Show a single image to several different audiences and you're
often likely to get a wide range of reactions.
(STAFF PHOTO: MARY
Watson (left) and Spencer Scott Barros rehearse a scene from
"Minstrel Show, or the Lynching of William Brown," now playing
at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.
That's been the case with the play on display at New Jersey
Repertory Company in Long Branch — a play in which the opening
moments have drawn responses including gasps of horror, easy
laughter and tense, fidgety silence.
Of course, when the image in question involves a pair of black
actors in burnt-cork blackface, with painted-on white lips and the
raggedy regalia of old-time minstrelsy, a reaction of some kind is
pretty much in order. Before the production had completed a single
dress rehearsal, a number of people in the greater Long Branch
community reacted with displeasure to the show's promotional
materials, resulting in posters and ads being withdrawn from
The show, however, does go on at NJ Rep — in this case, "Minstrel
Show, or the Lynching of William Brown." Opening on the anniversary
of the real-life incident referred to in the title, the intimate yet
impactful play by Max Sparber receives a rare East Coast revival in
the city that once hosted the largest Ku Klux Klan gathering in
The lynching of "the Negro William Brown" — a rheumatism sufferer
who was accused of molesting a 19-year-old white woman — took place
not in the deep South but in 1919 Omaha, Neb. It was an event noted
for its ferocity, its scale — as many as 5,000 white Omahans were
said to have been involved — and the fact that the mob not only
torched the county courthouse, but very nearly succeeded in lynching
the mayor as well.
In Sparber's 1998 script, William Brown never appears on the
stage, nor are the events of that late September night re-enacted by
a cast of thousands. It's the wake of the riot, and there in the
charred and battered Douglas County Courthouse (another
detail-intensive piece of work by the talented set designer Quinn K.
Stone), the playwright has appointed a pair of nameless, fictional
characters to tell — "to teach" — a very real story.
Under the direction of Rob Urbanski, actors Spencer Scott Barros
and Kelcey Watson play a pair of traveling minstrel showmen who,
like many black performers of their day, make their living by
rendering "tableaus of Negro life" in blackface. When the two men
are detained (for purposes of testifying in the official
"investigation") in the same cell that had been occupied by Brown,
they review their experiences as witnesses to the terrible
occurrences — and do some soul-searching as to the choices that
they've made to survive in this time and place.
Despite the title, there actually is very little of a traditional
"Mr. Bones"-style minstrel show on display. Having both done time at
the "Parchment Farm" workhouse camp, the entertainers deliver a set
of songs that originated in prison settings. We get a taste of what
sort of show these characters would have put on for a black
audience, including such proto-rap "toasts" as "The Signifying
Monkey," along with "yahoo" songs (a format that poked fun at rural
whites) and an "Amen Corner" skit involving a fiery brimstone
preacher with a slick, craps-shooting congregant.
Although this marks the first time that director and cast have
worked together, all three have a history with this "Show." Omaha
native Watson co-starred in the play's first public showing at the
Douglas Courthouse, and Urbanski has now visited this script six
Consequently, what could come off as preachy or didactic in
lesser hands is instead invested with a mastery of the material that
extends from the "complex syncopations" of the prison songs, to the
voice artistry of the comic bits. Still, it's in the red meat of the
story — the real-time retelling of the events leading up to the
lynching and its appalling aftermath — that the actors operate on
all cylinders, with their enthralling descriptions,
characterizations and pantomimes abetted by Jill Nagle's lighting
and the sound effects of Jessica Paz.
Given that the actors address the audience throughout, Sparber's
play comes off more like a presentation than a dramatic work — a
very compelling history lesson, in this case, and one (thanks to the
dream-team assembled by NJ Rep) that should register well with
school-age audiences and others who tend not to make a habit of the
Minstrel Show or the Lynching of William Brown
A New Jersey Repertory Company presentation of a play in one act by Max Sparber.
Directed by Rob Urbinati.
Unsettling and compelling, Max Sparber's "Minstrel Show or the Lynching of William Brown" re-creates a harrowing true story about the 1919 lynching of a jailed black man, as seen through the eyes of a couple of fictional song-and-dance men. The season opener for New Jersey Repertory Company begins on a light note with a couple of knockabout minstrel comics singing "yahoo" songs from the cotton fields, then quickly turns into a graphic narrative of angry crowd hysteria.
In Omaha, Neb., amid the broken glass and debris of a ravaged county courthouse, two traveling African-American entertainers recount the mob violence they witnessed that ultimately took the lives of a half-dozen innocent spectators. Target of the collective fury was William Brown, who was accused of molesting a 19-year-old white girl.
The two-hander begins with Sho-Nuff (Kelcey Watson) and Yas-Yas (Spencer Scott Barros) illustrating the origins of the minstrel show, when white entertainers blackened their faces with burnt cork. Subsequently, even black artists had to coat themselves with shoe polish.
Through their narrative, the minstrel entertainers, who traveled the country singing and dancing in "coon shows" or "Tableaux of Negro Life,"
tell of their arrest for disturbing the peace and disorderly conduct, after a dozen hooded men beat several black members in their audience.
They witnessed the violence from their jail cell. Sho-Nuff graphically describes the mob mentality of the 5,000 rioters who stormed the Douglas County Courthouse, broke the windows and battered down the oak door to gain access to the unfortunate 40-year-old prisoner Brown, who was awaiting trial.
The "end men" are skillfully realized by Watson and Barros. One can very nearly see the mindless violence as described in Barros' chilling panoramic description of the lynching and murder. The narrative is given a sense of cinematic urgency in Rob Urbinati's taut, rhythmic staging of playwright Sparber's engrossing historical document, which resonates with unflinching horror.
The play continues to draw controversy as black members of the Long Branch community raised objections to the original poster and newspaper ad that showed cartoonish figures of minstrel performers standing near a hangman's noose. The vintage image of the entertainers was subsequently pulled from the ads.
Controversial Minstrel Show
Setting Off Sparks in Red Bank
Spencer Scott Barros and Kelcey Watson
Fact - In Omaha, Nebraska in September 1919, Agnes Loebeck, a 19-year-old white woman, reported that she was stuck up and then sexually molested by a black man while returning home with her boyfriend. The following day, Will Brown, a 41-year-old packinghouse worker who was crippled with severe arthritis and lived with a white woman, was arrested as a suspect. Loebeck tentatively identified this unlikely perpetrator as her attacker. Brown was taken to the Douglas County Courthouse followed by a mob which had surrounded Loebeck's house. Over the course of many hours, the white mob surrounding the courthouse grew to number an estimated 5,000 people. The race riot precipitated by this mob was particularly ugly and resulted in the deaths of two white men among the mob, the attempted lynching of Omaha's mayor (who was cut down by police and barely escaped with his life), the setting afire of the courthouse, and the delivery of Brown to a celebratory mob which beat him mercilessly, shot him repeatedly (reportedly the actual cause of his death), strung his body up on a pole, and then set his body afire and tied it to a car which dragged it through the streets.
Fiction – On the evening that the mob was growing outside the courthouse, two black minstrel show actors were assaulted in an alley while trying to escape a dozen ruffians who had invaded their show and commenced to beat everyone in sight with baseball bats and wooden planks. Police rousted the ruffians, but then proceeded to arrest the bloodied minstrels on charges of disturbing the peace and disorderly conduct. Brought to the courthouse and placed in a cell with Will Brown, the minstrels became witness to the horrifying mob murder. A few days later, these black men in cork blackface were rousted mid-performance and dragged back to the courthouse to testify before a committee investigating the riot.
As Minstrel Show, or The Lynching of Willie Brown begins, these minstrels, Sho-Nuff and Yas-Yas, are entering the hearing room at Douglas County Courthouse where the ad hoc committee is gathered to hear their testimony. We, the audience, sit in place of the committee. Understandably distrustful and cautious, Sho-Nuff and Yas-Yas try to distract us by performing bits and songs from their minstrel show act. However, over the next 85 minutes, we will see them gain strength and self confidence as they remove the cork from their faces and increasingly less reluctantly relate from their perspective the harrowing Omaha riot of 1919.
It is certainly of value to recall this tragedy of our history (and this was only one of close to two dozen disgraceful race riots which occurred during this dreadful year in our racial history) and it is well and harrowingly told in this account by Max Sparber. Still, these events are as powerfully and even more fully recounted in the available photographs and historic accounts of the era. However, it is in the transformation of Sho-Nuff and Yas-Yas from self-demeaning traveling actors scuffling to make a living to proud men determined to be witnesses and teachers, educating their people as to the horrible events that they have seen that provides the inspiration and theatrical catharsis that gives Minstrel Show its distinction.
Although the actors' names appear without any notation of their roles in the program, the characters are identified by their minstrel show routine names in Max Sparber's script. These names should be restored as playwright Sparber's subtle distinctions between them do not prevent the minstrels from at first appearing to be interchangeable stock figures. However, director Rob Urbinati and his fine cast, Spencer Scott Barros (Yas-Yas) and Kelcey Watson (Sho-Nuff), successfully convey their two distinct personalities.
Barros' Yas-Yas is clearly more confrontational and dissatisfied with his lot. Very early on, he removes the cork from his face, and his body language displays a combativeness which exceeds that of his words. Watson's Sho-Nuff has a touch more down home slurring dialect in his line readings, and, for a longer time, his body language remains obsequious. When their narrative of the riot emerges, Yas-Yas does most of the witnessing at first. However, when their story reaches the moment when Yas-Yas is knocked unconscious, the telling of the narrative falls to Sho-Nuff. In witnessing to the committee, Watson's Sho-Nuff, who has finally removed the cork from his face, assumes a dignity and sense of purpose which stands as an early exemplar of the determination that marked the burgeoning civil rights movement of the 1950s and beyond.
Director Ron Urbinati directed the first production of Minstrel Show in 1998 in the rotunda of the Douglas County Courthouse, the actual scene of the events depicted in the play. Quinn K. Stone's minimal set successfully sets the scene of the fire-distressed courthouse. The evocative, ratty minstrel show costumes are by Patricia E. Doherty. The sound design, complete with dramatic reverberation effects, is by Jessica Paz.
At the conclusion, Yas-Yas and Sho-Nuff decide that their act needs "refashioning."
we witnesses to history ...
we want that history told ...
and we want it told right
Well, author Max Sparber, director Rob Urbinati and actors Spencer Scott Burros and Kelcey Watson are telling it right at Long Branch's New Jersey Rep.
No one turned away the mob that
stormed the Douglas County Courthouse in Omaha,
Nebraska on September 28, 1919 and hanged William
Brown. Considering that the raging throng numbered
5,000, it's doubtful even Atticus Finch could have
prevailed. The Negro William Brown, to use the
appellation that came to be attached to his name,
had been accused - almost certainly wrongly - of
raping a white woman. He and two other men, both
white, were killed in the rampage. The courthouse
and Brown's mutilated body were torched. It's an
unfortunately familiar scenario.
Kelcy Watson (left) and
Spencer Scott Borrows use a minstrel attitude to
tell a harrowing tale.
Minstrel Show or The Lynching of
William Brown, at New Jersey Repertory
Company, is a detailed telling of the nearly
ninety-year old incident. Is it old news or a
timely reminder? Symbolic noose-hangings last year
in Jena, Louisiana and last week in the Hempstead,
Long Island, New York Police Station, where a
black man was recently promoted to Deputy Chief,
are your answers. That the recent nooses were not
around necks is small comfort; would they be if
the perpetrators thought they could get away with
Two actors, Kelcey Watson and Spencer
Scott Barros, appear as minstrel performers who
witness the Omaha lynching while being held in the
courthouse on other charges. They are fictional
creations of playwright Max Sparber, who uses the
device to tell the otherwise factual story pieced
together from contemporaneous
Appearing first in blackface
(even black performers were forced to cork-up),
Watson and Barros affect the subservient,
shuffling attitude that was the African-American
male's survival ruse. Old minstrel songs are
interspersed through the 80-minute piece, setting
a contrasting tone but hardly distracting from the
tale. Gradually they drop the caricatures in order
to tell the story in harrowing detail. Watson and
Barros make the witness-bearing barely
Notwithstanding the worthiness of
reaching the widest possible audience with this
cautionary account, Minstrel Show isn't really a play. It's an instructional
address, more tell than show. The author
acknowledges as much; his characters aver several
times that their intention is to teach the story,
not just to tell it.
plays can be instructive; The Laramie Project is one such. Considering the value of its
lesson, the fact that Minstrel Show or The Lynching of
William Brown is more lecture than
dramatization might not matter.
Love Kills teaches little but is a worthy play about a
different type of killing: random and
psychopathic. Fact-based as well, it's about two
young Midwesterners whose killing spree in
December 1957 and January '58 gripped the
Charles Starkweather, 19, and
14-year old Caril Ann Fuhgate killed 11 people,
including Caril Ann's mother, stepfather and baby
sister. Their rampage has inspired several movies
(Oliver Stone ran the body count to 50-plus in Natural Born
Killers), a TV mini-series and many books.
Starkweather is the subject of Bruce Springsteen's
"Nebraska," and he's mentioned in Billy Joel's "We
Didn't Start the Fire."
Charlie died in
Nebraska's electric chair on June 25, 1959. Caril
Ann served 18 years in prison. She was released in
1976 and lives now, at age 64, somewhere in
Michigan. She refuses to discuss the case.
Last week the pair was the subject of an
unlikely play at the New York Musical Festival. Love Kills tells its story via parallel couples: Starkweather
(Eli Schneider) and Fuhgate (Marisa Rhodes) and
Sheriff and Mrs. Karnoop (John Hickock and Deirdre
O'Connell), who interrogated the killers after
their capture. The four roles are impeccably cast
and played. The kids are frighteningly unaware of
anything but their perverse devotion to each
other, and the Sheriff and his wife, while
repulsed by the killings, cannot stifle compassion
for their young prisoners.
intense, emo-rock songs effectively underscore the
teenagers' infatuation and their wanton amorality.
Composer Kyle Jarrow (music, lyrics and book):
"Emo music and bands capture the angst and raw
emotionalism of adolescence...this story of young
love gone bad...it's loud, like a rock show come
Seen on consecutive evenings, Love Kills and Minstrel
Show combined for a crash course in
intolerance and its attendant violence. And
consider: If you were asked to pick the state in
which the events of both actually took place, I
bet Nebraska would be your 40-something guess.
There's a lesson in there somewhere.
'Minstrel Show' targets racism
by Peter Filichia, Star-Ledger Staff
Sunday September 30, 2007, 11:06 PM
(photo by SUZANNE BARABAS)
Spencer Scott Barros,
standing, and Kelcey Watson in "Minstrel Show, or the Lynching of William
Brown," playing at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.
Needless to say, it's the second part of his title that Max Sparber wants us
The playwright didn't simply call his arresting drama "Minstrel Show," but
"Minstrel Show, or The Lynching of William Brown."
True, every now and then, Spencer Scott Barros and Kelcey Watson, in
portraying two early 20th-century African-American entertainers, do come out
with an a capella riff or a few high-kicking steps. Most of the time, though, in
the 85-minute play at New Jersey Repertory in Long Branch, these two
accomplished actors face the audience and tell what their characters witnessed.
And while they're fictional, Sparber is giving them his take on a true story
that happened to one William Brown on a September night in Omaha in 1919.
Though the second part of the title tells us that Sparber has already
divulged his ending, the play offers riveting and harrowing surprises. Better
still, director Rob Urbinati's strong production creates a mood that makes an
audience pay rapt attention.
Because Barros and Watson are two black minstrels, they must respectively
endure the demeaning names of Yas-Yas and Sho-Nuff. Worse, though, in the
regrettable tradition of the minstrel show, they wear blackface. How
fascinating, though, to see that that make-up somehow makes them behave as
caricatures. Once they take it off and thoroughly wipe their faces clean, they
revert to become intelligent human beings
The story begins when they return to the Douglas County Courthouse, where
Brown had been taken for allegedly raping Agnes Lobeck, a 19-year-old white
laundry worker. Yas-Yas and Sho-Nuff were also brought there by the authorities
as a cautionary measure.
As Yas-Yas dourly notes, "In Omaha, it's a crime for a Negro to be beaten in
the street" -- leaving us to infer that once a black man is behind closed doors,
it's unofficially acceptable for him to endure a merciless thrashing.
Both men point out that Brown was afflicted with terrible rheumatism, and
each believes him incapable of forcing a healthy young woman into any
compromising position. When the story gets too intense even for them, they
interrupt themselves to recall a seemingly happy-go-lucky song of the era. Each
tune's lyric, though, paints the black man as a scoundrel, thief or sexual
The implication is that the average minstrel show's songlist informed its
audiences that the black man was to be feared and certainly not trusted. Sparber
reminds us that the amount of harm these so-called innocent songs dispensed may
well have been considerable.
That's why, once the men finish a song and are proud of themselves for
remembering the lyrics, they suddenly stop smiling.Â¥'Taint funny at all. Soon
Sho-Nuff is telling a parable about a monkey, a lion and a sultan that has a
much more compelling message about race relations.
It's at this point in the show, at the halfway mark, that all opportunities
for laughter come to a stop. Sparber's play now concentrates on the lesson that
hatred begets more hatred, and what began that night in Omaha was destined to be
an unwieldy and unrelenting tragedy. Just when a theatergoer assumes that he's
heard the worst part of the story, Sparber manages to find more atrocities.
They may have all been right there in Omaha city records, but Sparber,
Urbinati, Barros and Watson have forged them into one compelling theater piece.
It was the largest race riot in our nation's history, and it happened 88 years ago to this day.
On the night of Sept. 28, 1919, a mob of more than 4,000 white townspeople stormed the Douglas County Courthouse in Omaha, Neb., where a rheumatic black man by the name of William Brown was awaiting trial on charges of raping a white woman. Egged on by elements with ties to a discredited political machine boss, rioters set fire to the courthouse, stole firearms and seized Brown, hanging the 40-year-old man minutes later and setting fire to his corpse. Two other men, both white, would be killed by the rioting hordes that night — and the mayor would nearly join the death toll when he was captured and strung up from a traffic pole.
Perhaps you've seen the infamous photos of Brown's charred body surrounded by a smiling crowd of citizens, but if you're not familiar with this horrific incident, you're not alone.
The story of the 1919 Omaha riot is not generally taught in schools outside of Nebraska — in fact, it wasn't until he moved to Omaha that critic and playwright Max Sparber became acquainted with the event that continues to scar the collective memory of the Husker State.
Here on Sept. 28, 2007, New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch prepares to raise the curtain on a new revival of Sparber's two-actor play "Minstrel Show, or the Lynching of William Brown." It's a work that NJ Rep Executive Producer Gabor Barabas characterizes as a "very sensitive piece that deals with many issues."
The 1998 play has engendered its share of controversy since it was first performed in the very courthouse building that still bears the bullet holes from that night in 1919. The show's first full-stage performance in Omaha, a critical and popular success, drew harsh criticism from Nebraska state senator Ernie Chambers, who urged a boycott by all African-American citizens.
The play's appearance in Long Branch has not been without its own measure of conflict. Last week, members of the city's black community objected to the minstrel-performer imagery displayed on the play's advertising and promotional materials.
After meeting with members of the community, NJ Rep agreed to pull the offending materials — a vintage poster image featuring a pair of long-legged, blackface caricatures standing near a noose — from circulation. An invitation to view a rehearsal of the play was extended to anyone who may have issues about the script. In addition, each performance will be followed by a talk-back session among cast, crew and audience, a chance to "let go of some of that emotion" in the actor's words.
According to the company's artistic director, SuzAnne Barabas, "We don't want anyone to feel pain over the image . . . our intent was to show the ugly face of racism, and to move beyond that."
"The play is not the issue," said Lorenzo "Bill" Dangler, president of the Greater Long Branch Chapter of the NAACP. He emphasized that those who opposed the poster "couldn't get past the blackface" of the stereotypes on display.
Bound as close as pages in a book, Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern forged a life together as dealers of rare volumes. As a candidate for dramatization, their story would appear to be a rather dusty collection of reminiscences -- and the thought of musicalization seems even more remote. However, in its world premiere from New Jersey Repertory Company, "Bookends" spins the women's memoir into a disarming musical narrative, braced by an infectiously sweet score and acted with refreshing vigor by an appealing cast.
The narrative, while crowded at times, spans eight decades, beginning as the antiquarians ponder retirement and recall pivotal moments in their long lives. As written by Katharine Houghton, both book and lyrics reveal the romanticism of youth, the determination of two impressionable Jewish girls who ponder the wonders of the past and worldly matters, the comfort of a lasting friendship, and "the women they were meant to be."
The pivotal roles are well structured with keenly contrasted performances. As the senior business companions, Susan G. Bob is wonderfully crusty as Leona, in contrast to Kathleen Goldpaugh's warm apple-pie Madeleine.
As their adventurous younger selves, credited with the discovery of some saucy Louisa May Alcott tomes, Jenny Vallancourt makes a worldly Leona and Robyn Kemp a girl-next-door Mady. Vallancourt returns to N.J. Rep following an acclaimed performance in D.W. Gregory's "October 1962" last fall. Here she offers a telling study of an eager student in a Strasbourg library under Nazi threat.
In an amusing turn as Leona's very married guide, Alan Souza defines "Fingerspitzengelfuhl" as a rare talent for intuitively telling if a book is really rare.
Set to music and lyrics by Dianne Adams and James McDowell, with additional lyrics by Houghton, the songs keenly illustrate life's most rewarding moments, its ironies and unfulfilled passion, and the bonding values of a lasting friendship.
"Waiting for Mr. Right" is a bright expectation of a sublime honeymoon, and there's exquisite longing in "Just Look at Him," urgently revealed by Vallancourt and reprised by a hopelessly smitten Eric Collins as "Just Look at Her." The bond between the girls is revealed in "I've Found a Friend," and there's a bright dash of irreverent humor in "Mary Magdalene's Blues," when a seductive Eileen Tepper queries, "Who do you think washed the dishes after the last supper?"
"Holmes and Watson" is a fanciful diversion, delightfully rendered by a quartet of sappy fictional gumshoes who reveal the pleasures of devouring a good thriller. Finale finds a young novice, brightly played by Pamela Bob in a knockout turn, who as heir to the literary legacy sings "There's Nothing New Under the Sun."
The score is admirably played by pianist Henry Aaronson with a plaintive lilt, but it's easy to imagine and hunger for a string section.
A few bookshelves serve as the setting, leaving the small stage to the large cast, which is required to play multiple roles that demand the attention of an alert audience. Ken Jenkins' acute staging works well within the somewhat cramped space but a more expansive production would help the show. "Bookends" has a promising future, its cinematic thrust suggesting a quaint musical film of the old school.
left: Eric Collins, Robyn Kemp and Robert Lewandowski star in
"Bookends," now being staged by the New Jersey Repertory
Company in Long Branch.
"Dinosaurs! That's what we are," laments antiquarian book dealer
Leona Rostenberg (Susan G. Bob) to her lifelong friend and business
partner Mady Stern (Kathleen Goldpaugh).
The two real-life authors, editors and scholars (Rostenberg died
in 2005 at age 96) are the subjects of "Bookends," Katharine
Houghton's musical play now in its world premiere engagement at New
Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.
Still, brilliant and extraordinary as Leona may have been, her
nonagenarian self is not beyond such generalizations as "Nobody
reads anymore; kids don't read anymore" — this in a show that opened
on the day that millions of young readers queued up for their
fresh-baked loaf of "Harry Potter."
Literacy, in its most passionate and pulse-pounding form, is
alive and well in "Bookends" — a very genuine labor of love for
Houghton and some also-extraordinary collaborators. Between the
formidable bookshelves of Charles Corcoran's set, moments in time
exist like favorite volumes to be plucked from their place, sniffed
and caressed and re-examined for those ever-elusive clues to
Houghton, the actress and playwright best known for "Guess Who's
Coming to Dinner?," took in the July 21 opening night performance
from the aisle steps of NJ Rep's intimately scaled auditorium —
while her husband, Ken Jenkins, watched from the exit hallway.
Jenkins — whose affable, accessible presence stood in contrast to
the curmudgeonly figure he cuts as Dr. Kelso in the TV series
"Scrubs" — also was on hand as the director of this curious
tunefest, a show which, with its 13 actors and onstage pianist, sets
an all-time record for what NJ Rep founder Gabe Barabas refers to as
"a postage stamp of a stage."
Fanciful yet nonfictional study
Taking its title from their shared memoirs, "Bookends" is a
fanciful yet nonfictional study of two women who, by the time
Houghton made their acquaintance, had entered their collective tenth
decade of defying any and all expectations related to gender,
culture or age. The characters are seen here as the respected
scholars and authorities of later years, as well as their younger
selves — with Robyn Kemp and Middletown's Jenny Vallancourt
portraying Mady and Leona from their New York childhood in old-world
German-Jewish families, to the establishment of their
internationally renowned bibliophile business.
While the time-hopping portrait of two inseparable women might
bring to mind the Bouviers of "Grey Gardens," these are hardly the
dotty, self-absorbed dreamers of that recent fact-based musical — in
fact, as Houghton suggests here, Rostenberg and Stern were literary
detectives whose exploits eclipse those of the Nancy Drews and Miss
Marples they often can't help but resemble.
Much of the show's running time concerns Leona's potentially
hazardous trip to Nazi Germany in search of evidence that the
printers of 16th-century Europe had a true intellectual interest in
the books they produced — while Mady works the homefront in an
effort to uncover the very proper Louisa May Alcott's secret life as
the author of a series of salacious penny-dreadfuls.
Granted, very little of this reads like the stuff of a sprightly
musical entertainment, but Houghton and composers Dianne Adams and
James McDowell maintain a largely lighthearted touch with a
decades-spanning saga — in which the conflict ranges from the girls'
chafing at the rules and roles ordained by their old-world
German-Jewish families, to the elder Leona's desire to put aside the
business she worked so hard to build.
Songs spotlight a recurring theme
Sometimes corny, other times weighted with exposition and
didacticism, the songs (Houghton also contributed lyrics) spotlight
a recurring theme expressed variously as "Just Look at Him (Her,
Us)." Some of the best material is given to secondary and even cameo
characters — including "Numbers Make Sense" (performed by Matt
Golden as Leona's practical brother Rusty), and a little ditty
titled "Fingerspitzengefuhl," sung to Vallancourt by Alan Souza as a
smitten fellow researcher.
Jenkins and choreographer Jennifer Paulson Lee have managed a
minor miracle of motion within the odd shadow-box dimensions of NJ
Rep's stage. The bizarre and colorful "Arab Astrologers" number
makes great use of all available space, and "Lucy's Song" is a
terrific tune that's as close as this modestly-sized musical gets to
a high-kicking showstopper.
It's a show that's not built around the tuneful talents of the
leads, and the younger Ms. Bob (working multiple roles, like most of
the cast) is a standout in an ensemble that takes on the musical
Pamela's mom Susan — a Rep regular remembered from last year's
"Apostasy" — is an inspired choice as Leona; her sinusy delivery and
dry comic instincts enlivening a woman who's come to feel like one
of the brittle, age-old volumes that line her shelves. Goldpaugh, a
fine stock-company player who starred alongside Bob in "Maggie
Rose," is here assigned to the least interesting of the major parts.
Her mature Mady is a person of unshowy intelligence and real
Vallancourt, meanwhile, adds another strong performance to a Rep
career that began with her breathtaking work in "October 1962."
About Old Books "Bookends” at New
The Two River Times
There's a musical about two
90-year old rare-book-collecting women? And some
theater is actually charging money to see it?
You've got to be kidding. Well, yes, someone - or
ones - wrote just such a musical, and New Jersey
Repertory Company is selling tickets to it. My
advice is to buy one of those tickets and see Bookends.
The pleasures of Bookends are
many and varied. The acting is excellent, with
exceptional leading performances backed by a
Jenny Vallancourt (left)
and Robyn Kemp play the young Leona and Maddy in
The music is memorable, with
twenty-plus numbers ranging from toe-tappers to
tear-jerkers. And the story revolves around a deep
and abiding love - between those two women
True: Leona Rostenberg
(1909-2005) and Madeline Stern (1912- ) were
rare-book scholars and dealers for over 50 years.
Daughters of New York Jewish families, they met as
teenagers and bonded through their mutual
interest, bordering on obsession, in the
authorship and printing history of old books.
Neither woman ever married; their relationship
endured and is brought to life with humor and
pathos and songs that beg for a second
Stage and screen actor Katharine
Houghton met Rostenberg and Stern while she was
researching a performance piece on Louisa May
Alcott. (A delightful thread through Bookends about
the "Little Women” author could spawn a play of
its own.) Houghton, best known for bringing
Poitier to dinner with Tracy and Hepburn in 1967,
wrote the show's book and collaborated on the
lyrics with the composers Dianne Adams and James
directed by Houghton's companion Ken Jenkins, is a
collective labor of love.
Stern are not household names, and 17th Century
book publishing doesn't exactly inspire cocktail
party banter, but ten minutes into Bookends, Leona,
Mady and fine-grained leather bindings become
fascinating subjects. The opening scene sets the
tone with a living tintype in the women's library.
"Old age is a bookend,” one of them says, and the
scene flashes back to their youth in the 1920s -
the other bookend.
Throughout the two-act
play (that flies by), the older Leona (Susan G.
Bob) and Madeline (Kathleen Goldpaugh) are
mirrored by their younger selves (Jenny
Vallancourt and Robyn Kemp, respectively), who
discover their mutual passion and eventually go
into business together. The play follows the young
women as they research their topic, earn advanced
degrees, reject ardent beaux and travel,
eventually defying convention to live together.
The pairs of actors - Ms. Bob with Ms.
Vallancourt and Ms. Goldpaugh with Ms. Kemp - are
joined at the soul. They grow more and more alike
through the show. Bob and Goldpaugh play old age
with just the right mix of frailty and crankiness.
Both accomplished veterans of many New Jersey Rep
plays top themselves here. Vallancourt, a recent
Middletown South grad, and Kemp carry the show
musically, and a list of the highlights would fill
this page. Their duets - there are six - are sung
beautifully and are perfectly blended in words and
music. Two titles, "I've Found a Friend” and
"Unexpectedly You,” say it all.
Back-to-back duets with hopeful suitors -
Vallancourt's with Eric Collins and Kemp's with
Matt Golden - burst with youthful energy. (Golden
plays a math nerd; he makes "Numbers Make Sense”
Many in the cast of thirteen
play several roles. Their relationships are never
in doubt, and their deployment through the
time-shifting scenes is a directorial triumph.
Patricia E. Doherty's period costumes and Jill
Nagle's mood-enhancing lighting design contribute
mightily as well.
Eileen Tepper and Pamela
Bob (Susan's daughter) make outstanding
contributions. Aunt Annie (Tepper) joins Young
Mady and her beau in a flawless counterpoint
"Marry Me,” and Ms. Bob plays a young editor whose
interest in old books is inspiring. "There's
Nothing New Under the Sun,” she sings, but the
song's inventive patter-lyrics disprove its
Composer Dianne Adams is Musical
Director, and pianist Henry Aronson, on stage and
playing virtually non-stop, is the orchestra.
Aronson's playing fills the intimate NJ Rep
auditorium and backs the singers
The women's passion is not old literature, but
the physical books that contain it, and after you
see it, you'll tell your friends that someone
actually wrote a musical about two 90-year old
rare-book-collecting women. "Buy a ticket and see Bookends,
you'll advise them. No
THEATRE REVIEW: BOOKENDS
by Gary Wien
(LONG BRANCH, NJ) -- The world premiere of Bookends, a new musical by
the team of Katherine Houghton (book and lyrics) and Dianne Adams and
James McDowell (music and lyrics) broke new ground for the New Jersey
Repertory Company. Not only did it continue its path of producing world
class original productions, but it offered a field of over a dozen actors
(far greater than their normal casting numbers) and even managed to have
everybody on stage singing and dancing at the same time! That's something
you rarely see in an intimate space of the size of the Lumia Theatre.
Bookends is based on the true story of Madeleine Stern and Leona
Rostenberg who were famous rare book dealers that met as young girls and
built a life-long friendship. As the play opens, the pair are now in their
90s and are completing their memoirs. Their lives were anything but dull.
In an age where women were expected to simply be dutiful wives, these two
resisted conventional notions and let their passion for books become their
true love and watched as that romance took them around the world.
There was a bit of irony in seeing the premiere of Bookends on the same
weekend as the final Harry Potter book was about to shatter all records
for book sales. After all, one of the biggest fears that Leona Rostenberg
had in the end was that nobody read books anymore. She was prepared to
sell even the books that had the most sentimental value because she was
tired of being a dinosaur. I get the feeling that both of them would get a
good laugh at hearing how a book - in a period of time when nobody
supposedly reads - could sell over eight million copies in a weekend!
Bookends is a musical and I'm not exactly a big fan of most musicals.
For me, a musical works if you can take away the music and still have a
play. Bookends would certainly work either way. The story of Leona and
Madeleine will fascinate anybody who's ever picked up a book for
enjoyment. It's a tale that writers will fall in love with as we know that
it is people like Leona and Madeleine who have kept literature and
physical books alive in an era when words could just as easily been moved
Yes, there are a few songs that I think the play could have done
without, but a few like "Just Look At Us" are magical numbers. As with all
NJ REP shows, the cast is phenomonal - especially the two young leads
(Jenny Vallancourt as the Young Leona and Robyn Kemp as the Young Mady).
In the end, Bookends is a wonderful play about a beautiful story. It's
a story about friendship, hope and dreams, and happy endings. Just like
the best books are.
The LINK News July 26 thru August 1, 2007
'Bookends' supports talented cast in entertaining musical
by Milt Bernstein
Three cheers to New Jersey Rep for bringing this delightful new production to Long Branch's Broadway!
