— L-R: Ryan Beil and Daryl King star in Main Street Theatre's True West by Sam Shepard. Photo: Stephen Malloy
The Main Street boys are back at it. Working out of that tiny storefront at 26th and Main, Ryan Beil, Josh Drebit, Daryl King and director Stephen Malloy continue their exploration of late 20th century American naturalism and post-absurdism. Having done two Mamets, they’re now on their second Shepard and will follow up next spring by looking back at one of the tributaries of this kind of theatre with a production of Beckett’s Endgame.
The signature quality of their work—in addition to strong acting—resides in their creative use of the space with its powerful intimacy and in-yer-face feel. The room itself is gritty and functional. All the lights are practicals; set doorways are the audience’s entrances and exits. None of the 50-60 seats is more than ten feet or so from the action so there’s no margin for cheating in performance. Onstage violence puts audience members at direct risk. The verisimilitude of the space and the sense of being literally in the midst of the action are a big part of the audience’s fun.
True West (1980) is probably Sam Shepard’s most often produced play with its small cast, simple kitchen set and Shepard’s familiar-yet-strange pop existentialism and American Western faux-mythicizing. The Playhouse did it a couple of years back and I myself was in a production at the Havana in 2004 with David and Gerry Mackay as complementary brothers Austin and Lee. Malloy’s version offers nothing radically new but delivers Main Street’s usual visceral good time.
Ryan Beil plays Austin, an Ivy League educated Hollywood screenwriter staying at his mother’s house in Southern California while she’s on holiday in Alaska. Austin is trying to finish the script of a Western for producer Saul Kimmer (Josh Drebit, resplendent in period leisure suit). When bad-boy brother Lee (Daryl King) shows up after years away, much of it living out on the desert where their drunken father also dwells, sibling rivalry explodes.
B&E artist Lee somehow produces a screenplay to rival Austin’s and bests Saul on the golf course; Austin, hungry for Lee’s authenticity, steals a myriad of toasters from neighboring homes. Much yelling, smashing and fighting ensues, and wacko Mom (Barbara Pollard) returns home to visions of chaos and Picasso.
Surely one reason Beil lends his talents to this company is the opportunity he gets to play roles outside the comic-eccentric mode at which he is so brilliant and in which he has to some extent been typecast. Austin is the more normal of the brothers and Beil nicely underplays him throughout—at least until his desperation for the “real” he sees in Lee breaks through his civilized veneer.
Lee is the more difficult role and King struggles a bit with it. Stretching to seem like a thug in a contemporary Western, he affects an attitude and vocal mannerisms that didn’t work at all for me. Fortunately, his menacing presence and fully committed physical business in Act Two make you forget and forgive any earlier acting issues. This Lee feels genuinely scary and dangerous. You might think twice about sitting in the first row after intermission.
Although the play has a period quality—remember manual typewriters and typewriter ribbons?—the Main Streeters keep it funny, fresh and sufficiently weird. It’s a pleasure getting up close and personal with them again.