The smell of burning toast hangs over the bushwhacked set of True West like spent napalm. What got us to this point is the stuff live theatre should be made of: tightly-wound tension and explosive conflict. In this case, it's two brothers locked in a quasi-Biblical battle that has shades of High Noon and overtones of Looney Toons.
Aston (Eugene O'Hare) is a nerdy writer hoping to complete his make-or-break script in his mother's Californian house while she is away on vacation. But he doesn't count on his bullying brother Lee (Alex Ferns) arriving in off the desert with a trenchcoat, a filthy singlet and a very bad attitude.
Actor-writer Sam Shepherd's finest play stands up brilliantly since it was first performed in the US in 1980. He has crafted two grandly archetypal characters who represent pretty much any dichotomy of the American soul you care to pick on: brains vs brawn, graft vs grift, Apollo vs Dionysus (if you want to be pretentious), Tom vs Jerry (if you don't). And while mom is away in ice cool Alaska, these two forces collide, rehashing old rivalries as they bake in the gnawing desert heat.
The threat of violence swirls around the siblings long before the golf clubs come out or the toast goes up in smoke, even before weasly movie mogul Saul ups the ante by asking Lee and Aston to work together. But it's when they try to sweat out that story — a true-to-life, modern day western — that all the issues that have built up between the two since they first fought over toy cars and comic books begin to haemorrhage in earnest.
It's a sparse play, funny and unpredictable, with sharp dialogue and excellent performances here. O'Hare's Aston is an Ivy League swot whose clotted words stick in his throat as he tries to get them out; while Fern's Lee is full of menace, with a high-pitched laugh that sounds like the hiss of escaping gas. There's also deft support from Steven Elliot as Saul and Barbara Rafferty as mom, both extracting laughs and shivers from their often curious lines.
Max Jones's set is a depressingly familiar bit of domestic Americana (like the kitchen in the sitcom Roseanne), sliced white life spread too thickly with peanut butter and jelly. The sound design also adds to the pressure cooker atmosphere as the noise of the crickets and coyotes swells with every scene change. Director Phillip Breen has done a terrific job of creating an environment you can't wait to see destroyed.
True West is on at the Tricycle Theatre until 4 October. Tickets £27-10. Londonist saw the play on a complimentary ticket.