"Bookends" I sthe world premiere of a musical based on the lives of two very special real-life women, Madeleine Stern and Leona Rostenberg, who lived and worked in New York for the greater part of the last century. Their business, which they made a success of, was that of rare books dealers. To achieve their goal, they had to overcome the many rules and traditions of the families they were brought up in, and resist the offers of marriage that came their way.
This musical portrayal of their lives is a thoroughly winning and heart-warming production sure to win our admiration and affection.
The play switches back and forth from conversations between the two women as the nonagenarians they have become, and flashbacks to their eager youth; their meeting each other and beginning their lifelong friendship; and the subsequent challenges and difficulties they each encounter before they finally find the strength and resolve to live the lives they have chosen, in spite of convention.
The play is the brain-child of the well-known actress and playwright Katharine Houghton, who has been represented before at New Jersey Rep, and who happens to be the niece of the late, great Katharine Hepburn, and co-starred with her in the prize-winning film "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." Houghton wrote the musical's book and some of the lyrics to the many numbers. The rest of the lyrics and the lovely musical pieces were by Dianne Adams and James McDowell.
The large cast is headed by Susan G. Bob and Kathleen Goldpaugh, both veterans of previous NJ Rep productions, as the two elderly women, Leona and Madeleine; with Jenny Vallancourt and Robyn Kemp, radiating their exuberance touchingly, as young Leona and young Mady, respectively; and Eric Collins and Matt Golden as youthful suitors of the two young women.
Except for the parts of older and younger Leonas and Madeleines, everyone in the cast plays a variety of roles as well as being part of the ensemble numbers. Special note should be made of Pamela Bob (Susan's daughter) who sang and performed two spectacular numbers, one in each act; and Alan Souza, who portrays a married, father-of-six, official in Strasbourg, Germany, and tries to seduce young Leona in a hilarious number called "Fingerspitzengefuhl."
The play has been skillfully directed by Ken Jenkins. (He is also Dr. Kelso on the popular TV series "Scrubs.")
To quote Gabe Barabas, the executive producer at NJ Rep, "you no longer have to travel to Broadway in New York to see a new musical. You can go to Broadway in Long Branch."
Performances of this must-see show will continue through August 26.
Robyn Kemp (front). Rear: Robert Lewandowski, Matt
Golden, Eric Collins in Bookends.
(Photo: SuzAnne Barabas)
Two extraordinary single Jewish women,
both obsessed by their love of old and rare books, forge a life-long
friendship and a committed partnership. A charming new musical has made an
appearance based on the memories of the celebrated antiquarians Madeleine
Stern and Leona Rostenberg. Despite its literary undepinnings, this is far
from being stolid, intellectual or dry and these in many ways enviable
lives are seen through the frame created by book writer and contributing
lyricist Katharine Houghton and composer/lyricists Dianne Adams &
The collaborators have fashioned a humorous,
lively, adventurous and passionate musical that succeeds admirably in
exalting without exhausting its feminist tract. Houghton, whose name will
forever be linked to the classic film Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (starring her aunt Katharine Hepburn) in which she played the daughter,
has also forged a notable career as a playwright and author. Take heart.
The score that Adams and McDowell (The Wind in the Willows) have provided
is neither rock or pop nor noticeably flavored with post modernist
touches. It is, however, sprightly, sweet, occasionally quaint and
conventional, but always unapologetically easy on the ears.
having its world premiere, Bookends episodically follows the
unconventional careers of Stern and Rostenberg in a field noted for its
domination by men. The musical also joyously embraces their devotion to
their work and to the bond that grew stronger from the time they they
first meet as young women in college in 1930 (Leona was a senior at NYU
and Mady a freshman at Barnard) to the point when, in their 90s, we see
them at work awaiting the final proofs of their memoirs.
musical is structured as a flashback. This works efficiently to bring us
back and forth and through time, each episode filling us in with more
details of Leona's and Mady's dispositions and personalities. The show
makes a point of illustrating the reasons they chose to spend a life
together instead of with the men by whom they are courted. Seen at first
in their dotage, the slightly crusty Leona (Susan G. Bob) and the more
complacent Mady (Kathleen Goldpaugh) ponder their love affair with books
while occupied with choosing the right pictures for their memoir.
The time is the present, the place their Manhattan apartment. A
prelude, "Leona's Dream" (as played by on-stage pianist Henry Aronson), is
the musical catalyst that transports us to the Bronx in 1918 and the
respective homes of their German-Jewish immigrant parents and family
members, including two assigned to portray a pair of cocker spaniels. That
each family moves about and relates to each other independently in the
opening scene while occupying the same space is a feat ingeniously
engineered by director Ken Jenkins. Jenkins, who is married to Houghton,
but is probably best known for his role as Dr. Bob Kelso on the hit NBC TV
series Scrubs, accomplishes quite a feat with a large cast on a
relatively small stage. But Jenkins' cleverness isn't defined by this or
by his consistently inventive staging; also by the performances from an
excellent cast, all of whom sing well— especially Jenny Vallancourt, as
the young bespectacled, serious-minded Leona and Robyn Kemp, as the young
and vivacious Mady.
While much is made of the blossoming and
fulfilling relationship between Leona and Mady, there is no attempt to
insinuate that their relationship is a sexual one, except perhaps in a
scene in which Leona's traditional and distressed Papa (Howard Pinhas)and
Mama (Amie Bermowitz), upon hearing that the women want to live together,
sing "What Will People Think?" There are several scenes in which the young
Leona and Mady are both courted and pursued by ardent young men. Leona may
worry "Will I be alone?" and Mady may wonder "Will I be well known?", but
we are given ample examples that they are determined not to obey the rules
and conventions preferred by their families.
Bookends shares its spoken libretto and musical language spontaneously and there is
a nice ebb and flow between the two that only occasionally takes a break
from what might be called a fantasy moment. Leona isn't above letting us
know she wouldn't have minded an affair with Byron or Keats. Their dreamy
contemplations about being "lonely and blue" or "Waiting for Mr. Right,"
is a reasonable response to the kind of women men expected and exemplified
in two contrastingly styled songs that define women they know as either a
flirty showgirl or as a submissive housefrau.
Except for Leona and
Mady, the musical's performers are called upon to double, which they do
with infectious aplomb. Eric Colllins is a standout as Leona's earnest and
patient beau Carl who just cannot understand when the love of his life
calls "the old world's a prison." Leona hears "destiny calling" as surely
as Mady. Despite the insistence by her mathematician beau Rusty (Matt
Golden), that "Numbers Make Sense," Mady is really ignited by realizing
she has found a life-long friend.
In one of the musical's more
adventuring scenes, Leona has gone bravely to Strasbourg, Germany in 1939
to dig through the archives and complete a master thesis on Mary Magdelene
and get her PHD amidst the ardent if inappropriate attentions paid to her
by Mr. Ritter (Alan Souza), a married man with six children. It is Ritter
who discovers that Leona has "Fingerspitzengefuhl," a gift that deserves
the delightful song it prompts. Pamela Bob is terrific as Deborah, the
woman who brings the proofs of their memoir and eventually stays to work
It was Houghton's own investigation into the life and
work of Louisa May Alcott that led her to meet both Stern and Rostenberg.
It was their discovery and uncovering in 1942 of Alcott's literary secret
life as a writer of pulp fiction under the pseudonym of A. M Barnard that
became part of the plot. There is considerable pleasure in watching Leona
and Mady as intrepid investigators much in the same way as Sherlock Holmes
and Dr. Watson, the team that also humorously find their way into one of
the many winning songs that provide purely diverting moments from two
Bookends, with its large cast and female
empowering theme is sure to have a future.
The musical is not to
be confused with the play Bookends by M.J. Feely that recently received
its world premiere in Philadelphia.
Actress was born, bred and well read for the part
Friday, July 20,
BY PETER FILICHIA
NEW JERSEY STAGE
Some teens who graduated from high school in June are still
searching for a summer job. Jenny Vallancourt learned what
hers would be months ago.
After getting her diploma from Middletown High School
South -- and before heading off to Barnard College this fall
-- the Red Bank resident knew she'd be starring in a
musical. She's playing rare-book dealer Leona
Rostenberg in "Bookends," which has its world
premiere Friday night at New Jersey Repertory Company in
The musical is based on the same-titled autobiography
written by Rostenberg with her professional partner,
Madeleine B. Stern.
"They met when they were kids," says
Vallancourt. "They were constantly discouraged by their
families. 'You're only a woman,' they were
told. 'You can't open a business. You should just
get married and let your husband work.' They wanted
more than that, and had to work together to achieve
The two stayed friends until Rostenberg died in 2005 at
96. Stern is now 95. "I play Leona from the ages of 10
to 30," says the 18-year-old Vallancourt.
"She's smart but shy, but funny, too."
That would describe Vallancourt as well. Like Rostenberg,
she's an inveterate reader. She's just started
"The Blind Assassin," her third Margaret Atwood
novel. "I love reading before I go to sleep," she
says. "I feel it's got to be better for me to read
than watch movies or TV."
Vallancourt got the part after one quick audition and
call-back. "My mother called me when I was in gym class
to tell me the news," says the teen, beaming but
Vallancourt's history with New Jersey Repertory
Company certainly didn't hurt. She took acting classes
there, and was cast in last winter's premiere of
"October 1962." As Jean, a teen who senses that
her parents' marriage is in terrible trouble, she gave
one of the most dynamic performances of the season.
For someone so young, Vallancourt has had a great deal of
"I didn't even think I could audition for
'Bookends' because I was busy doing
'Chess' at my school," she says. It was one
of many leads she had there -- when she wasn't working
in community theater in Matawan, Shrewsbury and Sandy Hook.
She's done more than two dozen shows in those towns.
If that weren't enough, Vallancourt is already a
produced playwright. Last year, the Young Playwrights
Festival in Madison staged "Birdhouse in Your
Soul," her 10-minute play.
"It's about two brothers," she says.
"The 17-year-old has to baby-sit the 12-year-old. The
younger one is creative, and the older one is normal,"
she adds, hooking her fingers into quotation marks to show
she isn't quite on the side of conventionality.
"The older one is jealous that his brother is the free
It's not autobiographical, for Vallancourt is the
oldest of three girls.
"I was assigned two kids in class to act the play,
so I thought about what they were like, and that's what
made me write the way I did," she says, showing the
instincts of a professional playwright.
Asked when it all started for her, Vallancourt says,
"'Beauty and the Beast,' when I was real
young. I loved the movie, then my grandmother took me to see
it on Broadway. Pretty soon after, I was doing my own
version in my backyard."
That the musical is about a girl who loved books
isn't lost on her. "That's a pretty good sign
for 'Bookends,' isn't it?" she asks,
All in all, it's a great time to be Ken Jenkins. With more than a half century of dedicated endeavor in all aspects of his craft, the veteran actor/producer/director has become something of a teen idol, thanks to his co-starring role as Dr. Bob Kelso in the NBC comedy "Scrubs." The quirky, hospital-set ensemble show is followed by a fervent fanbase that Jenkins figures to center around "medical students, surgeons — and 13- to 15-year-olds."
"Teenagers run up and introduce themselves, sticking out their hand, all very proper," the 66-year-old star says with a laugh. "At my age, for kids to think I'm cool is really something."
While the self-described "old character man" has nothing but praise for the series that first aired in 2001 — observing that "the acting and the writing have grown better and better" — the boards of the legitimate stage have remained his primary beat. It's an ongoing passion that brings Jenkins to the Jersey Shore this weekend as director of "Bookends," a new musical play now in its world premiere engagement at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.
A song-filled study of the extraordinary relationship between two very remarkable real-life women, "Bookends" is a project that's grown out of another extraordinary relationship of long standing — that of Jenkins and his wife of 37 years, the actress and playwright Katharine Houghton.
Married since 1970, Jenkins and Houghton were first teamed in the roles of "loving adversaries" Kate and Petruchio in "The Taming of the Shrew" and went on to play everything from brother and sister (in "The Glass Menagerie") to father and daughter (in "Major Barbara").
With the formation of their own Pilgrim Repertory Company, the couple brought classical theater and "ragtag bits of Shakespeare" to remote rural communities, facilities for the hearing-impaired, and other places that were as far off-Broadway as could be imagined.
"Some kids in rural Kentucky had a better innate understanding of Shakespeare than we did," recalls Jenkins of his days in what Houghton calls "arts missionary work." "If you listened, you could hear leftover bits of Elizabethan accents in the way they spoke."
Best known for her role in the provocative, Academy Award-winning film "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" — a classic in which she starred alongside Spencer Tracy, Sidney Poitier and her aunt Katharine Hepburn — Houghton is an acclaimed author whose portfolio boasts an eclectic olio of short playlets, full-length works, translations and even one-woman presentations on cultural and literary topics.
It was while doing research for a piece on Louisa May Alcott that Houghton was introduced to a pair of antiquarian book dealers named Madeleine "Mady" Stern and Leona Rostenberg. Friends since childhood, the two women defied the conventional expectations of their old-world German-Jewish families to become highly educated experts on a variety of subjects, traveling the world and building a successful business in an ultra-specialized field. Drawn to Mady and Leona's warmth, energy and passion for life, Houghton befriended the pair as they entered their tenth decades — and somewhere, somehow, the concept for a musical was born.
"What those two did just makes your jaw drop," says Jenkins of the play's protagonists, whom he had the privilege of knowing personally. "I'm in awe of what they accomplished as women in a man's world."
While the subject matter might seem an oddball choice for a musical, Jenkins sees their shared saga as a very uplifting, human story of triumph, set against the changing cultural landscape of a tumultuous and eventful century.
"They were the most intellectually active people each other had ever known," the director says of Mady and Leona (who has since passed away). "Their lives were like a string of jewels . . . they're like Shakespearean characters."
Portraying Mady and Leona as adults are a couple of NJ Rep company regulars, Susan G. Bob and Kathleen Goldpaugh. Also on hand in the large ensemble is one of the youngest members of the stock company, Jenny Vallancourt, who excelled in last year's "October 1962" and appears here as Mady in flashbacks. Dianne Adams and James McDowell composed the music and lyrics in collaboration with Houghton, with Adams serving as musical director and Jennifer Paulson Lee handling the choreography.
Director Jenkins, for his part, seems ecstatic to be spending his series hiatus on this obvious labor of love, enthusing that audiences "will be proud of their humanity when they see this show . . . you'll laugh, cry, go home and talk about it and decide that being human is a good thing after all."
American Theatre Magazine, Front and Center
Early on, Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern realized they would have to choose between beaux and books. rejecting the wife-and-mother path that was expected of German-Jewish girls in 1930s Manhattan, they joined forces to become prominent dealers of antiquarian volumes.
Actor and playwright Katharine Houghton befriended Rostenberg and Stern in the 1980s when she sought their expertise on Louisa May Alcott, about whom she was writing a solo play. “I became very involved in their world,” Houghton says. “They were the most well-educated people I’d ever met.” The pair’s memoirs, journals and sheer force of personality are the basis for Houghton’s first full-length musical, written with composers Dianne Adams and James McDowell. Bookends premieres July 19–Aug. 26 at New Jersey Repertory Company, directed by Ken Jenkins.
Spunky nonagenarians who collect fragile tomes and speak half a dozen languages are hardly your typical musical-theatre heroines. That’s exactly the point, says Houghton: “They were expected to have a conventional life—the drama is that they didn’t.”
Both Stern (still vital at 95) and Rostenberg (who died two years ago) participated in the show’s development. The plot hinges on a present-day argument between the women—played by actresses in their fifties, says Houghton, “because that’s the kind of energy they have”—about whether to retire. The debate is punctuated with scenes of their younger selves navigating tricky affairs of business and the heart.
At times, the exotic topics the women have studied in books—from Arab astrologers to Mary Magdalene—come alive in whimsical song-and-dance sequences to comment on their life choices. But Houghton selected her composers above all for their ability to set inner monologues to music that tugs at the emotions. “It really wouldn’t matter if it were about rare books or something else,” says Houghton. “It’s about having a passion and finding a way to realize it.” —Nicole Estvanik
KATHARINE HOUGHTON ON BOOKENDS
by Gary Wien
NJ Repertory Company in Long Branch presents another world premiere play this month. This time around it's a musical called BOOKENDS written by the playwright/actress Katharine Houghton.
Katharine Houghton is best known for her role as Joanna "Joey" Drayton, the Caucasian ingenue with an African-American fiance, whom she brings home to meet her parents, in the 1967 film Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.
Her list of other films include Ethan Frome, Mr. North, The Night We Never Met, Billy Bathgate, The Gardener and Let it Be You. Katharine has appeared on Broadway in Our Town, The Front Page and A Very Rich Woman. Her regional theatre credits include roles in over fifty productions. Her play Buddha, was published in Best Short Plays of 1988. Other plays that have been produced include Merlin, The Merry Month of May, Mortal Friends, On the Shadyside, The Right Number and Phone Play. Her newest play, Only Angels, is in development in New York.
Houghton was named after her maternal grandmother Katharine Hepburn.
Tell me a little about BOOKENDS, What is the play about?
BOOKENDS is a musical for anyone of any age who has ever had a raging dream to do something or be someone unusual and who has been told it is impossible. The songs derive from the passions of all the warring hearts and competing agendas - each one sure of what it means to live life fully. No one is right, no one is wrong, but the secret of life is to find your own unique path and travel it with joyful perseverance.
The story, which is true but not about me, revolves around two women, Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern. Two plots intertwine. One concerns the women in old age, the other concerns their youth. The problem of the seniors - one wants to quit their almost 60 year business in antiquarian books, the other doesn't. Their argument invokes scenes from their past that are relevant to their present situation, and by reliving those scenes of their salad days, it sets the stage for their ultimate solution. This is not a play concerned with nostalgia.
BOOKENDS seems pretty ambitious - it has a relatively large cast for a musical that revolves around two girls. Do the other actors have significant roles or are they more for the soundtrack?
The musical is madly ambitious and we are all insane to try it, especially with only 3 weeks of rehearsal and 1 week of tech, but we felt it was worth a go. It has a cast of 14, all wonderful singers and actors. Except for the older and younger Madys & Leonas, everyone plays a variety of important roles and everyone has at least one terrific song, as well as being part of several wonderful ensemble numbers.
What led you decide to make this a musical?
I decided to make this story a musical because I've known Madeleine and Leona well for over 20 years and I've always felt that their story was a story for our time. Women are still trying to find their way in a man's world and these two women did it with glory. They came of age in the 30s in my beloved Manhattan, but the challenges and put-downs they experienced are still felt by women today. An example: well respected director Emily Mann, currently based in Princeton, NJ, I believe, was told by her professors at Harvard in 1974 that she could never direct for professional theatre or film because she was a woman, that she would have to confine her efforts to children's theatre. Fortunately she was not deterred.
By making BOOKENDS a musical instead of a play it allows me to use the songs to reveal secret thoughts and feelings in a way that I hope will be entertaining as well as affecting.
I am hoping that a musical about charming, humorous, conquering women will have an audience - an audience of both women and the men who love them.
Have you written a musical before?
In the 80s when I was doing a lot of writing for the fabulous Downstairs Theatre Bar at the Westbank Cafe on 42nd St. I wrote a one act musical based on an O'Henry short story called The Merry Month Of May. Other than that I've written only plays and screenplays
Finally, it's always wonderful when you have a film like Guess Who's Coming To Dinner? on your resume but I was wondering if it ever bothered you that your best known film was your first?
I suppose if I'd done nothing after Guess Who's Coming To Dinner, it would be a sort of thorn in my side that it is for most people my best known work. But after that film I spent 15 years in the wonderful regional theatres of America playing over 50 leading roles in classical drama.
Also, with Ken Jenkins, who is directing BOOKENDS and who is currently best known for his six seasons on NBC's cult hit comedy, "Scrubs", playing Dr. Kelso, I ran a theatre company for 13 years called Pilgrim Repertory Co. We toured several works all around, especially to places that didn't have the opportunity to see live theatre. We called it our "Arts Missionary Work." Ken wrote a pastiche called Shakespeare For Lovers And Others, which was one of our most popular productions. We made all our own sets, costumes, props etc. as well as acting all the parts. It was colossal good fun.
I guess that was just my destiny. And hanging out with all those brilliant writers, from Shakespeare and Shaw to Williams and O'Neill, no doubt had some small effect on my playwrighting.
A template for the new woman
Playwright celebrates two extraordinary friends in
'Bookends' BY TOM
Katharine Houghton has had the honor of knowing some
extraordinary women in her time, many of them no further away
than her own formidable family tree.
For instance, her grandmother, the ardent
suffragist and philanthropist Katharine Houghton Hepburn, was
instrumental in founding Planned Parenthood with Margaret
Sanger in the 1950s.
And then there was her aunt, the dynamic,
iconic Katharine Hepburn, alongside whom she starred in 1967's
Best Picture, "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" Although she has
expressed some disappointment over the excising of a key scene
(in which her character, "Joey," defends her relationship with
her black fiancé to her supposedly liberal dad), Houghton
remains "very proud" of that movie debut, one in which she
kept pace with such screen heavyweights as Aunt Kate, Spencer
Tracy, Sidney Poitier and director Stanley Kramer.
While she has remained intermittently visible
on film (most recently in "Kinsey" starring Liam Neeson, with
whom she also appeared in "Ethan Frome"), it's on the stage
that Houghton the actress has turned in her most acclaimed
work, with a lauded performance in the 1969 "Scent of
Flowers," and a portfolio of leads in classics by the likes of
Shakespeare ("Taming of the Shrew," "The Merchant of Venice"),
Chekhov ("Uncle Vanya," "The Seagull") and Ibsen ("A Doll's
A scene from "Bookends," written by
As Houghton relates in a recent e-mail interview:
"I kept getting offered fabulous roles in the
burgeoning regional theaters, and so I decamped from Hollywood
to play over 50 leading roles in the classics.
"It was my destiny, I think, to be a stage,
rather than a film, actress, if there is such a thing as
Along the way, the actress evolved into the
playwright, having penned numerous award-winning shorts and
full-length plays, among them "Merlin," "Mortal Friends," a
translation of Anouilh's "Antigone," and "Best Kept Secret,"
an autobiographical study of a 1960s love affair with a Soviet
The author shared her "Secret" on the stage of
New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch with a 2001
reading and, beginning this weekend, Houghton returns to NJ
Rep for the fully staged, world premiere engagement of
"Bookends," her first long-form musical endeavor and a labor
of love that has its roots in an extraordinary
Featuring songs by the composing team of
Dianne Adams and James McDowell, "Bookends" is a melodic
meditation on the long professional partnership and enduring
friendship of two real-life women, Madeleine "Mady" Stern and
the late Leona Rostenberg.
Houghton made the acquaintance of the noted
rare-book dealers while researching her own narrated
presentation on the life and work of "Little Women" author
Louisa May Alcott, and immediately became intrigued by these
energetic, educated New York originals, then approaching their
90s and marking more than a half-century of shared business
While an all-singing, all-dancing musical
about elderly antiquarian booksellers might seem at first like
something out of Max Bialystock's playbook, Houghton sets the
action at various times in her subjects' lives, from their
days growing up in strict German-Jewish families to their
debates over retirement.
A colossal (by local professional standards)
cast of 14 is headed by Rep regulars Susan G. Bob and Kathleen
Goldpaugh as the adult Mady and Leona, and features Jenny
Vallancourt, a young performer who made a big impression in NJ
Rep's "October 1962" earlier this season.
"If you had known Mady and Leona in their
90-year-old prime, you would understand why we are not playing
them as old ladies," Houghton explains. "They were ageless,
unique, and to play them as old ladies would be a
"I was less interested in my relationship with
the ladies and more interested in their lives as a template
for the 'new woman,' a creature Mother Nature has been
striving to create since Mary Wollstonecraft blasted the old
female paradigms," the author continues. "We're not there yet,
but we've made progress, and Rostenberg and Stern are a major
example of these advancements."
Directing "Bookends" is a man with whom
Houghton has maintained her own long-term personal and
professional partnership, Ken Jenkins, Houghton's husband of
37 years and a newly minted household name, thanks to his role
as Dr. Bob Kelso on the hit NBC TV series "Scrubs."
While the 66-year-old actor has plenty of good
things to say about the popular vehicle that's garnered him
instant recognition from teenage fans, "Bookends" remains a
project with which he has been personally engaged from the
outset, and the latest chapter in an ongoing collaboration
that has taken the two dedicated stage pros to some pretty
As Houghton says of Jenkins, whom she first
met and worked with when she was 23, "He taught me everything
I know about acting in the old days, and any young actor who
works with him is bound to benefit from his almost 50 years of
nonstop experience in the theater.
"Ken directed my first play, and we have acted
together on many occasions - brother and sister in 'The Glass
Menagerie,' father and daughter in 'Major Barbara,' loving
adversaries in 'The Taming of the Shrew,' and on and
An important early project for Houghton and
Jenkins was their formation of Pilgrim Repertory Company, a
federally funded traveling troupe that brought live theater to
Appalachia and other rural areas underserved by arts
organizations, an endeavor she likens to "arts missionary
"We performed in log cabins, in fields and
forests, in insane asylums; 'Richard III' was a great favorite
in the latter," Houghton recalls. "It was thrilling … a trial
Having determined that her "Bookends" project
might work well in musical form, Houghton "found my sound" and
forged a new and productive partnership when she happened to
attend a Broadway adaptation of the children's classic "The
Wind in the Willows" scored by the team of Adams and
"I didn't want the music to be rock, pop or
too intellectual," explains the playwright, who contributed
lyrics in addition to the show's book. "I wanted the music to
seduce the heart and amuse the soul."
Ladies' Lives Revealed in New Musical, Bookends, Directed By "Scrubs" Star Jenkins
Bookends, a new musical by Katharine Houghton, Dianne Adams and
James McDowell, will make its world premiere in a staging by The New
Jersey Repertory Company July 19.
Ken Jenkins, the actor widely known as the senior doctor on TV's
"Scrubs," will direct the show, which concerns nonagenarian ladies — and
longtime friends — who look back on their lives. The librettist and
co-lyricist Houghton is the admired actress who played the daughter in the
film, "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," among many roles in her career. (She
is also Katharine Hepburn's niece.)
Music and co-lyrics are by Dianne Adams and James McDowell. Music
direction is by Adams.
According to NJ Rep, "Bookends is the story of Madeleine Stern
and Leona Rostenberg, celebrated rare book dealers, who met as young girls
and forged a life-long friendship. Both in their 90s when the play opens,
the women are compiling their memoirs. Flashbacks to their youth reveal
them as two outspoken girls growing up in conventional families in
Manhattan in the 1930s, where they are expected to marry, have children,
and live close to home. But obsessed by their unusual passion for old and
rare books, they resist convention to follow their dream, one that takes
them on adventures all over the world and reveals to them 2,000 years of
human folly, wisdom, mystery and serendipity. Based on a true story, this
hauntingly beautiful musical will stay with you forever."
The cast will include Pamela Bob, Susan G. Bob, Eric Collins, Matt
Golden, Kathleen Goldpaugh, Robyn Kemp, Robert Lewandowski, Howard
Pinhasik, Alan Souza, Eileen Tepper, Amie Bermowitz, Jenny Vallancourt and
Gabor Barabas, the executive producer at New Jersey Rep, stated, "We
selected Bookends from a submission of over a thousand scripts that
we receive each year not only because a new musical is a rare creation,
but because we were drawn to the lushness of the music, and to the humor,
dramatic tension, and beauty of the play. Bookends will provide
local audiences with the rare opportunity of witnessing the birth of a
musical. And keep in mind, you no longer have to travel to Broadway in New
York to see a new musical. You can go to Broadway in Long Branch."
The creative team includes Henry Aronson (piano), Rose Riccardi (stage
manager), Jennifer Paulson Lee (choreographer), Charles Corcoran (scenic
design), Jill Nagle (lighting design), Patricia E. Doherty (costume
design), Jessica Parks (properties), Jessica Paz (sound design) and Quinn
K. Stone (technical director).
It crosses the minds of all six characters who are celebrating New Year's Eve
1999 in "Place Setting." Jack Canfora's funny and fascinating play, at the New Jersey Repertory Company in
, soon shows
that these people had nothing to fear.
Not from a computer meltdown, anyway. They certainly have plenty to worry about
as secret after secret is revealed. They pile on so high that the play rivals a
soap opera for the sheer number of complications.
What separates "Place Setting" from daytime TV, though, is that Canfora has wonderfully incisive wit -- and he tells the
truth about how 21st century men and women view relationships and marriages.
Andrea and Greg are the evening's hosts. Laura, Andrea's sister, has brought
her terribly pretentious German filmmaker boyfriend, Richard. He's furious that
Laura has taken him out of the city and to -- horrors! -- theNew Jersey
suburbs. (Many plays have
Also on hand are Lenny -- Greg's brother -- and his longtime girlfriend,
Charlotte. Andrea surmised Lenny would buy
an engagement ring for Christmas; that didn't happen, but
doesn't seem concerned.
When the audience discovers why, the play kicks into high gear. Evan Bergman's
skillful and secure direction is one reason, but Canfora left nothing to chance. He's full of fresh-sounding lines for his characters:
"Your marriage is a china shop waiting for a bull." "I have an
empty feeling in the pit of my stomach whenever I do the right thing."
"I look at the best moments of my life and realize that none of them were
good for me."
Plenty of truths emerge in the two-hour play because "in vodka veritas.''
The second act, which takes place the morning after, is slower in feel, as
hangovers take their toll. Canfora keeps the dialogue
clear-eyed as he examines the ramifications of lust in one's heart (and other
places). He doesn't flinch from pointing out that spouses are disappointed by
those they marry, because day-to-day life forces one to know a mate far too
Canfora's in the play, too, and makes an affable
Greg. Carol Todd gives an exceptionally unmannered performance as Andrea, the
model homemaker. (Jessica Parks gives her handsome set on which to ply her
trade.) Todd is magnificent when she offers a startlingly different point of
view on loyalty in marriage.
As Laura, Kristen Moser does beautifully with a speech in which she learns that
if she gets a tattoo, laser surgery can remove it easily and without scarring.
Just like marriage, she realizes; nothing is permanent these days.
Peter Macklin has the right insufferable qualities for Richard, and adds a
pungent accent. Lenny is a character who must run through a gantlet of
emotions, and David Bishins succeeds at every
signpost. GueniaLemos impressively captures
many amoral qualities.
En route, there's some talk about New Year's resolutions. Theatergoers who didn't
make any should resolve now to see "Place Setting."
Place Setting at NJ Repertory is worth a visit to Long Branch
Theater: NJ Repertory Company, Lumia Theatre, 179 Broadway, Long Branch, NJ
Show Title: Place Setting by Jack Canfora
Opened: June 2, 2007
Seen: June 10, 2007
Reviewer: Peter Kelston
Submitted: June 12, 2007
Jack Canfora’s engaging, sharp-witted play about three adult couples in troubled relationships is given a very pleasing production at New Jersey Repertory’s comfortable theater, not far from the beach in Long Branch, NJ. It is well-written, well-acted, smartly paced and very entertaining.
It takes place in the kitchen in the upscale, suburban NJ home of Andrea, an overbearing, proudly competent housewife (Carol Todd) and her sharp-tongued, cynical husband Greg (Mr. Canfora). It is New Year’s Eve 1999, a time to reflect on the past and talk about the future while dealing with the unfulfilled present.
Sitting around the kitchen table before the other guests arrive for the New Year’s Eve party are Andrea’s sister Laura (Kristen Moser) and her boyfriend Richard (Peter Macklin) who live together in New York City; Greg’s brother Lenny (David Bishins) and his girlfriend of two years, the sexy, exotic Charlotte (Guenia Lemos).
They tease each other and trade witty, cutting barbs – many with literary and pop-cultural references, as well as share New Year’s Resolutions as they help with the party preparations. Andrea asks Charlotte if she and Lenny have discussed marriage, and offers to help plan the wedding. All is quite convivial.
But long-simmering antipathies soon emerge. Laura objects to Andrea’s bossiness. Greg shows his disaffection for Richard, a pontificating, German documentary filmmaker who disdains anything that is not part of a hip cultural scene, especially anything having to do with New Jersey.
As the party guests begin to arrive (in the unseen living room) Andrea and the others go to greet them, returning to take out plates of hors d’oeuvres and other party fare. Wine needs to be brought in from from the garage. All the activity, multiple exits and entrances, quick exchanges of dialog seem very natural under the sure hand of director Evan Bergman.
The plot thickens when Greg and Charlotte are left alone to clean up the kitchen. They have been feeling strongly attracted to each other, but they have yet to act on their feelings. That they might be interrupted at any moment by someone re-entering the kitchen creates tension, but Canfora does not lapse into melodrama. Instead, and to his credit, his characters deal with their entanglements in naturalist ways that don’t feel at all contrived.
These are people the playwright knows and with whom he is comfortable. The place provides a familiar socioeconomic context. There is rarely a word that doesn’t ring true (save for Richard’s German accent). The set (by Jessica Parks) makes the comfort believeable.
This play was a pleasure to see. Well-worth the drive from NY to Long Branch.
Place Setting Eavesdrops on a New Year's Eve
Table Setting, the world premiere comedy-drama at New Jersey
Rep, is set on December 31, 1999. The setting is the kitchen and dining
room of the comfortable, middle class New Jersey home of Greg and his
wife, Andrea. The acerbic Greg, who had ambitions to be a writer, is an ad
writer. Less sharp, but pleasanter Andrea is a distractingly fussy
housewife (I've heard that last word objected to by one who said that it
wrongly one as being married to a house. If that is true, then it aptly
Two other couples are with them for a family dinner prior to the
expected arrival of additional guests. Greg's close, less acerbic brother
Lenny is accompanied by his sharp-looking girlfriend Charlotte. Lenny
identifies himself as being in "human resources," and Charlotte is an
assistant editor. Andrea's sister Laura, an East Village, counter-culture
type, has brought along her new boyfriend Richard, a pretentious,
pompously assured purveyor of misinformation who identifies himself as an
independent film director.
