Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 875

True West has had an interesting production history that suggests the secret to the play's success might lie in its sense of humor. True West was first performed in July of 1980 at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco, where Shepard had for six years served as the playwright in residence. Directed by Robert Woodruff, this production was performed with well-known local actors and was very well-received. Reviewing the play for the journal Theatre, William Kleb noted that “the comic elements in True West were stressed" in this initial production.

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Because of Shepard's rising status (he had won a Pulitzer Prize in 1979 for Buried Child), the play was then brought to New York City where, in the words of the Village Voice's Don Shewey, the play "had become a media event, breathlessly anticipated as the latest work by 'the hottest young playwright in America. '"In December the play officially opened off-Broadway at Joseph Papp's Public Theatre, but by that time a rancorous conflict between Papp and director Woodruff over casting and artistic differences had become public and was dominating the critical response to the play. New York movie actors Tommy Lee Jones and Peter Boyle had taken over the roles of Austin and Lee, but the stars were feuding, the official opening had been twice postponed, and after disastrous preview performances the dissatisfied Woodruff resigned from the production. Papp replaced Woodruff as director, thereby alienating Shepard, who joined Woodruff in denouncing and disowning the production (though Shepard never came to New York City to see it because he was working on a movie at the time). Papp insisted that he altered little in Woodruffs staging, but the controversy succeeded in overshadowing the production itself. Frank Rich, writing for the New York Times, praised Shepard's play but denounced Papp's production, saying that the production was "little more than a stand-up run-through of a text that remains to be explored." Focusing on the Papp controversy, Rich asserted, "this play hasn' t been misdirected; it really looks as if it hasn't been directed at all." He added that "you know a play has no director when funny dialogue dies before it reaches the audience." Rich concluded by saying "it's impossible to evaluate a play definitively when it hasn't been brought to life onstage."

Some reviewers agreed in part with Rich. T. E. Kalem, writing for Time, said that “certain errors of perception and direction are quite evident, but enough of the true Shepard is here to do him honor Papp has certainly retained Shepard's singular gift for lunging simultaneously at the jugular and the funny bone." Other reviewers, however, dismissed Shepard's play as well as Papp's production. Douglas Watt of the Daily News found the play "simplistic," though he noted that "oddly, most of the first half of 'True West' is exceedingly funny.'' Writing for Newsweek, Jack Kroll found the play "an unfortunate mess" saying that "the new actors, Peter Boyle and Tommy Lee Jones, are sometimes effective and funny, but they seem distant from the play and uncertain about the effects they're trying for.'' Christian Science Monitor critic John Beaufort found the production "tedious" and the humor "harsh and abrasive." New York Times critic Walter Kerr simply found the play filled with "pretentiousness," its thematic issues recycled and unconvincing. The Public Theatre production of True West closed after only fifty-two performances.

However, the critical reputation and vitality of Shepard's play was saved two years later by a Chicago-based production. The small Steppenwolf Theatre, founded in 1976 and led by fledgling actors Gary Sinise and John Malkovich, produced a widely praised rendition of the play that emphasized Shepard's sense of humor. It sold out in Chicago for a six-week run and then ran twelve more weeks in a larger, more commercial Chicago theatre. This production then transferred to the off-Broadway, Cherry Lane Theatre in New York City in October of 1982. Sinise performed double duty, both directing the production and playing Austin while Malkovich's energetic portrayal of Lee astounded audiences. The two actors later went on to considerable movie stardom but were both making their New York debuts in the Cherry Lane production. Mel Gussow of the New York Times called the production "an act of theatrical restitution and restoration.'' The critic exclaimed that now one could see that "it was the [1980] production not the play that was originally at fault." In the Steppenwolf version, the play was "rambunctious and spontaneous," as well as "uproarious," with a performance by Malkovich that Gussow called "a comic original." Shewey echoed this sentiment in the Village Voice, calling the play "a rip-roaring comic production ... featuring the beyond-Animal House performance of John Malkovich." According to Gussow, Malkovich was "amusing and menacing at the same instant." Gussow observed that with this production "no one forgets that the playwright means to be playful." Gussow ended his review prophetically by saying '"True West” revivified, should now take its rightful place in the company of the best of Shepard." The Steppenwolf production ran for 762 performances, at the time a New York record for a Shepard play. The production was subsequently videotaped and broadcast on the Public Broadcasting System's American Playhouse series in January of 1984. This version was also released as a feature film in 1986.

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