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Pepe's Way

Date: May 05, 2009


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Neil Pepe has had an extremely busy year: The artistic director of Atlantic Theater Company, in 2008 Pepe directed one Atlantic main stage show (Jez Butterworth’s Parlour Song) and two Atlantic Stage 2 productions (Ethan Coen’s Almost an Evening and David Pittu’s What’s That Smell: The Music of Jacob Sterling). Two of them (Smell and Evening) had the good fortune to move on to successful commercial runs after their Atlantic bows.

As if he wasn’t busy enough running the Atlantic, a task he shares with managing director Jeffory Lawson and his wife Mary McCann, who runs the Atlantic’s prestigious theatre school, Pepe then flew to L.A. to direct a couple of one-acts by a fellow Atlantic founding member, David Mamet.

Finally, last fall the energetic helmer directed Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow on Broadway, to universal acclaim—and a certain amount of unintended tabloid controversy after star Jeremy Piven abruptly left the show on doctor’s orders (the producers took this up with Equity, and the case is in legal arbitration).

“I call it the show that never stopped rehearsing, because you had four different actors doing the role of Bobby Gould, and they were all terrific,” Pepe recalls from the Atlantic’s bright, inviting offices in Chelsea. “Starting with Jeremy’s performance, then going to Jordan Lage, who’s a company member, and then Norbert Leo Butz stepped in for three weeks, and then William H. Macy for the last six weeks. The upside of it was that it was a great opportunity to see four different interpretations. It was a crazy time, lots and lots of work, and I give huge kudos to Raul Esparza and Elisabeth Moss, who hung in there the whole time and kept rehearsing with everybody.”

So is Pepe taking a break? Nah—why quit when you’re on a roll? His next Atlantic project, a trio of one-acts by Ethan under the common title Offices, opens this week on the Atlantic 20th Street mainstage, and though Coen—one half of the Oscar-winning filmmaking team known universally as the Coen Brothers—wrote the plays last year, Pepe finds them almost eerily relevant.

“There are a lot of themes about corporate culture and being fired,” Pepe explains. “One of them, Homeland Security, deals with political red tape and bureaucracy. And all this was written before the economic crash last fall, but I feel the pieces are more timely than ever.”
The affiliation with Coen came about, as do many at the 24-year-old company, through the extended matrix of professional and personal relationships of the Atlantic’s ensemble, which currently boasts about 40 members. In this case, it was co-founder Macy, star of the Coen Bros.’ Fargo, who made the connection.

“Out of the blue I got an envelope from Ethan’s literary agent, saying, ‘Here are three one-act plays that Ethan Coen has written,’ ” Pepe recalls. “They struck me on the one hand as so exemplary of that rich and hilarious sensibility that Ethan and Joel bring to their films, but also as having this great sense of theatricality, and embracing what it would work in the theatre.”

The decision to start them off in the Atlantic’s intimate second stage on 16th Street reflected not only the plays’ modest size—hence the winkingly apologetic title Almost an Evening—but the fact that Coen was venturing into theatre for the first time. The decision to open the already-extended Offices on the Atlantic’s mainstage, then, was as much an aesthetic vote of confidence as a commercial decision.

From the start, Pepe says, Coen became a seamless part of the Atlantic team.

“I figured when we started working that since Ethan is used to doing everything—he writes and directs and produces and edits—my inclination was to not question that but to embrace him as much as possible through the entire process,” says Pepe. “So I had him in on almost all the meetings. I always find that to be a plus; I think great writers who understand the process are really helpful in the room, but they also have a sense of when to step back.”

Pepe knows from great writers: The Atlantic is known above all for its affiliation with the some of the most vital dramatists in the English-speaking world, starting with founder Mamet and including Conor McPherson, Martin McDonagh, Craig Lucas, Tina Howe, John Guare, Howard Korder, Peter Hedges, Jez Butterworth, Joe Penhall, and such younger writers as Lucy Thurber, Annie Baker and Rolin Jones.

“What we look for are writers who have a great sense of their own voice, a sort of brave and unabashed sense of what they wanna say and the truth of what they wanna say, and who are also really skilled storytellers,” Pepe says. “And we’ve tried create a culture that is about protecting the story of the playwright, and being sure that that is first and foremost.

“So we become known among writers as a place that not only can deliver a production that reflects their intentions, but we’re really going to put all the attention on making that the best it can be, not applying exterior commercial pressures—that has enabled us to have long working relationships with almost every writer we’ve ever produced.”

Even the Atlantic’s most famous recent export, its first musical, Spring Awakening, somehow fit into the gritty, immediate aesthetic the company has nurtured in its intimate brick-walled theatre on 20th Street.

“I don’t think the space has dictated the aesthetic, but it has served it,” says Pepe. And the audience has caught on. “What I’m happy about is that the audience base we’ve developed over the years have come to expect a certain amount of intelligence, and that we’ll take them places that may be unexpected, sometimes very funny, sometimes surprising and cutting-edge, and sometimes quite moving and lyrical. But hopefully they’ll always be stories that are based in something uniquely truthful and human. I think that’s the bottom line: if a writer is trying to imitate, or the actors and directors aren’t bringing the truth of themselves to the work, it’s not going to be up our alley.”

That alley seems to get wider and more lively every season.

Click here for more information about Offices.