It appears apparent from this set-up that feuds and crises will
comprise the entire play. And, in that respect, author Jack Canfora
delivers that which is expected. The major crisis is that Charlotte is in
the process of seducing the sorely tempted Greg into leaving Andrea.
Matters are further complicated when Lenny proposes to Charlotte and takes
her evasion of an answer as a "yes".
Table Setting boasts sharp, crisp, and richly humorous dialogue.
Its story and recognizable characters engage our interest and emotions
throughout (even though most of the characters are supremely selfish).
There is much food for thought here, largely concerning the complex
nature of marital relationships. Author Canfora seems to suggest that
settling for less than everything that one wants in a marriage is terribly
sad, and that all marital issues need be confronted and worked out.
Author Jack Canfora portrays Greg with a boyish likeability. Canfora
has given himself the lion's share of the play's barbed one liners (after
all, Greg is an acerbic wise guy), and his comic timing and phrasing make
the most of them. Carol Todd brings a great deal of honesty and nuance.
Her Andrea is properly a mite annoying, yet gains sympathy for her
determined actions. (The motivation for her launching a missile at Lenny
is unclear and does undermine our sympathy for her. However, I think that
it is the author who has some work to do here.)
David Bishins as Lenny runs the table believably, delivering a full
range of emotional colors. Guenia Lemos performs with a easy and likeable
sensuality. Given that Charlotte is most coldly selfish (to Greg – "Your
brothers going to be betrayed and your wife broken, and it doesn't
matter"), Lemos has to perform with tremendous appeal to enable us to
accept Greg's temptation. Lemos has one especially clever line, "Your
marriage is like a china shop, waiting for a bull." Kristen Moser has a
likeable, slightly ditzy take on Laura, and Peter Macklin is deadpan funny
as Richard. I couldn't quite identify his accent, but that may have been
intentional for this phony filmmaker.
Director Evan Bergman has kept a lively pace, directed traffic well,
and elicited fine performances all around. The richly detailed (with a
fully loaded kitchen), and most attractive and playable set is by Jessica
Parks. The excellent costumes by Patricia E. Doherty are especially
effective in conveying the differing styles of the women and are
flattering to boot.
Place Setting is neither unconventional nor particularly
original, but it does provide witty, involving and thought provoking
New Jersey Rep has taken another chance, and it has paid off in an incisive and penetrating new play written by Jack Canfora.
Set on the eve of the new millennium (the much-ballyhoo’d 1999 into 2000, not the real new millennium for those geeks who care), Place Setting focuses on a dinner party and it’s aftermath. The bash is tossed by a freakishly controlling Andrea (Carol Todd) and her henpecked husband Greg (the playwright Jack Canfora). Andrea’s spunky and verbose sister Laura (Kristen Moser) is in attendance with her pretentious German filmmaker-wannabe beau Richard (a hilarious Peter Maclin). Rounding out the ‘table’ are Greg’s sweet but dull brother Lenny (David Bishins) and his stunning girlfriend Charlotte (Guenia Lemos).
As the witty barbs fly, we become privy to the fact that Greg and Charlotte are secretly in love. This revelation is the springboard for the rest of the play’s action.
Nicely directed by Evan Bergman, Place Setting cleverly manages to touch on some very important and universal themes such as the need for passion in one’s life vs. the allure of complacency and stagnation. Fears are exposed, marital and otherwise and Canfora balances the comedy and drama with ease. And his love of film comes through as well, which made this critic gleeful.
Kristin Moser stands out in a stellar cast. Her Laura is filled with anger, resentment and longing (and we can understand why she is so bitter once we spend a bit of time with her sister Andrea!) Moser is killer with comedy yet handles the more poignant and dramatic moments with equal conviction. She basically steals every scene she is in. Someone get this gal a sitcom!
The Andrea character is difficult to stomach, partly because she’s a calculating and manipulative bitch, partly because she’s trying to hold on to something the audience feels she has no right having. Todd does a fine job with her and even manages to eke out some sympathy from us.
Canfora wears both hats quite impressively. I had no idea that the funny and charismatic actor onstage had also written the play. There’s nothing showy about his performance.
Lemos’ Charlotte is a feisty, desperate figure who craves love and passion. The play, unfortunately, does her a great disservice by making her disappear completely in Act Two, yet tosses out quite damaging character dialogue that Charlotte is never allowed to address. Consequently, Lemos’ rich performance is undercut once we are led to believe she’s a vamp.
My only complaint is with the very final moment of the play where Andrea does something so very against her character, it pulled me out. Otherwise the play and the production rocks!
Kudos again to New Jersey Repertory Company for continuing to present exciting new work in a state where theatre companies are usually reviving Godspell for the seven thousandth time and wondering why they have no patrons!
Couples Share a Tense New Year's Eve in World Premiere of Place Setting in NJ
The New Jersey Repertory Company, the Long Branch, NJ, troupe devoted to new works, presents the world premiere of Jack Canfora's New Year's Eve-set comic drama Place Setting May 31-June 24.
The play offers "three couples on New Year's Eve of the millennium, as they struggle to balance the lives they have with the lives they so desperately want," according to NJ Rep. Set in the suburban New Jersey home of Andrea and Greg, "they are joined for dinner by Greg's sharp-tongued brother, his sexy girlfriend, Andrea's spirited sister, and her German filmmaker boyfriend."
Directed by Evan Bergman and co-produced by Adam Weinstock, Place Setting will feature David Bishens, Guenia Lemos, Peter Macklin, Kristen Moser, Carol Todd and Jack Canfora.
Place Setting "poses the compelling question of what to do when one's responsibilities and happiness are at irreconcilable odds."
"I think it's a fundamental tension most of us wrestle with to some degree, even if we're not always aware of it," stated Canfora, who also portrays one of Place Setting's central characters. "These characters are all keenly conscious of that struggle, which leads some of them to desperation. I think the drama and the humor of the play both come out of the desperation that people face when they feel their immediate choices are going to impact the rest of their lives."
Performances are Thursdays, Fridays at 8 PM, Saturdays at 3 PM & 8 PM, Sundays at 2 PM.
Opening night is June 2. NJ Rep performs at 179 Broadway in Long Branch, NJ.
Tickets are $35 with discounts for seniors, groups, students (18-25). Opening night is $40. Previews are $25.
For more information, visit www.NJRep.org.
David Bishins and Kristen Moser in the world premiere of Jack Canfora's Place Setting.
(STAFF PHOTO: ADENA STEVENS) Carol Todd (left) plays Andrea and Kristen Moser is Laura in Jack Canfora's "Place Setting," being staged by the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.
DEC. 31, 1999: the night of the Millennium Bug. You remember it: Planes
were going to fall from the sky; markets would crash and take every
desktop Dell with them. Clubs and restaurants sat empty as Americans
bunkered down at home, counting down their post-apocalyptic fate.
It's an altogether different but equally insidious virus that invades
the suburban New Jersey household of Andrea (Carol Todd) and Greg (Jack
Canfora) in "Place Setting," Canfora's seriocomic ensemble piece currently
in its world premiere engagement at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long
Branch. Fortified by ample stocks of wine and vodka, the tag-team bugaboos
of brutal honesty and lapsed inhibitions wreak havoc on this New Year's
Eve get-together — with guilt, despair and self-delusion pushing back from
the other side.
If actor-playwright Canfora's script never quite parties like it's 1999
(these characters are too numbingly civilized to go all Sam Shepard on the
set), it does hark back to a point in time — America's Last Age of
Innocence? — when we seemingly had nothing to fear but a VCR-clock
meltdown. While the play's six characters laugh off the millennial
hysteria, the unspoken suggestion that life as we know it could end at
midnight causes these people to behave in some interesting ways.
Invited into Andrea and Greg's tasteful kitchen and dining room are
Greg's brother Lenny (David Bishins) and his smart and sexy girlfriend
Charlotte (Guenia Lemos), as well as Andrea's sharp-tongued sister Laura
(Kristen Moser) and her date, a German documentary filmmaker named Richard
(Peter Macklin). While the characters manage to keep up the small talk in
the early minutes of the play, it's when the party moves to the offstage
living room that the fun begins, with the kitchen becoming the setting for
a series of furtive trysts, desperate advances, teary confessions and
The accomplished director Evan Bergman stages the opening moments of
the first act as a sequence of stills frozen in flashbulbs, and the able
cast of players (many of them new to NJ Rep's stage) accomplish a great
deal within what is after all merely an extended snapshot from the lives
of some very unhappy people. Only Macklin, with his artsy hairdo and
freely dispensed Euro-contempt, seems out of sync in a virtually thankless
part — why the self-important Richard needed to be German is hard to
fathom, when the whole "downtown-vs.-suburbia" thing offers more than
enough opportunity for conflict in the first place.
Playwright Canfora gives actor Canfora many of the script's funniest
lines — not because Jack is an applause hog, but because his Greg is a
frustrated guy who often floats a joke when a heartfelt word would have
sufficed. He and brother Lenny know all the best lines from the movies,
while their own ongoing interpersonal drama seems stuck in the silent era
— and Greg performs his role as supportive spouse to Andrea as if reading
from cue cards.
It's the seductive Charlotte who makes her face-time with Greg count
("I feel like I have to crash into people to feel I know them") — and
Lemos brings an energy to her limited-time part that promises big things
for the Brazilian-born pepperpot. Meanwhile, it's Lenny who is actually
much more apt to spill his guts to Andrea ("I sound like I'm in a
Merchant-Ivory movie . . . let me be a little more Scorsese about this") —
an odd choice of confidante, as the mistress of the house is all about
keeping it tidy.
Last seen here in the provocative "Whores," Carol Todd positions
herself at the center of this production, by virtue of a solid performance
as a woman to whom even domestic upheaval must occur on a clearly
delineated timetable, and under a coded sort of etiquette. As outfitted
down to the last tucked-away mixing bowl by Jessica Parks, Andrea's
precisely-ordered kitchen is an extension of her own mechanisms for
survival in an uncertain world — a place where there's but one way to load
the dishwasher, and where a successful dinner means "everything comes out
at the same time" (and boy, does it ever).
As the embittered Laura proclaims, "It's the new millennium . . . we're
entitled to a few new rules."
But there it is — I admit there's been damage done here, obviously. I'm admitting responsibility.—Greg Someday someone will have to explain to me why people decided that that was such a big deal.— Lenny
It is New Years Eve 1999. Families and friends are gathered to celebrate the end on one millennium and the start of another. The big question on most everyone's mind is not necessarily whether computers will malfunction, but whether their clock radio, TV, or automatic coffee maker will freak out.
In Jack Canfora's cleverly constructed and smartly written domestic comedy/drama Place Setting, the lives of three couples in their 30 somethings are more inclined to go awry than the technology around them. Canfora's characters have been variously positioned to segue into the morning after the night before with a maximum of discomfort, stress and anxiety.
Andrea (Carol Todd) and Greg (Jack Cantora, yes, the play's author) are throwing a New Years Eve dinner party in their suburban home to welcome in the New Year. Andrea has worked frenetically to prepare an elegant dinner for her slightly younger sister Laura (Kristen Moser), Greg's slightly older brother Lenny (David Bishins) and their respective dates. The meal has been a success. But it doesn't take long for Laura's beau Richard (Peter Macklin) to begin displaying his true colors as an intolerably condescending, smug and obnoxious German documentary film maker ("Suburbia. It does things to people. They should hang a sign outside of the Lincoln tunnel — Welcome to New Jersey — suicide is a technicality").
It seems that Laura, an emotionally volatile woman, has a history of picking the wrong man. Then there is picking the wrong women issue. It only takes a few minutes alone with Greg in the kitchen for Lenny's absolutely gorgeous girl friend Charlotte (Guenia Lemos) to lust after her host, whose carnal interest in her is also apparently rife with history.
Of course, Andrea's attempt to run a smooth, convivial and conflict free dinner party for those closest and dearest to her is bound to run amok considering that she has previously discovered an incriminating letter written by her husband to Charlotte and now feels obliged to share it with Lenny. Lenny, however, has already asked Charlotte to marry him. There is a bit of the Alan Ayckbourne style afoot as the convolutions of the evening and following morning becomes springboards for a potential marital breakup and grievous romantic betrayals.
Richard's disdain for the others and his growing disaffection for Laura escalate with the same intensity as does Charlotte's attempt to get Greg to leave his wife. It wouldn't be cricket to reveal more of the plot, except to say that the plot is fueled by Andrea's announcement that she is going to have a baby, Laura's inclination to go out and get a tattoo and also be more than a sister-in-law to Greg, and Lenny's revelation that his fiancée has a history (there's that word again). The theme could be summed up as "you always hurt the one you love."
Canfora, who skillfully embraces both acting and writing, may not leave any of the characters unscarred or unscathed, but we are certainly kept alert and empathetic to their quandaries. This is especially true of Andrea, as played with stoic resolve by Todd. Canfora credibly expresses Greg's notable lack of character in the face of his gullibility. Bishins is excellent as the humiliated but love-sick Lenny. Moser makes the most of her role as the unsettled Laura. As Richard, Macklin achieves his goal to be reviled and conversely Lemos, as Charlotte, has no competition when it comes to being magnetically seductive.
Director Evan Bergman, whose most recent credit is Off Broadway's Machiavelli, keeps a firm grip on the slender threads that bridge the interplay between the comical and the poignant as well as on the well executed timing of exiting and re-entering characters that lose little time exposing their transparency as well as their transgressions. Designer Jessica Parks has designed the kitchen area so that the properties don't get in the way of the improprieties. This world premiere may not have the dramatic heft necessary for the Big Apple, but it is sure to please the audiences at the New Jersey Rep. and other regional theaters.
PLAY REVIEW: PLACE SETTING AT NJ
by Gary Wien
NJ) -- Summer theater at the
used to mean
another round of Broadway musical revivals, but that was before NJ Repertory
Theatre made Broadway in
a place where new works were introduced year round - including the summer
season. The company's latest play is "Place Setting" by Jack Canfora,
which is making its world premiere after a series of readings.
comedy/drama revolves around three couples spending New Year's Eve together at
the dawn of the new millennium in a typical suburban
house. The idea of being in the
suburbs is very important to the plot. The house is the home of Andrea and Greg
who are joined by Greg's brother Lenny and his girlfriend Charlotte as well as
Andrea's sister Laura and her German filmmaker boyfriend Richard.
played by Peter Macklin, is one of the most irritating characters you will ever
see. He's an "artist" who despises everything about the suburbs and
puts down people at every chance. You can practically hear the audience grown
after the first time he "corrects" someone at the dinner table. His
corrections would continue all night and cause tension between the guests who
want to remain polite, but find it harder and harder to do so.
by Jack Canfora who also wrote the play, works as an ad writer but has never
given up on his dream to be a real writer of fiction. Richard's subtle attacks
on him lead to an instead hatred of his dinner guest while his brother's
girlfriend (played by Guenia Lemos who previously starred in NJ Rep's
"Love & Murder") causes him a conflict of an entirely different
largely centers around the idea of dreams and being trapped - whether in a job,
a relationship, or simply... the suburbs. "Place Setting" is often
hilarious but it is also much more than a situational comedy. There are some
really heavy themes - adultery, revenge, depression - at play here as well. The
blend leads to an entirely entertaining new work, which should hit home to many
people in the audience (whether the play's content deals with them or someone
the audience, it was very refreshing to see about 3/4 of the audience raise
their hands when Gabor Barabas asked, in his pre-show talk, how many people
were visiting NJ Rep for the first time.
The play is
full of wonderful one-liners throughout and the brothers often recite lines and
scenes from their favorite movies like "The Godfather". This is most
definitely a contemporary play and feels almost like an updated version of what
might have happened if the characters in an 80s film like "St. Elmo's
Fire" got together to celebrate New Year's Eve a decade later.
a great job of transferring the idea of suburbia - a place where everything
looks nice but nobody's ever really happy because deep down something is
seriously wrong - with the character of Andrea (played by Carol Todd). She is
the ultimate hostess nightmare and a poster child for Suburbia. Even though she
knows her husband hasn't been happy in their marriage and suspects him of
cheating on her, she manages to go along every day as the model suburban wife
pretending that nothing is wrong.
blame me if you feel the need to bend down and pray three times a day in the
direction of the nearest Home Depot," said Richard during a fight with
Laura. "In the words of John Lennon, it ain't me babe!"
BOB DYLAN!" his girlfriend corrects him. God you're nasty when you're
"And you're boring when I'm sober," he retorted.
by David Bishins) is the sort of person who knows Suburbia isn't all that it
should be but recognizes it's values as well. At one point when Richard says
that growing up in the suburbs has restricted Laura's ability to full express
herself, Lenny responds, "But, in defense, there's always plenty of ample
girlfriend is almost the opposite of him. The sexy
is like the girl that doesn't
belong in Suburbia but doesn't resent being there either. She's the type that
leads a boyfriend to constantly worry and for good reason.
by Kristen Moser) is a wonderful character. She's the type that never seemed to
fit in with her family and finds ways to keep screwing up her life, but she
never gives up. "I look back on the best moments of my life and none of
them were good for me," she says.
In the end,
Lenny pretty much sums up the night. "I never thought I'd say this... but,
so far, I miss the 90s."
Setting" has a very quick, fluid movement to it. Premieres generally feel
like the beginning of a play's life and show hints of places where changes will
be made, but this time around the play feels as though it's already been
through that stage. It's not only ready for prime time now, but it's not
difficult to imagine it moving on to that other Broadway someday. Congrats to
NJ Rep for once again proving that great theatre need not take the summer
AN ENTERTAINING SIDESHOW
"Love and Murder" make a passionate pair at New Jersey Repertory
The funniest thing about "Love and Murder," the play by Arthur Giron
currently in its world-premiere engagement at New Jersey Repertory Company in
Long Branch, isn't its outlandish, overripe, naughty/nasty take on human nature.
It's how much this mutant melodrama appears to have been ripped screaming from
the author's own background.
The esteemed author and professor is able to spin even the most leaden of
life experiences into dramatic gold. With "Love and Murder," Giron riffs upon
his 1960s gig as a social worker in a way-upstate New York village — a place
that, thanks to its proximity to an Indian reservation, an army base and the
Canada border, was pretty much an inbred little island unto itself.
Inspired by that unnamed real-world hamlet, Giron's fictional Indian River is
a cold and isolated place where TV signals don't penetrate, many of the locals
sport a sixth finger and folks tend not to die (since the ground is usually too
frozen to bury them). Held up by the federal government as an example of good
old American values, it's the kind of town where the men join fraternal lodges
and the women, discouraged by the town fathers from congregating, are forced to
get their hair done at the local brothel. As more than one character declares,
it's a place "where men were born to kill, and women were born to be killed by
It's also a "sister city" to a village in Guatemala, from which a young lady
named Helen (Brazilian-born actress Guenia Lemos in her NJ Rep debut) comes to
live as an exchange student at the home of upstanding citizen Dr. Tuttle (John
FitzGibbon) and his wife, Tex (Liz Zazzi) — staying on as a maid (and virtual
slave) to Mrs. Tuttle, an aspiring singer whose showbiz dreams hinge upon a
deadly revue called "Songs of All Nations." She's soon joined as a resident
guest in the household by "Blackie" Swamp Cree (Dan Domingues), an alarmingly
ambitious young cop of Mohawk ancestry who's hired as a local officer by the
village elder Doc — and whose presence as agent provocateur and all-around
"naked savage" sends the Tuttle teapot to boiling.
One look at Harry Feiner's stylized set design should tell you that we're not
on solid American soil here — reducing the Tuttle home to sheets of washed-out
colors and plush-pile carpeted speedbumps, it suggests a house built from the
fuzzy details of half-recalled dreams; a borderland dimension that seems
strangely appropriate to this place beyond laws, where the characters behave as
though they've had pencils pushed into the parts of their brains that govern
Even so, very little is as it first appears in Indian River. It quickly
becomes evident that the oily Doc Tuttle is not only not a real doctor, but most
likely not even a real Tuttle. Blackie has apparently been impersonating an
officer, and Tex's labored impersonation of a faithful wife is in its death
throes. As for the innocent, exploited, virtuous Helen, you've got to believe
Tex when she describes the guest worker as "an unreal being" from a time "before
rules was invented."
FitzGibbon is the perfect choice to embody the quack doctor.
Working once again with "The Best Man" director Peter Bennett, Domingues
takes a bold turn that leaves him standing revealed — particularly in a
humiliatingly impromptu physical exam by the sadistic Doc. Not to be put out of
a job by Blackie and his birthday suit, costumer Patricia Doherty turns in some
of her finest work, including Helen's sexy spin on a Scout uniform — and a
hilarious Doc Tuttle lodge get-up that looks to have been pre-owned by Oliver
Zazzi is an agile pro who does her bewigged and Dollywooded best in a
generally shrill and unsympathetic part — and Lemos makes Helen's transition
from semi-invisible servant to savvy seductress a smooth and engaging journey
(let's see more of her).
Enjoy "Love and Murder" for what it is: an entertaining sideshow, acted with
guts and gusto and starring a bunch of human oddities who, to paraphrase
Blackie, recognize no borders.
Complex Love and Murder at New Jersey
Guenia Lemos and Liz
There is currently deception
afoot at every turn at the New Jersey Rep. It begins well before the
curtain rises. It starts with the world premiere play's pulp title Love and Murder and the theatre's promotional description of it, to
wit: "When two men vie for the same women, there's more duplicity than
meets the eye as lives hang in the balance in this serio-comic murder
mystery set in an upstate New York bordertown." Surely, a light, fun
tricky mystery awaits us. Or so we have been led to believe.
All the plot elements for such a mystery are in place here, and we are
nicely misdirected from a tricky and clever surprise ending.
However, author Arthur Giron and his accomplices in this endeavor have
something more unconventional in mind. There are clues to this in
the opening monologue delivered by Native American Deputy Sheriff Thomas
Swamp Cree (who is most often addressed to as "Blackie"). The first scene
following the monologue reveals an odd set for the home of a rich, small
town power broker and his wife. It is designed as a series of
overlapping hangings of large, grey, I would think Indian rugs or
blankets. You, my sharp readers, would probably by this point have
discerned that something thematically complex has been set in motion.
However, although I found this design very unsettling, I must admit that
it took me a while longer to realize that Love and Murder is a
mythological, anthropological fable set in a fantasyland existing outside
of time and space.
The stated location is Jefferson County in the far northwest corner of
New York. The time is 1967. For the past four or five years,
middle-aged Dr. Tuttle, who previously had not had any romantic
relationships, has been married to former singer Tex, a fading, over the
hill, flashy, bleached blonde. Tex only married the stolid Tuttle
for the shelter of his money. Their maid Helen, a Mayan from
Guatemala, had been an exchange student, but has remained illegally in New
York. Blackie makes love to Tex ("my tribe doesn't recognize
borders"). When Tuttle discovers that Tex has been telling Helen
that she saves her salary for her in a bank account, but has actually been
spending it frivolously on herself, Tuttle becomes angry at Tex for her
mistreatment of Helen. Tex responds by informing Tuttle that she
truly despises him. Helen seduces Tuttle, who finds succor in the
arms. She becomes pregnant. Tuttle now loves Helen, and is
determined to protect her and their unborn child. Absurdist humor abounds
in the form of odd occurrences. One example is when the intoxicated Tuttle
dresses in a fancy dress uniform and flagellates himself for his
assignation with Helen.
Most crucially, we are not in any real time or place. We are in a
time warp which has preserved the natural laws which existed before
European presence in the Americas. Author Arthur Giron posits a
primal side of nature which will always seek that the land be restored to
its native population. All of this is quite stimulating and engages
the intellect. It also inherently reduces the taut suspense and easy
pleasure for which conventional light mysteries strive.
The ominous mood created by director Peter Bennett employs sound and
lighting most effectively. Liz Zazzi (Tex) daringly throws caution
to the wind to present us with a ripley entertaining, over the top
floozy. John FitzGibbon convincingly details Tuttle's transition
from pompous bully to loving incipient father and ...." Well,
therein lies the tale, and we wouldn't want to give it away.
Guenia Lamos strongly projects Helen's anger and sincerity.
Whether or not Helen deserves our belief, Lamos appropriately makes
certain that she gets it. Dan Domingues (Blackie) efficiently
conveys the smooth veneer of Blackie.
The complex mixture of elements does not always blend together
smoothly. Still, in all, Love and Murder is an intriguing
blend of absurdist humor, mystery and anthropologic philosophy which will
hold your interest throughout.
THEATRE REVIEW: LOVE AND MURDER
by Gary Wien
(LONG BRANCH, NJ) -- Arthur Giron's "Love and Murder" starts off with one of the most captivating openings I've ever seen. Dan Domingues as Blackie reveals that a murder has been committed in Upstage New York and the description and language used grabs your attention immediately. The play never relinguishes its grip on you until long after the play is finished. It's a wonderfully clever "who done it?" with enough twists and turns that you'll be scratching your head as to who the murderer truly is and how it played out.
"Love and Murder" is the latest world premiere at New Jersey Repertory Company. The play features a wonderful cast including Domingues, John FitzGibbon, Guenia Lemos, and Liz Tazzi.
"If you prayed more you wouldn't be so ugly," says Tex (Liz Zazzi). "Men do not like women who are athiests."
Tex (a small time singer who thinks of herself as a minor star) gives that advice to her maid (Helen), an illegal immigrant who has been working for her for the last few years without pay. Tex is constantly worried about her leaving, so she hides mail sent to her.
We are soon introduced to Thomas "Blackie" Swamp Cree, an Indian who was formerly a police officer. He brags about coming from a town where he put 600 kids behind bars under false pretenses, a move that brought him national attention. He's a "cop without a conscience."
Blackie is hoping to be hired as a cop in town and tried to impress Tex's husband (Dr. Tuttle) who is one of the people involved in the town council. Dr. Tuttle taunts Blackie with racist slurs and tries to humilate him by putting him through a full physical with both ladies present in the room. As Blackie stands there naked, Dr. Tuttle points a magnifying glass in front of Blackie's privates and "examines" him. He then dismisses Blackie as unfit and forces him to leave the house without his clothes since he is no longer employed as an officer and shouldn't be wearing the uniform.
Blackmail provides the Indian with the opening for the job and he joins the local police force. Meanwhile, a letter providing news that Helen's father had passed away changes things dramatically within the household. Dr. Tuttle becomes aware of how much his wife had kept secrets from him and kept Helen from the things she was owed.
"You are a thief and a liar, my dear," said Dr. Tuttle as his world unravels around him.
"You think any woman in their right mind could ever love you," replied Tex.
Suddenly everything becomes clear to the doctor. "And I thought we had a perfect life," he says quietly. "I wish I believed in divorce, but I don't."
The house becomes even more complicated when Helen reveals that the real reason she has stayed all these years was to serve the doctor - the man she loves.
"I have helped bring down governments, I have helped kill presidents... A little scandal in Indian River is nothing to me," the maid says.
And scandal there is. Blood, murder, cover-ups and investigations soon follow. The house is full of secrets and questions about what is love and what does it mean to be a man; what is religion and what is true salvation? Playwright Arthur Giron has penned a very exciting and entertaining play that should go on from here to a healthy future on additional stages.
Dan Domingues shows he is as talented as he is daring; Guenia Lemos has a commanding presence on the stage; John FitzGibbon is wonderful as the meak doctor; and Liz Zazzi rounds out an excellent cast as the singer who never made it to the big time.
To playwright Arthur Giron, "Love and Murder" is a light whodunit
that's rooted in some very serious themes — the lot of the illegal
immigrant, social isolation and the titular crime of passion.
Since taking a leave of absence from a career as a speechwriter
for David Rockefeller some 40 years ago, the 70-year-old
Manhattanite (a founding member of New York City's esteemed Ensemble
Studio Theatre) has crafted nearly 20 full-length plays, several of
them touching upon issues that resonate with his own origins in
Guatemala. His 2006 script "The Coffee Trees" is, in fact, a version
of Chekhov's "Cherry Orchard" transplanted to Guatemala. With "Love
and Murder," now entering its world-premiere engagement at New
Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, the veteran author and
educator manages to revisit his Central American turf, by way of the
United States/Canada border.
As Giron explains it, "Many years ago, I did social work in a
village in upstate New York, where the play takes place . . . as it
turned out, they were "sister cities' with a village in
Noting that the people of the upstate hamlet prided themselves on
their "old-style American values" — attitudes not too far removed
from those of rural Guatemalan enclaves that frowned upon village
women congregating in public places, or even drinking coffee — Giron
plucked the germ of an idea from the cool Canadian air.
In "Love and Murder," a beautiful young Guatemalan woman named
Helen (Guenia Lemos) comes to live as an exchange student at the
home of one Dr. Tuttle (John FitzGibbon), the town's most prominent
citizen and a man mired in a largely loveless marriage with
flamboyant cabaret singer Tex (Liz Zazzi).
The passion part comes into play when the student stays on
illegally as maid in the doctor's household. As for the crime, well,
let's just say the situation escalates to the point where it
necessitates the introduction of Blackie (Dan Domingues), a cop from
the neighboring Indian reservation.
It's an entertaining tale told with a dash of mystery and a
dollop of music — but, in between its playful plot points, the
script has much to say about some issues that the author takes very
seriously, such as "America's exploitation of Third World countries"
and "the limits that we tend to put on ourselves."
"Many people still tend to isolate themselves, and (the play) is
set in an isolated place, with four very passionate people," the
playwright observes. "It's a place where there's no sun, and all
there is to do is have sex and go crazy."
In Giron's world, "Love and Murder" are two sides of the same
highly charged coin, with the whole concept of "living on the
borderline" exerting a major influence on the proceedings.
"The Mohawk reservation in the area where the play is set exists
partly in the United States, and partly in Canada," Giron explains.
"And the character of the wife, who's a Dolly Parton type with an
act called "Songs of All Nations,' comes from El Paso, which is a
border situation also."
The show is being directed by Peter Bennett.
ARTHUR GIRON ON LOVE AND MURDER
by Gary Wien
Arthur Giron is one of the top contemporary playwrights in the country. His plays are performed continuously throughout America. He was awarded the Los Angeles Critics Drama-League Prize for "Outstanding Achievement in Playwriting" for his play, "Becoming Memories". A former Head of the Graduate Playwriting Program at Carnegie Mellon University, he has taught workshops across the land. His latest play is called "Love and Murder" and it will be premiering in April at NJ Rep.
We spoke to Mr. Giron about his play, what inspires him, and the new theatre in his life.
Tell me about Love and Murder.
One of the characters is a Latino woman who's an illegal alien maid. In the movie version it would be Selma Hayek. We have a very beautiful Brazilian woman acting the role. She comes to America as an exchange student but stays on illegally in the house of the richest man in the village in upstate New York and he falls in love with her. Eventually the lady she works for is murdered and that brings about Blackie, an Indian cop. And to this day no one has guessed who the killer is! Isn't that great?
The truth is that the illegal immigrant maid is taken advantage of by the lady she works for. For me, it's a big thing the way the third world countries are taken advantage of. I carry within me enormous rage about a lot of things. I read somewhere that you said you write out of pain and a question, is that still your inspiration?
If you were studying with me I would say throw away all of those books on structure. What it is is the question you are asking. For example, Hamlet wants to know who killed my father and then that detective question gives the shape. He's looking for the answer and that's the structure.
A very good example is "A Chorus Line" - who's going to get the job? In the first 5 minutes they're all saying "I need this job, I need this job" so the audience buys into the question which is who is going to get the job.
So I feel from a suspense point of view that I have a question I want to know that's personal. For example, I have a play about the Boy Scouts where I ask the question "what is a man?" The question in the play is "is this kid going to make it in the woods all night?" But I am writing out of something that's happening to me today that I don't know the answer to and so I then write the play to try to find out what the answer is.
What was the question asked in this play?
When it begins we know there's been a murder, so there's the 'who did it' question but I'm asking questions such as 'what is more important? an artistic life or a happy family life?' Also the question of 'what is our responsibility to those who have less than we do?'
I'm tormented by what we see every day in the news. As a nation, we need to do more than we know so a good part of the play has to do with an older couple and a younger couple. I would like people to start thinking about the responsibility they have to those who are coming after us and the younger generation. One of the two younger people in the play is a Mayan Indian so what about these brown people? What do we owe them and how do we relate to them?
It's a plea for understanding. Can we understand? What can we do to increase our understanding?
When a playwright has had as many productions as you have had, what gets you excited for yet another opening night? You've been through all the jitters, the reviews, etc. What gets you excited now?
This is what happens... you fall in love with your characters. I think that one of my jobs is to give a voice to people who don't have one.
I like to have people voicing certain ideas and that's why I do this - to do what other people are not doing. What's so exciting is that we're going to hear voices that as far as I know aren't talking anywhere.
I'm trying to get at the truth. Many years ago, I was hijacked to Havana in the first plane that was hijacked. It was a news blackout because it was about Cuba. I sold my story significantly to Canada but in the United States the news that went out was a lie. It was not what happened to us. What happened was the guy took the plane to Cuba but the newspapers said he was an Algerian Freedom Fighter. He wasn't.
I lost my faith in the press that day. You're not going to get the truth in the papers. You're not going to get the truth in tv. I give you information that goes into your heart so there are things I need to talk about that I'm not hearing. That's part of seeing a play for the first time. It's getting out there these new thoughts. But I also want it to be entertaining, so this play is funny and sensual too. It's all about how you do it artistically to get the information through.
