As a young actor, David Pittu says he often heard "You're not really going to work until you're 35 or 40" while making the rounds. And, indeed, while he was hardly idle after graduating from New York University in 1989, his career has definitely accelerated in recent years. He is currently on Broadway contributing mightily to the mayhem of Is He Dead?, a long-lost Mark Twain farce adapted by David Ives. Pittu plays his four roles with delicious aplomb—additions to a growing list of incisive, indelible portrayals in high-profile productions. Pittu has been especially successful in roles that require an edge or a hint of menace or suggest a powerful ego, pomposity, or mockery. His performances are prime examples of how to make a memorable impression in a supporting role while contributing to the balance and impact of an ensemble. Agile and lean, with sharp, expressive features, Pittu can shift effortlessly from eager exuberance to cynical world-weariness. As his Tony-nominated turn as a deliciously sardonic, sleazy Bertolt Brecht in last season's LoveMusik demonstrated, he's a powerful and surprising musical theatre performer as well.
Back in 2005, his unctuous, name-dropping waiter in the Atlantic Theater Company's mounting of Harold Pinter's Celebration nearly stole the show and netted him several award nominations. From there, in quick succession, he moved on to the Public Theater's galvanizing production of David Hare's Stuff Happens, playing former U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, among other roles. Then last season came another, even more ambitious ensemble drama: Tom Stoppard's astonishing The Coast of Utopia.
While the wacky shenanigans of Is He Dead? take Pittu into lighter territory, he admits to initial hesitations about the project. "I actually was afraid of doing Is He Dead? when I first read it," he says. "I didn't realize how much fun it was going to be. It seemed a little corny. I think we all went into it wondering, How is this play full of cheese jokes going to work?" The presence of a Tony-winning director changed his mind.
"Knowing that Michael Blakemore was at the head of it made us all feel he's involved and he must believe in this," Pittu explains. "He's such a wonderful farceur. He really kept his calm during rehearsals, whereas I was questioning everything, which is usually the way I do everything. I didn't trust it, and now I'm so glad that I am doing it, because I'm having a great time. Once we had our first invited dress rehearsal, we were all put at ease in a way I don't think we expected. We just felt a sense of relief from the audience that nothing was expected of them except to have a good time. I guess you could call it fluff, but I think it's smart fluff and really hard to do—I think harder than most people realize. Because I don't just play one person, I have to 'pop' every time I come on stage in a way I'm not used to. Usually you get to establish yourself in a play—maybe your first entrance is kind of nerve-racking—but I never get to really relax into thinking, They know who I am now, and now I just have to tell the story."
Pittu knew Ives from having appeared in last year's Encores! concert version of the musical Of Thee I Sing, one of many Encores! presentations for which Ives has adapted the book. Of Is He Dead?, Pittu says, "I think David was hoping from the beginning that I was going to do this. He really did a great job on it, because most of the things I'm doing in the play are the result of his handiwork, often taking multiple characters and making them one. That French inspector that I play at the end was completely David's invention, not in Twain at all. And yet the things you probably wouldn't think are Mark Twain's really are, like all the cheese jokes."
However, the Is He Dead? ensemble was thrown for a loop by the recent Broadway stagehands strike, which began after the play's second preview. "That was depressing," Pittu says. "It's terrible for a farce." For a time it seemed as if this delicate, unlikely commercial project might be at a further disadvantage, for no one knew for sure whether the marriage of Twain and farce would sell. Critics turned out to be delighted by what they encountered, most highlighting Pittu's contributions.
Well before he became a Broadway regular, Pittu's association with the Atlantic Theater Company played a crucial role in shaping his professional development. The Off-Broadway nonprofit is affiliated with NYU's acting program, and it was at the Atlantic that Pittu began studying in his senior year. He has also directed several plays there and teaches there when time permits.
"I started out apprenticing, doing backstage things," Pittu recalls. "There was no way I could seriously approach an acting career right out of college. But it was important to see how the theatre works. I think that's one of the things a lot of young actors don't realize—which is a big thing about the Atlantic training. It's not this craft that just exists on its own, that you talk about and dissect. There comes the time to do it eight times a week, and nobody teaches you how to do that. I think it's really good to start from the ground up and build your career that way."
In 2000, when Pittu auditioned for the lead role of Leo Frank in the national tour of the Jason Robert Brown–Alfred Uhry musical Parade, he went in with minimal expectations. He'd just returned from touring with the musical Titanic and had no desire to return to the road. Not only did he get the part, but in the legendary director Harold Prince, Pittu met someone who would have a pivotal impact on his work. "It wasn't until I met Hal Prince that I felt like somebody got me in a really essential level of who I am," he says. Prince "stopped me in the middle of the audition, told me how great he thought I was and that I was his favorite kind of actor. I'll never forget him saying that."
Parade, Pittu adds, meant a lot to Prince. "Opening night in Atlanta, he was standing in the wings sobbing. We had just gotten a standing ovation when Andrea Burns and I came downstage to take our final bow. He said, 'I was waiting five years for that response.' " As the tour continued that summer and fall, Pittu recalls, "People across the country had no idea what the show was, who Leo Frank was—and then they lined up at the stage door, waiting to thank us. It was a great experience."
Later, Prince began to develop LoveMusik, which examines the relationship of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya through a script by Uhry and many of Weill's songs. The director made it clear from the start he wanted Pittu to portray Brecht; the actor's characterization positively reeked of amorality and swaggering confidence. As the production took shape, though, Pittu made character suggestions that Prince agreed to incorporate.
"I said, 'Nowhere in the script is there something good about Brecht,' " Pittu recalls. "All they talk about is how smelly he is and what a pain in the ass he is. There must have been something Weill was drawn to." Prince agreed, and soon "bits were added where Weill says, 'I've met this guy who's a genius, a wonderful poet, and I want to set his words to music.' I had also asked Hal if it would be possible to do something in German, because I just think so much is lost of Brecht when you translate it. He liked that idea, so he let me do a little bit of 'Mack the Knife' in German."
Reflecting on the range and caliber of the roles he's played, Pittu clearly appreciates how "they all feel so different from each other. That's an actor's dream, or my actor's dream: not to get stuck doing one thing for too long."