Shepard's 'True West' Doesn't Ring True at Gnu Theatre

No federal law requires a director to stage Sam Shepard's "True West" in a kitchen, though that's what Shepard's stage directions request.

At the Gnu Theatre, where the California-set "True West" was going to alternate with Lee Blessing's Iowa-set "Independence" before the latter production was shut down by a court order, director/set designer Jeff Seymour devised a joint space for both plays--a homey upstage dining room and downstage living room/study area that could be in either Iowa or the Inland Empire.

Just the place Austin (David Ross Wolfe) would use to finish his story idea for a Hollywood producer (Tom Dahlgren, reprising his role from the original Magic Theatre production). Mom is giving him the run of the place while she's away in Alaska. Nice.

Except that Austin's older brother, Lee (Matthew Nelson), is hanging out here after just getting in from the desert. Lee is trouble; he's also the play's locomotive, the agent of imaginative abandon against Austin's business-like approach. If a production of "True West" is really working, it should gradually build up an edge, drilling our insides as Lee does Austin's.

But in a metaphoric way, Seymour's staging stays in Iowa. There are early signals that the text wasn't really examined. In the first scene, we should see Austin working at night by candlelight, but Connie Jordan's lights are far too bright. Nelson is only slightly scruffy, as if he's just been out in the front yard playing ball, rather than the balding, disheveled desert rat Lee should be.

In Shepard's theater, appearances count. In "True West," Lee and Austin, really two halves of the same person, flip appearances as the action forces them into reversing roles. But while this production faithfully follows the play on its comedic surface, it misses "True West's" surreal substrata. Watching Austin making toast in dozens of toasters he stole, or Lee burning paper and beating a typewriter to death with his golf club should hold us transfixed. Here, the toast scene is light stuff, and Lee's destruction derby is virtually off-stage.

Wolfe, though, suggests a very human Austin, carrying around a lot of wounds, and Nelson injects a creepiness into his portrayal that literally rescues the show from blandness. Watch Nelson's eyes--the gaze of maleness colliding with the urge to create--for a sign of what "True West" is really about.

At 10426 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood, on Thursdays through Sundays, 8 p.m., until July 15. $17.50-$20; (818) 508-5344.

'MOEXXV': Tale of Street-Wise Artists

Another play about what happens when the macho impulse clashes with artistic desire is Mark ("Idioglossia") Handley's new work "MOEXXV" (pronounced Mo - X15 ). Although the theme is never developed to the point where we think about it in new terms, Handley's most interesting achievement, in Gwenn Victor's Burbage Theatre production, is to place the issue in the street-wise mouths of young New York graffiti artists.

Handley's verbal lingo emits the same kind of bright, jagged sparks as the graffiti art of Mo (Leonard P. Salazar) and EXXV (Brian Wesley Thomas) and their street cadre, who create "masterpieces," whole panoramic displays on the side of New York subway trains. EXXV has had dreams of being a "style king . . . to wash the city in color." He taught Mo how to "tag," or do graffiti art. He thinks it's time for younger, more cautious Mo "to go up": break into a subway yard and paint his first masterpiece.

EXXV at 20, though, is washed up, and the creative slide has brought on its own death wish. Mo is torn between the urge to make his own mark while proving his artistic manhood to EXXV, and living to see another day. Handley manipulates this counterpoint without stooping to melodrama or romantic tragedy, but you wonder about a section with a night guard (M. Patrick Hughes, a kind of scared white Everyman) that feels inserted for variety.

You wish, too, that Victor had worked with her vital, unmannered actors to master the art of tagging. The real thing, by the artist Slick, hangs in the Burbage lobby. Take away some of the speechifying, and "MOEXXV" sounds, at least, like the real thing.

At 2330 Sawtelle Blvd., on Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays, 7 p.m., until July 8. $15; (213) 478-0897.

'Nightside': A Battle Between Old and New

The press room in the Chicago Police headquarters is both a graveyard and a birthplace in Philip Reed's drama, "Nightside." John Iacovelli has designed a set at International City Theatre that is steeped in a kind of institutional dust--even the obligatory Cubs pennant in the corner is yellowing like old newspaper. The dual suggestion of an old but respectable inner-city school and a workplace for the burnt-out is not accidental.

Reed's play, naturally, is a battle between the old and the new: aging Bernie Spilko (Charles Parks), holding on in the graveyard-shift crime beat until a better job comes along, and young Leonard Cauley (Michael James), knowing that he's just paying his dues on this forlorn desk.

Reed uses his experience as an ex-reporter to the dialogue's advantage (Spilko ridicules those who went to "J school"), but his inexperience as a playwright makes "Nightside" a lesser play than it could be. (Reed has reportedly done some rewriting since its first, 1987 appearance).

The plot is schematic where it should surprise; the conflict is the same situation of crusty cynic meets idealistic eager-beaver that has always been a staple of newsroom dramas. The tension is only mildly heightened with a subtle racial schism (Spilko is white, Cauley is black), and the final, well-crafted twist is one of the few moral interests in a curiously flaccid dramatic course.

Containing matters to a two-character drama certainly doesn't help. Since other local papers are mentioned, you wonder why they don't also have reporters on this beat: newsroom plays provide, by nature, a chance for exploring group dynamics. James and Parks seem awfully lonely up there, but they search and find unexpected places of emotional truth within Cauley and Spilko.

At Harvey and Clark Street, Long Beach City College, on Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays 2 and 7:30 p.m., until June 10. $12; (213) 420-4275 or (213) 420-4128.

'Win With Wheeler': Loser at Theatre Rapport

Perhaps American politics deserves no more regard than Lee Kalcheim's ragged and insistently dumb pseudo-farce about a U.S. Senate campaign, "Win With Wheeler." Perhaps "Win With Wheeler" deserves no more regard than John Cosgrove's abysmal staging at Theatre Rapport.

An audience, though, deserves better, especially when it is asked to put up with three acts' worth of horrendous comic choices, flubbed blocking on a tiny stage and more dropped punch lines than an amateur stand-up evening. One potentially clever gag--Wheeler himself appears only as sound and image on TV, befitting the modern candidate--is marred by distortion in the sound system.

When they aren't bumping into each other, the cast members (led by Crane Jackson as the besieged campaign manager) look glad to get offstage when they can.

At 1277 N. Wilton Place, on Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m., until June 23. $14; (213) 660-0433.

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