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True West: An Early Sam Shepard Work That Still Blazes at Country Playhouse

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The set-up: Cain asked it first -- to God in Genesis when confronted by the Big Guy who asked the whereabouts of murdered brother Abel -- "Am I my brother's keeper?" In Sam Shepard's fraternally fraught and comically high True West (1980), in a superb rendition from Country Playhouse, you will soon discover that eternal question's answer and a whole lot more.

The execution: There are two brothers. Each wants what the other has. By the end of the play, they've switched roles, but the family dynamic remains the same. Shepard uses this simple premise to spin a tale with mesmerizing archetypes that go far beyond family. You might see this epic battle of wits and wills as nothing less than the story of the American dream, its past, its future, and how family just gets in the way. Or, you can just sit back, try to relax if you can, and enjoy the craftsmanship in this ribald tale of two brothers who drink themselves into a stupor, try to write a screenplay, and destroy their mom's kitchen. Either option is most agreeable.

In some bizarro mirror image, brothers Austin (Sam Martinez) and Lee (Bryan Maynard) are like Felix and Oscar, one neat and fussy, the other slovenly and ready to pounce at the merest slight. Austin's married with kids, but the lure of Hollywood's good life goads him onward. For all his protests, he really wants something else.

Lee's a lot more dangerous, with a threat of violence and distemper simmering right on the surface that disquiets workaholic Austin who's trying to finish a treatment he can sell to his producer Saul (Scott Holmes, perfect as an opportunistic and oily example of moviedom).

Brother Lee keeps interrupting, drinking, spraying beer all over, and yelling at the annoying crickets and coyotes right outside the door. He's a petty thief and loner, having just spent three months in the desert because he can't do anything else. Lee wants something else, too. For all of his boasts of outsider status, he's tempted to stay in the world, at least the one he can quickly scam.

When he glad-hands Saul on the golf course and tells him his screenplay idea for a new western, the brothers' suddenly flip roles. Saul sees dollar signs with novice Lee, this hard-crusted, born storyteller. If Austin will agree to collaborate -- Lee can't type and can barely spell -- what a combo they'd make. When fortune turns, though, so does Austin.

Shepard keeps this boozy night spinning just this side of out-of-control. It's poetic in its debauchery and deeply moving in its depiction of these pathetic souls who can't break from their family ties. It's a finely balanced juggling act, comic one moment, tragic the next. Watch and laugh how a drunk Martinez spins his feet on the linoleum floor trying to get hold of the kitchen chair to sit down; then catch that laughter as his nebbish face turns limp and defeated as he delivers a striking monologue about his alcoholic dad losing his teeth on a trip to Mexico. It's a definite star turn, shades upon shades.

With his deep baritone, Maynard growls with seething discontent as Lee, the showier character of the two. On constant boil, he's ready to scald. When he drapes an arm over Austin's shoulder and draws him close, you instinctively cringe that he'll sock him, not comfort him. It's a grandly etched portrait of the alpha dog, lost and sad, but ferociously threatening. The two marvelous actors play off each other like flints, sending out sparks that threaten to combust Mom's kitchen. In their drunken rampage they do, in fact, wreck the place, and the scene with Austin's many purloined toasters is a comic high point. Is there a better comfort food smell than toast? Austin doesn't know of one.

When their lives threaten to go overboard, Mom (Julie Oliver) suddenly enters, back too soon from her vacation in Alaska. Oblivious to the mess, she's more excited because she's heard that Picasso's in town, only to be told that Picasso's dead and what's here is an exhibition of his works. In Oliver's nutty-as-a-fruitcake interpretation, Mom is oblivious to her sons' increasing violence, which puts a nice halo of ditsy parenting around her. She disappears, suitcases still in hand. The airy characterization works; anything stronger would swamp the play.

Director Debra Schultz plays up the comedy and the danger with finesse, and we're never quite sure what's going to happen between the brothers, or how we should react. Setting them on firm ground, she lets her actors go, and they run with Shepard. Schultz's set design is equally fine-tuned, a chicken-riot of wallpaper, porcelain hens, and worn linoleum. Although the sound design isn't credited, the varied, wondrously structured layer of crickets and coyotes weaves its own other character. The verdict: What ever happened to Sam Shepard? In the '80s he was the hottest playwright (Fool For Love, A Lie of the Mind, Pulitzer Prize-winner for Buried Child) and an equally ultra-cool actor (Days of Heaven, The Right Stuff ). These days his screen appearances and stage works are rarities and no longer heat up Off Broadway or the silver screen. If he's mislaid his spark, at least this early work still blazes, especially as combustibly staged by Country Playhouse. With its poignant and caustic view of an America gone with the wind, with siblings squabbling and tearing at each other for their own piece of the pie, his distinctive voice continues to sear.

Sam Shepard's family dysfunction explodes through February 23 at Country Playhouse, 12802 Queensbury. Purchase tickets online at countryplayhouse.org or call 713-467-4497. $12-$22.

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