You were a founding member of The Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York, which has produced over 3,000 new plays in its 36 years. Earlier today you were at a ceremony involving the company's new theatre but it was a bit bittersweet wasn't it?
The sad thing about today was that our Artistic Director, Kurt Dempster, died about a month ago. So it was extremely sad to go into this beautiful new space and he's not going to be there. Of course we kept on saying that we've got to call the theatre the Kurt Dempster Theatre. It's got to take his name because he's the one.
When we first started Mayor John Lindsay gave us the space we had on West 52nd Street for a dollar a year. Of course that's all changed now. That whole neighborhood is going gentrified and all that. Suddenly all that land is very valuable. But, in the meantime, the city has been building us a theatre which we're going to have to figure out how we're going to pay for it because they'll give us the space but it's going to cost us a lot more money.
There's more duplicity than meets the eye as lives hang in the balance in this serio-comic murder mystery set in an isolated upstate New York border town. Directed by Peter Bennett, the play stars Dan Domingues, John FitzGibbon, Guenia Lemos and Liz Zazzi.
Love and Murder follows the lives of Dr. Tuttle, the most prominent member of a community still stuck in the 1950's, and that of his wife, Tex, an aspiring singer. Their relationship appears to be stable on the surface but dark passions and frustrations seethe beneath, ready to be unleashed at any moment. The catalysts for the inevitable crisis are Helen, the couple's illegal South American maid, for whom Tuttle harbors a repressed desire, and Blackie, a Cree Indian policeman with a dark past.
Shore-area audiences who weren't fortunate enough to have caught
Athol Fugard's drama "Exits and Entrances" when it played Long
Branch last spring now have another chance: The South African
playwright's acclaimed duet is making its long-awaited New York
debut in a limited-run, off-Broadway engagement.
A snapshot portrait of the real-life Afrikaans actor Andre
Huguenet and the societal sea changes that likely hastened his
booze-soaked decline, "Exits" injects an autobiographical element in
the person of an earnest young writer — an unnamed stand-in for the
young Fugard — who befriends the fast-fading thespian. In a review
from May 2006, Press readers learned that "to see it is to be
provided with a direct glimpse into the creative process of one of
the world's greatest living playwrights."
Best known for "Master Harold . . . and the Boys," Fugard wrote
"Exits" expressly for director Stephen Sachs and his L.A.-based
Fountain Theatre, working closely with Sachs and his cast (Morlan
Higgins as Huguenet, William Dennis Hurley as The Playwright) as the
director and actors premiered the show on the West Coast and
fine-tuned it at engagements across the country — including a
memorable few weeks at Monmouth County's own New Jersey Repertory
Higgins, Hurley and Sachs are all on board once more as "Exits
and Entrances" continues a New York run that opened officially on
Wednesday and lasts until April 28. A production of Primary Stages,
the play is being presented at 59E59 Theaters (59 E. 59th St.,
natch). Tickets ($60) can be reserved by calling (212) 840-9705.
(STAFF PHOTO: MICHAEL SYPNIEWSKI)
Michael Nathanson (left), Ian August and Stephanie Thompson star in "tempOdyssey," now being staged by the New Jersey Repertory Company.
File this NJ Rep offering under oddities
Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 02/27/07
BY TOM CHESEK CORRESPONDENT
While it probably doesn't appear in the troupe's mission statement, it's actually become something of a policy for New Jersey Repertory Company:
cheerfully delving into the surreal and playing with any preconceptions of what a nice, suburban stage company should be doing to earn its subscription dollars.
The latest vehicle for NJ Rep's impish impulses is a little play now playing at their Long Branch main stage by the name of "tempOdyssey," an almost unclassifiable work that's set, strangely enough, in a room full of file cabinets. It's part of a "rolling world premiere" event, staged in cahoots with other affiliated members of the National New Play Network.
The script by Texas-based Dan Dietz places a young temp by the name of Genevieve (Stephanie Thompson) in the downtown Seattle suites of Ithaca Tech Solutions, a place where scientists create weapons of mass destruction and edgy micro-managers work to destroy the psyches of their beleaguered employees.
Branded as "Jane" by her co-workers since, well, all female temps are named Jane, Genny has escaped her family's Georgia chicken farm to "shake the grits out of my ears," lose her drawl and disappear into a hopefully uneventful career as a temporary receptionist.
As portrayed with barely contained manic energy by Michael Nathanson (seen very recently in NJ Rep's "Don't Hug Me"), "Jim" is a temp of a different stripe, a thieving slacker who carries an executive access card — and who knows where the permanent records are kept. Having learned from a master of inter-office intrigue (an almost Jedi-like elder temp named Fran), "Jim"
takes early control of the proceedings, showing Genny the view from the top floors and introducing her to the nearly mythical "Johnson File" — as well as the doomsday device known only as "Jane's Revenge."
Little Genny, as it happens, is a one-woman doomsday scenario in and of herself — a woman for whom death is "what I have to give." Gifted with a facility for choking chickens — a skill that's been at the heart of her relationship with her fowl-farmer dad (David Sitler) — the neck-twisting specialist has come to believe that her very touch brings death and/or despair to all those who get close to her. It's a trait that further manifests itself in an obsession with black holes, and by the time that our terrible temp gets hold of "Jane's Revenge," all hell seems poised to break loose.
Phasing in and out of her Appalachian accent, making an alarmingly smooth transition from put-upon protagonist to downright scary Goddess of Death, Thompson holds her own with the lighting and sound designs of Jill Nagle and Jessica Paz, whose swirling, pulsing projections of worlds in collision and other deep-space phenomena turn Jo Winiarski's blandly sinister file-room set into a jarring theme-park ride.
Anyone who caught "Tilt Angel," the previous Dietz offering at NJ Rep, should know what kind of unexpected to expect — bracingly funny dialogue, eye-popping effects and a script that grapples with some cosmic concepts even as it delivers the gut-level laughs.
Carrying built-in parallels to the original "Odyssey" as well as trace elements of "The Wizard of Oz" and countless half-recalled late-night horror shows, "tempOdyssey" feeds off the NJ Rep team's flair for challenging material with an energy that flags only in the play's final moments.
THEATRE REVIEW: TEMPODYSSEY
by Gary Wien
(LONG BRANCH, NJ) -- The surreal mind of playwright Dan Dietz returns to NJ Rep's stage in the "rolling world premiere" of tempOdyssey, a play that is premiering in several theatres around the country at the same time as part of the National New Play Network.
tempOdyssey follows Little Genny, a woman who fled her Georgian past as a chicken choker to move to Seattle and is now embarking on her first day as a temp in an office unlike any other temp job she's ever had. Genny gets a sense of how crazy her new employer is from the very first minute she enters the office and is "trained" by the receptionist she is replacing. It's the woman's last day and she prepares Genny by reciting the office rules such as "one bathroom break in the morning, one in the afternoon - don't leave your desk unattended otherwise or you're fired." Genny laughs but soon realizes the woman is serious.
Once left alone, the phones start ringing like crazy and Genny tries frantically to not only learn how the phone system works but to learn what the name of the company is. Meanwhile another temp named Jim enters the picture and tries to start a conversation but Jenny tries to avoid him.
"I can't talk right now, I'm working" she says. "My mistake," said Jim. "I thought you were temping."
The play's first act is a wonderfully creative blend of sound and lighting effects to emulate the "big bang" and "black holes" which play major roles in the play since the company she temps for makes a product that has a small chance of creating a black hole by mistake.
tempOdyssey is a hilarious look at inner office politics and the art of temporary workers. Genny likes being able to work from place to place without ever being tied down to any one particular place. Jim feels the same way even though he's worked for the same company for over two years. The company constantly tries to get him to sign on permanently but he refuses.
"The CEO calls me 'the hold out - the one with balls" explains Jim.
Jim tells Genny that he was trained by a temp named Fran - a woman who was a temp worker for about 30 years - how to be the ultimate temp... how to be immortal. His main advice to her is that temps can do anything there as long as they don't break anything. Unfortunately, she has a history of breaking things and her streak of bad luck or doing bad things continues whenever she gets close to someone.
In Dan Dietz tradition, the play is surreal throughout with moments of pure surrealism lifting it to a plane almost unimaginable. The first act uses the sound and lighting to pull off the extra surrealism while the second act (which largely seems to take place in Genny's mind) seems to be a bit of a letdown without the visual effects. It's not necessary that the second act is weak, it's somewhat a letdown largely because the first act is so wonderfully written that it's hard to keep going at such a high level. Nevertheless, this play is well worth seeing for the first act alone. There are parts that are simply mind blowing and laugh out loud funny.
tempOdyssey stars Ian August, Andrea Gallo, Michael Nathanson, David Sitler and Stephanie Thompson. As usual, NJ Rep has comprised a truly outstanding cast of actors. Stephanie Thompson as Genny and Michael Nathanson as Jim (aka Dead Body Boy) are truly amazing and Ian August is hilarious as the Scientist (one of many roles he plays).
The set was designed by Jo Winiarski, lights by Jill Nagle, costumes by Patricia E. Doherty, properties by Jessica Parks, and sound and projections by Jessica Paz.
More than just another office place comedy, tempOdyssey tries to merge its story of the quest for meaning of life with Homer's Odyssey. While it may not always work, it does make you think. It also makes you wonder just what other crazy stories are bouncing around in the head of Dan Dietz. One thing's for sure, he's an original.
Meaning Of Life At New Jersey Rep
Michael Nathanson and Stephanie Thopmson in tempOdyssey.
Don't look for an explanation of tempOdyssey here. Opinion, sure; but as for
explanation, you're on your own. Much of Dan
Dietz's play at New Jersey Repertory Company is
baffling. The beginning, with gobbledytalk about
black holes and science gone awry, left me
perplexed. So did the metaphysical ending. Then
there was everything in between. There's no linear
plot. No regular boy-girl romance, no "good guys
v. bad guys," not even a king who dies at the end.
The play swerves, seemingly randomly, from idea to
idea and mood to mood.
Supposedly the playwright sees a
symbiosis between office temp work and The
Odyssey, the Greek epic poem traditionally
ascribed to Homer. Playwright Dietz might see it,
but I don't, and it's way too late to check with
So why did I like tempOdyssey so much? I asked one of the actors. "It's like an
abstract painting," Michael Nathanson said, "not
just a picture of something. It's got shapes and
colors that grab your attention and appeal to you
even if you don't know exactly why." I came home
and gazed for a while at an abstract watercolor
that I've cherished for years. Mike had nailed it.
Rather than telling a story, tempOdyssey just happens in front of you, like a piece of
music - or an abstract painting.
that the play is so deliciously acted, especially
by my lay-analyst Nathanson and by the beguiling
Stephanie Thompson, who plays Genny, as in
Genevieve, aka Little Genny. She's a former
"chicken choker" (stay tuned), now office temp.
Nathanson plays Dead Body Boy (now that's
abstract), a.k.a. Jim, another temp in the same
company, who's been there so long he "could find
[his] desk in the dark."
Genny is a recent
transplant to Seattle from her family's farm in
Georgia, where she earned her alliterative
occupational tag via her unique method of killing
chickens by spinning their necks 720 degrees. (For
the geometrically challenged, that's twice
around.) Problem was, she couldn't confine her
talent to feathered cluckers. You wouldn't want
Little Genny to consider you a pain in the neck,
if you get my drift.
Genny shows up at a
bomb manufacturing company (wouldn't you know it),
where she's given hasty instruction by the
blustery CEO (Ian August), which involves mainly
barking that two-word obscene phrase into
the phone. She and Dead Body Boy, who's not
actually dead - yet - riff on the advantages of
being temporary. Lines like "Temps do everything
for you except be yours," and "As long as you
don't break anything you're okay," might indicate
that Dietz's play is a metaphor for the odyssey
(small "o") of life. Let's just go with
Forays into Genny's memory bank,
flashbacks to her farm origins, are alternately
eerie and funny. Genny's father is hardly the
nurturing type; David Sitler plays papa very well,
and Andrea Gallo is the rustic mama. Gallo, like
Mr. August, excels in other cameo roles as well.
August's astrophysicist is properly pompous, and
Gallo's temp-from-the-past is the picture of
Jim and Genny are a
quirky pair, to say the least, and Nathanson and
Thompson match them quirk for quirk. He's an
uninhibited actor whose limber-limbed,
rubber-necked clown scene is a comic gem (although
the bit barely sidesteps ridicule of certain
handicaps). Genny is a character of extremes, from
girlish innocence to intense malevolence, and
Thompson, whose poise and swan neck recall Audrey
Hepburn, brings it all home. Some of the Jim &
Genny scenes are romantic, some confrontational,
some actually disturbing (the first act curtain's
a doozy); Nathanson and Thompson are in sync with
each other in every one.
director Sturgis Warner for the ensemble work and
the nimble pace, and Jill Nagle gets a major
shout-out for her superb lighting design.
Altogether, the tech design and execution
complement tempOdyssey perfectly. Like the
play itself, the various effects come out of
nowhere, but somehow the shapes and colors fit
Make of Dead Body Boy and Genny
et al what you will; they and their play are fun
to watch. It's ‘Office Temp Meets Carrie' at New
You might say temporary workers are invisible Americans: that teeming gray area of the nation's workforce, a shadowy caste whose voices remain silent even as their legions swell. But in a country where the hobo, the outlaw and the gigolo have been celebrated in story and song, who sings the praises of the always-punctual, ever-efficient, non-wavemaking temp?
Dan Dietz knows a thing or two about temping, having done the time-sheet deal both full-time and every summer throughout his stint in grad school. As the Austin, Texas-based playwright sees it, to temp is to walk the razor's edge.
"On the one hand, you have no clout . . . your opinion counts for nothing," says Dietz of the temp's lot in life. "And yet, there's this incredible freedom . . . I knew I wanted to write about this sort of experience."
For Dietz, the germ of an idea began to take shape during one of those temp summers, a time in which he whiled away his downtime hours with a re-reading of Homer's classic "The Odyssey" — along with a little casual research into the topic of black holes. By the time the budding dramatist took part in a "hothouse" writers' workshop in Seattle — an event in which writers were expected to produce plays within a corporate conference-center environment — the artist had found his cubicle-bound muse.
The result? "tempOdyssey," a dark comedy about a Seattle office temp named Little Genny, who comes to believe that she is the Goddess of Death, dispatched to this godforsaken basement file room as part of some epic quest for the meaning of life itself.
Having tested there as a script-in-hand reading, the play comes to the stage of New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch for a four-week run that begins this weekend.
Produced in conjunction with National New Play Network, a loose alliance of nonprofit stage companies of which NJ Rep is a member, "tempOdyssey" is a "rolling world premiere," a work that's being presented by more than one New Play Network affiliate within the same season (the script has already been staged at member playhouses in Denver, Indianapolis and Washington).
The show also marks a return to the NJ Rep mainstage for Dietz and his uniquely skewed perspective on American life. The company previously spotlighted Dietz's jaw-droppingly surreal comedy-drama "Tilt Angel," in which a young shut-in (Ian August) travels to the afterlife via a monstrously oversized telephone; a missing mom (Andrea Gallo) is reincarnated as a sentient tree and a giant skeletal hand emerges from the most frightening backyard garden ever devised.
Although something of an underperformer at box office, Dietz's take on family bonds earned raves in these pages and established the author as a talent to watch.
Joined by Michael Nathanson, David Sitler and Stephanie Thompson under the direction of Sturgis Warner, August and Gallo return to Dietz-land in "tempOdyssey" a study in what happens when a "temp who wants only to be anonymous meets up with a temp who wants to take risks," in a place where the mundane becomes the mythic.
"We all tell ourselves little myths about ourselves to get through the day," Dietz observes. "What happens if that myth becomes so exaggerated that it takes over, and you become disconnected?"
While the playwright (who will soon be punching the clock as a faculty member at Florida State University) professes a certain admiration for the traditional American work ethic, he also marvels at such currents as the erosion of employer-employee loyalty — and the fact that "being promoted" at one's workplace often achieves the same result as being fired; namely, you get to spend more time at home.
"Work was always an escape for many people; a way to hide from the rest of the world," Dietz continues. "But, as we all eventually find out in life, everything is temp."
New Jersey Repertory Company drops a dramatic
Kapanjie (left) and Kittson O'Neill appear in a scene from New
Jersey Repertory Company's production of "October 1962," now
being staged in Long Branch.
Is it too early to proclaim the Shore area's best play of
For their first mainstage offering of the year, the people of New
Jersey Repertory Company have dropped something of a quiet bombshell
— a production that sets the bar high for everything to follow. In
"October 1962," the drama by D.W. Gregory now in its world premiere
engagement at the company's Long Branch playhouse, family secrets
and neighborhood tensions approach critical mass in the days
immediately before and during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
It's a play in which Fidel Castro and President John F. Kennedy
are conspicuous in their absence; it's a play that gives center
stage to a smaller-scale (but no less lethal) crisis that starts
when a young man returns to his family home after serving a prison
stretch for manslaughter.
Playwright Gregory, who previously refracted several decades of
American history through the prism of a Midwest farm family in "The
Good Daughter," here frames this tense atom-age interlude within the
modestly middle-class home shared by small-town businessman Dave
Timmons (James Patrick Earley), wife Laura (Kittson O'Neill) and
their daughters Jean (Jenny Vallancourt of Middletown) and Nancy
(Juliet Kapanjie of Perrineville).
The Timmons household is a place where curtains are drawn against
prying eyes, where a door-chain equals extra security and where the
outside world (as represented by Walter Cronkite) is allowed access
only at the appointed hour. It's also a household under siege, from
the rattling of skeletons within as much as from the ratcheting up
of tension in the community.
A decent man and a good neighbor, Mr. Timmons grants a job to the
much-despised ex-con, who evidently strangled a young child when he
himself was barely a teen. It's just a matter of days before threats
start flying, mysterious "meetings" begin to occur and the rumor
mill lurches into gear, helped in no small measure by Laura.
The author has allowed that her script bears traces of both "The
Donna Reed Show" and its fellow 1962 television classic "The
Twilight Zone" — the former in its unstated motif of conflicts
resolved by an apparently infallible mom and dad, the latter in its
recurring theme of suburban streets brought to chaos by fear and
panic over bogeymen real and imagined.
Laura is a bit too friendly with the bottle, Dave makes far too
many unexplained trips outside the home, and the entire household
seems to operate under the credo "the less said about it, the
By contrast, the Timmons daughters are spirited rays of sunlight
— sociable, community-minded and inquisitive to the point of playing
"reporter" with strangely attractive, motorcycle-riding Tommy, a Boo
Radley of sorts who remains unseen onstage. Borrowing their dad's
binoculars and keeping a journal, the girls — who are not above
dabbling in lies and secrets themselves — raise unanswered questions
(Did he really kill the boy?) and stir up currents far darker than
anything Nancy Drew ever encountered.
Under director Matthew Arbour's sure hand, the world of "October
1962" gains scale and dimension. In his company debut, Earley finds
a satisfying balance between TV-dad authority and unsettling
otherness; the versatile O'Neill adds another finely etched
characterization to a broad NJ Rep portfolio.
No special allowances need be made for the youngest cast members
— with their naturalistic, un-stagey styles and honest interactions,
newcomers Vallancourt and Kapanjie rise to the challenges of their
A New Jersey Repertory Company presentation of a play in
two acts by D.W. Gregory.
Directed by Matthew Arbour.
New Jersey Rep kicks off the New
Year with D.W. Gregory's unnerving new drama
"October 1962." The date
may be remembered as a cautious moment in time when President Kennedy
challenged the Soviet Union's placement of threatening missiles on
Cuban soil. Gregory parallels this brief but tense week in history
with a small-town family crisis that may not be as harrowing, but holds
The drama hinges upon the curious Timmons sisters, two young Catholic
schoolgirls who fashion themselves into investigative reporters. The girls
appear to harbor an obsessive grip on a teenage neighbor and former convict, the
unseen Tom Nably, who murdered a 7-year-old boy some years before and has
returned to a yellow house in the community. As a noble gesture, the girl's
father provides employment for the young man, which causes quite a stir in the
Curtains are drawn and lights are dimmed as the community trembles with fear.
But the Timmons household appears to hold even darker secrets as the older
daughter reveals dim memories of a parent's indiscretion.
Just as the inherent fear of the Russian medium-range ballistic missiles was
quickly dismissed, a frightening Halloween domestic nightmare erupts and
While the ominous Tom never makes an appearance, playwright Gregory has
invested the drama with a cinematic feel, inserting visions of him buying rope
and tape at the grocery store and looking at knives at the local hardware.
There's a decided Hitchcockian fabric to the steely narrative, and director
Matthew Arbour has touched the aud's nerve ends with a loping, even pace that
builds to an alarming revelation.
Performances are tidy but could increase the sense of panic and intensity.
Played with the appropriate calculated naivety by Jenny Vallancourt and Juliet
Kapanjie, the girls fail to heighten the morbid curiosity of the situation.
James Patrick Earley, as the father who harbors a dark secret, gives a
well-modulated perf, and Kittson O'Neill provides an earnest account of the wife
who appears to dismiss a shady secret with a few shots of vodka.
Carrie Mossman's set offers a reasonably tidy suburban living and dining area
that serves the action comfortably, as does Jill Nagle's chilly lighting.
'October 1962' takes a family to the brink
Monday, January 08, 2007
BY PETER FILICHIA
NEW JERSEY STAGE
Where were you in '62?
Those who were alive and aware certainly can remember where they were
for one month of it: The 31-day period on which playwright D.W. Gregory
concentrates in her powerful new play, "October 1962."
While the world wondered if President Kennedy could force the Soviets
into removing its missiles from Cuba, the Timmons family was going through
its own Armageddon.
One can tell that David (James Patrick Earley) and Laura (Kittson O'Neill)
are not a happy couple, even before she opens a bottle of vodka. Never
mind that her daughters, the teenage Jean (Jenny Vallancourt) and the
pre-teen Nancy (Juliet Kapanjie), are right there when she takes her
modest first drink -- and her larger second one.
Gregory gets the audience to sympathize with David, who seems to still
love his wife, always trying to find the right words that will stop her
from drinking. Laura, though, rarely greets him with anything more than
"Oh. There you are."
Laura does screw the cap back on the bottle to take a stand against
David's most recent decision. Some years ago, Tom Nabely, a 13-year-old
neighbor, killed a 7-year-old boy. Laura is furious not only that Tom
has been released from prison, but also that David has magnanimously
hired him to work at his office.
Meanwhile, Jean has turned into a veritable Nancy Drew, peeking through
curtains and eavesdropping at the drop of a word. Her object is simply
to write a good romance novel based on the incident. What starts out
as a lark turns dark. When she examines the recesses of her soul and
her memory, she learns why she wanted to write this book in the first
Gregory makes "October 1962" one of those all-too-rare accomplished
plays where theatergoers are sure they can guess what really happened,
only to find that the playwright has led them down the wrong path of
the maze. Her keeping Tom Nabely off-stage also makes an audience wonder
if the man is as bad as Laura says, or reformed, as David insists.
The script is skillfully directed by Matthew Arbour, who accomplishes
a few remarkable things here. He makes the tension between Earley and
O'Neill unbearable in the first scene, yet escalates it to steadily increasing
heights. In ensuring that Earley plays the victimized and brave husband
while O'Neill conveys the ravages of alcoholism, he manages to mask the
many revelations to come.
Granted, Gregory astutely gives Jean and Nancy the type of taunting
often heard between siblings. ("Get a brain, will you?") Yet Arbour provides
the chemistry for Vallancourt and Kapanjie to seem genuinely like sisters.
While Kapanjie's elocution could be better, she has the lovely insouciance
of a tween, and is a delight in maintaining a sunny disposition as her
sister can no longer justify having one.
Hence, it's ultimately Vallancourt's play, and she wisely gets the final
bow -- and a tidal wave of applause for all she's achieved. She beautifully
calibrates her descent from optimism and innocence to a far sadder fate.
Only the stoniest of theatergoers won't weep for her.
"October 1962" provides an excellent welcome to 2007. The first professional
New Jersey theater production of the year sets a high standard for those
yet to come.
You don't make any sense. First you
say not to worry. . . then you say we can't go to school alone. It's
just like with the missiles. You want to pretend nothing is going
on. But we know what's going on. We're not stupid. Why can't you
just TELL US! (quick beat) Oh NEVER MIND! I DON'T CARE!— Jean to
(L to R) Juliet Kapanjie as Nancy and Jenny
Vallancourt as Jean
(Photo: SuzAnne Barabas)
Don't try to deceive a child, as they know
and see more than you think. That's one of the more prominent messages
dramatized in D.W. Gregory's absorbing play now having its world premiere
at the New Jersey Repertory Company. The title, October 1962, brings us back forty-five years to another still vivid (for some) time of
anxiety and fear, the not so cold war, when the US was facing the
possibility of a missile attack launched from Cuba by the Russians.
But the play only uses that time as a background for a scenario in
which the people in a small town, specifically the Timmons family, are
provoked by uncertainty and prompted to act often rashly in response to a
perceived menace or danger. Fourteen year old Jean Timmons (Jenny
Vallancourt) and her younger eleven year-old sister Nancy (Juliet
Kapanjie) certainly know the drill. That is they know what they have been
told to do if an atomic bomb should be dropped while they were in school,
like hiding under their desks. But these are pretty clever girls and they
quickly come to the conclusion, no matter what they have been told by the
adults, that they would be just as dead sitting at their desks.
Undoubtedly a fan of the Nancy Drew mysteries, Jean envisions
herself as part detective and part novelist as she peers through the
window of the dining room using her father's binoculars. She reports what
she sees going on outside the window in an engagingly descriptive manner
to Nancy, who writes down her words in a diary. Apparently a young man who
lived down the block has returned to his home after serving a sentence,
for manslaughter of a seven year old when he was only thirteen. Jean's
curiosity is peaked when she sees the young man, now old enough to drive a
motorcycle, and who she only vaguely remembers as a child, in the company
of their father David (James Patrick Earley).
Here is where
Gregory's play begins to percolate. Apparently the townspeople are up in
arms not only over the reappearance of the young man who they feel is a
threat to the community and to the safety of their children but also by
the fact that David has offered the young man a job in his business. His
wife Laura (Kittson O'Neill) is more than irate with David's presumably
generous action, which she is sure will jeopardize their standing in the
community. Laura's response, as is quickly perceived, is fueled by
something yet unseen, untold, or understood —as well as by the number of
times she tips the gin bottle that sits readily available on a side
The turn of the dramatic events, at least what transpires
within the Timmons' home, is most cleverly entrusted to the girls. This
provides a refreshing perspective to memories of incidents that are
recalled, family secrets that are exhumed, and relationships that are
tested. It takes a bit of courage to entrust so much of the play's
dynamics to two very young actresses, but Miss Vallencourt responds
beautifully to the challenge and is quite wonderful as the audacious
undeterred detective determined to make sense of a mystery and family
matters too long cloaked in denial and subterfuge. Miss Kapanjie is an
unwittingly delightful accomplice, and also amusingly displays all the
irritating qualities of a little sister.
Under Matthew Arbour's
purposefully restrained direction, the play's darker and progressively
unsettling revelations begin to surface early in Earley's tense
performance as the husband who is drawn defensively and unalterably into a
no-way-out situation. O'Neill's is excellent as the brittle emotionally
drained wife who is forced to come to terms with a grim reality. The chief
pleasure of a play that inevitably casts a long and dark shadow, however,
is Gregory's insightful depiction of a child's logic and the ability that
children have to persevere and to withstand all the evidence to the
contrary. Despite warnings, Jean and Nancy do affect meetings with the boy
(never seen). The play makes a clear enough analogy between the way that
people are inclined to react in the face of fear and the way the
townspeople and the family in this play respond to what they perceive as a
very real and present danger.
Previously, Gregory made a big
impact at N.J. Rep with her play The Good Daughter, which earned
her a Pulitzer Prize nomination. Audiences will find that October 1962 packs a wallop and sustains our interest. Gregory, who also writes
plays specifically for young actors, has certainly created two vivid roles
for these two young actresses. Perhaps more importantly her play subtly
draws parallels between the political climate in 1962 and today, and how
adults are likely to unwittingly become catalysts of fear mongers. All
technical credits are commendable from Carrie Mossman’s modest living room
setting, Patricia E. Doherty’s costumes, particularly the Halloween
get-ups for the girls, and Jill Nagle’s lighting.
Political Allegory Scores Strongly as Ripe, Suspenseful
and Jenny Vallancourt
New Jersey Repertory has a real treat in store for its audiences in its
world premiere production of D. W. Gregory's ominous and suspenseful mystery October,
1962. This engrossing and scary play makes for a thoroughly entertaining
ride not unlike that provided by the finest amusement park roller coaster.
It is not coincidental that D.W. Gregory has set her play during October,
1962, when the world appeared to be on the brink of a nuclear conflagration
after President Kennedy learned that the Soviet Union was deploying nuclear
missiles aimed at the United States in Cuba.
October, 1962 is seen through the eyes of two precocious parochial
school girls, 14-year-old Jean and, to a lesser extent, her 11-year-old
sister, Nan. The entire action takes place in the decorous, conservatively
furnished house occupied by the sisters and their parents, David and
Laura Timmons. There is clearly a great deal of tension and edginess
in the marital relationship.
Armed with a pair of binoculars, and a notebook and pencil, the girls
peek out from their window in order to observe and chronicle the return
to their street of Tommy, a young man who has just been released after
spending many years in a mental hospital. It seems that while a child
himself, Tommy had been committed to the hospital after being convicted
of deliberately killing a seven-year-old boy. Jean and Laura are surprised
to observe that their father David has driven Tommy home from the hospital.
To his wife Laura's chagrin, David has given Tommy a job in his plant
in order to facilitate his reintegration into the community. We are led
to believe that the tension between Laura and David likely stems from
his having had an affair with Tommy's mother. Jean is convinced that
Tommy is innocent of the long ago murder, and she seeks out Tommy in
order to explore his feelings. Despite David's admonition to Tommy to
avoid contact with them, Tommy lingers with his daughters. Driven by
paranoia and fear, the townsfolk interpret Tommy's every observed behavior
in a fearful light. Laura even fabricates a story about his behavior.
However, we cannot help but worry as to whether Jean and Nan are placing
themselves in serious jeopardy.
All of this builds to a terrifically tense and emotion laden scene during
which their parents discover that Jean has been spending time with Tommy.
Nan turns on her older sister in order to deflect her parents' wrath
away from herself. The interaction of the parents and their children
rings fiercely true. And, it is chillingly apparent that there is something
more afoot when David lashes out at Jean, "You've been watching me. Spying
on me ... What is it you're trying to find out?."
Author Gregory has a lot more in mind here than mystery melodrama. Gregory
is placing the blame for the Cuban missile crisis, and, more relevantly
at the moment, for the Iraqi War, on American aggression and paranoia.
The Timmons are pointedly Catholic not to add specificity to the characters,
but rather to accuse the Church of hypocrisy and deceit in the face of
pedophile clergy. The extent to which October, 1962 succeeds as
an allegory of the guilt, manipulation and paranoia of the American body
politic will vary with the mindset which each viewer brings to the theatre.
The more skepticism with which one views America's role on the international
stage, the more one will be inclined to accept her analogies. Some will
embrace Gregory's dark view of America as an paranoid, overbearing and
morally challenged nation. Others will find her observations as naive
in regard to the reality of the dangers which our nation faces. However,
no one will be bored. For those of us so inclined, there is plenty of
fodder here to provide the basis for lively and enlightening discussion
wherever our views fall along the political spectrum.
Director Matthew Arbour has managed to meld his actors into a first
rate ensemble. There is a strong sense of family among the four principals.
Both James Patrick Earley and Kittson O'Neill solidly project a complex
maze of emotions as the all too human and self-absorbed parents. It may
be too kind to say that David and Laura are less than admirable, but
they do love their children and are fighting to save their home and family.
Unfortunately, Juliet Kapanjie's natural, unmannered performance as Nan
is undermined by poor enunciation. Nevertheless, October, 1962 marks
a notable professional debut for the 10-year-old fifth grader. Jenny
Vallancourt is a natural in the pivotal role of Jean. Starting out in
the manner of a juvenile mystery book amateur detective, her Jean grows
in intensity and maturity as she delves more and more deeply into dark
and scary corners. Ultimately, Vallancourt powerfully conveys the hysteria
which overcomes Jean as her parents desperately attempt to shield her
from the ultimate dark family secret.
Carrie Mossman has designed a richly detailed, realistic set depicting
several areas of the Timmons' home on the NJ Rep's narrow stage. Patricia
E. Doherty's costumes are unobtrusively evocative of the period.
In October, 1962, author D.W. Gregory explores major political
themes, and integrates them into the whole without sacrificing any of
the pleasure provided by one of the most entertaining suspense plays
to come down the pike in quite some time.
Whether you lived through it or simply learned about it in history
class, October 1962 represents the front line of the Cold War: a time
of backyard bomb shelters, "duck and cover" drills and a Civil Defense
warden on every block. Even to a generation that's been personally
scarred by terror on the home front, the Cuban Missile Crisis remains
The Day the Hotline Got Hot — the point where the usual game
of brinksmanship truly brought us to the brink.
That said, don't expect to see President Kennedy or Premier Khrushchev
onstage during "October 1962," the drama making its world premiere this
weekend at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. In the script
by D.W. Gregory (whose play "The Good Daughter" was a stand-out production
at NJ Rep), the nationwide anxiety over those missiles of October is
relegated to the background: not completely out of mind, but just enough
of a presence to imbue the author's tale of small-town fear and domestic
discord with an extra layer of tension.
"I felt that the Cuban Missile Crisis was a good backdrop; a point of
high anxiety in our history," explains the playwright noted for her reality-based "Radium
Girls" of a few seasons back. "There are certain parallels to our current
politics, such as how we deal with a perceived threat."
