This new production of Sam Shepard's 1983 classic is so good, they've made it twice. Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly alternate the main roles, creating, in effect, two versions of the play.
Even if this were no more than a gimmick, it would be a good one. These are splendid actors, and any excuse to display the range of their talents is welcome. But the dramatic double take involved in the switching of roles is, in fact, a valid expression of the nature of the play.
Hoffman, whose film career has gone into orbit with "Magnolia" and "The Talented Mr. Ripley," is all set to become the most forceful actor of his generation. Reilly, though less spectacular, is a wonderfully wily performer. The characters they take turns with are brothers, Lee and Austin. Lee is a hard-edged loser who survives by robbery. Austin is an Ivy League graduate trying to make it as a Hollywood screenwriter.
In Shepard's world, though, these apparent opposites exist only to be exploded.
Shepard's America is a very raw place, where civilization is just a veneer stuck onto the encroaching wilderness. Families fragment. Even in the most suburban breast, there beats the fatal pull of the desert.
In "True West," this wilderness is both a physical and an emotional terrain. The action is set in a California suburb where the coyotes come down at night and kill the cocker spaniels. Lee has spent months living in the Mojave, and their father has withdrawn completely into the desert.
In the hands of an ordinary writer, the play would be a straightforward clash between Lee's outlaw wildness and Austin's more conventional modern ambitions.
But Shepard brilliantly confounds the clichés. It soon becomes clear that each brother really wants to be the other. Lee fancies himself as a screenwriter, and Austin has Boy Scout fantasies of escaping to the desert. They are two halves of what might be a whole person, each doomed to remain incomplete.
In the dizzy rush of the plot, the brothers begin to change places. At first with hilarious absurdity and then with a deathly madness, each begins to occupy the other's ground.
The slimy producer to whom Austin is trying to sell his latest project falls instead for a corny Western that Lee has dreamed up. Austin tries his hand at Lee's profession of robbery.
This dark comedy of slippery identities is what makes Hoffman and Reilly's decision to alternate the roles much more than a gimmick. It gets right to the core of Shepard's vision of two men trying to inhabit the same personality.
In either version, though, this is by far the funniest, truest and most mesmerizing play on Broadway. Matthew Warchus' production strikes a perfect balance between humor and darkness. He travels through the complex emotional landscape of the play without ever getting lost.
With such fine staging, superb writing and a brilliant cast, "True West" allows Hoffman in particular to show why Hollywood can't get enough of him. But it also reminds us with its vivid immediacy and raw power that the live stage can still be a place fit for such a talent.
You should go to Sam Shepard's "True West" at the Circle in the Square. In fact, you should go twice. That's because the lead actors switch roles, and this dazzling accomplishment lets us see something about the play that makes it deeper, bolder and sadder.
They're two brothers, children of a California landscape that is poised between town and desert, sons of a desert-dwelling alcoholic and a suburban wanderer seeking meaning in Alaska and Picasso, respectively.
The brothers represent two American possibilities (perhaps actually only one) that might spring from this demented terrain.
Austin is the achiever, the college graduate and career screenwriter who is staying in Mom's home near L.A. and working on a film project for a producer, though he's got a family of his own in the north of California.
Lee is the demented freak, the petty thief and desert dweller who drops in on Austin.
It's producer Saul Kimmer who shakes things up after Lee tells him about a movie idea of his own, a western story that actually sounds a bit like Cormac McCarthy.
Saul says OK and orders Austin to junk his bleak, modern-day California love story and write Lee's archetypal -- and very likely archetypally trashy -- western tale. All hell breaks loose.
Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly play both brothers in alternating performances. Hoffman -- a ubiquitous film presence who's in current flicks "Magnolia" and "The Talented Mr. Ripley" -- brings something like genius to his incarnations of both Austin, the nerd, and Lee, the outlaw.
As Austin, he's fanatically tidy, ready with the spiffy sponges, demonically wiping. Until, that is, his ne'er-do-well brother beguiles the producer. Then, as if to prove the interchangeability of just about everything, Hoffman's Austin turns thief.
Fueled by liquor, he brings home a dozen stolen toasters (from as many homes) but subjects them to a typically Austin test (he'll compare the toast they make). This is a hilariously theatrical activity.
And Hoffman supplements it with a drink-fueled, verbal assault: "The West is dead; you're a fool; these are illusions of characters."
Hoffman's Austin savages his brother's script and tells a revealing story about his father's teeth.
In the performances in which he plays the grungy Lee, Hoffman is ferociously scary and enjoyable as this hair-trigger crook. Clad in cap, he eventually takes over the typewriter and destroys it. His attempts to repair it are destructive.
His Lee is the invasion of American success by the forces of madness, the menace at the psychic door, the grungy id yelling at the superego.
Reilly is superb in both roles; he suffers only in not being kissed by the goddess of lunacy. He makes a spectacularly smelly Lee, destroying the cultural fortress Austin's made for himself; his Lee drinks and steals and recounts stories of triumphs on the golf course.
