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Mild/Wild West 

by Michael Bowen

We all have them -- the family member or friend who's responsible and well-dressed, who gets along so well with other people, the one who's made it. Yet secretly, Mr. Stylish-and-Stable envies anybody who lives carefree, unburdened by meetings and mortgages.

True West (at Interplayers through Feb. 12) illuminates the mutual jealousy of the drifter and the established man. It's been nearly 25 years since Sam Shepard showed us the Right Stuff -- even before he was in the movie -- by creating

True West, a Cain-and-Abel tale about the conflicting desires within one individual, masquerading as two rival brothers. Like the two cowboys in the script they labor over together, Austin and Lee each dreads the other while working to conceal his fear. Neither knows where the other is taking him.

The opening has the quiet menace of a Harold Pinter play: one brother hunched over a candlelit typewriter, the other sinister in the shadows. The crickets and the coyotes are loud outside this Southern California tract home perched on the edge of a desert, and as Lee, the more sinister brother (at least at the outset), Sean Cook has found a way to intensify the racket and irritate his screenwriter brother Austin (Nathan Smith), just by tapping on his beer bottle in tune with all those damn crickets.

That's just one of the details that differentiates the playing of the same roles by Cook and Smith, who swap the roles of Austin and Lee at alternate performances. While the blocking remains the same on alternate nights, details of characterization (and even of costume) are left up to the actors. In a play that's about our split personalities, Interplayers is offering a great opportunity to see both sides of yourself -- twice. Director Braden Abraham's production is so intelligent and finely wrought that's it's well worth taking up the theater on its come-back-for-just-$10 offer. Witnessing this short play takes only 100 minutes, including intermission. Why not see it twice?

The trap in True West is to cast the two halves of Shepard's lonesome cowboy as villain and hero: educated, suburban Austin versus crass, brutish Lee. But nothing's black and white in Shepard Land, and both Cook and Smith are adept at differentiating their versions of the same character. Ironically, Smith -- who's physically much larger than Cook -- uses more physical intimidation to exert his will as Lee, the small-time thief and drifter; in the same role, Cook uses psychological menace. But Smith's Lee is more distracted and desperate: He may sneer at suburbia, but he wouldn't mind enjoying its luxuries. Cook's Lee turns his face when being defensive, as if to deflect a shot to the face; Smith's Lee instead bursts out in anger. To convey the writer's prissiness, one actor chooses glasses; the other, a buttoned-up shirt. Remarkably, when he's brow-beaten as Austin, Cook falls into folded-arms, concave-chest weakness; on an alternate evening, late in the play, Cook's Lee strips off his shirt, a small Tarzan to be reckoned with.

Both sometimes overact. As Austin, the screenwriter, Smith overdoes the wimpy nerd routine; for his part, Cook, having established that his Austin can be a very funny drunk, proceeds to exaggerate the character's drunkenness, trolling for laughs too obviously. But these are quibbles about memorable performances. More than other versions, this show brings out the affection between the brothers, the longing of the responsible to be carefree (and vice versa).

John Hofland's gleaming kitchen-sink set, off-kilter, contains little imbalances -- plants placed asymmetrically, gaps in a collection of decorative plates -- that suggest an incomplete home.

But however realistic the setting may be, Abraham doesn't want the verisimilitude to seduce us. Instead, by reminding us continually that we're watching a show, he asks us to sit in judgment of Austin and Lee. Actors walk on and off in plain view, light ceremonial candles, remark on the view out a kitchen window that reveals nothing but a blank wall. Harsh footlights punctuate the ends of scenes. By reversing angles for the play's final image, a predatory dance of doppelgangsters, Abraham catches a different kind of prey in the headlights: The judges become the self-judged.

Two longtime Spokane actors contribute supporting roles. As a Hollywood producer, the man who will produce the script of whichever brother wins this particular death struggle, Jamie Flanery shows how quickly a shark can detect and win a macho struggle for superiority. Kathie Doyle-Lipe, however -- overdressed for a woman who's just ridden Greyhound back from another kind of frontier, Alaska -- also overplays the mother's exasperation. As the wife of a hopeless derelict, the mother of at least one small-time thief -- the other son hopes to learn how -- and as someone who's abandoned any sense of connection to her own home, Mom is the sort of character given to affectless monotones and dry cynicism (at least more than we see here).

Still, Interplayers' accomplished production gives us a dual opportunity to witness the kind of split that cleaves us all. If you take advantage and see the same actor first as Austin, then as Lee, it'll get you to thinking about the cleft in your own psychology.

I'm an Austin, myself, but there's a Lee lurking inside. He's always clamoring and clawing to get free, and I'm not so sure I won't just let him out. Let him have his way.

Publication date: 1/27/05

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