Aroma therapist

The delightfully droll David Pittu gets the satirical spotlight in What's That Smell.

SWEET SMELL OF EXCESS Pittu, right, and costar Bartlett sniff around for laughs.

SWEET SMELL OF EXCESS Pittu, right, and costar Bartlett sniff around for laughs. Photograph: Doug Hamilton

You don’t always know what to expect from a David Pittu performance, but you can bet it will be unforgettable. In the past two years, he earned consecutive Best Featured Actor Tony nominations: for donning an array of broadly comic characters and accents in Mark Twain’s Is He Dead? and for playing Bertolt Brecht, part charismatic, part repellent, in the Kurt Weill tuner LoveMusik. The slim, darkly handsome performer was an integral part of the accomplished ensembles of The Coast of Utopia and Stuff Happens, and received a Drama Desk nod for Celebration and The Room, two Pinter one-acters staged at the Atlantic Theater Company, an outfit with which he has been affiliated since his college days at NYU.

At the Atlantic, Pittu, 41, has been honing his writing and directing skills, too, and he uses all three in the world premiere of his comedy-with-songs showbiz satire, What’s That Smell: The Music of Jacob Sterling, about a fictitious composer-lyricist who’s been toiling for years, waiting for a big break that’s always just out of reach. Pittu stars as the hapless Sterling, and Peter Bartlett plays the talk-show host who questions him about his dubious career (à la James Lipton); Sterling and three of his students also perform highlights from his oeuvre, including the titular tune.

“The idea was supposed to be that it’s a blessing for everyone else that his shows never get done,” says Pittu, who penned the script and lyrics (with composer Randy Redd) and codirects with Atlantic artistic director Neil Pepe. “But I always like to see the dramatic possibility in characters people want to write off immediately. Without judging Sterling, I thought he would be a great filter to get across how I feel as an actor who loves musical theater but doesn’t necessarily like what it’s become.”

Thanks to his cousin Gene, a musical-theater fanatic, Pittu was listening to sophisticated shows like Follies when he was ten. “I knew this was good, smart stuff,” he recalls during a lunch break from rehearsals. “This was not No, No, Nanette—this was edgy and now. People don’t talk about quality anymore; they talk about grosses. Something succeeds because of the amount of money it makes.”

But Pittu skewers with a smile instead of a snarl, citing Mad magazine and Maude as cultural influences. “My point is not to condemn anyone,” he explains. “My interest is always to make people laugh. Yes, I can look at the world and say, ‘Yuck,’ but I don’t want to bring an audience in and punish them. I think theater that tries to be about something always makes you feel so guilty when you leave.”

Longtime friend and colleague Pepe sees a kindred sensibility in Pittu. “I think one of the reasons David is such a great entertainer is that he has a sense of the absurd,” notes the director, who became involved with the project when a short version was presented at the one-act festival 10 X 20 in 2006. “But what makes it all the more compelling is his great compassion for the characters he writes about and plays.”

Audiences of the Atlantic’s benefit shows have been enjoying Pittu’s lyric-writing wit for several years. For those occasions he’s written musical spoofs such as a version of “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” in which he played Javier Bardem’s character from No Country for Old Men singing about the air compressor with the hose, and “It’s Not Easy Bein’ Cappuccino” (sung to the tune of “It’s Not Easy Bein’ Green”) for a certain presidential nominee.

Pittu’s satirical bent even takes aim at 9/11, when Sterling was finally about to get his big break—only to see it dashed by circumstances beyond his control. Sterling sings about his bad timing in a song cycle called That Goddamn Day—and opening night of What’s That Smell, coincidentally, is September 10. Pittu isn’t worried about accusations of poor taste. “I’m not trying to say anything about September 11, per se,” he demurs. “I’m just trying to say that I think we’ve reached a level of madness in our society that isn’t being addressed anywhere. Everything seems to be becoming this dumbed-down teenage fantasy of life. I’m sure someone will just say it’s an overlong sketch with an excuse for me to do funny monologues and songs.” He pauses, smiling. “Is that so wrong?”

What’s That Smell is at the Atlantic Theater Company through Sept 28.