For a time, I thought Ethan Hawke was the worst, most destructive stage actor in New York City. Shakespeare, Chekhov, Brecht—it seemed there was no canonized playwright he was unwilling to defile, no production safe from his histrionics, his loud, heavily gestural, and self-absorbed brand of performance. So it is with great delight and more than a little surprise to see him finally play a part suited to his talents. In fact, he is terrific.
In True West, Hawke plays Lee, a restless, small-time conman who crashes his mother’s place while his house-sitting brother, screenwriter Austin (Paul Dano), tries to hammer out an outline for a “simple love story.” When we first see them onstage, Lee cracks open the second beer in a six-pack that he keeps threaded between his fingers for much of the first act. Hawke’s face is largely obscured by shadows, tainting mom’s ‘fifties decor with a sense of invasion and menace. By the end of True West, most of this kitsch—garden gnomes and decorative plates and so on—will be smashed. Sam Shepard, who at the end of his career was rewriting Oedipus, has always equated family with violence.
While the play that follows this opening tableau is mostly a domestic comedy—Lee and Austin rehash old fights about their dad and regress into childhood personas—it never shakes the feeling that at any moment everything could explode into violence. Hawke, flanked by upper-arm tattoos and sporting a progressively-more-stained tank top, is hysterically grungy, at times rubbing his belly like a predator licking its chops in anticipation of the pounce, and he deftly navigates Lee’s combination of puckishness, insecurity, and aggression. Dano, too, is good, though Austin, frustrated for a good chunk of the play’s runtime, is more a thankless role, the spoiler to Lee’s chaotic form of play. In any case, this pair are responsible for the most pleasant surprise of this season.