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Pittsburgh by Ann Miner


True West
Pittsburgh Public Theater


Ken Barnett and David Mogentale
In Sam Shepard's True West, Lee and Austin are brothers who haven't seen each other in a while. The reasons for that estrangement become increasingly clear through the first scenes of the play, when one might think they're about as much alike as Goofus and Gallant (ask a baby boomer). Austin is a bright, well-spoken married writer, about to sign a deal for a sitcom that will launch his career. Lee is a homeless alcoholic; he says he hasn't slept in ages, and it appears he hasn't bathed in the same amount of time. He is twitchy, unpredictable and unnerving. But Austin treats his brother with respect. We bits and pieces of problems in their family history, but Austin wants to show Lee he's willing to help him with whatever he needs. However, the tables soon turn, and Lee gets an Austin-like break while Austin takes a Lee-like dive.

Set in a Los Angeles suburb in the 1970s, True West has been frequently produced since the early '80s. Shepard (Curse of the Starving Class, Buried Child) gives us a straightforward story here, putting a challenge in the hands of two actors who strap the audience in for a wild ride. The O'Reilly thrust stage is a plus in the Pittsburgh Public Theater production, as we surround the kitschy '70s kitchen set as if it were a boxing ring.

The role of Lee is right up the alley of some actors: Peter Boyle, John Malkovich, Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly (both in the same production) have all had a go at it. Here, we have David Mogentale (the 29th Street Rep) as Lee, with the tics, the mania, and the knack for pushing the button on exactly what drives Austin nuts. He's the guy you walk past when he tries to talk to you, the one you don't let get too close—you're glad he isn't your brother. Mogentale thrives as the linchpin of the production. Ken Barnett is a superb Austin in the first act: confident on the surface, affable, and eager. Austin's life is set, he's about to get his big break, and he can afford to help his poor brother out—until things get shaky. The character of Austin seems like it must be tough to play, as there's a descent that happens fairly quickly, but it can't be suddenly, and that's where Barnett falters a bit.

Overall, it's a well acted production (two more pluses are Dan Shor as Saul, the agent who sets the u-turn in motion, and Mary Rawson as the befuddled mother). Michael Schweikardt's set is appointed authentically, allowing the audience to time travel back to the days of gold refrigerators and spider plants in macrame hangers. Pamela Berlin directs with a careful hand, aided by Randy Kovitz' fight direction when things get wild.

Kudos to the Public on a fine choice and wise casting (McCorkle Casting, Ltd.) with this True West, which runs through December 8. For performance and ticket information, visit http://ppt.org/.


Photo: Pittsburgh Public Theater


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-- Ann Miner



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