Cheesesteaks and controversy at InterAct Theatre

Pass the wiz: Down Past Passy­unk takes place in a fic­tion­al­ized cheesesteak shop in South Philly. The dir­ect­or, Matt Pfeif­fer, is a North­east Phil­adelphia nat­ive. The show is on stage at In­ter­Act Theatre through April 27. PHOTO COUR­TESY OF KATH­RYN RAINES

Theat­er dir­ect­or and act­or Matt Pfeif­fer is a born-and-bred Phil­adelphi­an who grew up in the North­east and now lives in South Philly.

So it’s es­pe­cially ap­pro­pri­ate that the cur­rent play he’s dir­ect­ing has a set­ting that is lit­er­ally close to home.

It’s the world premiere of Down Past Passy­unk, presen­ted by In­ter­Act Theatre in Cen­ter City, and it takes place in a fic­tion­al­ized cheesesteak shop in South Philly.

“It’s ex­cit­ing to tell Phil­adelphia stor­ies to a Phil­adelphia audi­ence,” says Pfeif­fer.

Play­wright Zell Wil­li­ams lived in South Philly while serving as play­wright-in-res­id­ence for the Na­tion­al New Play Net­work, a pro­gram sponsored by In­ter­Act Theatre. His play was first giv­en a work­shop read­ing last sea­son, which was dir­ec­ted by Pfeif­fer. Now, it’s get­ting the full treat­ment as a world premiere.

This South Philly-fo­cused play is based on the real-life con­tro­versy that erup­ted in 2006 when Joey Vento, the own­er of Geno’s Steaks, a South Philly land­mark, pos­ted a sign: “This is Amer­ica: When or­der­ing, please speak Eng­lish.” Vento ad­mit­ted the signs were dir­ec­ted at Mex­ic­an im­mig­rants new to the neigh­bor­hood.

In Down Past Passy­unk, the shop is Grillo’s Steak, and own­er Nicky Grillo be­comes the cen­ter of con­tro­versy when he asks one of his cus­tom­ers to speak Eng­lish when or­der­ing a cheesesteak.

Grillo is re­sent­ful of the grow­ing His­pan­ic in­flu­ence in his Itali­an neigh­bor­hood and es­pe­cially hos­tile to­ward a pop­u­lar new Mex­ic­an steak shop across the street.  

“The play asks great ques­tions about com­munity, iden­tity and what it means to be an Amer­ic­an,” says Pfeif­fer. “How we rise to the chal­lenges of chan­ging cul­ture, and im­mig­ra­tion, is the core con­flict of this ex­cit­ing new play.”

As dir­ect­or, Pfeif­fer had his own chal­lenges. One was dir­ect­ing a play with a most un­usu­al set­ting - a cheesesteak shop com­plete with grill.

To pre­pare, Pfeif­fer did some on-the-scene re­search: he vis­ited Jim’s Steaks, a land­mark cheesesteak shop at 4th and South.

“I wanted to make sure I un­der­stood how a cheesesteak shop op­er­ates, how the sand­wiches get made, how much they go through in a day,” he ex­plains.

“We got to watch the steaks be­ing grilled and we also got in­side in­form­a­tion on the pre­par­a­tion of the food. And this was so help­ful and in­form­at­ive in terms of what the act­ors had to con­vey on the stage.”

As dir­ect­or, Pfeif­fer worked with set de­sign­er Ian Guzzo­ne as he cre­ated the steak shop set­ting.

“It had to look like a fully op­er­at­ing cheesesteak house, with a coun­ter­top, a grill and the food it­self,” says Pfeif­fer.

And it’s real food, he adds, but in or­der to keep a sense of sur­prise, he de­clines to re­veal ex­actly what they cook at each per­form­ance.

While Guzzo­ne was cre­at­ing the set, Pfeif­fer con­duc­ted re­hears­als in a stand­ard re­hears­al room without the grill or any of the props.

“So the cast had to learn the ac­tions but without the ac­tu­al equip­ment,” he says.

But the act­ors did get a chance to work on the ac­tu­al set for 10 days after it was com­pleted. Now they could prac­tice their stage ac­tions us­ing the grills and the equip­ment.

It’s not only the cheesesteaks that make the play so Philly-fo­cused. It’s also the play­wright’s use of lan­guage.

“There’s lots of ver­nacu­lar, and Philly lan­guage such as ‘yous,’ ” says Pfeif­fer. “Cap­tur­ing the rhythm of the lan­guage took prac­tice.”

Re­hears­als led up to pre­views, which is when the play is first presen­ted to audi­ences. The act­ors were on their own - but Pfef­fer was in the audi­ence, watch­ing the show in­tently, tak­ing co­pi­ous notes. Then, at the next day’s re­hears­als, he would make sug­ges­tions for changes as needed.

On open­ing night, the dir­ect­or was again seated in the audi­ence, as he al­ways is.

“I’m nervous, but also ex­cited,” he says. “You work for many months, and then, after open­ing night, you have to let it go. It then be­longs to the audi­ence - and to the act­ors for every per­form­ance.”

But as soon as he lets go, there’s an­oth­er play to dir­ect. This time, it‘s The Thirty-Nine Steps, presen­ted by Theat­er Ho­ri­zon. Pfeif­fer has been in­volved with the fest­iv­al for 16 sea­sons.

The busy dir­ect­or and act­or also serves as as­so­ci­ate artist­ic dir­ect­or for Theatre Ex­ile, and his ex­tens­ive theat­er cred­its in­clude oth­er loc­al and re­gion­al theat­ers. He’s been nom­in­ated sev­en times for Bar­ry­more awards, and was the re­cip­i­ent of the pres­ti­gi­ous Otto Haas Award for Emer­ging Theat­er Artist.

His love of theat­er began in the North­east. At­tend­ing Arch­bish­op Ry­an High School, he was in every school play dur­ing his four years - a total of 8 plays. After gradu­at­ing, he earned a de­gree in theat­er from De­Sales Uni­versity.

He’s been on­stage - or be­hind the scenes as dir­ect­or - ever since.

Dir­ect­ing Down Past Passy­unk for In­ter­Act Theatre has been a most sat­is­fy­ing ex­per­i­ence.

“Zell Wil­li­ams is an amaz­ingly tal­en­ted writer,” says Pfeif­fer. “And this is a world premiere. That means you’re for­ging new ter­rit­ory, in­tro­du­cing the audi­ence to a world they’ve nev­er seen be­fore. It’s an ex­cit­ing ex­per­i­ence.” ••

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