Then the play proper starts, in thick darkness, with the repeated crash of guitar chords and a blitz of bright lights that define the proscenium frame, an effect repeated between the succeeding scenes. Gradually, two figures emerge. (Jane Cox did the superb, insinuating lighting.) One of them is Austin, crisply pressed, bespectacled, seated at a typewriter.
Then there’s the bulky, tall guy by the sink. He looks like trouble — maybe a burglar who would happily pull a knife on you if cornered. To say that he is Austin’s brother does not contradict this impression. In Mr. Shepard’s universe, home invader and next of kin can easily be one in the same.
Accept the satisfying shivers the moment provokes, sit back and get ready to enjoy the most perfectly distilled 50 minutes or so of classic Shepard you’re ever likely to see. What happens in the play’s first act is, on one level, routine family friction, with the attendant laundry list of grievances about who got the better deal growing up.
But the uneasiness inherent in such encounters acquires a shimmering intensity, as in a nightmare that’s both set in a place you know and as alien as a distant planet. The two boys are obviously falling back into old patterns of taunting, resentful aggression (Lee) and tightly wound propitiation (Austin).
Yet no matter the subject — a dinner plate with a map of Idaho, the screenplay Austin’s working on, their alcohol-demented old father or the months alone Lee spent in the Mojave Desert — it somehow feels as if the stakes couldn’t be higher. Not because Lee might be planning to loot the neighbors’ houses or bollix Austin’s deal with his producer (played with a Teflon shield of casualness by Gary Wilmes).
No, what’s really at stake is their very identities, as Austin and Lee become increasingly exaggerated versions of their scrapping, younger selves. It’s a process rendered by Mr. Hawke and Mr. Dano with devastatingly defensive body language.
A moment when Lee playfully, nastily dangles the car keys he’s taken from Austin feels potentially lethal. And all the while a blanket of nerve-twanging noise — chirping crickets, yipping coyotes, even children at play — seems not to connect but to isolate the brothers from the rest of the world. (Bray Poor’s sound design is inspired.)