'True West' a gripping homecoming for one lead actor
Peters native David Mogentale loves to play bad guys, or, as he puts it, “maliciously seductive characters … characters with an edge.”
When he learned that Pittsburgh Public Theater would be staging “True West” as part of its 2013-2014 Masterpiece Season, he jumped at the chance to play Lee, a drifter and a thief, in Sam Shepard's dark comedy about sibling rivalry and, ultimately, the dual nature of man.
The play opens Nov. 7 at the O'Reilly Theater, Downtown, and also stars Ken Barnett in the role of Lee's brother Austin. Directed by Public Theater veteran Pamela Berlin, the supporting cast includes Mary Rawson as the men's mother and Dan Shor as Saul Kimmer, a slick Hollywood producer.
The play takes place in the 1970s in the Southern California home of the men's mother, where Austin, an ambitious screenwriter and family man, is hard at work on a film script. Lee shows up and undermines Austin's project. Lee weasels his way into Austin's relationship with Kimmer, and even cons the producer into buying a story Lee would like to write. When Lee needs Austin's help with the story, the brothers' conflict only intensifies. Their attempt at collaboration leads to an epic battle and an unexpected reversal of roles, which forces the men to confront elements of each other in themselves.
Barnett last performed at the Public in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” in 1998. “True West” is Mogentale's hometown debut.
“I love coming back to Pittsburgh to see my mom and dad,” says Mogentale, 53, who moved to New York in his early 20s to pursue acting. “I never leave New York — not even for a vacation — so, for me to pick up and go anywhere for two months, it had to be for a role I really wanted to do.”
Mogentale's stage and TV credits include “The Sopranos,” “Elementary” and “Law & Order,” and he was the villainous “Bull” on the daytime soap “One Life to Live.” He understudied the roles of Happy and Biff in the 1999 Broadway revival of “Death of a Salesman,” and recently voice-acted and appeared as Nervous Ron Jakowski in the popular videogame “Grand Theft Auto V.” He is artistic director of 29th Street Rep, an off-off Broadway company.
Having understudied Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly in the 2000 Broadway revival of “True West,” Mogentale knew first-hand the intensity required of him and Barnett to carry every scene. They have rehearsed eight hours a day, six days a week, for the past month.
“We actually got together in New York a few times before coming to Pittsburgh to get a feel for each other and to begin building trust,” says Barnett, a veteran of both stage and screen. He has appeared in Broadway's “Wonderful Town” and “The Green Bird” as well as TV's “Mad Men,” “Grey's Anatomy” and “How I Met Your Mother.”
Being cast in “True West,” which debuted in 1980, is an actor's dream, says Barnett. “It's a great gift to be working on such exceptional writing. So many fantastic actors have done productions of it, and it's clear why.”
The archetypal nature of the two brothers and their struggles excites an audience, he says. “I think anyone could see himself in both characters in some way.”
The play delivers its message on a gut level, Mogentale says. “It's a visceral thrill ride. It's very physical. We're beating up typewriters. At one point, I'm getting choked and strangled.”
Mogentale likes physically demanding roles, owing to an athletic background that included attending Auburn University on a baseball scholarship. He has an affinity for gritty characters, he says.
“I'm a nice person, but I play bad people really well. Doing ‘Guys and Dolls' never interested me.”
The motto at 29th Street Rep is “where brutal theater lives,” he says. “We did down-and-dirty plays with a lot of beating each other and a lot of blood.' ”
“True West” lacks that level of violence, but would appeal to young audiences who might not otherwise be drawn to theater, Mogentale says.
“It's kind of a masculine play. Guys who think of theater as ‘Arsenic and Old Lace' — the kind of play they'd take their mother to — will find this is a very different animal,” he says.
Deborah Weisberg is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.