His Austin is strong, too, strong in the bourgeois armor of his soul and devastating in its breakdown. With a determined irony, he goes forth and steals toasters and makes toast for the rejecting Lee. His final posture is as potent as Hoffman's.
Celia Weston is Mom in all performances. Wearing a spiffy travel costume, she brings a skilled evocation of daffiness and disdain. She's a woman of this California, half-real and half-comic fantasy.
Robert LuPone is good as the producer Kimmer, but Shepard is not very involved with this character.
The final confrontation of the two siblings -- no matter who is playing which role -- leaves us poised on knife's edge. What is the future of this battle inside a family?
The device of switching roles in alternating performances was director Matthew Warchus's idea in his production of "True West" at London's Donmar Warehouse a few seasons ago.
Warchus, the director of "Art," here reveals an intense, comic concentration that's light years beyond anything he's yet done. In fact, this bouncing back and forth of roles shows us something about the play, about the family, and about America.
Surely Shepard's masterwork, the drama is about anger, and in a funny way it's also about forgiveness, too.
It tells us a truth, as glimpsed by a 37-year-old genius.
So much for De La Hoya versus Coley at the Garden. So much, come to think of it, for that sprawling prize fight known as Super Tuesday. The season's most exciting slugfest by far is taking place at the Circle in the Square Theater, and this one is evenly matched.
With two of America's finest young actors, Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly, squaring off in the superb new revival of Sam Shepard's ''True West,'' a clean victory is impossible to call. Which is entirely appropriate to Mr. Shepard's 1980 story of two brothers locked in an increasingly brutal and increasingly funny struggle for identity. Hey, it's family. Nobody wins.
Speaking of competitions, let's get one crucial thing out of the way. You've probably heard by now that Mr. Reilly and Mr. Hoffman are alternating in the lead roles in ''True West'': those of Austin, the ingratiating, orderly Hollywood screenwriter, and Lee, his menacing vagabond of a brother. Rest assured that no matter which performance of the production you attend, there's no way you're going to lose.
In fact, people I know who went to different single previews of this ''True West,'' which officially opened last night under the pitch-perfect direction of Matthew Warchus, have said they couldn't imagine its being cast any other way. If you've followed Mr. Hoffman's and Mr. Reilly's work on film, you probably have your own ideas of who was meant for which part. Forget it. Whichever way you've sliced it, you're right.
To see both versions of the current ''True West'' -- and if you have the time and the money, you must -- is to enrich deeply your experience of just what good actors can do with the limited instruments known as the human body and voice.
You'll wind up thinking gratefully about the respective, resonant flourishes Mr. Hoffman and Mr. Reilly bring to such activities as the smashing of a typewriter with a golf club and the buttering of a mountain of toast. Oh, and let's not forget just how these actors utter the same heavily weighted word toward the evening's end: ''Mom!'' But this cross-casting is no gimmick, no self-indulgent showcase for technique at the expense of the play itself.
On the contrary, this production makes a persuasive case for ''True West'' as a great American play, arguably Mr. Shepard's finest. The contrast of the two versions, which are similarly staged but quite different in tone, also shows the incredible variety that can be harvested from a work this fertile without betraying its essential nature.
Though ''True West,'' which follows Austin and Lee through a period of uneasy cohabitation in their absent mother's California house, is specifically anchored in time and place, it also has a primal, even eternal quality. And as funny as it is, it is equally unsettling.
True, Mr. Shepard uses his family portrait to practice some gleeful marksmanship with such familiar targets as Hollywood deal-making and the dime store illusions bred by the movies. But he also looks deeper to suggest the tenacious hold of the idea of the frontier on the American imagination and its attendant fantasies of escape.
He discredits that particular myth (the true West of the title, his characters observe sorrowfully, is long gone), just as he does that alternative American Eden, sunny, safe and nurturing suburbia. The mighty American family, however, endures in Mr. Shepard's world as a baleful pole star, just as it did in the tragedies of Aeschylus and Sophocles. Even though its members may try to lose themselves in the blankness of places like the Mojave Desert, they're not about to wriggle free of the stranglehold they have on one another.
Family, as Lee cheerfully points out, is the frame in which a majority of homicides take place. And though it is classically the institution that fosters and bolsters the sense of individual self against the world, for Mr. Shepard's characters, it is what gnaws away at the edges of individual identity.
The young man who returns to the decaying homestead in ''Buried Child'' famously sees his own face, in the rearview mirror of a car, dissolving into the faces of his ancestors. ''True West'' (previously best known for the fondly recalled Steppenwolf production of 1982 with Gary Sinise and John Malkovich) presents two brothers, ostensibly as opposite as yin and yang, who before the evening's end effectively become each other, although what that ''other'' happens to be is by no means certain.
There's nothing at all high-handed or obscure in the way this production brings out the existential echoes in classic sibling rivalry. While ''True West'' has its cavernous depths, for sure, it also has a surface that is as accessible and entertaining as anything this playwright ever wrote.
