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"Song" of the Atlantic

Date: Jan 29, 2008


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When David Mamet and William H. Macy formed the Atlantic Theater Company in the early 1980s, they were invoking a legendary company that inspired their efforts: The famous Group Theatre of the 1930s had briefly considered the name "Atlantic Theater."

But to any observer of the Atlantic's Off-Broadway programming, the name seems especially appropriate, for if the Atlantic is known for anything, it is for alternating British and American playwrights who tend to share a certain grit, spareness and muscularity.

Perhaps because of the Mamet association, too, and also because some of its ensemble members have had success in film and television, the Atlantic has become home to writers and actors who bring a fiercely independent streak to both filmed and live media.

Case in point: Currently running (through Feb. 10) at the Atlantic is the sold-out run of Almost An Evening, an anthology of plays by Ethan Coen, one half of the filmmaking duo of the Coen Brothers. And next up (performances begin Feb. 15) is Jez Butterworth's three-hander Parlour Song. Both plays are directed by Atlantic artistic director Neil Pepe, who also helmed the U.S. premiere of Butterworth's London-born Mojo and later The Night Heron.

Pepe reflects on how the theatre's name fits its aesthetic.

"The name Atlantic was never intended to talk about a relationship between America and Britain," says Pepe, who hadn't directed at the Atlantic since a double bill of Pinter's Celebration and The Room a few years back. "But I think the implication is true. Mamet is very influenced by Harold Pinter; there's clearly a relationship language-wise, and in a pared-down, essential dramatic structure."

The tides of influence flow both ways.

"I think if you talked to some of the British playwrights we've done--Martin McDonagh, Joe Penhall, Jez Butterworth--they would say they were deeply influenced by writers like Mamet," Pepe notes. He's also quick to point out some of the other playwrights the Atlantic has produced--Craig Lucas, John Guare, Tina Howe, Rolin Jones, Kia Corthron. And of course, the Atlantic's biggest-name property right now is the Broadway hit Spring Awakening, the company's first musical.

"The guiding mission here is about serving the playwright's intentions as simply and truthfully as possible," Pepe sums up.

Parlour Song represents an informal commission from Butterworth, who since Mojo and The Night Heron has made a series of films (including the Nicole Kidman starrer Birthday Girl).

"Jez is an amazing English writer with whom we've had a long and fruitful relationship," Pepe says, warming to the subject. "I'd been talking to him for years about writing a new play specifically for the Atlantic. So we were having a drink a few years back, and he said, 'I have this idea for a play: A guy wakes up one morning and thinks his wife is stealing from him.' "

From that humble sentence was born Parlour Song, which stars Atlantic ensemble member Chris Bauer, Jonathan Cake (currently appearing in Almost An Evening) and English indie-film star Emily Mortimer (Lars and the Real Girl, Match Point).

"It's a beautifully executed piece, and I feel honored to have such a great cast," Pepe raves. "It's something very new for Jez; he's embracing his skills for language and plot but he's also going into different areas. It's more pared back."

Another writer who's recently made a departure from his signature style is Atlantic co-founder Mamet, whose over-the-top farce Romance Pepe directed there in 2006, and whose current political satire November is running on Broadway.

"He's certainly having a good time, and I've always thought he was underrated as a comedic writer," says Pepe of Mamet. "To me it's refreshing to see somebody who has such a command of language putting it to use in creating great comedy. It reminds me of the Kaufman and Hart plays of the '30s--those fun, scathing comedies."

Parlour Song puts Bauer, an Atlantic ensemble member who's American, alongside two Brits, Cake and Mortimer. This isn't an uncommon casting combination to see at this company. How does Pepe bridge the cultural gap?

"It varies from actor to actor," Pepe says. "One of the great things about the theatrical tradition in London is that anyone who lives there has a great respect for plays and theatre, and most English actors have a great love of theatre." On the other hand, he says, "American actors I find to be so brave and so willing to throw themselves completely in."

His current cast, though, transcends any easy categories.

"The common thread with all of them is to completely give over to the character, and not worry about how they're perceived," Pepe says. "I'm finding, frankly, that there's not a huge difference." He could be talking about the Atlantic Theater's house style when he says of his cast: "There's a real willingness and generosity to jump in and embrace great writing."

Almost An Evening runs through Feb. 10 at the Atlantic. Parlour Song begins performances on Feb. 15. And Spring Awakening continues on Broadway.