The drama's emotional ordnance comes into play when a young man, having
been released from prison after serving a sentence for his part in a
murder, returns to the community he once called home. When a local businessman
(James Patrick Earley) decides to give the ex-convict a job, he does
more than rattle the townsfolk, he drives a wedge between himself and
his wife (NJ Rep mainstay Kittson O'Neill), whose concerns range from
their family's standing in the community to the safety of their impressionable
Co-starring in the cast (under the direction of Matthew Arbour) as the
youngest members of the family are a pair of newcomers to the NJ Rep
company, each with roots in the Shore area. Jenny Vallancourt of Red
Bank appears as the eldest daughter, while her little sister is portrayed
by Perrineville resident Juliet Kapanjie.
"I love to act; I've been doing it for a very long time,"
explains 10-year-old Juliet, a fifth grader at the Ranney School in Tinton
Falls (a "school full of celebrities" that boasts Kirsten Dunst among
its alumni). "I contacted (NJ Rep) about an audition, and they e-mailed
me the script . . . I thought it was so interesting after I read it,
I wanted to know more about it."
Juliet was previously seen by Shore audiences in the Phoenix Productions
revival of "The Wiz" at Red Bank's Count Basie Theatre in 2005, when,
under the direction of her dance teacher, she appeared as a Munchkin.
With "October 1962," the aspiring movie actress found herself involved
in a very different sort of production — a heavily dramatic, character-driven
ensemble piece. During rehearsals, director Arbour "really helped me
a lot," she recalles. "We sat and talked about what this family is like."
According to Juliet, "The characters are very much involved with the
story of the boy . . . at the same time, they're worried about the missiles.
It's interesting how they overlap."
As playwright Gregory maintains, "The bigger issues in this play are
refracted through the experiences of this one family. There's a burbling
strain of secrets, of terror, under the surface of their ordinary existence."
Drawing a distinction between the paranoia panorama of 1962 and our
general distancing from today's clear and present dangers, the playwright
asserts that "here in our so-called War on Terror, there's no call for
sacrifice; no home front — whereas the Cold War was nothing but
'October 1962': metaphor for the country and times
Millstone youth makes professional stage debut BY JENNIFER KOHLHEPP
CHRIS KELLY staff
Juliet Kapanjie, 10,
of the Perrineville section of Millstone, has a lead
role in the New Jersey Repertory Company's production
of "October 1962."
MILLSTONE - A 10-year-old township resident has risen
to the challenge of taking on a complex role in a psychological suspense
Juliet Kapanjie, of the Perrineville section of Millstone,
is making her debut performance this month on the professional stage
in the New Jersey Repertory Company's production of "October 1962" in
For its first main-stage offering of the year, the world
premiere of the play written by D.W. Gregory is set during the Cuban
missile crisis. The story is about the re-emergence of a man who has
just been released from prison after serving a term for killing a child.
His presence in the small town where Juliet's character Nancy lives
becomes unnerving to an already skittish community dealing with the
fright of the times during the Cuban missile crisis. Most townspeople
consider the man a "ticking time bomb," and it looks as if it won't
be long before he acts again. Nancy's family, however, decides not
to judge him.
Kittson O'Neill (l-r), Juliet Kapanjie
and James Patrick Early appear in a scene from NJ Rep's
production of "October 1962," now being staged in Long
The playwright has also said the story is a metaphor
for the United States and how jingoistic and war-happy so many people in
the country were after 9/11.
Juliet, a fifth-grader at the Ranney School in Tinton Falls
and an aspiring movie actress, said that when she read a copy of the
play prior to the audition she found it quite interesting and wanted
to know more.
In 2005, Juliet appeared as a Munchkin in Phoenix Productions' "The
Wiz" at the Count Basie Theatre in downtown Red Bank. Unlike her first
role, which wasn't very trying, according to Juliet, her part in "October
1962" is quite challenging.
"It is a difficult part," she said. "My character's name
is Nancy, and she asks a lot of questions."
Juliet's mother, Candice Pluchino Steven, said that when
the family found out that Juliet had gotten the part, it came as a
"It was really thrilling," her mother said.
"I'm proud of my daughter's talents."
Candice called "October 1962" an ambitious play
for a 10-year-old.
"It's about turmoil in a small town," her mother said. "There's
gossip and fear within the town that gets everyone going."
According to Candice, Juliet's part works to balance the
dramatic production with lighthearted comedy and the overall innocence
of a child. Since her character is younger than the rest of the people
in the play, she doesn't fully understand what's going on all of the
time and the dangers involved in living where and when she does.
The preparation for learning her part was extensive. Once
Juliet got the role, she practiced her lines at home from early September
through October. Rehearsals at the theater began in December, often
lasting for eight hours at a time, but Juliet said she enjoyed every
minute of them.
"I love acting," she said. "It's really fun getting to
perform in front of people on stage."
The play runs for two hours. Since there are only four
people in the entire production, each character plays an integral part
and has numerous lines.
Juliet's performance demands a lot of emotion from her,
requiring the 10-year-old to act scared, upset and also quizzical,
which is why her mother considers it "a tough, tough role."
"There's no second take," Juliet said. "It's live, not
like in a movie where you can do things over and over."
Juliet's mother said that while her daughter is taking
her stardom in stride, she herself is still in shock.
"At the first performance, I didn't breathe,"
her mother said.
Juliet said the play's director, Matthew Arbour, and the
other actors, James Patrick Earley, Kittson O'Neill and Jenny Vallancourt,
all helped her during rehearsals. She also takes an actor's improvisation
class at the Actors Playground School of Theatre in Eatontown.
Juliet studies improvisation with Ralph Colombino. Juliet
said she's learned from the class "to just do what I want during improvisation,
to just be natural and to go out there."
Besides acting, Juliet is a serious student of ballet and
the dance arts. She takes dance classes at the American Repertory Ballet's
(ARB) Princeton Ballet School in Princeton.
A CurtainUp Interview With D. W.
By Lucy Ann Dunlap
following E-Mail Chat with D.W. Gregory took place prior to the opening of
her new play October 1962, premiering at the New Jersey Repertory
Theatre in Long Branch where it will be reviewed by Simon Saltzman. This
world premiere, set during the Cuban missile crisis about the return to
town of a convicted child killer and how it affects a particular family is
the eighth full-length play by this writer, now known as D. W. Gregory, ho
earlier in her career wrote under her maiden name, Dolores Whiskeyman. The Good Daughter, premiered in 2003 also at NJ Rep and was
subsequently nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.
Gregory has won a
number of awards, including a National Endowment for the Arts grant for
the production in May 2000 for Radium Girls at Playwrights Theatre
of New Jersey. The Newark Star-Ledger named it the Best New Play of
that season. It and a number of her full-length and short plays have been
published by Dramatic Publishing Co., and scenes from a number of them
have been included in anthologies.
In addition to writing, Gregory
is a teaching artist selected by the Maryland Arts Council to teach
playwriting in the state's public schools. The Imagination Stage in
Maryland commissioned her to write plays for young people. Penny
Candy, her comedy for young actors, was produced at their Academy. She
earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in playwriting from the Catholic
University of America in Washington, D.C. and her bachelor's degree from
Seton Hall University in New Jersey. She lives in Silver Springs, Maryland
with her husband Paul, a bluegrass musician.
prompted you to write October 1962?
A: This play has two
sources of inspiration. The first was a newspaper article I clipped about
10 years or more ago about how a small town dealt with a man who'd been
released from prison after serving a full 12-year term for rape and
kidnapping and how frightened people were just by the fact that he was
there among them. He began to act very strangely — going to McDonald's,
sitting in a booth and staring at young women, remarking on their
appearance, that kind of thing. Very unnerving to an already skittish
community. In the article the prison psychiatrist said he was convinced
that the man was a "ticking time bomb" and that it was only a matter of
time before he acted again — but until the man actually committed a crime,
there was nothing anyone in the town could do about him, because he had
served his time and he was free.
What do you do in that situation?
I saw a drama in it, and I tucked it away in a clip file. And then I
forgot about it.
When the Iraq War started, I remembered that story and
pulled it out again. And thought about it: What if you're convinced of a
danger you can't prove? What do you do? And so I began to think about what
was going on at the time, about how shaken the nation was after 9-11 and
how jingoistic and war-happy so many people were.
I began to think
about some of these geopolitical issues on a domestic scale. We know what
happens when a superpower gives in to paranoia and panic. What if we look
at these problems in a more contained setting, refracted through the lens
of a single family? And so the play began to take shape early in 2004 and
I worked on it, off and on over the next year and a half in between other
Q: Does it have any particular relevance in
relation to the present day political climate?
A: Absolutely. The play could stand on its own, I guess, as a
psychological suspense story — but I think it's really a metaphor for our
country and our times.
Q: Two of your plays are titled, The Good Daughter and Are you the "good daughter," the "good
A: Not any more.
Q: Which of your
plays are drawn from your life? Which are primarily research driven? A: It's difficult to delineate, because even the most heavily
researched plays sometimes tap my personal experiences. I can definitely
relate to Grace Fryer, the character in Radium Girls who moves from
trusting authority to realizing that she'd been hoodwinked by people who
were supposed to be looking out for her. The silent contract in that
culture, in which women are expected to be supportive and sweet and
unchallenging of male authority, is that in exchange for all this
sweetness and subservience, the men in charge will look out for them. In
this case, the men poisoned the girls — certainly not intentionally, but
clearly with great negligence. And when they were confronted with the
facts, they did everything they could to cover it up and put off dealing
with the inevitable. That's a pattern I can relate to in my own life. I've
certainly had direct experience with authority figures who turned out to
be corrupt — and it's a pattern we see played out over and over and over
again, most recently in the U.S. Congress and the White House -- where our
leaders are more concerned about covering up their own mistakes than in
finding out how to prevent the next disaster.
I have written plays
that are clearly personal stories. Years ago I wrote a play called The
Truth About Charlie that was really about my own family. Besides a
workshop at Playwrights Theatere that play never got a production, but
it's the most personal thing I've written, if by personal you mean based
on true life experience. Somewhere I've read that every playwright's rite
of passage is the "family play" that exorcises their personal demons. But
that early play didn't exorcise any demons for me. It was a rather
sanitized, sentimental view of a blue collar household wrestling with
alcoholism, religious intolerance, poverty, and ultimately, the
grandfather's infidelity to his wife and the impact that it had on his
sons. It's all grim material presented in the shape of a sweet family
comedy. Maybe that made it palatable. Maybe it made it unproducible. More
likely that was also because it has six kids. At any rate, it went in the
drawer. However, when I wrote The Good Girl Is Gone about six or
seven years later I went back to the same material and this time, instead
of a Kauffman and Hart type comedy, I wrote something much more raw and
fractured — a five-character, surrealistic piece that careens from past to
present to past. In the end it deals with the same questions: Why do the
actions of a parent in the past continue to poison the relationships of
the children in the present? Why must the sins of the fathers be passed on
to any generation? That's a universal mystery, I think, upon which all
psychotherapy is based.
Q: Which have proved to be the
better received of your plays and whyhy do you think that is so?
A: Depends who's receiving it. Radium Girls got
universally positive reviews when it premiered at Playwrights Theatre, and
it did very well at the box office. Since then it has been published and
has gotten a lot of productions — all of them amateur productions in high
schools or colleges. Couldn't get a single professional company to
consider doing it. The Good Daughter got very good notices (with
one or two exceptions) when it was produced at NJ Rep. It was again a
sell-out show, and again, I couldn't get any other theaters interested in
it. But then neither of these plays is particularly easy to do. Radium
Girls is this large-cast, sprawling Brechtian spectacle — which, by
the way, got a fantastic production in London this October— and The
Good Daughter is an epic story that skates on the edge of melodrama.
It's not a melodrama -- but if you don't play it right, it will be, and I
think a lot of theaters are afraid of that. Audiences aren't, though. They
ate up both plays.
Q: What have you learned from teaching
young people in the playwriting workshops?
A: I've learned
to be more conscious of the choices I make in my own writing. That you
can't teach talent; you can only teach technique. And that the kiss of
death for any writer in any setting is to be defensive of your work. It's
a strange thing, but while you need to be able to defend your choices, you
should never be defensive about them because that puts up a barrier
between you and your audience and denies you an opportunity to learn more
about your work. But over and over again I see a lot of young writers get
very upset if their work is not well received or not understood. So I urge
them to think in terms of effectiveness in writing. It's not about whether
the work is good or bad. It's about whether it works . . .. what they want
the audience to receive. . .what they want the audience to think or feel
or understand? And if the audience doesn't receive it as hoped for,
analyze the work and try to figure out why. And then try to figure out
what the fix is to get the reaction you want. That makes it less personal
for the students and makes the point that writing isn't just about
self-expression but about conscious choices and applying specific
techniques towards desired ends.
So the lesson I take away from all of
this is to do that. No matter how personal the source of the material
might be — to set all that aside and focus as dispassionately as possible
on the structure of the play.
HUGLESS FOR THE HOLIDAYS
A shotgun wedding brings a hit musical comedy to NJ Rep
Outside it's a positively Plutonian 78 degrees below zero … cold even for
far-north Bunyan Bay, Minn. Inside Gunner Johnson's bar, things are heating up
from the conflicts between two couples: Gunner and his wife Clara (a former
Winter Carnival Bunyan Queen), who are split between moving to Florida and
staying in their hellaciously frigid hometown, along with pretty waitress
Bernice, who aspires to a singing career against the wishes of her fiancee
Kanute. Enter slick salesman Aarvid Gisselsen, who's got just the thing to boost
business and patch up punctured romances … the LS 562 karaoke machine ("not a
karaoke machine, but a lifestyle system''), a black box that lights up and spews
out the songs of one Sven Jorgenson, local composer of such peculiarly
provincial ditties as "I'm a Walleye Woman in a Crappie Town'' and "I Wanna Go
to the Mall of America.''
An award-winning smash that's been described as
" "Fargo' meets "The Music Man' without the blood or trombones,'' Paul and Phil
Olson's musical romp "Don't Hug Me'' brings a frosty blast of Bunyan Bay to the
Jersey Shore. It's the first-ever
holiday season offering for the Long
Branch-based New Jersey Repertory Company, and it's produced in collaboration
with Shotgun Productions of Manhattan. Gail Winar, who helmed "Beyond Gravity''
for NJ Rep last year and supervised one of this
play's first readings,
returns to the material with a cast that includes Clark Carmichael, John Little,
Cortnie Loren Miller, Michael Nathanson and Darcie Siciliano.
holiday musical is a departure for NJ Rep in more ways than one. It's a light
confection from a company known more for the edgy and experimental (the troupe's
last mainstage production was the Death Row monologue "Speed Queen''), and an
engagement that adds a few more scheduled performances to the mix, including a
special New Year's Eve encore that boasts an after-show party.
Minnesota-born playwright-lyricist Phil Olson makes his home in the decidedly
balmier precincts of Southern California these days, the drawn-out winters,
Midwestern accents and Scandinavian values of his home state continue to
inspire his popular stage works. Witness his first produced play, "KOLD
Radio, Whitefish Bay'' (a show originally titled "Krappie Talk'').
"Don't Hug Me'' had its original premiere in 2003 at L.A.'s Whitefire
Theatre LA … a six-week stand that was famously held over for six months by
popular demand. Since published by Samuel French, Inc., the little show that the
Los Angeles Times called "a hokey-jokey, karaoke crowd pleaser'' has now been
booked in close to 40 different cities in North America … and is well on its way
to becoming a franchise along the lines of "Greater Tuna,'' "Forever Plaid'' and
the mighty "Nunsense.'' It's even spawned a sequel: "A Don't Hug Me Christmas
Carol,'' now entering its world-premiere engagement in L.A. (with a concurrent
run in four other cities) featuring, for a limited time, Phil Olson himself as
Gunner in the West Coast staging.
"I put the Christmas show together
pretty much at the urging of the theater owners who didn't want to do "A Tuna
Christmas' again,'' Olson explained from his L.A. home. "Three of the five
venues booked the show before I even wrote it.''
Phil's choice of
collaborator makes for another fascinating fun-fact. Brother Paul Olson … a
kidney specialist whose day job is Chief of Nephrology at Allina Clinic in
Shakopee, Minn. - finds himself now a published composer who, in Phil's words,
is "having a blast doing this . . . he's even going to perform in the Minnesota
production of "Christmas Carol'.''
"He's always been a musician; he plays
a lot of instruments and uses a computer composition program called Finale,''
the author said of his older sibling. "I would try to write songs by humming
into a tape recorder . . . finally he said, "just let me write the music.' ''
Thus were born such regionally resonant anthems as "The Bunyan Yodel'' and
"Upside Down in My Pickup Truck.''
Much as his old state-mates come in
for a gentle ribbing, Phil Olson said, "I love Minnesotans . . . I don't want to
offend them or treat them like the characters in (the Coen Brothers film)
"I did a reading of the original script in the town of Ely
in northern Minnesota (the show was in fact first titled "The Merchant of Ely'),
and the audience thought it was a valentine to the area . . . they realize that
you're laughing with, and not at, the characters.''
As for stepping into
the shoes of his own character creation, the playwright is prone to confess that
"as an actor, I'm a good understudy . . I would always cast good Equity actors
before I would cast myself.''
"Besides, actors and directors always get
nervous whenever I'm around.''
A frost-brewed frolic from the land of competitive curling, "Don't Hug
Me" makes its Jersey Shore debut in a production that breaks down all
resistance with its score of engagingly silly songs, as well as a
cheerfully-rendered message of dreams fulfilled and love reaffirmed — all
via the magic of karaoke. It's a rare non-"Scrooge" local stage offering
this time of year, and it's an offbeat show for a number of other reasons,
not the least of which is where you'll find it.
A runaway hit in its original L.A. production, "Don't Hug Me" comes to
New Jersey Repertory Company's playhouse in downtown Long Branch with a
proven coast-to-coast track record and a budding franchise to boot (the
holiday sequel "A Don't Hug Me Christmas Carol" premiered in five U.S.
cities this month). That's unusual enough for NJ Rep, a company that
prides itself on developing and premiering completely new works. But in
this, its first collaboration with Manhattan-based Shotgun Productions,
the troupe veers as close as it will ever come to "Nunsense"
Of course, it's hardly fair to characterize NJ Rep as a bunch of gloomy
Gusses. Its home stages have long been the setting for some memorable
comedies, including the recent "Tour de Farce" and "The Best Man." "Don't
Hug Me" follows in the tradition of "Best" with a lively presentation that
doesn't gloss over the hard work and heart that went into its
Less than zero
Pitched as a cross between the icy-cold comic film "Fargo" and the
classic slice of Americana "The Music Man," the musical comedy (book and
lyrics by Phil Olson, music by Peter Olson) takes place in the northern
Minnesota hamlet of Bunyan Bay, during a cold snap in which the mercury
gets down to minus 78 degrees — and the customer base at The Bunyan bar
doesn't manage to get much above zero.
Beneath the earflaps and flannels, some dramatic flashpoints are
heating up: Tavern owner Gunner (John Little) wants to chuck it all for a
new life in the swampier climes of sunny Florida — a prospect that rates a
chilly reception from his wife and business partner Clara (Darcie
Siciliano). Meanwhile, their amply-endowed employee Bernice (Cortnie Loren
Miller) seems pleasantly resigned to a rather uneventful future with her
hometown-honcho fiancee Kanute (Clark Carmichael).
This being the off-season, the Music Man who comes to town is not
Professor Harold Hill but one Aarvid Gisselsen (Michael Nathanson), a
traveling salesman towing a formidable black box identified as the LSS
562. The "lifestyle system" karaoke machine boasts "comfort zone
enhancement," song-title voice activation and an almost mystical ability
to improve both bar business and the romantic relationships of those who
take hold of its wireless microphone.
It's also programmed with more than 80 songs ostensibly penned by local
hero Sven Yorgenson, a chameleonic songsmith whose goofy pastiches of pop
styles (from Lawrence Welk to black metal) become the vehicles by which
these characters express their deepest desires and durable fantasies.
The LSS 562 is the creation of scenic designer and tech director Quinn
K. Stone, who has transformed the normally spartan setting of NJ Rep's
black-box performance space into a dead-on evocation of Gunner's Bunyan
bar. To paraphrase a line from a song by '90s grunge band Soundgarden, the
play (conceived by a native Minnesotan turned SoCal transplant) is
"dressing Minnesota" but "feeling California" — a study in broad
Scandinavian inflections and "Fargo" accents, delivered by a cast (under
Gail Winar's direction) with the manic dexterity of a Sunset Strip improv
Smorgasbord of styles
Belting out songs such as "I Wanna Go to the Mall of America" and "My
Smorgasbord of Love" in a stylistic spread that ranges from John Denver
and Barry Manilow to Tito Puente and Madonna, the actors each get a moment
to shine — with standout solos from Little (the poignant "Last Night I
Dreamed"), Miller (the va-voom "He Wore a Purple Tux") and Carmichael (the
energetic Elvis workout "You're My Woman.") Choreographer Amy Uhl makes
the most of a razor-thin space between the performers and the front
A warm and inviting place to duck into on a nippy night, "Don't Hug Me"
runs through Dec. 31.
Don't Hug Me:
Cheery Musical For The Winter
John Little and Clark
Don't Hug Me,
the intimate musical comedy from Minnesota by way of Los Angeles, has been
making its way about the country pleasing audiences since its 2003 West
Coast premiere. It has now arrived at the usually more serious minded New
Jersey Rep as a bauble for the joyous holiday season. And while it breaks
no new ground, it proves to be a clever and agreeable fun evening in the
theatre. This is quite an accomplishment when one considers that the gags
are truly terrible (which seems to be the point) and the story centers on
a karaoke machine and its ability to change lives.
We find ourselves in the Bunyan, a small, rural bar in Bunyan Bay,
Minnesota on the coldest day of the year. Gunner wants to sell the bar and
move to the warmth of Florida, but his wife Clara is determined to stay as
she loves the pleasures of ice fishing and her memories of being Queen of
the local Winter Carnival. Omnipresent is their waitress Bernice who
shares Clara's feelings about Bunyan Bay. They sing, "I'm a Walleye Woman
in a Crappie Town/ ... but I'm never moving away/ hey hey, hey, hey."
Bernice is engaged to the foolishly self-important and acquisitive supply
store owner Kanute. The events that ensue are initiated by the arrival on
the scene of Aarvid, a young and enthusiastic karaoke system salesmen
No spoilers here! We are treated to a series of comic songs and
sketches involving lots of feudin' and fussin' among our five protagonists
and a happy ending that finds Gunner and Clara back in love, Bernice and
Aarvid in thrall to each other, and the ridiculous Kanute fuming.
The authors are brothers Phil Olson (book and lyrics) and Paul Olson
(music). The former is a California based playwright (with some minor film
credits), and the later is a nephrologist in Minnesota, who has always
been an accomplished musician. Based on the happy, uncynical,
tongue-in-cheek nature of their writing, they might be described as the
anti-Coen brothers. The conceit of the music is that the songs are
cornball Prairie Home Companion-like adaptations of the styles of famous
composers and performers.
At times, the music is more evocative than it is at others. For
example, "written by Swen Jorgensen in his Madonna phase" is "He Wore a
Purple Tux," a prostitute's lament ("He was a gentleman, he paid me fifty
bucks/ And I went back to the V.F.W., to find another purple tux"). Most
of these songs are intentionally tacky, yet at the same time manage to be
pleasant, lively and amusing. The music is recorded, but this is less of a
negative than one might expect because it is mostly represents the sound
of the karaoke machine (or the radio).
The entire cast performs with gusto and high spiritedness. Each
performer takes advantage of any number of opportunities to shine, and the
alphabetical billing is as it should be. Clark Carmichael delightfully
projects Kanute's pig-headed, self-centered foolishness in a likeable,
broad performance without winking at the audience or otherwise distancing
himself from Kanute's ridiculousness. The key here is his excellent comic
timing. John Little's Gunner is irascible, but almost always has an
observant comic twinkle in his eye that makes it clear that he is not far
from reaching out to his Clara and restoring their happiness. He even gets
to sing a gay '90s style waltz, "Last Night I Dreamed," with homespun
charm. Cortnie Loren Miller's Bernice is bright and dynamic. She performs
with show business pizzazz as a waitress whose dream of becoming a
professional singer is given impetus by the arrival of Aarvid and his
jukebox. Michael Nathanson is a bundle of charm and eager enthusiasm as
Aarvid. His likeability and vulnerability are precisely what is needed
here. Darcie Siciliano brings a sense of joy to Clara's confident and
gritty determination not to lose control of her life.
Among all of the groaner gags that I recorded in my notes, there is one
that I found to be amusing on paper. To dissuade Kanute from assaulting
him because of his attention to Bernice, Aarvid has convinced Kanute that
he is gay. When Aarvid later tells Kanute that he has good news, Kanute
responds, "You joined the Ice Capades?"
As it is wont to do on occasion, NJ Rep is utilizing the inner
lobby-reception area rather than the main stage for this production. The
long narrow space proves most felicitous for Don't Hug Me as it
allows for the design of a large and richly detailed tavern set (kudos to
designer Quinn K. Stone), and the entire audience can feel that it is
within the confines of the Bunyan. Director Gail Winar has kept things
moving at a brisk pace and elicited uniformly excellent performances. Note
to the director: John Little and Darcie appear far apart in age, and no
mention is made of this in the script. This makes it sound odd when Gunner
speaks of going to Florida "before we die." Changing the word "we" to "I"
would instantly allow the audience to see their age differential as
integral to the piece.
There is a visual triumph in her production which is particularly fine.
It is at the top of the second act and Gunner and Kanute are standing back
of the bar drinking and (for laughs) foolishly lamenting the ascendance of
Aarvid and his karaoke machine at the Bunyan, The former is wearing a red
and black striped lumberjack's cap (and striped shirt) and the latter a
Russian fur hat (and a reindeer sweater), strongly evoking memories of the
1940's "Road" pictures of Bing Crosby (Gunner) and Bob Hope (Kanute). In
the context of Don't Hug Me's style of corny comedy, this was a
perfect image to put a warm smile on my face. Now Gail Winar may not have
thought of this, but, unless she disabuses me of my notion of her intent
here, I won't believe that.
Asbury Radio ~ The Radio
Voice of Asbury Park
Don't Hug Me
Photo: The cast of "Don't Hug Me":
Clark Carmichael, Cortnie Loren Miller, John Little, Darcie Siciliano, Michael
Photo credit: SuzAnne Barabas
Asbury Radio's Review:
One thing that hits you as clear
as a Minnesota Icehouse from a 100 yards is the guy who wrote "Don't Hug Me" had
a helluva good time doing it. Phil Olson, who wrote the book and
lyrics for the musical now running through Dec. 31 at NJRep's Lumia Theater in
Long Branch, did just that. And the same probably goes for Phil's brother Paul,
an M.D., who wrote the music. The result is that 10 minutes into this musical,
you drop your big city smugness and settle into your LandsEnd boots (North
Country attire is de riguer for the evening) and laugh along to goofy jokes and
silly songs that you gradually realize are all rather clever, in fact.
There's a love triangle, a karaoke
machine that cues itself at the strangest moments, a couple whose marriage needs
a tune up and the constant specter of a now famous classmate, Sven Jorgenson,
with 82 songs on the Karaoke LSS 562. The acting keeps this tongue in cheek romp
from sinking through the ice. Cudos to Michael Nathanson, who lights up the
stage with his irresistibly charming Karaoke salesman (a la Music Man); Clark
Carmichael as the egocentric Kanute, John Little as Gunner, the romantically
challenged, slightly homophobic husband who just wants to move to sunny Florida,
Cortnie Loren Miller as Bernice, who glides through her character's dramatic
transformation with ease, and Darcie Siciliano, as Gunner's wife Clara, who
portrays a wife with one hand on the front door knob with sincerity, sentiment
and humor. Gail Winar did an excellent job of directing the cast through dance
routines on the postage stamp Dwek stage. Hurry on over to the Lumia Theater
before the bad weather socks you in.
Pride, envy, anger, greed, gluttony, lust
and sloth — for centuries now, those Seven Deadly Sins have,
if nothing else, ensured that playwrights are seldom left staring at
a blank sheet of typing paper.
Beginning tonight and continuing throughout
this weekend, the less-than-magnificent Seven take center stage once
more, as the Shore's own New Jersey Repertory Company presents a three-day
festival of short plays crafted around the theme of "The Seven Deadly
It's the third annual entry in NJ Rep's
Theatre Brut series of short-form showcases. Founders Gabe and SuzAnne
Barabas have described the series as "the creative impulse unfettered by social and artistic
convention . . . where the
"straitjacket of logic" and "the fossilized debris of dead language" are replaced
by "innovation and wonderment."
For the 2006 edition of Theatre Brut (a
riff on psychiatrist Hans Prinzhorn's studies in Art Brut, or "outsider" art created
by residents of mental institutions), the NJ Rep braintrust surrendered the
asylum to the inmates —
putting out the call for original short works that have as their thematic
foundation any one of the aforementioned Seven Deadlies (or any combo-platter
thereof). From more than 500 submissions, the producers assembled three
separate programs featuring a total of 28 never-before-seen dramatic
works — monologues and ensembles, comedies and tragedies, even
a mini-musical — employing the services of some 60 hard-working
Fear not, Sloth fans: Your sin of choice
is amply represented here, along with the arguably more compelling
sister sins of lust and anger. As in 2004's
"My Rifle, My Pony and Me" (a festival built around the image of the American
cowboy) and last year's round-robin study in "Sacrifice," this Theatre Brut
event promises to bring out the best in NJ Rep's incredible stock company of
actors, writers and directors. It's a genuine showcase for the company's formidable
human resources, and the ultimate "insider" event for the best and brightest
of the area's stage pros.
The Speed Queen: A Fast Paced 85 Minutes of
The Speed Queen plays like the terse, exciting Hollywood crime programmers
which were often sleeker and more entertaining than the main features which
they supported in the double feature movie going days of my too far off
You'll likely recognize the essential elements of the story. It is told by
Marjorie as she awaits her final walk (or a reprieve) in an Oklahoma jail.
As she snorts speed apparently provided by a sympathetic jailer, Marjorie is
talking into a recorder, answering questions submitted on cards by an author
who is paying her for the rights to her story. The money will provide a little
nest egg for her 10-year-old son Gainey. Unlike the B-movie melodramas evoked
here, The Speed Queen is a monodrama, and only Marjorie appears corporeally.
Thus, it is up to the audience to picture the other squalid players and their
victims, the spare black and white settings, the cars speeding down highways
to nowhere, the erotic entanglements, and the vicious and bloody criminal behavior
of the protagonists. And we do see the story vividly unfold in the camera of
our minds courtesy of the richly descriptive, vivid and fast paced adaptation
of Stewart O'Nan's novel of the same title by Anne Stockton. In this respect,
the play calls to mind the pleasurable boon to the imagination that radio drama
once provided. The clear presence here of elements of both B-pictures and old
time radio make for a pleasing retro experience.
Marjorie begins by telling us that she met Lamont, her husband and partner
in crime, when he drove into a gas station where she was working. It is a love
at first sight tale of two junkies whose pleasure together derives from taking
hard drugs, hot and heavy fornication and attending car shows. In quick time,
Marjorie becomes pregnant. When her newborn arrives, Marjorie has to give up
her gig at the gas station. However, she services Lamont's druggie customers
from their apartment. Marjorie convincingly asserts that she did not use illegal
drugs during her pregnancy. After giving birth, she again gets heavily into
the use of drugs. At first, she skims from each packet sold. As her habit increases,
she increases prices without telling Lamont in order to cover the costs of
drugs diverted for her own use. Arrested for possession after an auto accident,
Marjorie is sentenced to a minimum security prison. Here she meets Natalie.
Their relationship is both sexual and sisterly. When Natalie is released, and
needs a place to stay, she moves in with Lamont and Marjorie. Natalie helps
with the drug sales, and, before long, adds Lamont to her sexual menu.
Following the theft of the money which he had borrowed to finance a major
drug deal, Lamont is viciously assaulted by the loan sharks, and the trio accompanied
by 2-year-old Gainey head off onto Route 66 where they embark on a murderous,
bloody and stupidity-laden crime spree, and Marjorie repays Natalie's betrayal.
As adapter, Anne Stockton, has so vividly drawn the off stage characters that
I had the passing (albeit ridiculous) thought of reviewing the roles of Lamont
Adaptor Anne Stockton also performs the role of Marjorie under the never static,
tightly wound direction of Austin Pendleton. She brings variety, vigor and
conviction to her portrayal. Marjorie is the kind of person who is able to
act in a stone cold, utterly vicious and horrific manner because her all consuming
desire to satisfy her own wants is inextricably entwined with her inability
to have any concern or compassion for others. In attempting to humanize Marjorie,
Stockton may be a tad too engaging. On the other hand, sad experience has taught
the world that monsters can be frightfully engaging. Certainly, Marjorie's
horrendous behavior is clear enough here.
The clean, sleek prison office setting is by Jessica Parks. Marjorie's new
looking, sharply pressed green prison jumpsuit is uncredited. There is a dialect
coach, so I'll assume Stockton's near Southern sounding strong regional accent
Marjorie mentions that she acquired the soubriquet The Speed Queen because
of her high speed car run from the police along Route 99. Another apparent
reason is her heavy, long term usage of the illicit drug known as speed.
Stewart O'Nan, on whose work the play is based, is quoted as saying that Stockton's "captured
Marjorie's innocence and insanity." This reviewer cannot see Marjorie as (an)
innocent in any sense of the word, and is not clear on her precise mental condition.