Mr. Warchus, Mr. Hoffman and Mr. Reilly accordingly keep their audience in a state of aching laughter as Austin and Lee variously make nice, play rough, compete for the attentions of a smarmy movie producer (Robert LuPone) and turn downright homicidal. But the comedy never for an instant feels contrived; it seems to emanate as deeply from the characters' viscera as the froglike belches of the beer-swilling Lee. (Well, that's Lee as played by Mr. Hoffman.)
Mr. Reilly and Mr. Hoffman are frequently classified as actors of the same stripe. This is understandable. They are both in their early 30's and have both appeared impressively in three films by Paul Thomas Anderson, including the current ''Magnolia.'' (They each have Austin-type roles in that one.)
Yet to see these two at loggerheads in ''True West'' is to realize how different they are from each other, at least in their essential presences. Put superficially, Mr. Reilly's performances tend to develop in a straight line, a steady stream with implicit undercurrents; Mr. Hoffman's style suggests more of a squiggle, an undulating pattern of eruptions.
This is not to say one is too simple and the other too fancy. They are both equally able to surprise you. It's just that Mr. Reilly does so by stealth; Mr. Hoffman, by full-frontal attack. And their switching parts alters the basic chemistry of the play.
When Mr. Hoffman plays Austin, the respectable family man and well-paid screenwriter, and Mr. Reilly plays Lee, the renegade loner and burglar, the effect is of diametrical opposites. Mr. Reilly gives Lee a hillbilly accent and a dangerous, purposeful slowness. Mr. Hoffman's Austin is a fussy type, compulsively neat and nervous, with a smile that seems both eager and hard won.
The center of this version appears to be the actors' midriffs: Austin is forever fiddling with and tucking in his shirttails. Mr. Reilly's Lee is continually stretching his upper torso to reveal the swelling belly beneath the soiled T-shirt. These brothers are different to the point of grotesqueness, changeling siblings, so that when each starts to take on aspects of the other, it feels as elemental as a fairy tale.
Mr. Reilly's Austin and Mr. Hoffman's Lee are more clearly cut from the same genetic cloth. Their voices and diction are more alike. Granted, their metabolisms are certainly different, what with Mr. Hoffman in a continuing state of eruption and Mr. Reilly doing the slow burn to end all slow burns.
Yet you get the feeling that Lee's outlaw status is a conscious choice, just as Austin's reliability comes from a steady exertion of will. You also sense that these choices have been made by the brothers in instinctive opposition to each other. This is the version for psychologists, although any Freudian could make much of the unseen presence of the boys' nasty old father in both interpretations.
Twist my arm, and I still wouldn't be able to tell you which version of ''True West'' I prefer. There's too much wealth in each of them. Mr. Warchus, who directed the recent film version of Mr. Shepard's ''Simpatico'' as well as the Broadway hit ''Art,'' keeps the contours of the staging the same while allowing for the spontaneous detour.
He has an evocative awareness of the significance of relative postures throughout: who's vertical, who's horizontal, who's in a fetal curl, who's stretched out. Mr. Warchus also demonstrates a wonderful respect for silences, starting with the deliberately uncomfortable long pause that begins both productions, in a work that could so easily be done as a fast gallop.
Rob Howell's costumes (please note the variations here in particular) and set, a generic California living room that seems both solidly banal and sadly fragile; Brian MacDevitt's moody lighting; Jim van Bergen's sound design, with its emphasis on crickets and coyotes: all of these elements conspire to create a sense of darkness waiting to swallow everything onstage.
And by the way, ''True West'' is a four-character play, and though its other two parts are small, they are essential and, in this instance, perfectly cast. Mr. LuPone, with his too-easy, too-white smile, is the ideal human oil slick of a movie producer. And as the brothers' mother, who returns for the show's blissfully boisterous climax, Celia Weston underplays brilliantly and affectingly, when a lesser actress might have raised the roof.
Though ''True West'' is less heavy on arialike monologues than most of Mr. Shepard's work, it still has some dazzling soliloquies for both characters, including Austin's hilarious and heartbreaking account of how their father lost his teeth, twice.
Then there's Lee's rumination on family life as seen by someone looking through a window from the outside. ''Like a paradise,'' he says. ''Kinda place that sorta kills ya inside . . . Blond people movin' in and outta the rooms, talkin' to each other. Kinda place you sort of wish you grew up in, ya know?''
Of course, when you are inside, you don't feel as if you're inside. That's Mr. Shepard's point: that no one is comfortable in his own skin, his own house, his own mind. And even -- no, especially -- his own family members represent an enviable otherness.
No matter which version of this outstanding ''True West'' you see, you'll find its spiritual center in the same place. It's an image of two men leaning against a bright, orderly kitchen counter with endless night stretching behind them and one of them pausing to say to the other, ''I was wonderin' what it was like to be you.''