PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Neil Pepe

Brief Encounter   PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Neil Pepe Why did it take so long for a David Mamet world premiere to happen at the Off-Broadway theatre he created?
Neil Pepe
Neil Pepe

The planks of Atlantic Theater Company were laid by Mamet and William H. Macy more than 20 years ago. Neil Pepe, the current artistic director of ATC, said the reason for the delay of a new Mamet work there — until now — had to do with timing, among other things.

During the period when ATC was formalizing (1985-2005), Mamet was working on other writing projects, including screenplays for films, some of which he directed.

Following 17 revival productions of past Mamet plays at ATC (Edmond, The Woods, American Buffalo and more), the company is now presenting the premiere of Romance, a comedy spiked with very Mametian profanity and very un-Mametian absurdity. The writer has called it a farce. Audiences (and Pepe himself, who directed the play) see it as a new color for the Pulitzer Prize winner of Glengarry Glen Ross.

During the February rehearsal and preview period of the production, Pepe spoke to Playbill.com about both Mamet and mission.

Playbill.com: Romance feels unlike anything David Mamet has written.
Neil Pepe: I think that's true. It's certainly the first out-and-out farce he's ever written. He calls it a farce, and I think structurally and story-wise, it is a farce. I appreciate it because I think Mamet's an extremely underrated comic writer. You see so many wonderful shades of comedy in many of his other plays, and certainly in screenplays like "State and Main," "Wag the Dog" and "Things Change." It's such a pleasure to be working on a straight comedy from him, because I think he's got such a wonderful and outrageous sense of humor. Playbill.com: Are there any plays of his that are similar in tone? NP: As a whole, I would say no, but in certain sections I would say there are certainly echoes. There are certain speeches in American Buffalo that are very funny — Teach's "Fuckin' Ruthie" speech, which is sort of a rant. There are similar rants in this play. There are elements that have echoed throughout many of his works that are pure Mamet — his wonderful, poetic, irreverent use of words. But as a whole, structurally, I think it's very different, which I kind of love about it. I like that he constantly keeps you guessing, too. I never like to use the word "style," but you're never quite sure what's going on and it kind of keeps turning these odd corners which are always interesting and somewhat hilarious.

Playbill.com: The play is set in a courtroom in New York during a week when there are Middle East peace talks being brokered in town. The court case at hand is unrelated, but the defendant and counsel come up with a plan to solve conflict in the region. The play is bizarrely topical.
NP: I know, don't you love that? I wasn't even totally aware of that until literally the first preview. I think it was the day of the first preview when that headline for the New York Times had the head of Israel and the head of Palestine shaking hands. It was just so oddly timely. We had already made up the prop of the New York Times with the two guys shaking hands, and there it was! The play deals with whether or not peace can come to the Middle East, and two guys who apparently think they have the solution. Here it is, ironically enough, that peace seems to be in the process of coming to the Middle East. As Mamet says, it's the old adage that if anything can go wrong, it will.

Playbill.com: The play seems to say the most ordered space in our government (a courtroom) has no order in it. That government is so utterly unreliable…
NP: It is kind of a wonderful thing that the play is saying: Those places — a courtroom, or the justice system — that we're supposed to look to to make sense of many things in society in some ways can be the root of more absurdity than any other place. He's looking at so many things that we hold to be black and white…the laws of society, whether it's being PC, whether it's dealing with the judicial system, whether it's dealing with the idea of fidelity, or how we view each other as different races and different religions. I kind of love that he says let's put it all on the table, let's tell the truth. That can either be painful or not very funny. In the case of this play, sometimes it's very funny and sometimes it's highly uncomfortable. I always love that about great comedies; I used to feel that way about Joe Orton's comedies as well.

