Stage reviews: Two plays, two families suffering from dysfunction

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As the holiday season picks up speed, the entertainment offerings are flush with examples of family happiness. From Tiny Tim to Ralphie Parker, spirits are light and loving. Truly heart-warming stuff.

Pittsburgh Public Theater and City Theatre aren't buying it, though. Both of their new productions portray the American family as sources of unhappiness, disgust, rage, jealousy and perhaps a little perversion. It's not the scene we're told to expect on Christmas morning.

Instead, from the Public's "True West" to City's "Charles Ives Take Me Home," it would appear that your blood relations are the last folks you'd want to spend time with over the Thanksgiving turkey. Brothers are at each other's throats and fathers and daughters find no common ground, least of all to love each other.

Here's how a veteran and a newly emerged playwright treat the subject of families.

"True West"

'True West'
Where: Pittsburgh Public Theater, O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Ave., Downtown.
When: Through Dec. 8. 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday; 7 p.m. Tuesday; 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday; 2 and 8 p.m. Nov. 23, Nov. 30 and Dec. 7; 2 and 8 p.m. Dec. 5; 2 p.m. only Dec. 15.
Tickets: $23-$55. 412-316-1600 or

If Sam Shepard isn't the "greatest playwright of his generation," as the play program asserts, he is the best known, thanks to his Hollywood acting career and several disturbing plays, including this one that debuted in 1980.

However, the intervening 33 years have blunted the edges of "True West's" jabs at classic American myths that seemed fresh in the Carter administration. Under Pamela Berlin's direction, the play doesn't really take off until midway through the second act when the nostalgic aroma of fresh toast wafts into the O'Reilly Theater. Patrons are advised to eat beforehand or grumbling stomachs could distract the actors.

Ms. Berlin's other Public productions such as "Red," "Talley's Folly" and "Clybourne Park" played out in similar fashion with a careful, low-energy opening that put all the burden on the second act to capture the play's impact. Act One of this "True West" was too laid back, the characters of brothers Lee and Austin so low key that the friction between the two couldn't light a Molotov cocktail.

Mr. Shepard keeps it simple:

Lee and Austin are the yin and yang of siblings. Lee's a homeless petty burglar while Austin's a rising Hollywood screenwriter with a family and home in Los Angeles. He's finishing a script in his mother's tract house in the LA suburbs, close to the desert where coyotes howl at midnight. Mom has decamped for Alaska, the next best thing Americans have to the frontier, when Lee shows up. All straightforward metaphors, if you're keeping track.

In the course of two acts of short scenes, the brothers switch places. Lee tries his hand at a movie script while Austin steals a bunch of toasters from the neighborhood. The lesson seems to be that it's easy to break into homes but writing a screenplay takes talent -- and the ability to use a typewriter. Lee's attempt to feed paper into the machine with a knife and fork is a clever visual joke.

David Mogentale's Lee hisses like a cat, gulps beer sloppily, picks his nose with a vengeance and sometimes lapses into a Pittsburgh accent (he grew up in Peters), but he never gets crazy enough to engender the sense of menace that would give this low-key production a kick in the keister.

Austin's transformation from straight arrow to drunken desperado could use a stronger dose of desperation, yet Ken Barnett doesn't convince us that he has the conviction to alter his life.

Like their father, a toothless drunken bum, the brothers see the "true West" looming in the distance, a place where they can play out the legend of the American frontier and the lone cowboy who found himself in it.

Mr. Shepard banishes that legend. The "true West" is no more. Only the coyotes and crickets are left to remind us.

Mom knows this. She returns disappointed from Alaska to find her well-ordered world in pieces thanks to her sons. Mary Rawson's brisk performance as a mother who can't be bothered with her sons reveals why the brothers are what they are as she goes in search of Picasso, although dead, who is visiting the town, she believes.

Hollywood producer Saul is quietly underplayed by Dan Shor, who resists the temptation to go over the top as a tasteless hustler but is tasteless nevertheless.

As we've come to expect, the Public's production is handsomely presented under scenic designer Michael Schweikardt, whose 1970s bland kitchen is transformed by the effective reproduction of that unique desert light.

This "True West" comes across as a fast-moving comedy with some funny shtick in the second act. Unfortunately, Shepard's message about vanishing American values is diminished amid the laughter.

"Charles Ives Take Me Home"

'Charles Ives Take Me Home'
Where: City Theatre, 1300 Bingham St., South Side.
When: Through Dec. 15. 7 p.m. Tuesday-Wednesday; 8 p.m. Thursday-Friday; 5:30 and 9 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday.
Tickets: $35-$55. 412-431-2489 or

Actor and playwright Jessica Dickey is a Pennsylvania native whose one-actor play, "The Amish Project," examined the 2006 killings of Amish students at Nickel Mines, Pa.

Her latest, "Charles Ives Take Me Home," wrestles with the age-old subject of parent-child relationships, but she loads her one-act play with simple-minded metaphors, obscure references and clumsy sports analogies that often obscure the thread of her theme.

Luckily, the familiarity of athletics, in this case, basketball, seems to distract the audience from Ms. Dickey's slight observations on family dynamics in her tale of the absent father and the needy daughter.

Complicating her story is the character of composer Charles Ives, a lesser known but significant contributor to American classical music who wrote in the mid-20th century. Because of his obscurity, the playwright seems compelled to clutter her story with Ives' biographical material. He functions as the narrator and father figure to concert violinist John Starr, whose own father ignored him because of his disinterest in sports.

James FitzGerald plays the composer with an elegant style and kindly twinkle who briefly mentors Starr at Juilliard, but the lessons are more about music than fatherhood.

Drew McVety as Starr and Tressa Glover as daughter Laura are required to not only act, but also play the violin and dribble a basketball, which both do nicely. It's their characters that pose greater challenges. Starr views Laura only through her unacceptable (for him) love of basketball while Laura refuses to consider anything but the game as important.

Reconciliation seems hopeless. You'll read no spoilers here.

In an era when Title IX has encouraged females to embrace athletics and caused their fathers to wholeheartedly support their daughters in that activity (I speak from personal experience), Ms. Dickey's portrayal of the uninvolved father dates from another era. Also, giving Starr an obsession with breasts as an explanation for his uncomfortable relationship with a daughter is simplistic, if not creepy.

Mr. McVety himself seems uncomfortable in his Starr shoes. Playing a role that is either pugnacious or sorrowful, Ms. Glover is saddled with a limited range of emotions.

City's narrow Lester Hamburg Studio, with a clever set by Tony Ferrieri of a basketball floor that curves toward the ceiling, provides the intimate space that "Charles Ives Take Me Home" requires. The play, however, doesn't reach high enough to explore the father-daughter intimacy as deeply as it could.

Retired Post-Gazette book editor Bob Hoover reviews theater for the newspaper.

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