Heidi James and David Mogentale in Lenny & Lou
(Photo © Robert Adam Mayer)
Heidi James and David Mogentale in Lenny & Lou
(Photo © Robert Adam Mayer)
David Mogentale exemplifies a particular brand of New York actor. Despite having the kind of talent that could open lots of doors for him, he prefers to continue working primarily with 29th Street Rep, an off-the-beaten-tracks company that will always hand him the sort of roles that he can really sink his teeth into. While he may best be remembered for playing killer Jack Abbott in the company's In the Belly of the Beast, Mogentale is now showing off his capacity for comedy -- albeit belly-of-the-beast comedy -- in Ian Cohen's Lenny & Lou, playing the dimmer-witted brother in a pair of luckless siblings.

Any similarity between Lenny and Lou and Lenny and George in John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men is purely coincidental. During the frenetic few hours that the play covers, Lenny, a struggling songwriter, comes up with a few spur-of-the-moment lyrics and bits of a tuneless melody. But he spends the greater percentage of his time trying to squeeze money from his brother Lou (Todd Wall) and the siblings' off-her-rocker mother, Fran (Suzanne Toren). Lenny also battles with his vicious wife, Julie Riggio (Heidi James); the couple stop their snarking only long enough to engage in one of the most graphic scenes of sexual intercourse that Manhattan theatergoers have ever seen. In these sequences, Mogentale -- who hasn't yet met a stage challenge that he's avoided -- flashes his buttocks.

As with everything this actor tackles, he throws himself whole-heartedly into the role. His body is awhirl with odd twists and leaps; he's funny and poignant by turns, and sometimes simultaneously. Sadly, one can't say the same of the play itself. Cohen obviously started out to write a black comedy about a couple of hard-luck men, but he has created little more than a comedy with a black eye. The big plot complication arrives when Lou becomes so frustrated by Mama Fran's irrational behavior that he holds a pillow over her face and then drags her lifeless body into an off-stage room. In her apartment (Ryan Scott's only serviceable design), the other characters carry on about whether or not it's a relief to have crazy Fran out of the way.

Scratch the surface of Lenny & Lou and it seems as if Cohen has something on his mind beyond outrageousness for outrageousness's sake. Fran may have an incestuous interest in her boys, so it's no wonder that Lenny is libidinous and Lou is repressed. And, just so no one misses the point about parental influence, this overly extended sketch of a play contains a scene wherein Lou wears the jacket to one of his late father's suits and Lenny wears one of his mother's frocks. We become our parents, Cohen is saying, and it's hopeless to think that it will be otherwise.

Mogentale is not alone in giving 110 percent to the play, which is directed with explosive energy by Sturgis Warner. Wall, physically slighter but meant to be mentally brighter than his brother, is amusing as the nebbishy Lou. Riggio, with the height and carriage of a Julie Newmar, plays a woman whose brothers are contract killers and who looks as if she'd make a great hitman herself. As Fran, whom Lenny describes as having "old-timer's disease," Toren mood-swings hilariously in her house dress. Playing a hard-as-nails house-cleaner, Carolyn Michelle Smith makes her one sequence count. Yet even though this production parades many of 29th Street Rep strengths -- Mogentale foremost among them -- Lenny & Lou ultimately registers as a company misstep.