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James Macdonald on directing Sam Shepard's True West on Broadway
Takedowns of toxic masculinity are all the rage these days, but the way it implodes on stage in Roundabout Theatre Company's new Broadway revival of Sam Shepard's True West is positively cathartic. "What's glorious about this play is that Sam's really prepared to dig into weakness in men," says director James Macdonald. "Why men are weak, and how people get to a place where they drop out of the culture."
Although True West premiered in 1980 in San Francisco and is a staple of regional theatre, it's only been seen on Broadway once before 19 years ago, with John C. Reilly and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman alternating in the leading roles of Austin, a meek Hollywood screenwriter, and his dissipated older brother Lee, who reunite in their mother's California home. Fans of the fiery drama often recall the pairing of Gary Sinise and John Malkovich, since their version was taped and televised for PBS' American Playhouse in 1984. A quarter century later, Paul Dano and Tony nominee Ethan Hawke are taking on these wildly dysfunctional siblings, whose attempt to collaborate on a Western goes awry as they stumble into a minefield of unspoken tensions and unresolved expectations. "It's a story of how you get to violence," Macdonald says. "How someone who's allegedly civilized gets to a point where he wants to kill. It's about how brothers abuse and manipulate each other and compete on any number of levels."
Macdonald is English and known for his work with Caryl Churchill, but he's no Shepard neophyte -- he's directed several of the late Pulitzer Prize winner's plays in the U.K., including Fool for Love, Simpatico and Savage/Love. It's not surprising that he's so comfortable with the genre, since the Brits pioneered the whole angry young men thing in the '50s, well before American punks like Shepard and Lanford Wilson (the upcoming Broadway revival of Burn This) came along. Of course, all these years later, the scourge of male fury continues. "There are a lot of men who feel bad and incredibly humiliated by lack of prospects in life, so they're likely to lash out at each other and women and politicians," Macdonald says. "It's a global thing that's going on. It takes different forms in different cultures, but it's the same old thing: a huge sense of disempowerment."
The chemistry between Dano and Hawke crackles and they seem to share a fraternal intimacy, a product of the two being old friends. Although this is the first time they're acting together, Hawke directed Dano Off-Broadway in Things We Want in 2007, and the two have been close ever since. That familiarity and Shepard's balls-out text meant that Macdonald didn't have to worry too much about process in rehearsal -- a good thing considering they only had three weeks. "We were just up on the floor doing it, trying to connect to it," the director says. "There's a limit with Sam's writing and how much you can actually solve by analyzing it. You just have to put it up and see how it feels, try different stuff with it."
Despite being almost four decades old, True West explores themes that feel so of the moment that another major revival recently opened on London's West End starring Game of Thrones' Kit Harington. Macdonald isn't involved with that production, but he's not surprised that the show's in the zeitgeist. "It makes absolute sense," he says. "It is the right play to do at this time."
Next up for Macdonald is a classic (though he won't reveal which) by another American icon: Tennessee Williams. "I've done a bunch of Sam's stuff, so I think I'm going to take a timeout from Shepard," he says. "I'm about to do a Tennessee Williams play, which I've never done before. It's a big old candy store, American theatre, for me."
Follow Michael Martin is a writer in New York City.
Top image: Ethan Hawke and Paul Dano in True West. Photo by Joan Marcus.
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