In “Topdog/Underdog” and “True West,” Colorado Springs audiences have a chance to compare top-notch productions of two of the most powerful contemporary American plays about sibling rivalry.
Coincidentally, each production features one highly experienced actor — Steve Emily at the Star Bar Players’ production of “True West” and Daver Morrison at TheatreWorks’ production of “Topdog/Underdog” — paired with a comparatively inexperienced partner. Emily and Morrison’s virtuoso performances are no surprise, but Roy Ballard in “True West” and Ramone Dupree in “Topdog/Underdog” also come through with honors. If Star Bar’s production takes home the laurels, it’s simply because it has stronger material to work with. “True West” has become a classic since its 1980 premiere. Sam Shepard’s characters are sharply drawn — Austin, a screenwriter who makes a modest living selling fantasies, and his older brother Lee, a drifter and petty thief. Just about every turn the story takes is unexpected, and each exposes deeper layers of the brothers’ bond. And though the humor is distinctly dark, “True West” never loses sight of comedy. Don’t be surprised if you don’t recognize Emily from TheatreWorks’ recent production of “Arms and the Man.” There, as the servant Nicola, all emotions were repressed. Here, none of them are: He’s a portrait of browbeating hostility, simultaneously jealous and condescending toward Austin — yet with a vulnerable core. As Austin, the sad-eyed Ballard shows a gift for pratfalls and much more. His Austin starts out inhibited, but slowly reveals the character’s despondent core — and the source of his seemingly inexplicable affection for his brother. As directed by David Plambeck, the actors capture the play’s many moods and its quirky timing. The opening scene’s numerous pauses were played perfectly. “Topdog/Underdog,” on the other hand, had me wondering what the Pulitzer committee was thinking when it awarded the play the 2002 drama prize. Perhaps they were responding to Suzan-Lori Parks’ beautifully drawn characters — Lincoln, a former hustler who’s been scared straight, and his younger brother, Booth, who aspires to Lincoln’s former career throwing cards but lacks Lincoln’s talent. Or perhaps it was the dialogue’s often hypnotically repetitive rhythm, rooted in the patter of the street hustler: “Watch me close watch me close now: who-see-thuh-redcard-who-see-thuh-red-card?” But Parks too often crosses the line between the mysteriously hypnotic and the everyday boring. The climax is predictable and contrived. Though the stakes are high — life and death — they don’t feel high, as neither Lincoln nor Booth has much of a life, or much respect for other lives. Morrison shows tremendous range and nuance, whether stoically enduring his job or reflecting on his wild past. In comparison, Dupree gives a bit of a one-note performance, but it’s basically the right note: Behind the bravado is a painful sense of inferiority. Both productions look excellent. At “True West,” the slow trashing of T.J. Mendez’s set was a perverse joy to watch, while Holly Rawls’ lighting was perhaps the best I’ve seen at the Lon Chaney Theater. details “True West” When: 8 p.m. today-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, 8 p.m. Feb. 2-3, 9-10 and 2 p.m. Feb. 11 Where: Lon Chaney Theatre, City Auditorium, 221 E. Kiowa St.; tickets $12-$15; 573-7411 “Topdog/Underdog” When: 7:30 p.m. today and Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday Where: Dusty Loo Bon Vivant Theater, UCCS, 3955 Cragwood Drive; tickets $22-$25; 262-3232