What I look for in portrayals of people who commit unspeakable, inhumane crimes
is an understanding of what causes them (and not others) to deviate from normative
behavior. I rarely, if ever, find it. The fault may lie in the eye of this
Actress and adaptor Anne Stockton may have us traveling in B-movie territory,
but she certainly is giving us an entertaining and fast paced ride.
Few encounters are as rewarding as an audience
She's little and lithe, dressed in an immaculate green jumpsuit, appearing
to be a gas station attendant just about to start her shift.
However, that DOC on the back of her uniform doesn't stand for Downtown
It's the Department of Corrections, where "The Speed Queen," Anne Stockton's
riveting adaptation of Stewart O'Nan's novel, takes place. An audience
is about to spend 75 minutes in solitary confinement with an inmate.
Stockton, who also stars in the solo show, and Austin Pendleton, who
directs, are collaborators in a solid production at New Jersey Repertory
Company in Long Branch.
Marjorie Standiford is a lovely auburn-haired woman who comes from the
Heartland, and seems to have a heart. If only she hadn't fallen for Lamont,
who impressed her with his smart-looking car.
She was dazzled, too, that Lamont was a chef of sorts -- he was able
to cook up many concoctions of drugs. That's one of two reasons why Marjorie
came to be known as "The Speed Queen." Audiences will hear the other
Lamont is not the only person linked romantically to Marjorie. Before
long, she'll take up with Natalie. They met while Marjorie was serving
a six-month sentence -- "over nothin'," she insists with a rare sneer.
"But," she says evenly, "I swore that this bein' in jail would never
happen to me again."
Delivering that line is Stockton's best moment. The look on Marjorie's
face, when she realizes that she broke that promise to herself, is filled
with shame. Then she finds the resources to plow on, telling her sordid
tale to "Stephen" through a tape recorder. After all, Natalie has had
a runaway best-seller telling her side of the story, so why shouldn't
Marjorie cash in, too?
(A side note: O'Nan originally called his 1997 novel "Dear Stephen King." The
horror writer was unenthusiastic when contacted about the book, so O'Nan
chose "The Speed Queen" as his title.)
How does a prisoner have access to a tape recorder, a telephone, unlimited
phone calls, and what seems to be cocaine? A good reason is furnished,
putting that implausibility to rest.
Stockton has a pleading voice and a wistful look in her green eyes when
she grabs at the refuge of many prisoners: "I believe I'll be saved," she
says staunchly, "and I believe in Jesus Christ. I was another person
before I accepted Jesus."
Part of the horror is that Stockton tells her story matter-of-factly.
She has Marjorie distance herself from her account, as if she were having
an out-of-body experience. Just when she lulls an audience into thinking
she's not so bad, or that she was an innocent victim, she delivers a
startling line that controverts. For example, when she speaks of going
to the hospital to give birth, she off-handedly mentions, "I never shot
anyone, though, okay, I did use a knife."
Stockton's warm Southern accent helps to play against the ugly truths
she's divulging. When she offers a slight smile, it seems to ask, "Is
it all right if I smile?"
There's not much to smile at in "The Speed Queen." There is plenty to
admire. It's a different type of horror story for the Halloween season.
With her red hair, chemically turbocharged energy and rapid-fire inflections,
the woman in the prison-issue jumpsuit seems almost like an angular,
more intense version of Reba McEntire. It's as if TV Reba converted the
kitchen to a meth lab and finally did away with her cloying sitcom clan.
The lady on the stage of New Jersey Repertory Company is Anne Stockton,
star and sole inhabitant of "The Speed Queen," now being staged at NJ
Rep's Long Branch playhouse.
Like any other full-length fiction transmuted into a dramatic piece, "Queen" (adapted
by Stockton from Stewart O'Nan's novel of the same name) presents the
playwright with some hard choices as far as what to retain from the source
work. Stockton is working here with a tight, fast-paced, intimate work
whose central device — a narrative delivered by a convicted serial
killer for the benefit of a famous horror novelist — seems a natural
fit for an edgy and economically scaled theatrical troupe.
Civil Cold War
As Marjorie Standiford — an Oklahoma gal whose travels in entry-level
crime and drug addiction eventually lead her to death row — Stockton
addresses a stack of index-card inquiries from best-selling scaremeister "Stephen," speaking
her answers into a tape recorder.
Relating the details of her involvement in an interstate killing spree — and
blandly maintaining her innocence throughout —
Standiford/Stockton tells of her enchantment with drug-dealing ne'er-do-well
Lamont, her parallel involvement with former jailmate Natalie and the
circumstances that drove the unlikely threesome (Marjorie's baby actually
makes four) to hit Route 66 in a bloody road trip. It results in the
deaths of a state trooper and a couple of fast-food clerks, among others.
As channeled by East Coast actress (and practicing psychiatrist) Stockton
from the words of eminent literary type O'Nan, the plains and straightaways
of flyover country seem a dead-eyed place where vintage Plymouth Road
Runners roar past chain eateries and tired motels; a place where valuables
are stashed inside Cap'n Crunch cereal boxes. Whether it's a chainsaw-massacre
horrorfest or the kinder, gentler criminality of the film "Raising Arizona," any
time that a bunch of perceived "elites" comment upon the ways of red-state
America, it does little to soothe the ongoing Civil Cold War we seem
to have gotten ourselves into.
Director Austin Pendleton has shepherded "The Speed Queen" from workshops
and readings to countless hours of rehearsals, right on through to this
first formal "full" production. His invisible role in the proceedings
is every bit as crucial as any of the offstage players in the condemned
Marjorie's life story.
Still, this is Stockton's passionately conceived project in the end,
and the performer-playwright is the show, attacking the material with
laser focus and a knowing sense of the currents that course beneath the
most "ordinary" American lives. If "The Speed Queen" is any indicator,
a Stockton presentation detailing her real-life career experiences in
psychiatry and law enforcement would be a hot and harrowing ticket.
I was a difficult person then,
before I accepted Jesus.— Marjorie
Anne Stockton (Photo: SuzAnne Barabas)
Time on earth appears to be running out for convicted murderer Marjorie
Standiford (Anne Stockton), who is spending the last hours on Death Row
in an Oklahoma prison talking into a tape recorder. While awaiting her
scheduled execution, her last meal, or, better yet, a possible last minute
stay of execution, Marjorie has agreed to answer questions posed by a celebrated
author who is going to write about the crimes she has committed, her drug
addiction, her wild sex life and other things that will help the public
understand who she is and why she has done what she has done.
As personified by Stockton with her auburn hair pulled back in a ponytail
and wisp of a Southern accent, Marjorie appears neither hardened by anger
nor visibly repentant. She does indicate a self-serving assurance and arrogance
as she sifts through a stack of index cards that contain the questions,
choosing to answer some and tossing others into the wastebasket. She knows
what she want to tell and has no qualms about re-arranging the facts, justifying
her acts, and modifying others' conclusions.
Stockton, who is performing in her own adaptation of Stewart O’Nan’s
same-name novel about an Oklahoma inmate, appeared in this harrowing monodrama
as part of the fifth annual
"Women Center Stage" festival presented at the Culture Project in the summer
of 05. It is a fine enough showcase, if one that is also, by right of its
subjective confessional format, of limited dramatic variety. Since Stockton
provides a vivid portrait of an amoral woman caught up in a series of horrific
events that spiral out of her control, this is not to imply that her dramatic
range is limited.
As directed with a minimalist touch by Austin Pendleton, The Speed Queen follows
a rather conventional, yet curiously involving path to its inevitable conclusion.
Pendleton, whose performance as a suicidal professor in the Steppenwolfe
Theater’s production of The Sunset Limited (see our review)
can currently be seen Off-Broadway, has been involved with this monologue
since reading the book and Stockton’s adaptation. Minimalism is also
set designer Jessica Park’s approach to the Death Row cell which
contains one chair, two small side tables, and bureau.
Dramatic first person narratives demand a great deal and it is to Stockton’s
credit that she resists grandstanding emotions in favor of her character’s
tough-skinned shifts in tone and temperament. No attempt has been made
to keep Marjorie overly active in the cell, except for occasional phone
calls to her mother and a quick snort of smack hidden in a soft drink can.
That she sees herself as a victim, even as we see her as a callous and
gutsy no-regrets woman with limited intellect, gives the play its heft.
We are all ears as she talks about her relationships with her drug-dealing
lover Lamont, her Lesbian lover Natalie, and her young son Gainey, who
will benefit from the proceeds of the book.
The detailed accounts of a killing spree that rivals Bonnie and Clyde and
the death of her husband Lamont are riveting. But Marjorie’s reaction
to the survival of her one-time lover Natalie (a rival for her husband’s
attention whose own account of their Lesbian tryst and unholy partnership
has been published), provides the insight into her decision to tell all.
Marjorie’s story also alludes to her religious conversion and salvation,
evidently the result of the frequent visits of Sister Perpetua.
On one level, we understand how Marjorie’s ill-fated life is a direct
result of her addiction to drugs and her need to place the blame for her
actions on others. Yet what makes Marjorie most fascinating comes from
seeing her inability to make rational and prudent choices, and for Stockton,
as her interpreter, to make sure we don’t see her in a sympathetic
The Speed Queen may trigger memories of the films I Want
to Live, the story of Barbara Graham (with Susan Hayward), the
first woman to die in an electric chair, and Monster, about
serial killer Aileen Wournos (Charlize Theron). But The Speed
Queen stands apart from these ill-fated women's stories for its
unapologetic resolve to not encourage our empathy and without casting
a rosy glow around its anti-heroine.
THE "QUEEN" ANNE
(PHOTO: JOSEPH J.
DELCONZO/SPECIAL TO THE PRESS)
Stockton rehearses "The Speed Queen," now being staged at the
New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch through Nov. 12
An actress-playwright and a star director speed-the-play to NJ Rep
At a time when yet another movie about Truman Capote and his fascination
with capital convict Perry Smith sheds new light upon the "In Cold Blood" murder
case, the folks at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch are inviting
audiences to take a more intimate look at the relationship between the
chronicler and the condemned.
Set on death row in an Oklahoma penitentiary, "The Speed Queen"
is a one-woman show. Inmate Marjorie Standiford speaks into a tape recorder,
reflecting upon her career as one of drive-through America's infamous "Sonic
Killers" — and how her relationship with her speed-dealing husband
Lamont and lover Natalie led her to robbery, murder and the brink of
imminent execution. As she makes clear to her unseen interviewer, who
just happens to be "America's most popular horror novelist" (the King
to her Queen, if you will), it's an attempt to "set the record straight" in
response to Natalie's best-selling tell-all.
A tour de force
As Marjorie, Anne Stockton (a busy stage and television performer who
also is a practicing psychiatrist) already is poised to deliver what's
being described as a bona fide tour de force performance. As if that
weren't enough, she's also the playwright — having adapted the
script from a novel by award-winning fiction writer Stewart O'Nan ("Snow
Angels," "A Prayer for the Dying").
According to Stockton, "When I came to read the book, I could not put
it down. I immediately found the main character intriguing, contradictory,
funny, and shocking. . . . I quickly began to think that the book would
easily lend itself to a one person play.
"I am often attracted to characters whose life experience is far from
my own," the actor says. "I am drawn to understanding and then playing
characters who exhibit extreme behavior."
Another way in which this medical professional (and professional player)
touches upon extremes of behavior is in her sideline gig as an "actor/trainer" with
the NYPD Hostage Negotiation Team — a course in which her regular
role-play improvisations include "a woman in the middle of a manic episode,
and a paranoid former postal worker."
It's a unique experience that Stockton regards as "an incredible workout
as an actor," adding that "portraying these disorders also has assisted
me in understanding them as a psychiatrist."
For "Speed Queen" the novel to morph into "Speed Queen" the solo performance
piece, Stockton had to first obtain the rights. She then set about deleting
some of the minor characters, as well as editing certain situations and
events described in the book — a process about which she maintains, "My
director and I made these difficult choices on the basis of what best
served the forward movement of the piece and created suspense."
That collaborator, by the way, is none other than Austin Pendleton,
the Tony-lauded director ("The Little Foxes" with Elizabeth Taylor),
award-winning author ("Orson's Shadow"), instantly recognizable character
actor ("The Muppet Movie," along with some vivid appearances on recent "Law & Order" franchises)
and eminent educator.
"It has been a great privilege to work with him," says Stockton of Pendleton,
who has been affiliated with the project through several workshop and
festival productions. "Austin's contribution to the development of the
piece has been huge — shaping the script, clarifying the arc of
the piece, and of course staging and developing the behavior and nuances
of the character."
"The Speed Queen" has preview performances today and Friday. The production
continues through Nov. 12 with shows at 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and
Saturdays, as well as selected Saturdays at 4 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m.
Tickets for previews are priced at $20 per person, with opening night
performance and post-show reception going for $35. Admission to regular-run
performances is $30.
Not the retiring type
It's full 'Speed' ahead for Pendleton
October 27, 2006
BY PETER FILICHIA Star-Ledger Staff
NEW JERSEY STAGE
There aren't many people who open a play in New Jersey and in New York
in the same week.
Not that Austin Pendleton will be in two places at
once. Given that he's finished directing "The Speed Queen," opening Friday at the New
Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, he needn't be on the premises. "Not
that a director's work is ever done," he says ruefully.
When the curtain
goes up around 8 p.m., Pendleton will be at the theater known as 59 East
59th Street, which is also its Manhattan address. There, he'll play his
fourth preview of "The Sunset Limited," a drama by Cormac McCarthy.
Pendleton portrays an atheist who plans to commit suicide on a train platform,
but is rescued by another man.
And he turned 66 in March. "I never
think of retiring. Never," he says. "I know very few actors who
do. When Helen Hayes retired, three or four years later she was saying,
'I wish I hadn't done that.' So I do as much as I can."
with "The Speed Queen" began some years back, when he was introduced
to actress Anne Stockton. Three years ago, she told him she was adapting
Stewart O'Nan's 1997 novel about a murderess who wants to tell her side
of the story to an author very much like Stephen King. Because Stockton
planned to star in it, too, she asked Pendleton to coach her.
teaches acting at the HB Studios and the New School, not far from his
New York City home. "So I said maybe," he says. "I'd never heard
of the novel, so I read it, and it knocked me out. Then I read Anne's script,
and I thought she captured it. I said, 'Okay, I'll coach.' That led to
my actually directing the play -- though I honestly don't remember if she
asked me to do it, or I volunteered myself."
On Broadway, he's directed
both European classics (Ibsen's "John Gabriel Borkman") to American
ones (Lillian Hellman's "The Little Foxes"). He is, however,
better known as a performer, albeit one of those actors who many recognize
by his small, wispy frame, and looks that he describes as "geeky." He's
played many a milquetoast, in "The Front Page" (1974), "The
Muppet Movie" (1979) and "My Cousin Vinny" (1992).
chance to direct came in 1965, while he was performing in "Fiddler
on the Roof." He was the original Motel, the bridegroom who goes from
scared rabbit to mensch. Pendleton's mother ran a community theater in
their hometown of Warren, Ohio, and she asked him to direct her as Amanda
in "The Glass Menagerie."
He had to leave "Fiddler" to
do it. "I went without another acting job for months, and yet, it
was worth it. If I were forced to choose among the three disciplines, though,
I'd taking acting," he says.
Three disciplines? "When I was 50,
I promised myself I'd write a play," he says. Since penning "Booth," about
the esteemed acting family with an assassin in its ranks, Pendleton wrote
two plays that had off-Broadway productions. In 2001, "Uncle Bob" told
of a gay uncle and his homophobic nephew. "Orson's Shadow," which
played most of last year, dealt with the time when Orson Welles directed
Laurence Olivier in a production of Ionesco's "Rhinoceros."
didn't have to imagine what Welles was like.
"I worked with him in
'Catch-22,'" he says of the 1970 film version of Joseph Heller's novel. "He
was nice to me personally, but very difficult to a lot of people. Only
later did I realize that he was in a lot of pain because he wasn't directing
that movie. He ruminated on that a lot in front of all of us, making self-deprecating
remarks that showed it was eating away at him that his career had waned."
pauses and shakes his head slowly. "It's another reason I won't retire," he
says. "I'm still getting the chance to do it."
It was dark, real dark, on the night eight years ago that the New Jersey Repertory Company opened its doors on Broadway in downtown Long Branch.
There wasn't much activity in the area, other than a fast-food restaurant and a Brookdale Community College satellite school, both at Third Avenue, and a few hungry seagulls from the nearby beachfront looking for some french fries.
But Gabor Barabas of West Long Branch, producing director of the theater, said he sensed that somehow … and he can't explain how … there was potential for the growth of an arts community there. He said he felt "tremendous energy,'' with
theaters at its epicenter.
New Jersey Repertory, which seats about 140 people in two small spaces at 179 Broadway, has since become the anchor in the city's revitalization of the area known as the Broadway Corridor redevelopment zone.
Perhaps what Barabas sensed were the ghosts of two former theaters in the area. One of those spaces will become a 300-seat performing arts space and New Jersey Repertory's third stage.
"The new building, at 154 Broadway, about one block east of our other building, used to be a theater about 80 years ago but you wouldn't know it as it is now stuccoed over,'' Barabas said. "It's been a storage building for some contractor for
the past 30 to 40 years.''
The other former theater was the Paramount Theater, a building which most recently housed Siperstein's Paint and Decorating Center. Barabas said that will become a 2,000-seat performing arts space.
The Broadway zone, one of six redevelopment zones in the city, is a mixed-use plan of about 725,000 square feet between Memorial Parkway and Second, Belmont and Union avenues.
In addition to shops and restaurants, the plan includes 500 housing units, about 100 of those designated affordable housing, said Patience O'Connor, managing director of Broadway Arts redevelopment. Previously she worked on such high-profile redevelopments as South Street Seaport in lower Manhattan, Boston's Faneuil Hall Marketplace and the Old Post Office building on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington.
Hopefully, she said, people living in the year-round housing … such as nurses from nearby Monmouth Medical Center and teachers from Monmouth University in West Long Branch … will be future customers at the theaters, shops and the already
existing Shore Institute of Contemporary Arts at 20 Third Ave.
If so, they may want to order their tickets now. New Jersey Repertory's current world premiere production of Robert King's "The Best Man'' is not only sold out but also is the troupe's best-selling show ever, according to Barabas' wife and theater co-founder, SuzAnne Barabas.
Barabas, who also is director of the Long Branch Arts Council, said that group has been identifying "signature events'' to attract people to the downtown area, such as an annual poetry festival begun in 2004.
"The first festival attracted 750 to 1,000 people, including 400 schoolchildren, and featured 40 poets,'' he said. "The next poetry festival, in cooperation with Monmouth University, has poets from around the United States coming here on Nov. 16, 17 and 18.''
From Dec. 2-4, the theater, which offers plays, comedies and an occasional musical, will host 20 literary managers from the National New Play Network, an alliance of not-for-profit professional theaters devoted to new plays. Each will bring a
play and together select the best six and each of those will get a staged reading during those days.
Barabas and his wife recently returned from Slovakia where they met with other theater managers about producing new European plays at their theaters.
"My dream for eight years was to have an annual summer theater festival in Long Branch where theaters come from all over the world to do their work,'' he said.
"I've always felt we were here on the ocean in a community with a long arts heritage and now we are experiencing a gradual arts resurgence. It is dynamic and exciting.'
Review: "Best Man" leaves them laughing at the
A laugh-out-loud comedy set behind the scenes at a Hackensack
wedding, "The Best Man" should strike a chord with just about anyone
— at least anyone who's ever been involved in any way with that
peculiar institution known as a wedding party.
It's a noteworthy kickoff to a new season of professional stage
fare here at the Shore, in that it comes from the pen of a local
author — Asbury Park's own Robert King — and it's especially
surprising in light of the fact that it's being presented by the
always-edgy New Jersey Repertory Company.
Long known as a go-to source for all that's left of center in
modern stage circles, the Long Branch-based NJ Rep has pitched a
fastball right up the middle here; finding the strike zone with an
entertaining, accessible crowdpleaser of a show. If you've ever
meant to check out some of what's been going on at this little
treasure of a playhouse on downtown Broadway, there's probably never
been a better opportunity to jump in.
(STAFF PHOTO: DAVE
Tansey plays the groom's best friend and Susan Greenhill is
the groom's mother in "The Best Man," being staged at the New
Jersey Repertory Company theater in Long Branch.
Red meat and blue language
In King's script, it's the wedding day of our hero Patrick (Ed
Jewett), a plus-size, big-hearted, self-sacrificing lug who's on the
verge of being happy for the first time in his life — although
that's hardly enough to keep him from sweating through his rented
tux, compulsively gobbling candy bars and pacing a trench into the
floor of the church dressing room as the big moment approaches. The
well-meaning but distracting interventions of his mom Rita (Susan
Greenhill) and best bud Ronnie (Tom Tansey) are of little help to
the big guy, who's in need of a confidence boost as he prepares to
walk down the aisle with his bride to be, the unseen Doreen.
Complicating matters is the fact that everyone in the wedding
party apparently had a few kamikazes too many at the rehearsal
dinner the night before. Meanwhile, Patrick's ne'er-do-well brother
John (Dan Domingues) has come away from the affair with a story to
tell — a story that threatens to torpedo Patrick's special day
before it ever happens.
For such a brief and economical play (less than 90 minutes with a
15-minute intermission included), King gets a lot accomplished in
terms of character background and development — it's as if one of
those cheesy "interactive" dinner-theater wedding shows were
magically invested with the heart and soul of Paddy Chayefsky's
"Marty." There's also a healthy strain of good sitcom writing in the
mix here: full of punchy dialogue and plenty of red meat for the
talented cast members to sink their teeth into (although, with its
dosage of blue language and casual sex talk, it could more readily
compare to a sitcom like HBO's "Lucky Louie").
The big figure
As lifelong lonely guy Patrick, Jewett cuts a classically comic
figure that carries echoes of everyone from Jackie Gleason and Dom
DeLuise to Tom Arnold and Kevin James. Although playwright King
wisely dispenses with the sentiment and syrup, Jewett is an actor of
real facility and intelligence, who finds ways to connect the
emotional dots without benefit of lengthy monologues (as when he
likens himself to "a tugboat" rather than the graceful sailboat that
Mom envisions). This is a guy who recognizes the one shot he'll
likely ever have in life; a guy who does what it takes to see things
through to their rightful resolution. We root for the big guy.
Under the guidance of nationally renowned director Peter Bennett,
Jewett's scenes with sidekick Tansey take on a Fred
Flintstone/Barney Rubble dynamic that allows for some dextrous
give-and-take between the two talented character men. Playing to the
audience at times and belting out some of the show's biggest laugh
lines, Greenhill grabs her share of stage turf from her taller
As the slicked-back slacker John, Domingues presents a believably
plot-complicating figure and sets the pace for the proceedings with
a nervous energy. All four of the cast members and their director
are here making their NJ Rep debuts — altogether appropriate for a
show that should make its producers a whole lot of new friends.
A Merry Marriage In Long Branch "The Best Man" at New
By Philip Dorian
One of the main characters in Robert King's play The Best Man never
appears. She's bride-to-be Doreen, whose wedding is about to take place
just outside the church office in which the play is set. And even though
the play revolves around her misbehavior, I became so fond of her in the
course of two fast-paced and delightfully amusing acts that I felt like
tossing rice as I left the theater.
I'll see the play again. I suspect the sharp comedy will hold up like a
re-run of Everybody Loves Raymond,
which it actually resembles. In fact, this might be the first play in my
experience where comparison to a TV sitcom is not a negative. Intentionally
adapting that ubiquitous entertainment form to the stage is, pending the
result, a legitimate endeavor. And the result here is hilarious.
Dan Domingues (left), Ed Jewett and Tom Tansey in The Best Man at New Jersey
The Best Man is crass
and vaguely misogynist. It is politically incorrect, and its main topic,
sex, is hardly new. But somehow the comedy conquers its context. The play
floats above its own rudeness as if enjoying the fun. Tasteless as it gets
in spots, The Best Man ends
up being guilt-free entertainment. (That it's so well acted and directed
may have something to do with that. More below.)
The plot is set in motion by the groom's brother's admission that he had
impulsive, alcohol-lubricated sex with the bride after the rehearsal dinner.
John (Dan Domingues) confesses the act – indelicately – to
Ronnie (Tom Tansey), the groom's best friend and designated best man. Will
Ronnie tell groom Patrick (Ed Jewett) about the brotherly betrayal? ("Telling
is overrated.") Will Patrick's and John's mother Rita (Susan Greenhill)
thwart the nuptials for reasons of her own? You'll not find the answers
here, but getting to them in the course of the laugh-packed play is more
Patrick is written heavy – in weight, that is – and Jewett
might have been the playwright's model. His bulk is deceptive, however,
because he's as light and swift with a comic line as a bantamweight. Patrick
is made fun of a lot, but in Jewett's playing he's far from a laughingstock.
And how many actors can perspire on cue?
Ronnie is the standard ‘groom's best friend'. But Tansey makes a
lot more of it, walking the tightrope between Patrick and John and getting
his own laughs along the way. (He's a post-teen Jackie Cooper in appearance
and style. Not bad.) As played by Domingues, John is the villain you can't
hate. He's been a ne'er-do-well anyway; his carnal coupling with Doreen
is right in character. And not to worry; John gets his comeuppance.
Playwright King's best-written character isn't a man at all. It's the obsessive,
possessive mother, whose portrayal by Susan Greenhill could not be bettered.
Rita giveth praise with loving grace one minute and taketh it away with
barbed sarcasm the next. She's a half dozen different women wrapped up
into the mother-of-the-groom from hell. She's both terribly annoying and,
as long as she's not your mom, extremely funny.
Director Peter Bennett has honed the four actors to a fine edge. More natural
behavior and movement amidst rapid-fire comic jibing can't be found this
side of – well, of Everybody Loves
The set is the perfect image of a pre-wedding holding room. Designed by
Harry Feiner, constructed by a three-person crew headed by Quinn K. Stone,
whose diminutive size belies her mastery of construction tools, and dressed
appropriately by prop mistress Jessica Parks, the austere furnishings and
peaked stained-glass windows create an ideal contrast for the play's irreverence.
And for its well-staged fight scene that leaves some disarray.
The Best Man is an equal-opportunity
offender. It includes quips on doing shots ("If it's worth doing it's worth
overdoing"), on vibrators ("addictive… like crack cocaine"), on
the aforementioned obesity (too many to even start), and on bodily functions
(best left out of print). There's even a riff on mental retardation that
– forgive me– a knee-slapper. Still, in spite of its naughty
behavior, the play stays...sweet. Just like Doreen. Say ‘I do' to
The Best Man.
"The Best Man" continues at New Jersey
Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch through October 15. Performances
are Thurs.-Sat. at 8 p.m., some Saturdays at 4 p.m. (call for dates) and
Sundays at 2 p.m. For information or reservations ($30, with senior/student/group
discounts): 732-229-3166 or on line at www.njrep.org
Note: The Best Man is also the
title of a 1960 play and subsequent movie, both penned by Gore Vidal. The
play was reprised on Broadway in 2000, officially re-titled Gore
Vidal's The Best Man. It's rumored that playwright King is working
on a new play about his small hometown. It's entitled Robert King's Hamlet.
Asbury Radio ~ The Radio
Voice of Asbury Park
The Best Man is a Side-Splitting
Perhaps it's the alcoholic haze
that hangs over, or the eccentric strangers suddenly superimposed on our lives
in forced intimacy, or the guilt and doom-laden pressure of religion and
commitment - a stunning assessment of dreams and failures in one crystallized
accounting - beamed nakedly on one day. Whatever contributes to the
surreal quality of a wedding day, Bob King has captured it in his hilarious
play, The Best Man.
King keeps the mayhem circling around his
excellent story like a swirling polka, while he takes us inside the lives of
the people we will love; the chubby bridegroom, Patrick, played masterfully by
Ed Jewett. Patrick's sacrifices have held the family together while his rakish
kid brother, John, played convincingly by Dan Domingues, has snatched nearly
all the ripe fruit for himself --even Patrick's most prized possession. (photo left: Bob's other half, Nate Gorham)
King knows weddings so well that
he reserves his best stuff for the star of every wedding day, the mother,
played to the hilt by Susan Greenhill. Greenhill's Rita, the mother of the
groom, heaves with emotion, propelled about the stage by a totally overblown
image of her self-importance. Greenhill plays Rita with an interesting hint of
self awareness, a knowledge that she is veering on the edge of destruction, at
times we suspect to her own mild amusement, but doesn't know any other way to
be. Left by a philandering husband to raise her sons, Rita has flung herself
headlong to this climactic day --and it's not going well.
There are no bad roles or small
roles in The Best Man. One is convinced in the first five minutes that
King isn't capable of writing one. So the groom's best friend, Ronnie, played
by Tom Tansey, which might be a bit part if crafted by a lesser playwright,
becomes a tour de force for this natural comedian. Tansey, like all good
comedians, employs every facet of his physical and mental trappings to propel
us along from one side splitting line to the next. And this fellow knows
what to do with a line. When the groom tells his friend he loves his bride so
much that he's decided to give her the greatest gift he has, Tansey screams in
horror, "Your car? You're giving her your car?"
King's play was first
presented by NJRep as a reading some two years ago, at which time audience
members rolled with laughter. Since that presentation King has chiseled away
at the character of John, who started out so cruel toward his sensitive,
self-conscious older brother that murder seemed a credible direction for the
plot to take. King has now honed John to perfection. While still hugely
selfish and impulsive, the refined John is more of another victim of his own
confusion and out of control life. Instead of hinting that he may have real
feelings for the unseen bride, Domingues expresses his revelation early and
for all appearances genuinely. He is intermittently remorseful and buffoonish,
a credit to Domingues' versatility and King?s skill, which puts this character
back into comedic range.
All of the wonderful lines are on
the mark, true to character and wonderfully fun. The timing is impeccable and
a credit to King's director, Peter Bennett, who also directed the brilliant NJ
Rep production, Piaf in Vienna. The plot spins along flawlessly through
an excellent set designed by Harry Feiner and lit by Jill Nagle. This wedding
An NJ Repertory Company
Production at the Lumia Theater, Broadway, Long Branch - 9/14 -
Cast: Susan Greenhill, Ed Jewett, Dan Domingues,
Tom Tansey, and playwright Bob King
YOU CALL THIS YOUR BEST
by Gary Wien
NJ) -- Weddings will always be a popular subject for comedies because
so many things can go wrong, but the things one usually worries about
before a wedding pale in comparison to the situation presented in Robert
King's "The Best Man" - simply the most hilarious, laugh out loud play
I've seen in some time.Patrick, the older of two brothers, is finally
getting married. He's a bit on the heavy side but as reliable a guy
there is. Patrick left school to take over his father's auto garage
after his dad decided to run off with his receptionist. Sacrificing
his dreams, Patrick became the bread winner for the family and kept
the house going. He also paid for his younger brother John to go to
college. John had other plans though and wasn't seen for years after
quitting school. He reappears a few months earlier with a hefty gambling
debt that Patrick pays off.
After years of taking care of everyone else, Patrick finally found the
girl of his dreams in a bowling alley where she caught his eye by bowling
four strikes. He just knew it meant she was something special.Patrick
makes John his best man and John repays him by sleeping with his fiance
after the rehearsal dinner and many, many drinks. John tells Patrick's
best friend, Ronnie, the news who urges him to keep it a secret from
his brother. Unfortunately, John thinks he's in love and believes that
his brother's fiance loves him too. And, thus, every groom's nightmare
becomes a love triangle un-imaginable just 24 hours before and turns
St. Andrew's Church in Hackensack, NJ into a whirlwind of one-liners
that nearly all hit the mark.The setting is a sweltering summer's day
in June although the only character to really feel the heat is the groom.
While Patrick sweats profusely, the others never seem that bothered by
the temperature. That little omission is the only blemish in this otherwise
perfect production. Dan Domingues as Patrick's younger brother, John
is terrific showing a wide range of emotions and running at 100 miles
per hour throughout the show. Tom Tansey does a wonderful job as Patrick's
best friend since high school, Ronnie. It's Ronnie's job to keep his
buddy calm on his wedding day and the secret he holds makes things that
much worse. Ed Jewett is solid as the groom, steadily running through
the complete array of emotions every groom feels on his wedding day.
But Susan Greenhill steals the show as Patrick and John's mother. Every
time she sets foot on the stage is a complete laugh riot as she completely
excels in the role of the stereotypical mother who doesn't want her baby
to marry that tramp. She hides her true feelings as long as she can but
eventually lets them known.
"She bowled four strikes... that doesn't make her special.. it means
she has good aim!"Anybody that has ever gotten married or been in a wedding
party will fall in love with "The Best Man." Robert King has taken a
comedic staple and given it a new twist and, in doing so, has created
a play which should live on for a very long time. Your chance to see
it the first time around ends on October 15th.
by the crowd for the first week, tickets may be going fast. NJ Rep
actually had to add additional rows including one directly in front
of the stage where we were seated. I swear the last time I was that
close to the stage I was an actor. It is amazing to see people turn
out for world premiere theatre like that. Congratulations go out to
the theatre, the actors, and especially the playwright.
On the aisle
Reluctant groom inspires debuting comedy
Friday, September 08, 2006
BY PETER FILICHIA
NEW JERSEY STAGE
The more weddings Robert King attended, the more he wondered why so
many grooms looked as if they were on Death Row.
One husband-to-be spurred King's comedy, "The Best Man," which starts
a month's run Thursday at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.
"The pressure of the day was so great," King says, "that the guy opened
up in a way he hadn't in all the years I'd known him. He was so off-guard
that he began telling me things he would have never other wise told
me. All this, as people were filing into the church."
King started writing soon after he arrived home.
