Peters native comes home to star in ‘True West’
Peters Township native David Mogentale hates to travel – he prefers to stay in New York City, the place he’s called home for more than 25 years. However, a starring role at one of Pittsburgh’s top theaters coaxed the actor back to his hometown.
Mogentale stars as Lee in Pittsburgh Public Theater’s production of “True West.” The show runs through Dec. 8 at the O’Reilly Theater.
“True West” is one of Mogentale’s favorite plays. Written by Sam Shepard, whom Mogentale calls “one of the greatest American playwrights alive,” “True West” examines the relationship between two brothers, Austin, a screenwriter played by Ken Barnett, and Lee, a drifter played by Mogentale. Austin is confronted by Lee while house-sitting for their mother. Lee bullies his way into not only staying at the house, but taking over screenwriting duties as well.
“My brother (in the play) becomes envious – he becomes me, I become him,” explained Mogentale. “It’s very funny. It’s a dark comedy. This is the kind of play I’ve always enjoyed doing, – brutal, hard-hitting.”
Growing up in the South Hills, Mogentale chose athletics over acting. When his high school English teacher, Barry Wood, encouraged him to try acting, Mogentale responded with a laugh. “People that did plays weren’t the type I hung around with. They (the drama department) did a lot of musicals, which didn’t appeal to me.”
So, Mogentale focused on baseball. Upon graduation from Peters Township High School in 1978, he earned a scholarship to Auburn University. There, he pursued a his dream of playing in the major leagues while majoring in marketing. “I always thought I’d have a career in baseball when I was younger,” Mogentale said. “I had a pretty successful career, college-wise, but pro baseball just didn’t happen. I didn’t have the running speed that you need in the major leagues.”
After graduating from college, Mogentale went on a couple of job interviews. “The economy was bad during those years, so that summer I came home and said to myself, ‘Do I really want to do this? Why don’t I just become an actor?’
“It’s so funny … I never went to a play until I was 23 years old,” remarked Mogentale.
That didn’t stop him, though. That summer, he took an acting class with Char Howard. He became involved with Little Lake Theatre, interning and performing in three productions. On a trip to Los Angeles to visit his brother, Mogentale saw Jack Klugman of “Quincy” fame, and that fueled the fire even more. “I said to myself ‘That seems like a good life there.’” But unlike some wanna-be actors who dream of immediate fame, Mogentale never had unrealistic expectations. He knew a career in acting would be hard.
“I gave myself until I was 30 … thought maybe I’d go to LA for a couple of years.” But after visiting a couple of agents there, Mogentale was told to go to New York, because he needed more training.
In the Big Apple, Mogentale worked and took acting classes while living at the YMCA. After five years, he joined 29th Street Rep, where he has served as a company member for 23 years and artistic director for 19. He’s acted in 25 productions for the company. His most recent role was Harry Caul in the NYC premiere of Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation.” His Broadway productions include “True West” and “Death of A Salesman.” Off-Broadway, Mogentale won an Obie Award for his role in “An Oak Tree.”
Among his television credits are: “One Life to Live,” “Elementary,” “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” and a reoccurring role on “The Sopranos.” Movie roles include “Invisible,” “Arresting Gena” and “Mickey Blue Eyes.” Mogentale recently ventured into the video game genre as Nervous Ron Jakowski in “Grand Theft Auto V.”
But, his passion is for the theater. “No one can tell you what to do once it starts. There’s no one yelling ‘Cut!’ Plus, you get to have a real audience there.” Theater, though, is a lot more work. While “Grand Theft Auto V” took two and a half years to complete, Mogentale only worked on it once or twice a month. He said a production like “True West” requires “really long hours,” citing rehearsals from 1-5 p.m., followed by performances from 6:30-10:30. Such long hours keep him away from New York City and his wife, Carol.
Mogentale received a lot of encouragement from his parents, who still live in the area. “My parents have always been very supportive of me, even though they never knew anything about plays.” He tries to get back to visit them, along with an elderly aunt who Mogentale refers to as “like a second mother,” about three times a year.
When asked about performing at The O’Reilly, Mogentale remarked, “The theater is great. The people are great. Everything about it has been a first-class experience.”
He certainly doesn’t regret his career choice. “I don’t have any kids, so I lead a free life,” he said. “This is something I never thought I could really do, but the thing is, a lot of people are afraid to do something like this. But, you have to go out and just do it and things will happen. Things will fall into place.”
“True West” runs through Dec. 8 at the O’Reilly Theater. Opening night is Nov. 15. Ticket prices are $23-$55. Students and those ages 26 and younger are $15.75 with valid I.D. For tickets, call 412-316-1600 or visit ppt.org.