If you are familiar with the still boyishly handsome but extremely serious actor Ethan Hawke, you know that when stage directions state that a character he’s portraying onstage wields a golf club and then is “seen smashing typewriter methodically,” Hawke will absolutely be smashing the shit out of a typewriter, on stage. And so it was that, in the Broadway production of True West, Sam Shepard’s 1980 seething, sweaty Pulitzer Prize-winning paean to brotherly enmity, Hawke pounds an old manual typewriter to Hades. The shrill, clanging sound of the carnage ricochets off the highest reaches of the balcony, eight times per week.
The golf club does not always survive this. During the March 16 matinee performance, the golf club’s face came flying off. (No one was harmed.) According to the show’s head of properties, Hawke went through ten clubs during the show’s near three-month run. True West closed on March 17, and armed with the knowledge that he’s fully stocked, sporting goods-wise, Hawke upped his rate down the stretch. He broke one club per day in the final week.
That’s just the inadvertent destruction. By the time the curtain drops—or in this case, by the time the entire linoleum and wood-paneled Carter-administration suburban California kitchen and adjacent dining room is rent asunder—the stage should look, as Shepard prescribed, “ravaged”—like a “desert junkyard at high noon.” The havoc is in the script for a reason: this is a play about men struggling and failing to live up to the fatally flawed masculine archetypes available to them, and so can only come to bleak, violent, and inevitably criminal ends. The men at the play’s ragged heart are reduced to reckless, needy, and destructive boys by its end. Of course they make a mess.
When I saw the show in early March, I was enthralled by the chaotic wreckage it left in the play’s wake. How would anyone, save for a skilled team of crime scene cleaners, be able to return this stage to a state of order, especially given the narrow time frame on two-show days? It turns out, as is the case with many things in the theater, the task is more than doable—you just have to rehearse it. A lot.
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Here is a brief and spoiler-y synopsis of True West’s plot: Austin (in this production, played by Paul Dano) is a successful, if meek, Hollywood screenwriter crashing at his mom’s empty home in suburban Southern California. His older brother Lee (Hawke) is a petty criminal and quasi-derelict, and he shows up unexpectedly. The two haven’t spoken in five years and each harbors a deep-seated jealousy for the other’s life: Lee yearns for Austin’s intellectual bona fides and familial stability, and Austin pines for Lee’s outlaw status, including a chunk of time spent (according to Lee) living in the desert. Austin is trying to hammer out a deal with a producer, but that producer gets conned by Lee during a round of golf into greenlighting Lee’s cliche-ridden pitch for a “true” western. Eventually, Lee strongarms Austin into writing the script for him. Both get wildly drunk en route. Toasters are pilfered from the locals. Promises, and also the entire house, are broken. Eventually their mom shows up.
And here is a partial list of the items that are smashed, spilled, thrown and otherwise pulverized over the course of the two-act, nine-scene play: about a dozen emptied and/or crushed cans of seltzer dressed up to look exactly like Billy Beer; at least two bottles of liquor, which are filled with water and caramel food coloring; a full bag of golf clubs; the third typewriter (we’ll get there in a second) and a strung-out typewriter ribbon (actually a sewing ribbon, which is partly due to the scarcity and cost of obtaining functional typewriter ribbons and partly because, when Hawke yanks the ribbon out, the sewing ribbon won’t tear); an entire loaf of toasted white bread, which Dano stacks into a tower on a plate only to have Hawke whap it out of his hands and send the toast flying across the stage; the contents of almost every kitchen drawer and also the drawers themselves; candy and knitting tins, yellow legal pads and assorted wadded-up sheets of yellow legal paper; ashtrays and cigarettes, various; a rotary phone which has been yanked off the wall (the phone cord of which will later be used by Dano to strangle Hawke); a set of curtains, all also yanked off the wall; numerous other items.
The process of restoring the space happened faster and with more ease than I could have imagined. On March 16, after the matinee, I watched the Roundabout’s team make the playing space whole again. This was Glenn Merwede, the Roundabout Theatre Company’s head carpenter and veteran of over 65 productions; Sam Patt, house properties, who has been building, setting up and running shows on Broadway for the last decade; and an intern named Luke. The three of them worked like a stock car pit team, if stock car pit teams were presented not with tires that need changing but a mangled and smoking chassis.
First, the yellow chairs and the round linoleum dining room table are shunted off to the side and removed. Three plastic bins are brought downstage center, while the team starts separating trash from the props, which will need to be washed and re-set. In leaning down to take notes, I missed the moment when the kitchen cabinets were slid back into place. Someone was already taking a small broom and dustpan to the floor. The unharmed typewriter was already back up on the kitchen peninsula. Chaos was returning to order faster than I could take it all in. It had just been a few seconds.