Playbill.com: Any play that has a pill-popping judge who makes reference to a giant lizard who destroyed Japan is OK by me.
NP: That's the thing about Mamet. He really has a great sense of fun. In my mind he's one of the smartest, if not the smartest playwright we've got in America right now. But he also has a wonderful sense of fun. I don't know that he's necessarily given enough credit for that. He's got this silly sense of humor. In fact, a lot of people don't know he's written a number of children's plays that we've done as part of our children's theatre program at Atlantic, and they're also a lot of fun.

Playbill.com: Why did it take so long to have a Mamet world premiere at the house he built?
NP: I suppose it was a combination of things. Because he's such a popular writer, in our formative years most of his world premieres were either going directly to Broadway or to larger theatres or England. For the first 10 years, the only time we would get new plays [from him] they would be smaller plays, one-acts or 10-minute plays. Then as Atlantic was growing, we did a bunch of [Mamet] revivals — we did a very successful revival of Edmond, and then American Buffalo, Sexual Perversity in Chicago, The Water Engine, a lot of the different plays. I had asked him [about new work] a number of times, and it didn't work out for a number of reasons. This seemed to work out perfectly. We had been talking about doing something [of his] and he had this play. It was a nice way to kick off our 20th anniversary.

Playbill.com: Have you been with the company 20 years?
NP: The company was officially founded in '85. It had grown out of series of workshops that Mamet and Macy had taught at NYU from '83 to '85, and I first got involved in '86 — I was volunteering with them. I came into the company officially in 1987, just before we took Boys' Life, Howard Korder's play, to Lincoln Center. It was really our first bigger show, it's when we all became members of Equity. I was involved as an actor then, and also doing a lot of other things. We all did everything back then. We sort of built sets, raised money, wore seven different hats. Then, in '92, I became artistic director. At that time, like Steppenwolf [in Chicago], it was rotational. I was voted in as artistic director. There had been three other artistic directors before me. At that time I was acting and directing. Here it is almost 13 years later, and I've still been artistic director.

When I came into the job, there was so much incredible potential for the company, not only in terms of the artists in the ensemble, but the relationships we had with various writers. My predecessor Scott Zigler, during his three years as artistic director, had found the space that we are now in, in Chelsea. So there was all this potential to really put together a place that could support, on a seasonal basis, exciting new work and revivals, so we could grow — while also involving existing outside artists. Part of my idea was preserving this ensemble aesthetic, while also getting in new writers and new directors to keep things alive so that it would never get stale. Now, 13 years later I'm really happy and pleased that the institution is in a very stable place so that we can really continue to feed exciting new work and grow.

Playbill.com: Are David Mamet and Bill Macy still actively involved in the company?
NP: Oh, yes, they're both members of the company, they're co-founders of the company.

Playbill.com: You bounce ideas off of them?
NP: Yes, all the time.

Playbill.com: And they suggest plays? NP: Yeah, they certainly suggest plays, and I'm always trying to get them to do more work with the company when they can, because they're both very busy. Like with other company members, I'm always in touch and sort of talking about what would be interesting, where we are, and where we want to go.

Playbill.com: The Atlantic programming is so varied, from Mamet to Woody Allen to J.B. Priestley to Hobson's Choice.
NP: In terms of our aesthetic behind why we choose what we choose, I always think it's fairly simple: It's simply about "do we think it's a great play?" Whether it's a melodrama, or a cutting edge new play, or a classic American play, does the play speak to us? Is it well written? Is it something that's written specially for the theatre? Are the characters exciting? Is the language exciting? And thematically, is it somewhat resonant?

Playbill.com: But Atlantic's bent is contemporary, no? You probably won't do Shakespeare.
NP: We might! We've obviously leaned toward the contemporary.

Playbill.com: Sort of post-Ibsen.
NP: Yes, that's true. We've talked about doing Schiller or some Restoration comedy. It's not out of the question. Our next production is The Cherry Orchard, and we're very excited about that because it's a new adaptation by Tom Donaghy, and it's sort of contemporary but stays true to Chekhov's intent.

Visit www.atlantictheater.com.

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