unwavering.
One sees now that the play is a rambunctious and spontaneous tale about sibling rivalry and the cronyism of popular culture. It shares with an earlier Shepard, ”Angel City,” a sardonic concern with the seductiveness of Hollywood and with the battle between art and business. The play’s principal characters, Lee and Austin, are fraternal opposites. Lee is a scurvy desert rat, Austin a hot shot intellectual screenwriter. They are country and city mouse, or the old and the new West.
The main problem with the first New York production was that the actors cast as the brothers were too similar in type and temperament. As wittily played by Mr. Malkovich and Mr. Sinise, the brothers become idiosyncratic individuals. As Lee, Mr. Malkovich looks as if he had been sleeping under benches in bus terminals. He is the prototype of a seedy scrounger, and his very presence is an offense to his brother’s dignity. As Austin, Mr. Sinise is sober and respectable – and an insult to his brother’s sense of freedom.
Here’s the PBS American Playhouse production of “True West”…