"The Best Man" concerns Patrick, a 300-pound man of 35 who has finally
found someone to marry. While some mothers would be thrilled at the
prospect, Patrick's mother Rita isn't. Since her husband ran off with
his 21-year-old secretary, Patrick's been her sole support.
He shouldn't be, for Rita has another son, John, who is Patrick's
best man. John's an unemployed womanizer who always gets by on his
dazzling good looks and charm. He'll add some pressure to an already
King admits he's seen grooms who didn't look bleak at their wed dings.
"I've been to plenty where they've had blinders on instead. They truly
think that now their lives are going to be perfect. What if they could
get a glimpse of what their future would be like? If they knew the
challenges, the troubles and the horrors that await them, would they
go through with it?"
A wedding is a fate -- or blessing -- that King has not experienced.
He and Nate Gorham have been partners for nine years. They spend much
of their winters in homes in Ho-Ho-Kus and Queens, and summers in Asbury
Park, in a Victorian home they bought in 2000.
Because of their Monmouth County location, they weren't living far
from New Jersey Rep. They attended once, twice, and soon be came subscribers.
King wasn't above mentioning to Gabor and SuzAnne Barabas -- respectively
the troupe's executive producer and artistic director -- that he was
an amateur playwright.
Yet, that's not quite how "The Best Man" landed at the theater.
"A friend of mine in a playwrit ing class said that she thought a
di rector named Peter Bennett would like my play," says King. "I sent
it to him, and he did like it. Peter had already directed 'Piaf in
Vienna' at New Jersey Rep, so he recommended they do it."
It was the second copy of the script at the theater, for King had
already sent in his. A literary ad viser read one copy and rejected
it. SuzAnne Barabas read the other and decided to do it.
This is the first professional production for King, who started writ
ing 11 years ago when he was 33. For the last 17 years, he's been a
tax credit coordinator for the City of New York.
"I applied to the Herbert Berg hoff Studios, and Uta Hagen let me
King says of the famed actress and the workshop begun by her late husband.
"I thought I'd already written a great play, but I learned that all
she felt was that I had potential. Now I had to learn the craft of
"Being funny is nice, but it doesn't mean everything. I found that
it's not hard to make people laugh, but in the context of a play, there
must be structure. A story has to be told, and characters have to change.
I've tried to make all that happen in 'The Best Man.'"
And what of the groom who in spired the play? "Oh, he's still mar
ried," King says, nodding. "But it's been a pretty rocky relationship."
Race, faith, money, betrayal, abortion, nudity, terminal illness,
medical marijuana, middle-age sex — you might say that "Apostasy,"
the play now in its world premiere engagement at New Jersey Repertory
Company in Long Branch, has dealt itself a pretty stacked dramatic
hand from the outset. Still, rather than drive home their talking points
with a sledgehammer, author Gino Dilorio and director SuzAnne Barabas
have crafted a serio-comic threesome that favors sense of character
over soapbox cacophony. It's a button-pusher that seeks to provoke
a reaction at every turn, even as it foils most attempts to predict
plotlines and pigeonhole motivations.
Old man Webster defines "apostasy" as "renunciation of a religious
faith" or "abandonment of a previous loyalty" — and the apostate
in this case is Sheila Gold, a successful businesswoman, divorcee and
Jewish mom who is dying of cancer. As portrayed by Susan G. Bob, Sheila
is spending her final months in a drab hospice room. It's a place of
institutional-green walls and cheerlessly functional objects (matter-of-factly
realized by the talented set designer Carrie Mossman) that makes a
most depressing anteroom to the afterlife.
While Sheila is regularly visited by her daughter Rachel (Natalie
Wilder) — a 30-something single who works as director of a Planned
Parenthood center and who brings her mother weed in an effort to get
her to eat — the terminal patient is lonely enough at night to
become intrigued by African-American TV preacher Dr. Julius Strong
(Evander Duck Jr.). This initiates a relationship that brings the televangelist
to the door of her room and, with alarming rapidity, into her heart.
The Doctor is in
As for the reason the charismatic Dr. Strong would fly in from California
to make this very special house call — well, it could be a chance
for him to notch another deathbed conversion to his ministry, perhaps
even solicit a very generous donation to his building fund. Then again,
it could be that the clergyman is genuinely fond of this woman, who
despite her hair loss and pain episodes, remains full of life and quick
to break into dance or laughter. Or, as an increasingly security-conscious
Rachel suspects, could it be possible that a more sinister purpose
lurks behind the song and dance?
Whatever the underlying factors, it's not hard to see how the headstrong
Sheila could become attracted to the smoothly seductive Strong. As
personified by Duck, he's an apparent angel in a crimson shirt who
brings the things she's been missing — light and hope and music
and a little romance — back to her world as effortlessly as he
restores her appetite with a bag of Chinese food. Insisting that
"every now and then you've got to do something crazy just to remind
yourself that you're alive," the minister soon has the worldly woman
of business on the verge of some pretty radical choices — a mission
that he carries out by sheer force of personality, with little evangelical
fire and brimstone (other than a deftly delivered sermonette on the
topic of Chicken McNuggets). By the midway point, it's clear the actor
is willing to put everything he's got on display — although,
as Dr. Strong notes, it's not so easy to shed the "preacher persona."
Bob and Duck
Granted, those McNuggets act as a pulled-punch stand-in for some potentially
thornier faith-based issues, but although their surnames might suggest
a series of evasive maneuvers in the boxing ring, Bob and Duck actually
make an effective team. They turn their extended scenes together into
a pas-de-deaux that manages to make its own sort of sense within the
accelerated time and depopulated space of Dilorio's play. With her
Fran Drescher honk of a voice and her
"two-thousand-dollar wig," the always engaging Bob ("Harry and Thelma," "Maggie
Rose") elevates her character from a standard sitcom-level archetype
to a three-dimensional being in record time. It's a feat made all the
more impressive by the fact that most of the real action in the script
occurs in the second act.
As the odd one out in this triangle, Rachel (a woman whose job has
already made her paranoid and distrustful of others intentions) is
herself transformed from doting daughter to a schemer of sorts —
telling her mother that "just because you're dying doesn't give you
the right to change your mind," and employing her own methods to set
things back the way they were. NJ Rep stock company member Wilder —
who played an instrumental role in shepherding this script from raw-reading
to well-done — has obviously invested this project with lots
of passion; sounding the notes of discord and conflict, and doing most
of the overt preaching to be found here.
In the hands of company co-founder Barabas, the relatively brief play
is far meatier than what you'd expect to find on local summer stages — and,
if the preview and opening weekend audiences are any indicator, it's
a production that should continue to prompt a good deal of strong reactions
and animated discussions.
Rich, Multi-Layered Apostasy Entertains and
Enlightens in Long Branch World Premiere
Susan G. Bob and Evander Duck, Jr.
Apostasy, an engaging, intelligent new play by emerging playwright
Gino Dilorio combines ripe theatricality with an exploration of some serious
personal and social issues. It provides much food for thought while nimbly
avoiding any offense to differing religious sensibilities.
The entire action of the play occurs over a period of a few days in
a hospice in a major Northeast city. Sheila Gold, who appears to be in
her late fifties, is a terminal cancer patient. Dutifully visiting with
her is her single thirty-one year old daughter, Rachel. Rachel, who had
refused to continue her mother’s very successful on-line retail
dress business, is a social worker who works for Planned Parenthood at
an abortion clinic. This has caused her name to be published on a website
which implicitly incites violence against those involved in such activities.
She has brought a stash of marijuana for Sheila to smoke for medicinal
purposes. However, their relationship remains quite testy.
Ruth discovers some literature from a West Coast television ministry,
the Heritage Church of the Living Christ, tucked away in a drawer. Sheila
explains to Rachel that she is seriously considering converting. (Rachel
banters, “ ... and you made me give up my boy friend, Tony Giamarco
... .Does this mean no brisket on Passover?”) Sheila describes
the comfort that she has drawn from the television ministry of charismatic
black Baptist minister, Dr. Julius Strong. Rachel notes that the literature
is a solicitation for money. She expresses her feeling of being betrayed
by her mother. Sheila responds, “We never talk about dying. People
with faith die differently than those without ... Don’t feel betrayed.
It’s not about you, it’s about me.” After Rachel leaves,
Sheila calls her lawyer “about changes in paperwork.” Dr.
Julius Strong enters her hospice room. End of Scene One.
This set-up is provocative. The dialogue is sharp and engrossing. Each
of the three protagonists is fully dimensional and complex. There may
be villainy afoot here (and from more than one source), but it is neither
simple nor truly evil. And Dilorio’s story is so lively, engrossing
and thought provoking that viewers never have the opportunity to become
depressed by Rachel’s terminal situation.
Yes, Dr. Strong has traveled coast to coast in order to secure Sheila’s
promised largess for his economically troubled ministry. And yes, he
will sexually seduce her (or, it may well be said, allow her to seduce
him) in an attempt to insure her fealty to him, but he is also caring
and sensitive to her needs and prepared to offer her value for her money.
Yes, Rachel is more concerned about her own needs than those of her mother.
And, yes, she will use chicanery to try to retain control over her mother,
but she does care about her, and cementing a strong and loving bond with
her is important to Rachel.
Under the swiftly paced and incisive directorial hand of SuzAnne Barabas,
each cast member uncannily fully embodies and fleshes out his/her role.
Susan G. Bob as Sheila convincingly runs the full gamut of emotions in
an aggressive, nervous yet self confident, style. While Sheila’s
decision to embrace a flashy television minister may cause one to question
her state of mind, Ms. Bob makes it clear that Sheila still has her wits
about her and knows how to get what she wants. And what she really wants
is substantially more corporeal than the Holy Ghost.
Evander Duck, Jr. fires on all cylinders as the studiously charismatic
Dr. Strong. Duck seems born to the calling of a glib and smooth soul
stirrer. However, after Sheila tells him that “your letters made
you sound smarter than that,” Duck, smooth as silk, clicks right
into place the intelligence to display (a likely insincere) sensitivity.
Natalie Wilder captures the openness and affinity for counter culture
of many young people in her portrayal of Rachel. However, as the stakes
become higher for Rachel, Wilder brings on a steeliness which indicates
that she may end up being her mother’s daughter after all. Ultimately,
Wilder nicely conveys a chink in her new found armor.
Credit for these nuances in the performances must be shared with author
Gino Dilorio. They may be beautifully interpreted by director Barabas
and her superlative cast, but the lines supporting them are firmly implanted
in Dilorio’s text. Although having the television minister drop
in on and sleep with Sheila may intuitively feel too theatrical to be
true, I’m certain that, when substantial money is at stake, such
visits are not uncommon. The issues concerning treatment of the dying
and the obligations which they and their loved ones have to one another
are never raised statically as such, but rise organically from events.
Additionally, Dilorio displays the ability to sustain an extended scene
over the course of which the relationship of the characters evolves as
they interact at length and reveal more and more of themselves. This
is a virtue to be cherished and encouraged.
The detailed and realistic set by Carrie Mossman augmented bright and
realistically flat lighting by Jill Nagle heighten the sense of reality.
Patricia E. Doherty’s apt, and, in the case of Dr. Strong, flamboyant
costumes complete the excellent design work.
We are told that Dr. Julius Strong’s television ministry show
“The Strong Hour.” The good news is that with its production
of Apostasy, New Jersey Rep is giving its audiences a couple of
hours of strong and thoughtful entertainment.
REVIEW: APOSTASY IS
STUNNING WORLD PREMIERE
by Gary Wien
(LONG BRANCH, NJ)
-- From the opening conversation, it's clear
"Apostasy" won't be your typical mother/daughter play. After all, how
often do you see conversations starting off with the mother doing a hit
of medicinual marijuana? And then offering her daughter the pipe while
the two discuss her recent dating nightmare?
Rachel Gold (the daughter of Sheila Gold) is taking care of her mother
at a hospice. Rachel works at Planned Parenthood and recently had a scare
when her name showed up on an anti-abortion website. Her mother was an
extremely successful business woman who sold her business when it became
clear that Rachel didn't want to take it over.
"What the hell is in this weed?" exclaims
Rachel after her mother unleases the bombshell that forms a major part
in the play's plot - her mother considering converting to Christianity
from Judaism. Apparently she found salvation one night when she couldn't
sleep and found an evangelist (Dr. Julius Strong) on television. The
mother was taken in by the preacher so much that she is planning to
make an extremely large donation to his ministry. The catch was that
she wanted to meet him before she would make the donation. Meanwhile,
she hasn't told her daughter about her plans at all.
Sure enough, Dr.
Julius Strong pays her a visit and instantly lifts her spirits leading
up to a hilarious scene involving a dying cancer patient and an Evangelist
dancing and singing to "Mony, Mony".
Sheila tells the
preacher how everybody in the hospice has given up hope. "Some of us
just give up slower than others, I guess."
The preacher tries
to explain how she should put her life in Christ. As he's talking to
her, she looks up to him and says, "You're always
on, aren't you?" He later proves her right when he presents a brilliantly
executed sermon about Chicken McNuggets.
She may be having trouble taking Christ into her heart, but doesn't
have any trouble bringing the preacher into her bed. Ironically, the
pair give each other just what they need to survive - so much so, that
the preacher asks her to move across country and live with him. Thus
begins the conflict between mother and daughter and the daughter versus
the preacher with the battle for her spiritual being and millions of
dollars caught in between.
There is much more than could be said about this play, but I think you
should simply head to the theatre and see how it twists and turns for
Playwright Gino Dilorio has done an amazing job of presenting religion
with a nice blend of faith and cynicism. This production is full of outstanding
performances, surprise twists, and will keep you riveted from start to
its amazing finish.
Jersey Jewish News
Greater Monmouth County Feature
of love and faith New play at NJ Rep
examines mother-daughter tensions over an evangelist’s appeal
by Matt Schuman
a public information officer for the New Jersey Department of Corrections
and a freelance writer.
Special to NJ Jewish News
Thirty-something Rachel Gold finally has the
kind of relationship with her mother for which she has longed. They
see each other all the time. They talk. After all these years, Sheila
Gold’s career — she was an extremely successful businesswoman — isn’t
the most important thing in her life. Instead, Rachel, whose career
path steered her to Planned Parenthood, is.
Only one problem: Mom has terminal cancer and
is living out her last days in a hospice.
Make that two problems: A dashing African-American
TV evangelist oozing with charisma has suddenly materialized and
is on the verge of persuading Mom to go back to California with him.
In short order, their relationship becomes physical. But what about
Mom’s relationship with Rachel? Her Judaism? Her bank account?
Gone, gone, and gone — unless Rachel can talk her mother out
of this most unusual lifestyle change.
“Rachel finally has her mother where she
wants her, and she’ll be damned if some snake-oil salesman
is going to steal Sheila away from her,” said New York City-based
playwright Gino Dilorio, whose newest work, Apostasy, chronicles
this unlikely love triangle. The production will premiere at the New Jersey
Repertory Company in Long Branch. Previews will be July
13 and 14; the play officially opens July 15.
“Is the minister the true villain here?” Dilorio
“Is he attracted to Sheila or is he only attracted to Sheila’s
money? And what about Sheila, who ultimately must choose between her
daughter and this evangelist? Is one choice right and the other wrong,
or are there gray areas?
“What I tried to do,” the playwright
continued, “is put these issues on the fence and let those
in the audience draw their own conclusions.”
The poster advertising the play depicts a star
of David, bent in several places and hanging from a crucifix. In retrospect, director SuzAnne
Barabas admitted, the poster, while eye-catching, may not capture
the essence of Apostasy.
“If I was designing the poster today, I
don’t know if I would have quite gone in that direction,” Barabas
said. “Certainly, the storyline has the ‘Judaism versus
evangelist’ component, but I wouldn’t classify this as
a religious play. To me, the play is about interpersonal relationships,
about the motivation behind deeds. It has to do with people from
different worlds being brought together. I’ll say this: These
are three roles the actors can really sink their teeth into.”
The first of several staged readings of the play
took place in the autumn of 2004. Since then, the script has undergone
numerous revisions, but two constants have remained. All along, the
mother-daughter tandem have been played by actresses Susan G. Bob
and Natalie Wilder. (Evander Duck Jr., who portrays the charismatic
Dr. Julius Strong, is new to the role.)
“I’m not saying I’m anything
like Sheila Gold, but I’ve tried to put a lot of myself into
this role,” Bob said. “I’d describe Sheila as a
woman who was energetic, independent, and driven to conquer life.
Sheila’s marriage failed, and her daughter holds her responsible
for that failure. Rachel also feels that the time Sheila spent building
a successful business was time the two of them should have spent
together. This is where the character strikes a chord with me.
“Like Sheila, when I work, I tend to get
said Bob. “So when my kids were born, I knew I wanted to be there
to see them grow up, and that became my priority. My approach was different,
but I could definitely understand what motivated Sheila.”
Barabas, herself a Jewish parent, was drawn to
the notion of self-sacrifice.
“As a Jew, you’re taught to challenge
and to interpret,”
she said. “It doesn’t mean we don’t believe but that
we should ask questions. Here, a dying woman thinks she might have
found the answers she’s looking for in an evangelist she saw
on television. Is her daughter right to try to change her mother’s
mind? Or, in doing so, is she denying her mother’s happiness?
Maybe Mom will be bilked out of her money, but maybe she can spend
her final days with a man she loves, which would be a good thing.
“The question then becomes whether Rachel
is looking out for her mother’s interests or her own interests.”
Even though the playwright isn’t Jewish,
the exchanges between Sheila and Rachel Gold aren’t unlike
the kinds of discussions that have been going on in Jewish households
“My wife is Jewish,” Dilorio said. “I
suppose being around conversations involving some combination of
my wife, her sister, and her mother have rubbed off on me.”
The nuances of the script appear to have rubbed
off on the cast members as well.
“The chemistry Susan and Natalie have developed
is such that I have to keep reminding myself that they’re not
really mother and daughter,” Dilorio said. “That adds
a dimension that audiences should find intriguing.”
INTERVIEW WITH PLAYWRIGHT GINO DILORIO
by Gary Wien
Gino Dilorio is quickly
making a name for himself in the playwriting world. The Clark University
Professor has his latest work, Apostasy, currently running at the New
Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. His play, The Hard Way, won
1st place in the BBC's 2005 International Playwriting Competition and
was one of just 3 plays chosen in the Utah Shakespeare Festival's New
Plays in Progress Series. Other highlights include winning a Berilla
Kerr Award for Playwriting and having his
"Winterizing the Summer House" chosen as one of the top 10 plays in the
2002 Writer's Digest's national play competition.
Upstage had the chance to talk with Gino on the eve of the world premiere
of Apostasy at NJ Rep, a theatre which has played a large role in his
development as a playwright.
Tell me a little about Apostasy.
It's a play that had a reading at NJ Rep about two years ago and we've
been developing it - myself and SuzAnne Barabas (the director of Apostasy).
It's based on a number of different ideas that were going round in my
head. I was brought up Catholic, my wife is Jewish and my kids are Jewish
and the two religions deal with the afterlife in very different ways.
In Christianity the resurrection and the after life are very much a center
of the religion, whereas in Judaism it's not. In Judaism, it's the Torah
- the law. And it just seemed to me that there wasn't a focus in Judaism
with the afterlife. So I started looking at the afterlife issues and
I did some research on it and I found that a lot of people who were terminal
cancer patients who were Jewish considered converting at the end of their
lives because they wanted that idea of a religion that was centrally
focused on that. They wanted that hopeful ending, that kind of faith.
It seemed like there was a real dichotomy there.
So, I was interested in that and I had a friend who had a bout with
cancer and he and his girlfriend were sort of on the outs. But when he
first got sick they got back together and she took care of him for the
last 18 months of his life. She said that it was the greatest time of
her life. The reason, I think, is because she finally had him where she
wanted him. He really needed her. So, I was interested in that dichotomy
too and that's something we have in the play with the mother/daughter.
Plus I'm also interested in evangelicals and what they are all about.
And finally I was trying to write a piece of erotica for an older woman.
I thought that it was kind of interesting that somebody at the end of
her life would decide to do something crazy so she has a thing with a
So, all of that is sort of in the piece. Hopefully, it works in a lot
How did it evolve from the play which first had a
reading at NJ Rep?
It's less talky. I think that it started out as being a heavy idea play
and it became more of a personal play. What happens is that you have
these ideas and things you want to say in a piece, but then you do more
and more readings and you see people start to fade a little bit. People
don't want to be lectured to they want these ideas to spring in their
head but you need the action to be driving the ideas. So that's how it
really changed. A lot of cuts. It became less of an idea play and more
about a love story and a personal dynamic between the mother, the daughter
and the evangelical and who was going to get this woman in the end.
A lot of writers have difficulties writing dialogues
for the opposite sex, how do you think you got by that?
It wasn't really a problem. I think I modeled their relationship after
my mother and my sister because they were always butting heads. I heard
that in the house a lot, so it was just being a good listener, I guess.
Apostasy started out with a reading at NJ Rep and
now is having a full production. How important do you think it is for
a playwright to have a certain relationship with a theatre where a
piece can go from stage reading to a full production in the same theatre?
Extremely. I mentioned this at the Talk Back today. NJ Rep is an absolute
treasure because they do predominately new work. One of the problems
new playwrights have is that nobody wants to do new work. They'd prefer
to do what's tried and true. In fact, playwrights are not only competing
against other new plays but they're competing against every play that
was ever written. It's like "Hamlet" or this new play by an unknown guy
we've never heard of... I guess we'll do "Hamlet".
They (NJREP) develop so much new work and what's even better is that
not only is there a world premiere every six weeks but they take the
audience along for the ride. The audience is hip to that, they like seeing
new things. It's not the same old tried and true. They like that some
of it works and some of it doesn't, but it's always a premiere. I can't
overstate all that they've done. Suzanne and Gabor (Barabas) are just
When you were in college you were headed towards
an acting career. Were you interested in writing back then?
I always had my eye on it, but I predominately wanted to be an actor.
I mostly started writing about ten years ago. My son was born and it
was difficult to go and do acting for very little money. I thought I
could just stay home and write for very little money instead! At the
time, I was with a lot of companies that did new work and I'd read a
play and think,
"I could write this".
I'm much happier as a playwright than I ever was an actor. You write
it, it's up there and it's yours. I never got used to the transient nature
of being an actor. It was always a challenge going from gig to gig.
How involved do you get with your productions?
As involved as they want me to be. I'm very comfortable just showing
up the first night to see the play. If they want me to be at rehearsals,
I'll be there. I try not to be there too much because I think the actors
get nervous. I'd rather let them play with it and find it and let the
director find it.
I'm not a very good audience member. I get so nervous that I don't enjoy
it much. I like to listen to it. I'll sit in the back and just listen
to the words.
How did having an acting background help your writing?
I tell my playwriting students that even if you don't ever want to act
you've got to take acting classes. You've got to know what it's like
to be up there. Even if you're terrible... You've got to know what it's
like to stand in a space and read because it gives you a sense of the
How has teaching helped you?
I would not have been a playwright if I hadn't been a teacher. I taught
Improv for many years and Improv is one of those things where you're
always saying yes to your imagination. It totally unlocked it for me.
That's another thing I always tell my playwrights - take Improv classes.
What advice would you give somebody that wants to
be a playwright?
I'd say take Improv, take acting classes. At first you've got to write
what you know. I think you have to write what you love and what you know
first. Don't be afraid to tell a personal story on stage. There's nothing
wrong with starting there. And then eventually you have to write what
you don't know because it's the only way you can learn things.
Go the theatre a lot, go to places where people are speaking. I think
the hardest thing you have to do is listen. You have to be a magnet for
dialogue. Bars, subways, diners... I don't think you can learn it from
books. I think you really have to go places where people are speaking.
You have to learn how people converse and bounce words in a space. You
have to be a dialogue thief!
A CurtainUp Review
By Simon Saltzman
There are no agnostics in a cancer
ward.--- Rachel Gold
Apostasy: 1. The renunciation of faith.
2. Abandonment of previous loyalty. --- Webster's Dictionary:
Susan G. Bob and Evander Duck, Jr. in Apostasy
(Photo: SuzAnne Barabas)
Sheila Gold (Susan G. Bob) is a Jewish patient with terminal cancer living
in a hospice. The closest she has come to her faith in her lifetime is
preparing a brisket of beef at Passover. This presumably makes her a prime
candidate for apostasy, the theme of an absorbing if slightly far-fetched
world premiering play by Gino Dilorio, a New York-based playwright who's
been 1st place winner place in the BBC's 2005 International Playwriting
Competition and a finalist at the O'Neill Center, the Humana Festival and
When Gold, a self-sufficient independent middle-aged long-divorced woman
reaches out for "something," she doesn't turn to her 31 year-old daughter
Rachel (Natalie Wilder), who makes daily visits and usually arrives with
a fresh supply of pot, declaring "Dis is good shit mon."
Sheila has, in fact, become enraptured with the TV ministry of California-based
Dr. Julius Strong (Evander Duck, Jr.), a charismatic African-American Christian
Evangelist. Exhausting the alternative cures which her daughter has continually
seen fit to put down, Sheila finds that she is eager and receptive to the
message that the persuasive evangelist is offering and loses no time in
writing to him while also secretively initiating a major change in her
Sheila's success as a businesswoman ("I made a bundle selling stuff on
line") has resulted in a conflicted relationship with Rachel who chose
not to go into her mother's thriving business, but has instead devoted
her life and her time to planned parenthood and working at a women's health
clinic where she is now a manager.
Although disappointed in her daughter's choices, Sheila continues to urge
Rachel to find a man through the Jewish singles web site service nembership
in which she has given her as a gift. This subject takes a back seat when
Sheila announces, "I'm thinking of converting to…Christianity. I'm
serious. People who are dying need something." In a brochure sent from
"The Strong Hour," Rachel notices a request for donations and makes it
clear that she feels betrayed by her mother. Sheila counters this with
"Well, I'm dying. And people who have faith die differently than people
who don't have faith. I know it. I've seen it. And I don't want to be like
them. So do me a favor, don't feel betrayed"
Rachel discovers that the evangelist has made a personal visit to see Sheila
in her room at the hospice (cleanly and functionally designed by Carrie
Mossman) and has stayed the night. Have Sheila's letter and its promise
of a hefty gift to his ministry prompted Dr. Strong (Evander Duck, Jr.)
to do whatever it takes?
You may suspect at this point that you know where playwright Dilorio is
leading us and you may be right. However, under SuzAnne Barabas' finely
tuned direction, three excellent actors define Dilorio's interestingly
complex characters with considerable brio. The plot is a cleverly considered
mix of concealed con and overt compassion.
Dilorio's gift for the provocative shows up with Julius' visit, beginning
with an exchange of gifts between him and Sheila. Although Sheila is a
bit wary of his evangelistic zeal ("You're always in preacher mode".),
she is disarmed by his exuberance and warmth, and his ability to make her
dance with a joyous abandonment to the strains of "Dancin' in the Street." An
embrace leads to a kiss and more, in time for a quick Act 1 curtain. Rachel
, appalled by the direction the relationship is taking, proceeds to do
what she can to prevent her suddenly rejuvenated mother from being taken
in by Julius.
Although the stocky yet spiffy-looking Duck, Jr. has the misfortune to
play part of a scene literally bare-ass, his character is otherwise clothed
in relentless sincerity and a fully committed mission. At the opening night
performance, he got a deserved round of applause for giving an overly dramatic,
but highly amusing "testimony" in the form of an improvisation at Sheila's
request. Whether he is the scoundrel that Rachel suspects remains an almost
moot point in the light of the desperate measures she is prepared to take
to get him out of her mother's life.
Wilder has appeared in numerous NJ Rep productions, and she is outstanding
as the totally rattled and needy Rachel, who not only finds herself in
the role of her mother's protector, but also a probable target of anti-abortion
activists. Whether we find Julius' stand on abortion surprising or not,
we are more surprised not to see a single member of the hospice staff.
Evidently no one checks up to see if anyone died during the night.
Susan Bob, who is best know for originating the role of Dee in Charles
Gordone's Pulitzer Prize winning No Place to Be Somebody, gives
the play its heart and its heartiness. Reflecting a gullibility that defies
logic, and a recklessness that defines irrational behavior, she makes Sheila
someone you may find yourself unwittingly rooting for and embracing. To
her credit, she dispenses poignancy with a vibrancy that well serves this
strangely unsettling but intriguing play.
Although this is not a musical, director Barabas has brilliantly selected
recorded songs that deliciously punctuate the scenes and are worth mentioning
-- "Stormy Weather," sung by Etta James, "People Get Ready," sung by The
Blind Boys of Alabama, "I'm Still Her"e, sung by Tom Waits," Sunday Morning,",,"
Trust in Me" and "At Last," by Etta James; and "It will Be Me," sung for
the curtain call by Kristin Chenoweth.
July 20, 2006
‘APOSTASY’ rewards faithful theatergoers
By Milt Bernstein
From the title of the latest
offering at New Jersey Repertory Company – “Apostasy” – and
its publicity logo showing a crinkled Jewish star on top of a larger
Christian cross – one might get the impression that we are about
to witness a learned debate on the virtues of the two great religions.
reality, however, playwright Gino DiIorio has offered us a combined comedy
and drama – a
“dramedy,” as someone recently put it – of
an unusual love triangle – involving a not-very-old but highly successful
Jewish businesswoman with an incurable illness, who is supposedly spending
her last weeks or months in a hospice; her only caregiver, a daughter who feels
all too keenly that her mother has always been alienated from her; and a charismatic
Christian TV evangelist the mother has become fascinated with during her lonely
stay in the hospice.
The three-character, two-act
play opens with the mother (played by Susan G. Bob) receiving a surprise
visit from the evangelist (all the way from California) and ends with
a fiery showdown that takes place between the daughter (played by Natalie
Wilder) and the evangelist (known as Dr. Julius Strong, and played by
Evander Duck, Jr.).
Bob and Natalie Wilder, both NJ Rep veterans, portray their roles beautifully.
But the real surprise is the performance of the preacher by Evander Duck,
in real life a doctor with a practice in Freehold, specializing in physical
medicine, spinal injuries and rehabilitation. Duck offered an overpowering
presence in his scenes with the all-too-vulnerable mother, interspersed
with moments of high comedy.
eminently worth-seeing production has been superbly directed by artistic
director SuzAnne Barabas, co-founder of NJ Rep. The single hospice-room
set was excellent, by Carrie Mossman; the costume design by Patricia
Doherty; lighting by Jill Nagle; and sound by Merek Royce Press.
In "Apostasy," the new play now onstage at New Jersey Repertory Company
in Long Branch, a wealthy, middle-aged Jewish woman by the name of Sheila
Gold (Susan G. Bob) enters into a relationship with Dr. Julius Strong,
an African-American evangelical minister (Evander Duck Jr.). It's an
arrangement that causes no end of grief to Sheila's daughter (Natalie
Wilder), and one that raises issues of sketchy motives (is the charismatic
preacher more interested in Sheila's money than he is in Sheila?) and
hard choices (as between faith and family).
The three-character dramedy by Gino Dilorio is merely the latest in
a long line of world premieres for the ever-innovative Shore-based company
founded by Gabe and SuzAnne Barabas of West Long Branch. More significantly,
it's the latest graduate of NJ Rep's long-running series of script-in-hand
readings — a feature that has functioned as something akin to a "farm
club" for works in progress, and a popular offering which, according
to SuzAnne Barabas, sends a message "that we are not just a producing
theater, but a development theater as well."
Having presented readings of more than 200 plays in the past eight years — with
nearly 30 of them having transitioned to fully-staged productions — NJ
Rep has established a genuine reason for seekers after something different
to leave the house on Monday evenings. The bargain-priced, audience-interactive
series — which continues on July 24 with Juan Mayorga's concentration
"Ways to Heaven" — remains a popular draw throughout the year.
It has attracted the talents of such performers as Salome Jens, Betsy
Palmer and Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert.
"The main purpose of the staged readings is to let the author see where
there may be vulnerabilities in a play, and what the audience responds
to or does not respond to," explains SuzAnne Barabas, the troupe's artistic
director. "Our audience is very astute . . . the playwrights would do
well to listen to their comments and to heed their suggestions."
Work in progress
According to Barabas, a typical staged reading is cast about three weeks
prior to presentation (Actors Equity, a union, allows up to 15 hours
for rehearsals and performance of a drama or comedy). There are generally
two rehearsals of the material — one in New York, and one at NJ
Rep the day of the performance.
"With certain plays, we know from just reading the script that the play
is ready. However, we often will do a staged reading of it to get a stronger
sense of the work," she explained.
"It also gives us the chance to feel out the playwright and see how
easy or difficult he/she is to work with, and how eager they are to further
refine their play."
Then there's the sort of play which can, as SuzAnne Barabas puts it, "Read
one way on paper and another on its feet" — as in the case of "Apostasy," a
play she characterizes as "very human . .. we were drawn to all three
characters, and we found the subject matter, and the interplay between
comedy and drama, intriguing."
The NJ Rep people had already worked with playwright Dilorio during
their mainstage production of his "Winterizing the Summer House" in 2003,
and scheduled a reading of "Apostasy" almost exactly two years ago. While
SuzAnne Barabas observed that the audience was very clearly moved and
very encouraging in their post-show discussion, "we felt that it needed
Working closely with Dilorio to "make some edits, build up sections,
and clarify issues," Barabas and company (including actress Natalie Wilder)
did a closed table reading of a new draft. After further modifications
were put through, a reading of the latest version was given at Luna Stage
in Montclair — after which followed more suggestions, more re-writes
and more table readings.
Two years and six more scripts later, SuzAnne Barabas said that
"We felt the play was well on its way and we optioned it," adding that
once a play is optioned, "We are then fully committed to the project
. . . the director, however, will still work with the writer before and
during rehearsals on the script as needed."
