‘True West’ gets wild and crazy at KNOW Theatre

Reviewed by George Basler

By the time the KNOW Theatre production of True West ends, it looks like a bomb has gone off in the pristine Southern California home where the action takes place.

Beer cans liter the floor; food has been dumped on the rug, and the kitchen has been trashed. The physical destruction is symbolic for the emotional explosion that has taken place during the play as two brothers engage in a mutually destructive face-off that leaves their lives blown to pieces.

True West is one of the major works by the late Sam Shepard, one of America’s leading dramatists. First produced in 1980, the play veers from naturalistic drama to absurdist, nihilistic comedy. It was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and has become a staple of college acting classes.

The KNOW production, directed by Bernie Sheredy, is a capable effort of presenting this complex drama. The production, which opened Feb.  9, conveys a sense of unease from the start and is sometimes quite funny as the action goes wild and crazy in the second act.
Be forewarned, though: True West is a challenging work that requires audience members to fill in a lot of blanks. It’s also an emotionally cold work. Neither main character, at least in the KNOW production, engenders a lot of empathy.

The action begins with Austin (Joshua Sedelmeyer), an ambitious screenwriter, house sitting at his mother’s home while working on a screenplay that he hopes will be his big breakthrough.

Things get complicated with the arrival of his brother, Lee (Jeff Tagliaferro). Lee is a petty thief and drifter who mocks Austin’s conventional lifestyle.

The narrative get even more complicated when Lee, out of nowhere, undercuts Austin’s movie deal by a selling a story idea to Austin’s smarmy producer, Saul (Jim Michalec).
The plot twist is a bit bizarre. Is Shepard mocking Hollywood phoniness? It seems that way. Micahalec does a good job, however, playing the unctuous Saul.

The second act centers on the two brothers’ drunken effort to write a screenplay together. The process, to put it mildly, does not go well. The action becomes progressively weirder and more violent as Austin becomes unhinged and Lee tries unsuccessfully to become more responsible. The brothers’ mother (Laurie Brearley) shows up toward the end of the play to find that her plants have died, symbolically marking the end of her relationship with her sons.

In his director’s notes, Sheredy writes that one of Shepard’s earliest influences was the German philosopher George Gurdjieff and his theory that each person, man or woman, is a unity of two more personalities. That theme runs through True West. Perhaps Shepard is trying to make sense of the conflicting aspects of his own personality: the sensitive artist, on one hand, and the rebellious non-conformist, on the other.

Shepard also takes on the provocative idea that familial relationships can be a toxic mixture of love and hate, even as he takes swipes at the hollowness of the American dream of success.

Whatever the play is about (and I’m not sure it was my cup of tea), one thing is certain: True West is a great showcase for the two lead actors. And Sedelmeyer and Tagliaferro make the most of it. Both give top-notch performances.

Sedelmeyer plays Austin’s growing disillusion and desperation extremely well. That’s no small task because the character runs a wide emotional gamut, from seemingly self-assured Ivy Leaguer at the start of the play to near madness at the end.

Tagliaferro is equally fine as the outlaw brother. He skillfully plays the character’s mocking attitude and the anger that lies just below the surface. The performance is oddly funny at times, bordering on black comedy. My only quibble is that Tagliaferro falls a bit short in catching the character’s full menace.

KNOW Theatre can always be counted for provocative efforts done in a solidly professional way. True West is no exception, even if the play could leave you scratching your head.

IF YOU GO: True West will be performed at KNOW Theatre, 74 Carroll St., Binghamton, through Feb. 25. Performances are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays. Tickets at $15 to $20 can be purchased online at knowtheatre.org or by calling 724-4341.

There is a pay-what-you-can performance at 8 p.m. Thursday (Feb. 15).

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