As actor Paul Dano slips into a Brooklyn coffee shop on a December morning, and his co-star Ethan Hawke enters gregariously a few minutes later, it seems a stroke of genius to cast them in the current revival of Sam Shepard’s True West. The two play disciplined screenwriter Austin and smooth-talking grifter Lee, the brothers orbiting each other like proverbial boxers in the ring, in the Roundabout Theatre Company revival at Broadway’s American Airlines Theatre.
Dano contains quietude; Hawke exudes restlessness. Dano speaks in short, decisive sentences; Hawke meanders aloud. Dano has never seen a production of True West; Hawke became an actor because he did.
But, both actors agree: True West is the kind of play you see because of its cast.
“Part of plays living on is the actor’s interpretation,” says Dano.
“It’s our job to say, by making it personal: What is it about this piece of literature that is relevant to your life right now?” Hawke acknowledges. “The only way to do it is to [show] that it’s relevant to our lives.”
Individual truisms are only the starting line. “It’s not just Paul’s Austin or my Lee, it’s about the chemistry,” Hawke says. “Learning about Austin—what an amazing role it is in Paul’s hands—it allows me to be a different Lee in response to a different Austin.”
For Dano, the beauty and the challenge of True West is the room for interpretation. Luckily, he has director James Macdonald and a Shepard expert at his side in Hawke, who has performed and directed Shepard’s work for decades and finds solace in the flexibility of the play. “What an audience is paying to see is actual creativity,” Hawke says. “Maybe you cried last night and maybe you didn’t. Any one of us could do anything on any given night.”
Though the play reads very Cain and Abel, Hawke and Dano refuse to play archetypes; idiosyncrasy and authenticity reign. “It is so much better to have nothing fake onstage,” says Hawke, who summons that rock-and-roll, avant-garde DNA in Shepard’s work.
Even if Shepard’s writing allowed for dishonesty, the longstanding friendship between these two men does not. “I find it way more vulnerable to act in front of Ethan than a stranger because he knows me and the barometer of truth is just a little higher,” says Dano.
These characters—and these actors—push each other to the limit. But the opportunity to bring Shepard’s work to a new generation of theatregoers is worth the toll.
“It’s so easy to do an OK production of True West ’cause the play’s that good,” Hawke says. “To interpret it at a high level is extremely difficult. This play is the manifestation of Sam’s art at its highest level.”
True West plays Broadway's American Airlines Theatre (227 W 42nd Street between Seventh & Eighth Avenues) in a limited engagement run, with previews from December 27, an opening night January 24, and closing scheduled for March 17, 2019.