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Hamptons Life

Apr 15, 2008 8:05 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Shepard play opens at Southampton Cultural Center

Apr 15, 2008 8:05 AM

Sibling rivalry tends toward the ugly, at best. When it involves polar opposites, it gets even worse. Even more disconcerting is a rivalry that tests whether siblings’ character traits are really so different, or just different expressions of the same personality.

This week, theatergoers will have a chance to draw their own conclusions as “True West” by Sam Shepard opens on Friday at the Southampton Cultural Center. Performances continue weekends through April 27.

“True West” pits brother against brother in a tale that channels the biblical Cain and Abel feud with a dash of the prodigal son. How “True West” ends can be debated. What is certain is that the lives of two brothers explode in a suburban home.

The games truly begin when the chance of a lifetime walks through the door when the parent is temporarily away.

That chance wears the garb of a Hollywood producer. The producer drops in to try and option the latest screenplay of one brother, Austin, while he is house-sitting for his mother. Also dropping by is Austin’s brother, Lee. His intent seems to be to steal as much as he can from the neighbors while grabbing a large proverbial stick and poking his brother until he bleeds.

Toasters and televisions aren’t the only thing Lee tries to steal. He sets his sights on the Hollywood producer’s attention and diverts the limelight (and opportunity) from Austin to himself. When the producer decides Lee’s idea of writing a “true-to-life western” trumps Austin’s screenplay idea, the showdown begins for the two brothers.

“True West” had its world premiere on July 10, 1980, in San Francisco and appeared in New York City at Joseph Papp’s Public Theater on December 23, 1980. It starred actors Tommy Lee Jones as Austin and Peter Boyle as Lee. In 1982, the play was revived in Chicago featuring then-unknown actors Gary Sinise and John Malkovich. The production then headed to New York’s Cherry Lane Theatre for a run of 762 performances. The two leads were played by revolving actors including John Belushi, Erik Estrada and Gary Cole. Real life brothers Dennis Quaid and Randy Quaid also shared the stage.

In 2000, “True West” was revived again, this time on Broadway at the Circle on the Square Theater featuring Phillip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly, who alternated in the lead roles. The production earned Tony nominations for best actor (for Hoffman and Reilly), best director and best play.

At the Southampton Cultural Center, “True West” features actors Kirk Gostkowski and Joe Pallister playing the embattled brothers. Mr. Gostkowski is a New York City-based actor whose credits include performances at Centerstage, Long Island City’s The Secret Theater and Hofstra University, where he received his BFA. He took a master class with Alec Baldwin and Michael Disher at The Ross School in 2005.

When Mr. Disher and the Southampton Cultural Center (SCC) decided to stage “True West” for the director’s new “Live at the SCC” series, Mr. Disher thought Mr. Gostkowski would be perfect for the part. He portrays Austin, the middle-class screenwriter escaping his family to write his screenplay in the silence of his mother’s house.

Hamptons-based actor Joe Pallister plays the part of Lee, the alcoholic brother, thief and general loser. Mr. Pallister was also handpicked for “True West” after Mr. Disher worked with him in “Doubt” by John Patrick Shanley for the Hampton Theatre Company. Mr. Pallister also has a long list of professional credits and has appeared frequently in area productions at Guild Hall and with the Hampton Theatre Company, among others. The cast is rounded out by Mark Strecker as the Hollywood producer, Saul Kimmer, and Vay David in the role of the mother.

The most challenging part of producing “True West,” Mr. Disher said, is defining the core characteristics of each brother and determining how to portray the shifting dynamic between the two and the emotional rivers that run within both of them. Mr. Disher explained that character development and intention are left as ambiguous as the meaning of the play and how it ends.

For the actors and Mr. Disher, these challenges called for a lot of soul searching and exploration of the text to find the reality that feels the most authentic and can infuse the most life into the characters on stage. Since the actors are simulating the “true life” experience of Austin and Lee and their complicated relationship, how the shifting dynamic unfolds is fluid and may change from performance to performance.

“It could be a different play, each time,” Mr. Disher said. “It’s mostly the two of them on stage and how they interact with each other may shift, even as they are playing the part, depending on how they feel, how the play is unfolding and the audience.”

The ambivalence is not due to any failure to lock down characters, but reflects the approach of actors who can portray the nuances of an emotionally-loaded relationship and roiling inner turmoil. When the dynamics shift, the actors adjust to make the most of the moment, Mr. Disher said.

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