A Good Kind of Crazy

A Good Kind of Crazy David Pittu takes his nose for comedy in a musical direction as author, co-director and co-star of What's That Smell: The Music of Jacob Sterling
Peter Bartlett (left) and David Pittu
Peter Bartlett (left) and David Pittu Photo by Doug Hamilton

David Pittu's acting skills have been amply rewarded. He received a 2008 Featured Actor in a Play Tony nomination for his multiple roles in Mark Twain's Is He Dead? and 2007 Tony and Drama Desk Featured Actor in a Musical nominations for LoveMusik for his portrayal of Bertolt Brecht.

He's proud of the Drama Desk Outstanding Ensemble Award he shares with the rest of the cast of Off-Broadway's 2006 political drama Stuff Happens. That season he was also Drama Desk–nominated for Atlantic Theater Company's Pinter double bill of Celebration and The Room. And he received kudos for his five roles in Tom Stoppard's three-part The Coast of Utopia two seasons ago.

Pittu's family background is Romanian. "I've always felt there's got to be a connection between my roots and all these parts I do with accents," he says.

Asked if he grew up in a show-business family, Pittu laughs, "Mom and Dad performed, all right! They should have been actors. They could've given the Lunts a run for their money. When I was growing up, I thought they were crazy. In retrospect, I see it was a good kind of crazy."

Pittu, a longtime member of the Atlantic Theater Company, has put that "good crazy" to work, acting steadily on Broadway, Off-Broadway and regionally since the '80s. He has that rare ability to move effortlessy between musicals, comedy and drama. Seemingly, however, acting is not enough. With What's That Smell: The Music of Jacob Sterling, he's become a triple threat, writing, co-starring and co-directing the Atlantic production he describes as "an absurd musical-theatre satire featuring songs and stories from the (fictitious) career of composer–lyricist Jacob Sterling, who keeps writing musicals, even if none are produced."

The production, set in a cable-show format, is playing at the Atlantic's Stage 2 space at 330 West 16th Street. Atlantic artistic director Neil Pepe is co-directing, and co-starring in the five-member ensemble is the versatile Peter Bartlett (recently of Paul Rudnick's The New Century). The music is by actor–composer Randy Redd (Ring of Fire, Parade), with lyrics by Pittu.

Pittu explains that What's That Smell "isn't a play or a traditional musical. It's an entertainment. The score is a catalog of this struggling composer's life — a sort of 'This Is Your Life, Jacob Sterling' or an evening at 'Inside the Actor's Studio' with songs." Bartlett plays the inquisitive host.

The show, says Pittu, is an examination of the human struggle that keeps theatre alive. "It's about all those souls driven in terms of making it, working in the shadows and sitting by the phone, waiting for producers to call."

Pittu and Bartlett had known each other but worked together for the first time in the 2003 musical Never Gonna Dance. That sealed their friendship, Pittu says. "Peter's one of our best actors. Audiences know him for his comedy. He could have you in stitches reading names out of the phone book. But he can do anything, and he's absolutely brilliant in this part."