Have you walked by SPACE lately and wondered what’s up with the circa-1970s kitchen in the Annex? What’s up is some of theater’s best and most debauched fraternal brinkmanship, plus an obscene number of toasters, in yet another all-in SPACE theater production from producer/director Sean Mewshaw.
It’s Sam Shepard’s dark comedic drama True West, of which Mewshaw and his team have created something savvy, bespoke, and deliriously great. Shepard’s modern classic is also currently up on Broadway, but with all due respect to Ethan Hawke, I think we in Portland are luckier. With its vintage installation, original score (performed live by alt-Western trio Dead Gowns), bewitchingly interactive front windows, and superb cast — led by Rob Cameron, as Lee, and Matt Delamater, as Austin — everything about Mewshaw’s True West is succulent.
The story of screenwriter Austin and his desert-dwelling, wastrel brother Lee is a study of sibling rivalry, the myth of the American West, and various alcohol-fueled fantasias of masculinity. When Lee unexpectedly descends upon Austin, in their mom’s house east of L.A., an increasingly drunken showdown ensues about who can write — and live —the real story of the West. And it all goes down in their mom’s homey kitchen, paced by the occasional dark twangs and moans of the band, playing just behind the risers.
Mewshaw’s installation of this kitchen battleground comes with a full range of appliances, cupboards full of suburban dry goods, Mod-ish flowered wallpaper, and even running water. The door opens right onto Congress Street, where Austin’s car is parked. And far upstage, the front windows frame one striking tableau after another — including, perhaps most symbolically, a still-life of candle, typewriter, and six-pack of Miller High Life.
Who is the real writer, the real desert loner, the real success, the real man? Slippery Lee, in his greasy wife-beater and trench coat; or wary Austin, with his sideburns, wide-lens glasses, and dad jeans? The negotiation, in Cameron and Delamater’s hands, is fraught and fascinating. Cameron’s volatile, sensual Lee is hypnotic as he slinks, stares too long, pouts and glowers, makes a sudden lunge. As Austin types away at his screenplay, on deadline, Lee paces and patters. “I’m not botherin’ you, am I?” he asks in a strangely high, breathy voice, kicking off a slow-build bout of passive aggression. Meanwhile, Delamater’s Austin modulates carefully between cordiality, distrust, goodwill, and resentment, registering, as he does, his older brother’s every flicker and shift.
Lines get further crossed when Austin’s producer Saul (Joe Bearor, sublimely) shows up, wearing tweed and purple and a diamond stud, and Lee tries to woo him. At first Saul seems slick and shellacked, impermeable to Lee’s wiles. “We should get together sometime,” he says to Lee without meaning it, dismissing him, snapping the words with his chewing gum. But once Lee goes golfing with him and wins him over, the brothers’ inevitable reversals begin. (Both Bearor and Moira Driscoll, as their spacey mom, are pitch-perfect in their brief time onstage.)
Throughout, the physical work is thrilling. The brothers eye, stalk, bait, threaten and cringe from each other with the heightened, primal sensitivity of animals. Lee drapes himself like a languid Christ over the open double doors of the fridge. In an impeccable timed bit of comic business, Austin, mid-argument, swiftly saves their mom’s dish-towel from a trip down Lee’s pants. And while there is a wealth of boozy shouting and smashing of things in this show, while there is Lee’s new golf club wielded against a writing machine, every beat of this chaos is finely and specifically calibrated. Mewshaw and his duo make especially breathtaking work of the quieter scenes of rapprochement: Watch the brothers come together, close and still, as Austin tells the harrowingly dark-comic story of how their old man got his teeth yanked in Mexico. For a long moment afterward, they lean closer still into each other, briefly touching along the length of their arms, hands, heads — a moment of intimacy and need that we know can’t last.
And upstage behind them, those windows onto the street are pure magic. It’s a treat to watch Cameron’s impromptu interactions with the folks outside, as he gestures his beer at some passing guy and comments about the “good class of people” out there he’d like to rob. As Lee stands on or slithers over the window seat, scopes out the neighborhood or gazes to the hills, the panes and the passersby at once extend the scope of the brothers’ epic and heighten their seething insularity. And the show’s visibility from the street presents a tempting viewing option: Reserve your ticket and see the show inside the Annex. Then come back and lurk outside.
True West | by Sam Shepard; directed by Sean Mewshaw | SPACE, 538 Congress St, Portland | Through February 9 | Thu-Sun 7:30 pm | $22, $18 students | www.space538.org