Barely ten minutes have ticked off the clock, but by that point a sense of order has returned to the set. A member of the crew is on his knees pulling smashed cigarette butts out of the shag carpeting. Both the wood-paneled wall and the tiled kitchen have by then slid neatly into place from the fly system. So has the ceiling.
An industrial-grade Windsor Versamatic vacuum is brought out. As the motor drones, I catch that the stage’s one large potted plant is actually green on one side and brown on the other. It’s another deft hack—rather than forcing a stagehand to haul this unwieldy beast off stage and replace it with an equally-sized dead carbon copy during the blackout between scenes, you can just turn turn this sucker around. Presto: the plant, like all the other onstage foliage, has died just as the script stipulated.
At 20 minutes after the show, Merwede is on a stepladder, dutifully wiping down the ceiling. He has to do this because when Hawke bats Dano’s tower of toast skyward, one piece will inevitably reach the ceiling, where it invariably lands butter-side up. While removing the slick stain, Merwede wonders if there’s some explanation via physics as to why this is always so. Without an answer and after just a few moments, they’re done. It will take an additional 45 minutes to pre-set the show, but the carnage that the play has left is vanished. The team heads off to grab some food and take a break. I stare at the cleanliness, fixating on a few skid marks left on the front of the kitchen stove. Clearly, someone had been kicking it.
Merwede, Patt, and I were chatting backstage during a scheduled talkback with the audience. (The question and answer session would mean that they’d have even less time to tidy up.) They didn’t have any diagrammed list of instructions detailing who would handle what part of the job, they told me. Instead, they just fell into a rhythm over the course of the run. They found their spots and their roles, repetition bred comfort and speed, and that left enough time to repair any items which had been damaged. Merwede was busy fixing one of the kitchen chairs as he told me this.
The designated smashing typewriter sat on the table as we talked. In reality, it isn’t ever smashed. Three typewriters are used in total: one for the actual typing in the first act, another for Hawke to bash with that golf club, and then a ruined version, with dislodged typebars and mangled keys, that reflects Hawke’s handiwork. Pulling back a sheet of paper in the platen, Patt reveals a glimmering steel sleeve covering the back. This insures a satisfying ping when the golf club comes hammering down and guarantees that no “serious damage” is inflicted, Patt said.
The golf clubs themselves haven’t been altered, though. Adding mass to the club head or shaft would only increase the possible force and “turn it into a weapon,” Patt said. Beyond the expense of creating a prop club, he continued, “it would look fake and it would just be wrong-looking and sounding,” and the audience would be able to spot it from a mile away. What’s more, having a real golf club was important to Hawke. “He’s very method,” Patt said. “He likes to go for it.” Multiple clubs had met their demise that week as a result.
“He really, really, really wanted to do it,” said Patt. After the talkback was over, Hawke approached Merwede and asked what had happened to the golf club. “Whaddaya mean ‘what happened?’” Merwede shot back. “You broke it.”
With a conspiratorial grin, Patt speculated about the damage that might be done during the final show, considering that none of the props would ever need to be used again. All the props have been dented and punctured by this point, but the cabinetry was not yet wrecked entirely. “We kept waiting for him to step through the drawers,” Merwede said of Hawke, but it hadn’t happened yet. Most of the plates handled by the actors would be fine. The dinnerware that gets touched or flung is plastic, because a shattered dish embedded in the shag carpeting could be seriously hazardous to the actors’ health.
Glass and ceramic plates tucked into the kitchen peninsula’s shelves are locked down and went unharmed; the ones Hawke crams into a garbage bin in Scene 98 are actual bone china. With that prop, all the performers have been given very specific orders of the kind that are only given to actors and unruly children. “You can’t break this or you won’t have it,” Patt said.
The cabinets remained a concern, though. “We’re just waiting for that day where he actually puts his foot through it,” Merwede said. “And that could be tomorrow.”
Scene 7 finds Austin slumped against the kitchen cabinet, taking grim slugs from the dregs of a fifth of whiskey and telling the story of the last time he visited their old, drunken and near-destitute father in Juarez. The two went on a bender, and the father ends up leaving left his brand-new false teeth and some leftover chop suey in a brown paper bag in some dive bar. He’s too shitfaced to remember which one it was. It isn’t a monologue per se, but snip the “I dunno’s” and “So what happened’s” from Lee and you’ve got a really solid audition piece.
I know this because I had used it myself. As Dano slurred and yakked I found myself mouthing along, dimly recalling how I’d find a bathroom or secluded stairwell where I’d do pushups, silently scream, and wait for my name to be called, all to arrive at that place where exhaustion, dead-eyed rage, and grim sadness were jumbled together.
