It was announced this week that at the end of this year, the seminal Sam Sheppard sibling rivalry drama True West would be revived on Broadway. You can read about the production here: it stars Paul Dano as Austin and Ethan Hawke (who, in retrospect, seems like he’s spent the past twenty years transforming himself into the part) as Lee. It has a terrific creative team and pedigree. And yet my response upon hearing the news was:
It’s not because I dislike the play, or don’t find it particularly relevant to our current situation. No, my gut response is simply dismay that it’s being staged after only recently being on Broadway. In a classic production, no less, in which John C. Reilly and the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman famously switched roles each night, alternating as the two brothers. The whole point of True West is that the brothers keep trying on each other’s personalities anyway, so the alternating of the roles added another dimension to the plays existing themes, transforming it into a must-see high-wire act. It’s still talked about; it’s been referenced ever since whenever actors alternate roles in a production, as most recently occurred with Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon in the recent revival of The Little Foxes.
(Oh, in case you haven’t heard, Cynthia Nixon might wind up becoming the next governor of my state. I’ll probably have Things To Say about that in weeks to come. But I digress.)
Anyway, my point is that this last production of True West was such a landmark, such an event, that it seems silly to me to revive it again so soon. It was just on Broadway, after all!
Except that isn’t true. The production I’m describing was staged in 2000. Eighteen years ago.
Now, perhaps I can be forgiven for thinking that eighteen years wasn’t very long ago. I was a struggling actor in New York then; I’m a struggling actor in New York now. (I’ve written a whole bunch of scripts in the interim, so it’s not like the time’s been wasted, but still.) And the theatrical landscape isn’t all that different; Phantom of the Opera and The Lion King were on Broadway then, and are on Broadway now, and likely will be playing long after I’m gone, the survivors of whichever of the dozen or so imminent apocalypses finally destroys us dutifully waving Julie Taymor puppets and singing “Music of the Night” amongst the ashes.
But here’s the disturbing thing. (Yes, more disturbing then the apocalypse thing.) That production of True West was the first major production in New York since the legendary Steppenwolf production, with John Malkovich and Gary Sinise. That production originated in Chicago before moving to New York, establishing the reputation of the two leads and the play in the process.
That production was mounted in 1982. Eighteen years before the Broadway revival.
So the amount of time that elapsed from the Steppenwolf production to the last Broadway production, and from that to the upcoming production, is exactly the same. And yet the Hoffman/Reilly production seems like only yesterday, while the Steppenwolf production seems like something from some bygone era. And it felt that way in 2000 as well.
Why on earth is this? Is it because the culture was so radically different in 1982, compared to today, that it seems like something strange and remote? (I doubt it – in a lot of ways, the culture hasn’t changed much at all, and it seems like we’re desperate to bring the 80s back no matter what the cost.) Have technological advances made the world before the internet seem like a completely different geological age? Perhaps. Or perhaps this is a purely subjective, purely psychological effect – when I was younger, time seemed to move at a glacial pace, where now, in my middle age, it rushes past before I have a chance to notice what I’ve missed.
If only there were some mytho-poetic American playwright to help me make sense of it all.