True Grit 

After some obstacles, Irene's Dinner Theater admirably presents its first production.

Irene's, the Peruvian restaurant downtown, is working hard to define itself as something more than an eatery.

On weeknights, it's something of a Latin dance club, and now on the weekends, it's transforming itself into a dinner theater, with a tasty Peruvian meal (your choice of beef, chicken or vegetarian entrée) preceding a meaty but accessible play.

The struggle has been mighty. A week before Sam Shepard's True West was supposed to have opened last month, an actress withdrew and the show was postponed to May. Then producer-restaurateur Charlie Bass, who had intended to direct the play, realized he was overextended and called in someone else to take over.

And then there's the fact that the performances are in a restaurant, not a theater; the stage is wedged into a corner; the offstage area is the size of a closet; and the two little tech areas lack an intercom, so at one point last weekend, the stage manager had to give the final lighting cue by sticking her arm out from the wings and snapping her fingers.

However good the efforts in the kitchen may be, the theatrical chefs in the front of the house seem to be working with a recipe for disaster. It's all the more impressive, then, that once True West was finally served up last weekend, the production would have been admirable even under the best conditions.

That's due entirely to the work of director Leigh-Ann Santillanes and actors Benjamin Fritz and Chris "Slater" Kemler. (This production is so small-scale that Santillanes is also responsible for the costumes, props and sound; Kemler designed the set and lighting.) The three employ their cramped quarters to best effect, giving us a closely observed, ideally claustrophobic version of Shepard's most famous play.

Austin (Fritz) is a young, moderately successful screenwriter who has taken some time away from his wife and kids to housesit for his vacationing mother. His older brother, Lee (Kemler), is a drifter and sometime burglar who shows up after a long time of "living in the desert" and doing god knows what else. The two initially seem to have nothing in common but a bit of heat rash in the places where their lives rub together.

As the story progresses, though, Austin and Lee switch places. The oily Lee talks a producer into buying a script idea based on his own "true West" experiences, and an unnerved Austin starts to booze it up--like their no-account absent father--and contemplate a life of petty crime. By the end, it's apparent that they haven't really switched; they've merely discovered that they have far more in common than they are willing to admit. Opposites contract.

Kemler, who was excellent as the servant Clov last summer in a production of Beckett's Endgame, seems born to play the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Thin and lithe, he has a menacing way of staring up from under a lowered forehead, like Malcolm MacDowell in A Clockwork Orange or half the cast of Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible. While he gives you that look, he smiles with his mouth open--his jaw is never slack, but ready to snap shut on an unsuspecting victim. Kemler's Lee is no psychopath, but he is clearly a conniving menace, and one has to wonder at least for a moment, as does Austin, if Lee sold his story by torturing the producer.

In the early scenes, Fritz plays Austin as a nice, soft, vulnerable guy. He's a little uncomfortable around Lee, but he does his best to get along. If this approach reduces the tension on stage, it pays off in terms of character depth. In many productions, Austin initially seems to have a clear advantage because he's the well-established, well-adjusted family man. Here, in contrast, his position in the family dynamic is more tenuous; he's clearly the younger brother who was manipulated and bullied far too often as a kid. When an unqualified Lee muscles in on Austin's profession, and even manages to get Austin's project canceled, it's clear this sort of strong-arm betrayal has happened many times before. Austin's drunken transformation in the play's second half has never seemed better justified.

Similarly, Michael Pierce brings an unusual amiability to the small role of Saul, the producer, where usually a brash stereotype suffices. (Director Santillanes manages to suggest, very subtly, a homoerotic attraction between Saul and Lee without making too much of it.) Pierce also doubles as the brothers' mother at the very end of the play, and this is the only element of the production that doesn't ring true. Too bad the originally scheduled actress withdrew.

Charlie Bass plans to expand his restaurant's theatrical facilities little by little, and he has retained the savvy Santillanes as acting artistic director to help map out a schedule for the coming months. True West may have had a difficult gestation, but the finished production bodes very well for future shows at Irene's. The next big challenge won't be artistic--but getting people downtown for the Sunday matinees.

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