Shepard’s plays are catnip for a certain kind of performer, and I was one. For many actors, and for me when I was acting, there is a nagging (and stupid) fear that wearing costumes and makeup and playing pretend is somehow not a worthwhile profession for a real man. Shepard renders all those dumb and ancient anxieties invalid. Ethan Hawke, who stayed up way past his bedtime at age 14 to watch the filmed version of the 1982 Gary Sinise-John Malkovich Steppenwolf Theater production on TV, knows this. “It was so rock and roll,” Hawke said, and stood in stark contrast to his assumption that theater was a mannered and stuffy art form. So he decided he wanted to be an actor, and a year later he was starring in a Joe Dante flick with River Phoenix.
Shepard’s language is stirring and gorgeous, of course, but beneath the macho pretentions in True West is a subtle and devastating critique of those selfsame archetypes. Isaac Butler, a theater director and author who is currently working on a book about the history of Method Acting, centered that fact in his review of the play for Slate. True West is not about reveling in toxic masculinity or destructive impulses, he told me. “It takes place where every version of masculinity is a horrible dead end,” Butler said.
There are no viable male role models on stage. There is a timid, feckless hack writer, a dangerous and doomed crook, and a soulless Hollywood mogul. Their dying father, the unseen fourth male character and one that was very much modeled after Shepard’s own dad—Shepard, like Austin, supported an alcoholic parent with his monthly royalty checks—is the most radioactive of all. It makes sense that Lee and Austin respond by breaking stuff.
“Who wouldn’t want to get a piece of that by doing one of his plays?” Butler asked. Beyond the famed Sinise/Malkovich pairing, the list of actors who’ve tried their hand at True West includes exactly the kind of names you’d expect: Philip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly, Randy and Dennis Quaid, Tommy Lee Jones, Peter Boyle, even Bruce Willis. “Actors who are into enjoying their masculinity on stage, let’s put it that way,” Butler said. “They want to do Sam Shepard’s work.” And so naturally, a Shepard play demands a sort of bravery, Butler continued. “You are not afraid of looking stupid. You’re going to make big choices. You’re going to hit them hard.” Then he unknowingly repeated Patt’s assessment of Hawke. For a Shepard play to function properly, the actors have to “fucking go for it.” Of course, this tends to result in a figurative and literal mess. That’s the idea.
Amidst the magic realism and non-linear poetry—and the weight of Shepard’s broader sexy rock star/cowboy/astronaut vibe—he always makes sure to include a moment that can’t be faked. This is a challenge in theater, which is by definition an illusion—a safe space where we can witness and experience people doing horrible and wondrous and gorgeous and vile things, while remaining secure in the knowledge that neither the audience nor the actors will suffer any real harm, let alone any repercussions for behaving badly. “There’s something very appealing about being able to cut loose in a way you can’t in society,” was how Butler put it.
The audience knows this, but the difference between a play and a movie or a TV show is that there are flesh-and-blood human beings onstage in front of us, doing whatever it is they do. To watch them do it is to experience something real, something that cannot be and is not being faked.
In my old theater company, we’d drone on about this endlessly. This wasn’t just because we were unbearable theater people. This is the essence of it—there’s your craft, your technique and training, and the direction and the show’s design and all the elements that combine to make a play a play, and then there’s The Thing You Can’t Fake. True West as it is written and staged has a number of those things. Paul Dano makes toast and you can smell that warm, comforting toasty smell. Hawke chomps down on the toast with a satisfying and recognizable crunch. Hawke soaks Dano in ersatz booze and while it’s not really booze, the person getting soaked really does end up wet. Hawke lights pieces of paper on fire and you can see them burning. Everything else may be a fictional construct, but “because the violence is performed on objects and you can see the results of that destruction, it is also simultaneously more real than most of what you see happen onstage,” Butler said. As a result, eating the toast invariably ranks as the most satisfying moment in the entire play. It’s really happening.
And when the golf club breaks, everyone knows—the actors and the audience and the crew tasked with cleaning it all up—that they are in the room together. The moment that will never be repeated in exactly the same way again, and then it’s gone.
So what happened in that final performance? I wanted to know if Hawke was going to lay waste to the set, but I didn’t have the chance to go see the play again. I wanted to ask him, but Roundabout’s press rep pointed me toward Hawke’s flacks, who said I needed to ask the theatre company and then promised to pass along an emailed request for comment. We’ll update this story if I ever hear back from him.
But Merwede said that Hawke had asked permission before that last show “to be more destructive,” and while the crew gave him the go-ahead, nothing out of the ordinary went down.
“Ethan tried to go a little bit bigger on everything,” Patt said, “but didn’t really stray away from his usual timing so didn’t really have much extra time to that much damage.”
That’s how it goes, in the theater if not always in life everywhere else. Everything can be broken, the things that are supposed to be and those that aren’t, but also there are rules. You break what you’re supposed to break. Everything else is sacred.
Robert Silverman is a freelance journalist living in New York. His work has appeared in The Daily Beast, The New York Times, ESPN, The Guardian, VICE Sports, HuffPost, The Outline and more.