Cain and Abel. Civil war. Brother against brother. Conflicts don't get much more elemental than that, and Sam Shepard is a playwright who likes to cut to the bone.
The brothers Shepard throws against each other in True West make an unlikely pair. Austin, Ivy League-educated, writes screenplays a man of dealmaking lunches and the lonely, coffee-fueled struggle to get words on paper, with a wife and children and a house in the suburbs. Lee is a slob, a menacing, beer-swilling petty thief with little education who goes off alone into the Southern California desert for months at a time. The two are mind and body, reason and brute force, order and chaos, civilization and the wilderness. Are they really from the same gene pool? Were Cain and Abel?
The contrasts sound more cut-and-dried than they play in performance. So does what happens to the brothers in the course of the play: They switch places. By the end of the play, Lee is writing a screenplay. Austin has broken into neighboring houses and stolen toasters. They share the same life. They are brothers.
As written by Shepard and played in the current Actors Renaissance Theatre production, Austin and Lee come across not as arid symbols but as funny and frightening people. Big, shaggy Douglas S. Magnussen makes the aura of menace that hovers about Lee a complex, subtly modulated thing. Lee keeps you off balance, never quite sure when he will lash out, or where, or why. Magnussen calculates all this with precision and relish; it's the best work I've seen him do. Austin, the more conventional brother, pales beside Lee, and neither Shepard nor Nic Kessler, who's playing Austin at ART, can make him quite as exciting. Perhaps Kessler might find more range in the character, and he could make Austin's second-act inebriation more convincing. But that's secondary to the fact that he and Magnussen and their director, Jerry Winters, have found all the right moves and rhythms for this ritual of fraternal bleeding and bonding.
Shepard fails to persuade me that Austin's agent would buy the sophomoric story treatment Lee pitches to him or that three studios would scramble to option it. But Shepard needs that incident to make his plot reversal work, so you swallow it as a misplaced satire of mindless Hollywood dealmakers and move on. You get a lot of help in doing so from Ted Cancila, whose razor-sharp take on the agent is one of the great comic performances of the season. Costume designer Michelle Radke gives him equally amusing outfits.
As the brothers' duel intensifies, Patrick Huber's banally perfect suburban kitchen opens up to a vista of the Mojave Desert, and the between-scenes music changes from Tex-Mex mariachi to achingly lonely guitar. This True West is true Shepard and fine theater.