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'True West' from Road Less Traveled is theater at its best

If you want to understand why theater exists, see Road Less Traveled's current production of "True West."

Tight, brutal, comic and exhausting, it is one of the best plays Sam Shepard ever wrote and, under the direction of Scott Behrend, this Buffalo cast doesn't let Shepard down. The electricity starts flowing with the opening scene, a current alternating between the two opposite forces of brothers Austin and Lee.

The setting is their mother's house near the Mojave Desert. With Mom away on a trip to Alaska, family man Austin, a journeyman screenwriter, has offered to housesit in exchange for some peace and quiet to finish a movie project.

He didn't count on his estranged big brother Lee showing up.

Lee is everything the buttoned-down Austin is not: irresponsible, unreliable, casually criminal and, at this point in his life, apparently indigent.

And, as played by David C. Mitchell, he is also irresistible. When Shepard created Lee, he made the kind of character actors dream of playing. Lee is totally unrestrained, nearly to the point of being unhinged, which gives a lot of line to any performer willing to run with it. And run is exactly what Mitchell does. He immerses himself so deeply into Lee's raw, unwashed persona that you kinda cringe when other performers actually touch him during the action. Lee's unfiltered verbal assaults on his brother contain just enough honesty to make them painful to hear.

Yet we hang on every word. Waiting, waiting for his brother to respond in kind.

Not likely, not from the Austin we meet as the show opens. As the "good" brother, the one who always does the right thing without ever seeing it pay off, Matt Witten makes Austin a master of conflict-avoidance.  He becomes a backboard for everything Lee lobs at him, deflecting and ignoring his barbs in the hope that perhaps, with enough self-restraint, he can make Lee disappear.

Witten can be a powerful presence onstage, as anyone who saw him in "An Iliad" well knows, but he overcorrects for that talent in early scenes. His Austin is almost too soft a target for Lee's bullying at first, making Lee's escalation seem unnecessary.

Shepard's humor saves the day. When producer Saul Kimmer (Robert Rutland) shows up to consult on Austin's project, the brothers reach a comic truce for the sake of appearances. Rutland understands that Saul is there to serve as the fulcrum that shifts the balance of the play, and he is consistent from start to finish, a show biz mogul willing to follow the promise of money anywhere it might lead. Even if it leads to Lee.

This is the point where "True West" could become ridiculous in less talented hands. But with Shepard, it is just hitting its stride. As Lee's creative star rises, the action peels back the layers on both brothers, revealing their own true selves with an intimate and powerful intensity.  The Road Less Traveled Theater is a perfect place to experience this, with the audience right on top of the action.

Mitchell and Witten don't disappoint. Where the first act was all verbal parrying, Act II is a riot of physicality, and they don't pull any punches. When you begin worrying about the safety of the people onstage, you know you are right there with them.

Expect to see Mitchell's name on "best actor" ballots when spring rolls around. Now is the chance to see why he deserves to be there.



Theater review

"True West"

4 stars

Sam Shepard's dark comedy about warring brothers, family loyalty, Hollywood and the West. Starring Matt Witten and David C. Mitchell. Presented by Road Less Traveled Productions, 500 Pearl St., Thursday-Sunday through Nov. 20. For tickets, or (716) 629-3069.


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