TAMPA — Two brothers, each trying to retreat from life in different ways, hole up in a dingy house on the edge of the desert.
Austin, the Ivy League graduate, writes screenplays. His older brother Lee is a petty thief.
Those contrasts drive the tension behind True West, Sam Shepard's one-act now under way at Tampa Repertory Theatre. As Lee confesses to his brother between gibes, "I've always wondered what it would be like to be you."
In 2000 on Broadway, Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly decided to find out. The pair won Tony nominations for their performances — on alternating dates — as either Lee or Austin. It's a clever gambit, one that challenges actors and tempts audiences to return on another night and see True West with the lead roles reversed. Now Tampa Repertory, on the inspiration of director Megan Lamasney, has followed suit.
Boundary confusion between the brothers starts with the setting. Austin is house sitting for his mother while finishing a script. But maybe he also needs a break from the people in his life. Lee, who has been spending "time in the desert" the last five years, has had enough of solitude. He shows up at the house and immediately lays claim to it as a family member.
All kinds of chaos follows. Austin, the stuff-shirted brother, is worried Lee will mess up his meeting with an agent, Saul. That he does — by stealing Saul's interest with a better screenplay, one he just made up on the spot. The agent is charmed by Lee's "authenticity." Soon, Saul and Lee are working out a deal on the golf course.
Austin doesn't take any of this very well and slides toward despair. Or maybe he'd always wanted to chuck the respectable front and this is his chance. I saw the play last Saturday, a night Jack Holloway played Lee, the more colorful role of the two. Holloway expands the space, pushing people and furniture out of the way. Eventually, Austin begins to push back, revealing an inner rebel. For Dan Granke, playing Austin, these were his nicest moments.
The brothers fight a lot, especially when drunk. They kick over chairs and swing golf clubs and pretty much trash the entire set. Then, exhausted by fighting, they bond. The cycle repeats.
These comfortable plateaus come as a relief, and raise questions. Are we listening more intently because Holloway and Granke do some of their best work here (they do), or because they have momentarily stopped shouting their lines and smashing things?
The play packs some humor and insight into close relationships. The retro furniture and Hank Williams soundtrack establish a sense of time and place. As for that annoying loop of the same coyotes yipping in the exactly the same ways to denote each nightfall — well, I guess it's supposed to get on your nerves.
In the margins around what is essentially a two-character play, Jamie Jones turns in an appropriately slick performance as Saul, the agent; and Caroline Jett makes for a sweet, if bewildered, mother in a brief cameo.
Granke starts off almost unbelievably stiffly as Austin but warms up as his character drinks more. As Lee, Holloway can be overbearing or sly, funny or crude. And, as I mentioned, he shouts a lot.
Holloway will play Austin Jan. 16, 22 and 24, the same shows in which Granke plays Lee. The theater is offering a $5 discount for returning customers who bring a program.
It's an intriguing offer, but I'll pass. Surviving one performance was enough.
Contact Andrew Meacham at email@example.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.