In the last major production of Sam Shepard's True West, Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly famously alternated performances as Austin and Lee, the play's antagonistic brothers. Nearly a decade later, smartly creative theater company Curious Frog has brought the play back to New York with an equally playful approach: in place of the last production's Broadway house, Curious Frog has staged the production in an East Village apartment. Like the 2000 Broadway production, Curious Frog's quirky treatment of the contemporary classic is much more than an impressive stunt (and it's that, too). Under the solid direction of Isaac Byrne, the production's unique setting and cast -- the family is Asian-American -- bring fresh insight to the familiar work of American drama. Shepard's story of near primal rivalry between estranged brothers is among his least surreal plays, and Curious Frog's staging emphasizes the play's realism. Folding chairs line the walls of the intimate performance space, leaving literally little room for actorly artifice. That staging reveals how skillfully the text accomplishes the unlikely: Austin (Alvin Chan), an Ivy-educated screenwriter who addresses his drunk, drifter brother Lee (Edward Chin-Lyn) with equal parts exasperation and condescension, all but takes his place by the drama's end. A number of Shepard-influenced plays have attempted similar fraternal switches with greater affectation and less success (this season's Three Changes at Playwright's Horizons, last season's American Sligo at Rattlestick), so it's refreshing to see the conceit work.
Anyone seeking to create site specific theater in New York should see Curious Frog's True West, making note of the comprehensive ways in which the production uses design elements in its found space. David Ogle's scenic design doesn't quite transform the East Village sublet into a house in suburban LA, but it need not. He instead capitalizes on the strengths of the space, creating an environment simultaneously homey and claustrophobic, never taking for granted that audiences will be tickled simply at seeing theater in an apartment building. Together with Chelsea Chorpenning's period props, the scenic design lends the space a comfortable familiarity that helps put audiences at ease with their location inside the home, treating audiences less like intruders and more like a part of the design scheme. It also appropriately incorporates Ross Graham's dramatic light design, which smartly locates opportunities for lending the natural setting a powerful theatricality.
If creating a fully-designed production in the sublet apartment poses exciting challenges to the designers, the actors face equally daunting tasks. Over the course of the play, the brothers' interactions turn increasingly violent. Their fight sequences appear tightly choreographed (fight design by Jacob Grigolia-Rosenbaum ), so that while the action is powerfully startling for up-close audience members to witness, it's also safe. And fun. As Lee, the more initially destructive brother, Chin-Lyn exhibits an angry, destitute optimism which frustrates the restrained Austin. In the second half of the play, when Austin's growing sense of futility turns to enraged desperation, Chan comes into his own and the showdown between the brothers takes off. Part of the pleasure of seeing the production is sitting steps away as a typewriter is destroyed by an iron golf club, as the brothers smash potted plants and one another.
The title of True West alludes to the play's insistence on the artifice of both the vanishing American frontier and the false promises of Hollywood. By making the brothers Asian-American, Curious Frog cleverly adds an additional layer. The play's exploration of authenticity and the illusive American dream applies seamlessly to characters of color, making a strong case for nontraditional, race-conscious casting (which is different from colorblind casting, and frustratingly uncommon.) Beyond that, it's neat to see how a True West with Asian-Americans maintains the integrity of the text while adding a new dynamism to particular lines (Lee's image of his brother's success that includes his being chased by blonds; Austin's story about their pathetic father's doggy bag of Chop Suey).
The best revelation of the casting, however, has nothing to do with the brothers. It comes at the end of the play, when their mother returns to find her grown sons wrecking her home. The mother's appearance in the final scene of True West is among the script's more problematic aspects; her uncomprehending reaction to her trashed house, her sons' violence, and even the outside world is inexplicably peculiar. But as played by Mami Kimura, originally from Japan, Mom is not not simply a daffy woman in deep denial. She's also an immigrant. It makes infinitely more sense, in this production, that her sons treat her protectively even as they believe themselves capable of exploiting and misleading her. Kimura's accented English bolsters the mother's general appearance of incomprehension. To her sons, she's literally a foreigner.
"Look at you," Lee asks his brother early in the play "You think yer regular lookin'?" Whatever the answer to that question, Curious Frog's True West is decidedly not; its found space and nontraditional cast give it a facade all its own. At the same time, it's a scrupulously faithful production of a terrific script: a True West defined by conservatism and adventurousness.