Stuart Hughes (left) and Mike Ross mine the truths in True West.
TRUE WEST by Sam Shepard ( Soulpepper). At the Young Centre (50 Tank House). Runs to May 4. $51-$68, stu $32 (rush $22, stu $5). 416-866-8666, See listings. Rating: NNNN
Soulpepper's on a roll. Sam Shepard's True West is a great - though not perfect - play, and a vehicle for two superb performances.
Mike Ross plays Austin, a screenwriter house-sitting for his mother, who's travelling in Alaska. As the play opens, he's trying to write at the kitchen table, but his brother Lee (Stuart Hughes) is swilling beer and badgering him with quiet hostility. There's obvious tension between the two, one a drifter who's just reappeared after an absence of years, the other an aspiring artist on his way up and committed to his family.
When producer Saul Kimmer, a suitably smarmy Ari Cohen, is "taking" his meeting with Austin, Lee interrupts and successfully attracts more of Saul's attention than Austin can bear. As soon as Austin takes his first sip of Southern Comfort, the action starts unfolding at breakneck speed. Roles are reversed, Hollywood's dream machine emerges as a central character, and the boys start trashing the place.
Set in the 80s (there are no cellphones or computers, which create different plot and design possibilities), the play has aged ever so slightly, in that role-reversal scenarios now feel like an overused device.
But designer Ken MacDonald has plenty to work with. You can't wait for the lights to go up on every scene to assess the between-scene action.
And director Nancy Palk gets great performances from her actors. Cohen is turning Hollywood slimeballs into a specialty - he played a similar role in Soulpepper's production of Speed The Plow. Hughes combines a sense of smouldering resentment with just the right swagger as the floundering Lee looking for his first break.
But it's Ross who goes through the most dramatic transformation, starting out as a near-nebbish good guy and becoming a frustrated artist seething with rage.
When their mother (Patricia Hamilton) appears in a cannily written scene, you can see that she was never able to cope with her children. This sibling relationship was doomed from the start.