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.” ••