A quartet of USC grads have joined forces in “Let’s put on a show” tradition (with some 21st-century Kickstarter help) to bring Los Angeles theater lovers an excitingly performed revival of True West, Sam Shepard’s 1980 contemporary-classic tale of brotherly love and hate.

L.A. audiences can thank the 71 backers whose generosity (and faith in Class Of 2010 project spear-headers Nick Thurston, Chase Williamson, and Matthew Little) helped surpass the trio’s $5,500 goal by over 2.5 grand and insured a production that rivals some of the best work being done by our more established 99-seat companies.

Thurston and Williamson star as estranged brothers Lee and Austin, two of the most mismatched siblings to take centerstage since Cain and Abel made their millennia-ago Biblical debut, the latter having escaped the bros’ blue-collar roots for life as an aspiring Hollywood screenwriter with an Ivy League degree on his wall (and no remaining trace of his brother’s Deliverance drawl on his lips), while older brother Lee has turned to a life of burglary and other assorted felonies and misdemeanors.

Providing the catalyst for True West’s blend of the humorous and the dramatic is Lee’s unexpected arrival at their mother’s suburban home some forty miles east of downtown L.A., where Austin is combining a bit of house-sitting for his Alaska-vacationing Mom with work on the outline of a screenplay that has caught a Hollywood bigshot’s eye.

It soon becomes clear that the last person Austin wants anywhere near producer Saul Kimmer (Class of ‘08’s Clay Elliot) is loose cannon Lee, a powder keg of violence just itching to explode at the slightest provocation, and so younger brother reluctantly lends his older sibling the keys to his car in exchange for a promise to beat it till Saul has headed back Hollywood way.

Unfortunately, Lee’s sense of timing leaves much to be desired, the career housebreaker barging back into mom’s kitchen with a just-stolen TV set long before Saul has taken his leave, and if this weren’t already awkward enough, Lee has soon cajoled/coerced Saul into 18 holes of golf the following morning, the result of which is the producer’s surprise interest in the germ of an idea for a screenplay Lee has come up with—a contemporary tale of today’s “True West.”

In fact, so taken is Saul by the commercial possibilities of Lee’s idea that he drops Austin’s more conventional love story like a hot potato, and to add insult to injury, Lee now wants Austin to type up his outline to submit in place of the one Austin had been hoping to turn in to Saul.

Reluctantly, Austin agrees, and it is in the course of putting Lee’s words down on paper that the two brothers come to the realization that life might be better for both were they wearing each other’s shoes.

“I always wondered what’d be like to be you,” muses Lee, “walkin’ around some campus with yer alms fulla’ books,” while Austin finds himself equally curious about what it would be like to have Lee’s life of adventure: “I used to say to myself, ‘Lee’s got the right idea. He’s out there in the world and here I am. What am I doing?’”

Let the role reversal begin.

Under Little’s incisive direction, the Best Lead Actor Scenie winner’s two stars give a pair bravura performances that alone make this True West worth seeing.

Thurston and Williamson’s multiple scenes together (which make True West almost a two-hander) snap, crackle, and pop, a combination of playwright Shepard’s punchy script and a relationship forged during the duo’s years together as Trojans and since.

Casting someone in his twenties to play a character written to be in his early forties might not work in a number of plays, but with Thurston bringing Lee to electrically-charged life, the age reduction hardly matters, so thrillingly volatile is the up-and-comer’s magnetic work on the Let Live Theatre stage that you simply assume that Lee got started earlier and worked extra hard to get where he is in his life of crime.

Best Actor Scenie winner Williamson so thoroughly vanishes inside Austin’s carefully cultivated prim-and-proper skin that you might not recognize the “raging caldron of teen angst and repressed desires” that made his the standout performance in Over The Moon Productions Spring Awakening a couple years back, and when straight-laced Austin starts loosening those laces under the influence of hard liquor drunk straight up, watch out!

Turning Saul from late-forties veteran Hollywood player to late-twenties Hollywood wunderkind hotshot may ring more 2010s than True West’s presumably still late-‘70s time frame (and several of Saul’s lines ring false when spoken by a younger actor), but Elliot plays him with just the right blend of chutzpah and pragmatism.

Making a delightfully ditzy eleventh-hour appearance is veteran actress Pat Lentz as Mom.

The Let Live Theatre’s snazzy black box space (one of L.A. theater’s mostly undiscovered gems) has been niftily converted “on a budget” by production designer Susan Johnson into a meticulously appointed suburban kitchen set (provided by Off-Broadway West, LLC). Brian Barraza’s lighting design and Williamson’s cricket-laden sound design are both thoroughly professional, and so are the production’s costumes, though Saul’s might not be as period-apt as it should be. A higher budget might also have allowed for a more believably functional typewriter, but these are minor cavils in a production about which there is little to quibble.

Kent Jenkins is stage manager.

Just about as under-the-radar as an L.A. theater production can get, and with an all-too-brief two-weekend run, the New Guard Theater Company’s inaugural production could find itself easily overlooked by even the most avid Los Angeles theatergoer.

A True West as terrific as this one deserves full houses from now to closing night.

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Let Live theatre, 916a N. Formosa Ave., Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
October 31, 2014

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