From there it was on the casting phase of the process, with Barabas
(now officially attached to the project as director) offering first dibs
on the role of the daughter to Wilder — a member of NJ Rep's stock
company of players and a person regarded by all concerned as "a strong
member of the development team." Susan Bob, who played mother Sheila
in the very first reading, auditioned and was cast alongside Duck, making
his first Rep appearance.
While noting that "We are very proud to have been a part of the development
of this world premiere," the director emphasizes that the NJ Rep braintrust
and its loyal audience aren't always on the same page when it comes to
the properties that are selected for staging each season.
"We have also produced plays that the audience did not especially like,
but we did . . . it poses a special challenge to see if we can bring
the play to life in such a way that the audience changes its mind."
'Exits and Entrances' ends theater season on a
The last production of the New Jersey theater season ranks as one of
"Exits and Entrances," now at the New Jersey Repertory Company, has
a splendid script, superb acting and masterful direction. Who could ask
for anything more?
Athol Fugard's 30th play, and his most recent, had its world premiere
engagement in 2004 in Los Angeles. New Jersey Repertory's artistic director,
SuzAnne Barabas, and her husband, executive producer Gabor Barabas, have
imported Stephen Sachs' production to their Long Branch theater.
It's the perfect play for the Barabases, because it celebrates the stage.
Few rival this couple's love of theater, as they continue the difficult
mission of bringing new plays to audiences.
That "Exits and Entrances" is autobiographical is easy to glean, though
Fugard never refers to himself by name, but simply as "The Playwright." He
could have called himself "The Dresser" just as easily, for he spends
most of the play caring for the costumes -- and the ego of actor Andre
Fugard uses a real name here: Huguenet was a famed South African actor
when Fugard worked for him during a 1956 production of "Oedipus Rex."
"The Playwright" shows Huguenet the unconditional respect that only
a novice can give, and Huguenet happily takes it. When the lad compliments
him on his performance, Huguenet asks, "Really?" He doesn't trust or
admire the boy's opinion; he just wants to be praised again.
William Dennis Hurley is excellent as "The Playwright." The script demands
that he have the starry-eyed enthusiasm of the stage-struck, but also
that he stand up to the star. Hurley displays a strong backbone at these
Morlan Higgins is extraordinary as Huguenet, one of those grahnd men
of the theater who enjoys pretending that he's a regular, jovial guy
-- but woe be to the underling who disagrees with him. Higgins uses a
pretentious and portentous voice when saying, "im-purrrrr-tenant" and
the de rigueur
"dear boy." Yet what childishness he shows when there's a problem with
his costume. Better still is Higgins' introspection when he remembers
the taunts and threats heaped on him by village bullies long ago.
Self-pity can only last so long. Higgins snarls when he's corrected
while rehearsing "Oedipus," then grandly orates when he's shown performing
the text. How imperious he looks, too, when he takes his curtain call
before the imaginary "Oedipus" audience.
Back in the dressing room, Higgins shows Huguenet's insouciant nature.
He mentions "the drunkenness and sex" for which theater is famous, dryly
adding, "If only that were true." Then he turns deadly serious when he
speaks of another aspect of stage life: "the hard labor of dreams."
"The Playwright" finds that the realization of his dreams does indeed
involve hard work. Five years later, he's about to have his first play
produced. He visits Huguenet backstage to tell him about it. That leads
to a surprising rift. Here, Hurley takes center stage, and delivers an
impassioned speech without a trace of dishonesty.
New Jersey Repertory has replaced its hard-bottomed, armless steel chairs
with plush, two-armed theater seats. But even if the company had removed
the chairs and made everyone sit on the floor, "Exits and Entrances" would
be worth the sacrifice.
There are a number of pin-drop moments that occur during "Exits and Entrances," the
two-character Athol Fugard drama now onstage at New Jersey Repertory
Company in Long Branch.
They are moments in which a hush settles over the room, broken by nothing
more or less than a couple of finely tuned actors performing some carefully
wrought words — with the subdued lighting, the barely discernible
hum of the house air conditioning and some comfortable new seats adding
to the quiet-time power of this elegiac duet.
There's little in the way of real action in this 2004 play by the South
African scribe who's been lauded as one of the greatest literary voices
of the last fifty years. Branded a "memory play,"
it's essentially a couple of snapshots from a slow, sad changing of the
guard — a crossing of paths between the aging, Afrikaner actor
Andre Huguenet (Morlan Higgins) and an idealistic young playwright (William
Dennis Hurley) who has occasion to serve as supporting player, de facto
dresser and appreciative audience to the older man.
This most recent work from the pen of the playwright best known for "Master
Harold . . . and the Boys" was written for and developed by director
Stephen Sachs and his Fountains Theatre in Los Angeles, a premiere for
which Fugard helped supervise the casting and lent his wisdom during
the rehearsal process. With director Sachs and his original cast all
present for the show's Long Branch engagement, the NJ Rep production
of "Exits" comes to the Jersey Shore bearing its famous author's still-warm
(STAFF PHOTO: JEANNIE CLAUDIO)
Dennis Hurley (left) and Morlan Higgins rehearse a scene from Athol Fugard's "Exits
and Entrances" in Long Branch
Arrivals and departures
Introduced by the unnamed Playwright (a surrogate for you-know-who)
on the 1961 inauguration of the Republic of South Africa — an
occasion that synchronically coincides with the death of Huguenet — the
play very quickly flashes back to 1956 and the aspiring literary
lion's experience with the weary Andre during an ill-starred run
of "Oedipus Rex." The gradual "exit" of the classically trained,
old-school impresario — and the concurrent
"entrance" of the Playwright's more immediate brand of socially
relevant theater — are just some of the "arrivals and departures"
noted by Fugard, not least of which are the passing of the old
Union of South Africa amid the first stirrings of the forces that
would transform his country's society a generation later.
Always among the most trenchant of observers of life in the Apartheid
era, Fugard keeps the grand sweep of history offstage, channeling
the sea-change currents into a more personal argument between the
hidebound conservator of Afrikaner culture and the wordsmith out
to change the world. It's an exchange that momentarily wrests the
jaded actor from his boozy resignation, prompting him to call his
young friend back for more with the plea that "we haven't exhausted
all our points of disagreement."
Comings and goings
While NJ Rep is presenting "Exits" without an intermission, the
script does fall into two distinct sections. The latter finds the
Playwright looking up the all-but-forgotten Andre in a small-time
production of "The Prisoner," in which the broken, bankrupt Huguenet's
gut-wrenching turn as The Cardinal presents a proud man
"slowly stripped of all his disguises . . . forced to recognize
and confess to what he really is."
Once regarded as the greatest actor in all of South Africa, the
real-life Huguenet was a specialist in such larger-than-lifes as
Hamlet and Lear. In a role that he has every right to claim having
"created," Higgins embodies Huguenet as a sardonically witty extension
of his stage self, a sin-eater who seems to assume the burdens
shouldered by every tragic figure he's ever portrayed. As imperious
as he is insecure, claiming to have "bred antibodies" to the critics
while pouring another few fingers of bottled courage, the self-proclaimed "old
gay ham" stands exposed as a lifelong outsider, a dinosaur with
no real friends. Whether relating his childhood epiphany at the
sight of the great ballerina Pavlova, or delivering Hamlet's famous
soliloquy with a world-weary, booze-bleary authority you'll likely
hear nowhere else, Higgins delivers this portrait to places only
skirted by the likes of "The Dresser" and other "backstage" tales.
In a considerably less showy role — one that the playwright
didn't seem fit to bless with a name — Hurley endeavors to
expertly balance rather than compete with the stentorian swaggers
and staggers of Higgins. He's the eloquent narrator who frames
the vignettes, a straight-man and interlocutor, a stand-in for
author and audience alike. He makes this play happen every bit
as much as his 800-pound gorilla of a co-star.
The two actors and their director have honed this show to a fine
point over the course of four productions and scores of performances.
While it's not for every taste, it's a welcome summer guest here
on our fair Shore — and to see it is to be provided with
a direct glimpse into the creative process of one of the world's
greatest living playwrights.
Playwright, Original Cast In Long
The Two River Times
Athol Fugard's "Exits and
Entraces" at NJ Rep
In Exits and Entrances
one of the characters, an aging actor, asks the
other, a young playwright, if stage plays can make
any difference in the world. Considering the
impact Athol Fugard's have had on the social and
political fabric of his native South Africa, the
question is hardly rhetorical.
William Dennis Hurley
(left) and Morlan Higgins in Exits and
Dealing primarily with relationships
among whites, blacks and "coloureds" in the era of
apartheid, Fugard's early, mixed-race casts (Blood
Knot, Boesman and Lena, etc.) were banned in his
own country, but the plays galvanized
anti-apartheid opinion with productions in this
country (first at Yale Repertory Theatre) and
elsewhere around the world. Exits and Entrances,
which premiered in 2004, centers on the
relationship between the idealistic young
playwright and the older, disillusioned actor,
whose values have become linked with the
characters he has played. Apparently
autobiographical, the characters are based on
Fugard himself and on an acclaimed South African
actor of the 1960s, Andre Huguenot. Fugard is
noted - and sometimes criticized - for a reliance
on metaphor, and this latest of his plays bears
that out, even to the title.
In Exits and
Entrances we are led to consider the demise of the
repressive Union of South Africa, and the
emergence of the democratic Republic of South
Africa just 15 years ago. One character, the
actor, is in decline; the other, the playwright,
in ascendancy. Read that metaphor into Exits and
Entrances if you choose; it's surely there. Or see
it as "just" penetrating exchanges of philosophies
between two intriguing characters at different
points in their lives. Andre's only real home has
been the stage, and the young writer is switching
to plays because his short stories are mostly
written in dialogue.
The play is set in
1956-61, but written recently, post-apartheid, it
doesn't have the sting of Fugard's earlier works.
Racial, social and economic divisions still exist
in South Africa, of course, but Exits and
Entrances seems removed from the biting reality of
earlier Fugard. ("Master Harold" …and the Boys,
for example, is gut wrenching.) It's more
philosophical, less piercing. This does not
detract from the sterling production now running
at New Jersey Repertory Company.
see the playwright (William Dennis Hurley)
ruminating on the past before we flash back to a
theater dressing room where he serves actor Andre
(Morlan Higgins) as a valet-dresser, readying him
for a performance of his triumphant Oedipus Rex.
Andre regales his assistant with tales of past
glories as he makes up and dons his costume, and
Higgins's transformation from the flamboyant
‘civilian' to the obsessed Oedipus is remarkable.
Taking on a Bela Lugosi eeriness, he launches into
the role within the role, acting the scene where
Oedipus puts out his own eyes with convincing
fervor. Later, reciting Hamlet's contemplation of
suicide, actor Higgins does justice to the South
African actor that Fugard honors in the play. In
between the Sophoclean and Shakespearean excerpts,
Higgins proves a master of Fugard's intense
dialogue. It's a fine performance, necessarily
outsized, but not scenery-chewing.
is more constrained but no less effective. He's in
awe of Andre in the early scene, but less so five
years later, when he has matured and Andre has
fallen into irrelevance. The playwright's one
outburst, giving voice to Fugard's rage against
the old South African order, is startling in
contrast to the character's overall calm. Hurley
acts it well, up to and including the sudden halt
when the younger man realizes he's not getting
through to Andre. The accent Hurley affects may be
authentic white South African, but he slips in and
out of it, which is somewhat
Producing an established
playwright is a departure for New Jersey Rep.
They've done it here with class, not only by the
choice of Fugard, but by importing the play's
original cast as well as its director, Stephen
Sachs, who blends actors and characters - and
those metaphors - seamlessly.
theater people, real or fictitious, have a unique
appeal, and Exits and Entrances is no exception.
Being admitted to the dressing room and hearing
excerpts from classic plays makes us feel like
we're in on the process. In this case, the
finished product is the latest play from a
world-renowned author. Fugard is rarely produced
locally - never before, to my knowledge, with the
original cast and director. Serious theater fans -
and fans of serious theater - are well advised to
take advantage of this rarity, right in Long
"Exits and Entrances" continues at
NJ Rep's Lumia Theatre, 179 Broadway, Long Branch
through June 25. Performances are Thurs.-Sat. at
8pm, with matinees on selected Saturdays at 4 and
Sundays at 2. Information and tickets ($30):
732-229-3166 or at www.njrep.org.
River Times theater critic Philip Dorian's e-mail
address is PDorian@aol.com.
Jersey's best (In one critic's humble opinion)
Sunday, June 11, 2006
BY PETER FILICHIA
The 2005-2006 New Jersey theater season certainly hit the heights with
its comedies and dramas. The five best plays ran the gamut from funny
("Miss Witherspoon") to poignant ("From Door to Door") to nostalgic
("Music from a Sparkling Planet") to theatrical ("Exits and Entrances") to
harrowing ("Gem of the Ocean"). Each deserved to be named best play of the
year, and picking a winner wasn't easy.
Best Play: "Exits and Entrances" by Athol Fugard (New Jersey Repertory
Company, Long Branch); "From Door to Door" by James Sherman (Forum
Theatre); "Gem of the Ocean" by August Wilson (McCarter); "Miss
Witherspoon" by Christopher Durang (McCarter); "Music from a Sparkling
Planet" by Douglas Carter Beane (The Theater Project, Cranford).
WHERE: New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch
WHEN: Today through Sunday
CALL: (732) 229-3166
The plot is simple: An aging, seasoned actor and a young playwright
battle over artistic differences. But what Athol Fugard's "Exits and
Entrances" says and how it gets its point across is far more important
than the simplicity of its plot.
Athol Fugard, 73, the South African playwright who has more than 25
full-length plays to his credit, is a unique voice in contemporary theater.
For more than four decades, he has been writing about government oppression
during the period of apartheid South Africa, and the repercussions of
the artistic frustration that it has caused.
Apartheid is a system of racial segregation peculiar to the Republic
of South Africa, during British rule. It was largely repealed in 1991-'92.
It is not rare for Fugard to have the conflict of his scenarios expressed
through two major characters. The conflicts in "Blood Knot," "Master
Harold . . . and the Boys" and "Valley Song" are all expressed through
the two major characters.
Fugard's latest play, "Exits and Entrances," being staged at the New
Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, also has its conflict expressed
through its two major characters.
The autobiographical drama traces the relationship of two characters
over a long period of time. Andre is an aging actor on the brink of retirement.
The young playwright (who represents a young Fugard) is simply known
as the playwright.
The play spans 1956 to 1961, the oppressive years in which South Africa
was under British rule. Due to the fact that Fugard and his plays always
tried to protest apartheid, they were banned by the government and Fugard
came to the United States to have them produced.
In "Exits and Entrances," the older man, Andre, believes theater should
depict life as it should be, whereas the young playwright thinks theater
should show life the way it really is. Andre is for lifting the spirits
of the oppressed people of South Africa, by showing them some kind of
positive aesthetic. He believes people go to the theater to escape real
On the other hand, the young playwright wants to change lives by writing
plays about what's happening right now (in 1956), i.e., the horrible
conditions under which the oppressed classes are living.
It may sound mundane, or even familiar, but what appears to be a simple
concept is the cornerstone of a touching work. Director Stephen Sachs
is passionate about it.
"The play is Fugard's valentine to the theater," Sachs said recently. "It
is a series of scenes that, over a period of time, shows the relationship
between the two men grow and develop."
Sachs lives in Los Angeles and works mostly at the theater he founded
in 1980, the Fountain Theater, where he is artistic director.
He became aware of "Exits and Entrances" through a twist of fate.
"I was directing a play by Fugard called "The Road to Mecca' for The
Fountain Theater," Sachs recalled. "Well, Fugard came to Los Angeles
to see it and loved the production. We got to talking and I offered him
our theater as his artistic home."
A few days later, Sachs received an e-mail from Fugard asking him to
direct his latest play.
"The entire text was in a file attachment. It was "Exits and Entrances.'
I read it and was very moved by it," Sachs said.
Athol Fugard’s Exceptional Exits and Entrances in
Morlan Higgins and William Dennis Hurley
Working within the framework of simple, direct plots, the prolific South
African playwright Athol Fugard brings an astonishing density and richness
to his plays. Additionally, Fugard clearly possesses the admirable ability
to reinvent himself and remain relevant in an ever changing world. In any
number of ways, his new play, Exits and Entrances, is a stunning
culmination of his oeuvre. However, it also reminds us that for as long
as he retains his strength, Fugard can be depended upon to continue to
evolve and illuminate the theatre with his particular genius.
The autobiographical play depicts the two encounters between The Playwright
and South African Afrikaans actor Andre Huguenet. They occurred in 1956
and 1961. The Playwright is very explicitly the young Fugard, half Afrikaans
and author of a play about "two coloured brothers, one dark, one light
living in a pondok (shack)." (This is a description of Fugard’s
first internationally famed play, Blood Knot.) Andre (as he is
identified throughout), who in actuality had been known as the Laurence
Olivier of the South African theatre, is an unhappy lost soul in the
failing, declining days of his career. The Playwright, filled with zeal
and ambition, is embarking upon a career in the theatre which we know
is to be stellar. Thus the two protagonists, respectively, are making
their Exits and Entrances into and from their productive lives
in the theatre.
1956. Andre is producing and starring in Oedipus Rex in Cape
Town, for which he has hired the 24-year-old Playwright to play the role
of a shepherd and act as his dresser. Andre, while vain, bombastic and
fragile, has a glory about him to which those of us with a love for the
power of the theatre can relate. He describes himself as a Dopper Moffie
(Afrikaans for village queer) who found in the theatre "a world where
I would be safe." Citing South African poet Eugene Marais, who when asked
"where is your home" responded by holding up a sheet of paper, Andre
proclaims that "the theatre is my home ... my greatest sense of myself,
my greatest acuity, is in pretending to be someone else." He favorably
compares being loved in his "home" by Shakespeare’s Ophelia to
the relationship between The Playwright and his wife.
Audiences are sparse, and having spent his last monies to produce Oedipus,
Andre is at the point of bankruptcy. "What creativity is all about is
the hard labor of dreams ... The awful truth is that the audience has
to give you permission to dream."
1961. The Playwright meets Andre for the second and last time in Cape
Town where Andre is playing a highly fictionalized version of courageous
Joseph Cardinal Mindszenty, who had been prosecuted by the Hungarian
Communist regime, The Prisoner. It is clear to The Playwright
that Andre’s career, indeed his very life, has reached the endgame.
It is now clear to both men that Andre’s florid acting style has
gone out of fashion and will no longer be accepted by producers and audiences.
Andre does not have the inner resources to change. At least as devastating
is Andre’s loss of belief in his ability, or in the ability of
any individual, to make any difference in the course of the world. When
The Playwright vehemently objects to his words, Andre responds, "You
didn’t take offense?. My words were directed at myself when I was
your age." "What do you pray for Andre?" "Nothing much, just a little
courage to wear my curse, the Dopper Moffie, as a badge of grace and
Despite the fact that while on the surface, Exits and Entrances,
like this review, may seem to center mostly on Andre, it is at heart
a journey into the mind and spirit of The Playwright. The Playwright
has always been determined to "wake up the Afrikaneers and make him think."
Told by Andre that he should write of his own people, he responds "as
far as I’m concerned the people of the slums are my own people." Of
course, we have long known that The Playwright would play a major role
in raising consciousness to the plight of the indigenous populace under
racist apartheid regimes.
However, almost half a century ago, The Playwright was treated to an
object lesson on how not to respond to the inevitable changes that come
to us all with the passage of time. Even then, based on the evidence
of this play, Fugard knew that one day, he would devote more of his writings
to his personal concerns. While still writing of the evolving social
and political terrain of South Africa, the focus of his recent plays
has become decidedly more personal, and, as a result, they have more
universal application. Figuratively, Athol Fugard has found the fountain
of youth, and he is generously sharing its location with us.
The world premiere of Exits and Entrances was presented at the
tiny Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles. The New Jersey Rep area premiere
boasts the cast and director of the Los Angeles premiere production.
Director Stephen Sachs has directed with a sure hand, never allowing
the conversation to become static, and smoothly blending two diverse
performances into an organic whole.
Morlan Higgins is excellent in the showier role of Andre. As noted,
Andre is an emotionally buffeted, bombastic and complex individual. Additionally,
Andre has to perform excerpts from Sophocles and, to a lesser extent,
Bridget Boland (The Prisoner) in a florid manner while still conveying
a certain grandeur in the performance of the former, and hard won pathos
in the latter. Higgins captures the bold strokes and complex nuances
required to capture Andre. William Dennis Hurley as The Playwright meets
the challenge of holding the stage equally with Higgins, despite having
to rely mostly on subtler, more limited strokes.
The spare, attractive set of Jessica Parks nicely serves for the three
required locations. The costume designs by Shon LeBlanc are first rate.
Athol Fugard has been quoted describing Exits and Entrances as
"small play." Perhaps he only intended that it be a brief memoir of Andre
Huguenet. However, this 85 minute, one act, two character play has emerged
as an all encompassing self-portrait summing up the magnificent playwriting
career and evolution of one of the giants of the English language theatre.
Gratitude is due to the New Jersey Rep for bringing it to us.
The LINK News June 1 thru June 7,
Engrossing new play at NJ Rep
by Milt Bernstein
"Exits and Entrances", the latest drama by the great
South African playwright Athol Fugard, is the current offering of the
New Jersey Repertory Company at the Lumia Theater on Broadway, Long
This is a beautifully performed two-character story
of an actual friendship, in South Africa, between an aspiring young
playwright (Fugard himself, although not named) and an older, egotistic
and demanding actor who has specialized in bringing classic roles to
the upper class in South Africa, the Afrikaners, not always with success.
When the narrative begins, in 1961, South Africa
has become the Union of South Africa, under Afrikaner rule (the original
Dutch Boers); and apartheid has become the official life in this racially
divided country. The young writer, after several years as an expatriate
in England, returns to his homeland imbued with the desire to throw
light on and expose the terrible ills in his country. When he visits
his old friend after a performances as the cardinal in "The Prisoner" (Cardinal
Mindszenty) there is a riveting scene as the two clash over their different
philosophy and point of view as to what is most important for one to
do in life. As the play comes to an end, each of them has a greater
appreciation of his friend; and we are treated to a most memorable
recitation of Hamlet's "to be or not to be" soliloquy by the aging
actor reclining in his dressing room armchair.
This eminently worth-seeing play, by the renowned
author of such works as "Blood Knot" (described in this play, though
not by name), "A Message from Aloes", "Master Harold and the Boys," and
others too numerous to mention, is being offered for the first time
in the tri-state area; and if it receives sufficient notice, may well
wind up on or off-Broadway, in that other big city nearby.
Sterling performances are rendered by William Dennis
Hurley as the young writer and Morlan Higgins as the actor - both of
whom are continuing in the roles they created for the play's original
performances in California, along with Stephen Sachs, the original
and brilliant director.
(LONG BRANCH, NJ) -- Exits and Entrances
is the latest in a long line of NJ Rep success stories. The Long Branch
company is presenting the New Jersey premiere of Athol Fugard's latest
play until June 25th. In a word, the play is nothing short of powerful.
Very, very powerful.
The play revolves around the relationship of a budding playwright and
an aging actor in South Africa in the early 1960s. The two first meet
each other during a production of Oedipus in which Andre receives raves
reviews as the star and the playwright is his assistant in the dressing
room. Andre is played by Morlan Higgins and the playwright is played
by William Dennis Hurley. Both actors are wonderful and utterly believable
with their South African accents.
After the play's
run is over, the playwright asks Andre where he's off to next? Is he
going home? The actor holds up a piece of blank paper and tells the
story of a writer who said the words on this page of paper were his
home. He then mentions how people were asking him about playing King
Leer and he was debating if it was time to start having "a quiet,
They meet up again a few years later when the playwright saw that the
actor was back in town. He heads back to the old dressing room afterwards
to drop in on him and the two reminscence.
The title of the play stems from the various exits and entrances taking
place in the playwright's life at the moment. His father is dying in
the hospital while his first child just was born. Exits and Entrances
provides a wonderful perspective on the lives of playwrights and the
actors they come in touch with through the years. The play's use of sound
is very provocative and startling even. There are moments of pure silence
and moments where the two old friends are literally shouting at one another
higher and higher until you can feel the tension actually snap.
is generally from the changing of the guard in South African theatre.
The actor is of the old school while the playwright is one of the
voices for the new generation. When the actor tells him that he should
write about his "own people" rather than about the people in the slums,
the playwright screams "these ARE my people!"
In one of the
most telling moments of the play, a toast that never actually happens
says so much. The two members of the theatre both shared visions
of changing African theatre once, but while one still holds on to
that dream the other gave up long ago. Andre's life mirrors that
of the playwright's father in many ways. When asked what his father
is dying of the playwright says "he's dying of unimportance".
"That's a dangerous disease," said Andre. "Yes, it can easily kill a
man." -- Spoken from one who knows.
Exits and Entrances is a powerful look at a period of time when history
was being written every day. Athol Fugard's script blends humor with
drama effortless and the acting is spectactular. This is a play not to
Anyone who's followed the progress of New Jersey Repertory Company could
tell you that the Long Branch-based professional theatrical troupe founded
by Gabe and SuzAnne Barabas has made it their prime directive to develop
and debut new works for the stage. With a pretty formidable back catalog
of world-premiere presentations — and a highly successful farm-club
system of script-in-hand readings — it's a rare production indeed
that deviates from this artistically adventurous standard.
Opening this weekend at NJ Rep, Athol Fugard's "Exits and Entrances" is
just such an event. It's the newest play from the pen of the internationally
acclaimed South African dramatist best known for the award-winning "Master
Harold . . . and the Boys."
The two-character, single-act "Exits and Entrances" is a slice of autobiography
pairing a young, up-and-coming (and unnamed) playwright with the legendary
Afrikaans actor Andre Huguenet — presented here in the twilight
of his career during a 1956 run of "Oedipus Rex."
It's a play in which Fugard took an especially active interest; having
written it specifically for Los Angeles director Stephen Sachs (who helmed
the West Coast premiere of Fugard's "Road to Mecca") and his intimately-scaled
Fountain Theatre. Sachs and Fugard hand-picked the cast, and the author
was on hand throughout the rehearsal process to consult with the director,
as well as with the actors Morlan Higgins and William Dennis Hurley.
Following the show's initial run in 2004 — a production for which
both actors won major awards —
Sachs, Higgins and Hurley collaborated on three stagings in California
In a pleasantly surprising turn of events, the three men are reprising
their partnership once more during the Long Branch engagement of "Exits
and Entrances," onstage through June 25.
"This is still a world premiere of the newest play by one of the world's
leading dramatists," says director Sachs, "and, because it's being presented
by the original team, New Jersey audiences are seeing the world-premiere
production at New Jersey Rep."
Actor Higgins — who, in his turn as Huguenet, gets to spout passages
of Sophocles and Shakespeare in addition to the masterful language of
Fugard — is also emphatic about the play's status as an all-new,
"It's not a homegrown production," he said, "but so what? I mean, it's
not as if (Gabe and SuzAnne) have imported a touring production of "Grease
What's more, it's a work in which the two colleagues continue to find
new inspiration — with Sachs observing that "the play itself is
so rich and multi-layered, it constantly reveals new levels; so, the
New Jersey production will be unique."
"We never stop honing it . . . we want to keep running it and working
it wherever we can," says Higgins of the show. "Our ultimate goal is
a New York production. We think Athol deserves that."
While the basic premise — the older actor sharing some backstage
moments of reflection with a young rookie — might bring to mind
such plays as Ronald Harwood's "The Dresser" or David Mamet's "A Life
in the Theatre," "Exits"
carries the added value of the author's own half century of life experience
on and around stages that ranged from lavishly legitimate to illicitly
underground. Still, even though the real-life Huguenet was regarded as
the greatest South African actor of his day (and the character of the
playwright is pretty much universally accepted to be a stand-in for the
young Fugard), both actor and director stress that no intimate knowledge
of pre-apartheid Afrikaans theater is required in order to "get" the
"The characters are so vivid and alive, and everything unfolds so clearly,
audiences everywhere have loved this play," Sachs explained.
"Everything rings true to me about the play," said Higgins in agreement.
"Here is one of the great playwrights pouring 50 years of work in the
theater into 90 minutes . . like O'Neill, he knows that one reveals the
universal by clearly and honestly revealing the specific."
Having created and defined the role of Huguenet with the author's blessing,
Higgins can admit to feeling somewhat proprietary toward the play and
his character. When asked to proffer any bit of advice to future players
of the part, he said, "Early in rehearsal I asked Athol if I could only
get one thing right about Andre, what should that be"?
" "Pride,' " he said. " "He was a very proud man and it made him and
undid him.' "
"Bring a handkerchief," advised actor Al Mohrmann when discussing "The
Women of Lockerbie," a drama in its regional premiere at the New Jersey
Repertory Company in Long Branch. Indeed, the scattered snuffling and sniffling
that accompanied Saturday's opening night performance suggested hankies
should have been inserted into the programs. At least one ill-prepared
gentleman was forced to use his shirtsleeve, while the massive snort of
emotional runoff that greeted the final blackout confirmed that the play
is a successful tugger of heartstrings.
Lockerbie, of course, is the small town in Scotland that achieved
international infamy as the site of the devastating 1988 crash
of Pan Am flight 103. Subsequently traced to a terrorist bomb plot,
the disaster killed numerous people on the ground in addition to
all airborne passengers and crew.
Described as a "preamble to 9-11" in the pre-show comments by
NJ Rep executive producer Gabe Barabas, the tragedy is regarded
by many to have been a retaliation against the shooting down of
an Iranian airliner by U.S. forces. When it's discussed at all
these days, the incident tends to be viewed from a purely American
perspective. All of these are among the talking points addressed
by the Alaska-born Deborah Brevoort in her drama, a winner of several
awards for playwriting.
Split down the middle
Set in the moss-covered hills outside Lockerbie on a moonlit December
night some seven years after the crash, Brevoort's fact-based ensemble
piece brings a still-grieving American couple (Marnie Andrews and
Mohrmann as the Livingstons of New Jersey) to the once-anonymous
Scottish village in search of their long-dead son — or rather,
a personal memento or bit of earthly remains. Here on the anniversary
of the life-altering event, the U.S. State Department has announced
that it will close out its investigation by destroying a warehouse
full of clothing and personal effects belonging to the victims.
Some 200 Lockerbie women (represented by Corinne Edgerly, Alice
Connorton and Margery Shaw) have mobilized to prevent the destruction
from taking place, as well as take possession of the burned and
bloodied apparel for the purpose of a symbolic cleansing.
This real-life incident (thousands of articles of clothing were
cleaned and shipped to victims' families by the women of the town)
forms the basis of a script that — ripped screaming from the headlines
though it may be — departs at the gate from stark realism. Characters
tend toward purple pronouncements ("We need to give love to all
the families, so that evil will not triumph") and jack-handy aphorisms
("Trust in the rising sun, and the stars that shine at night"),
while the trio of Edgerly, Connorton and Shaw operate primarily
as a sort of classical chorus — and the modern world seems far
afield from Jo Winiarski's moody, mist-shrouded set; a design that's
bisected by a fully functional brook.
Mohrmann and Marnie Andrews star in "The Women of
Lockerbie" in Long Branch.
WOMEN OF LOCKERBIE
By Deborah Brevoort
— Through April 30 — $20-$35
— (732) 229-3166
We're here by the side of this stream because
Mr. Livingston has come in search of Mrs. Livingston, who has strayed
into the hills after fleeing from a memorial service in the village.
She can be seen shambling over hill and dale, calling out her son's
name as the Lockerbie ladies liken her to "a tree struck by lightning;
split down the middle by grief."
As it happens, Grief is virtually a character unto itself, to
hear Edgerly and company tell it. We learn that "Grief is a guest
who stays too long," and who "wears a dark coat." We're told that "Grief
runs wild" because the sky is too big to store it — and, in an
awkward juxtaposition, no sooner has Edgerly assured us that there's
no point in talking to Grief (since "Grief has no ears to listen"),
than she states that "Grief needs to talk."
Earned in full
With a cast of seven professional players under the direction
of Jason King Jones, "Lockerbie" places more people on the mainstage
of NJ Rep's Lumia Theatre than any production since 2003's "The
Good Daughter." That show (perhaps not coincidentally) also was
directed by Jason King Jones. With "Daughter," Jones moved his
big group through a complex cavalcade that spanned several years,
countless scene changes and some impressively realized stage effects.
Despite its ensemble nature, "Lockerbie" is a different species
of drama. Presented without intermission, it unfolds in a static
setting, with nearly all of its dramatic highlights occurring offstage.
The production derives its emotional power from some standout speeches
and exchanges by Andrews, Mohrmann and Edgerly, with Connorton
and Shaw providing succinct (and comparatively subdued) support.
David Volin and Michele Tauber, as the boorish bureaucrat from
the State Department and his cleaning lady, appear at first as
something akin to comic relief. Volin's trademark edgy, urban sort
of characterization (very effective in the recent "Klonsky and
Schwartz") seems particularly out of place in this quasi-mystical
tableau, although perhaps that's the point.
It's a definite credit to this cast and director that they're
able to find a real emotional resonance at the heart of an often
surreal script. The very genuine issues of loss and love and closure
touched upon herein mean that every teardrop will be earned in
full — and that "hatred will not have the last word in Lockerbie."
"The Women of Lockerbie" continues through April 30 with performances
on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings, as well as selected
Saturday afternoons and Sunday matinees. For tickets and information
about other upcoming offerings at NJ Rep, call (732) 229-3166.
Whatever its outcome, a modern (read: non-arranged) marriage is
an agreement that's entered into with best intentions and highest
hopes — a good idea that's generally born of some good times. But
when that bond is tested by adversity — a devastating illness,
a grievous loss — it can be easy for two people to lose the thread
of those more carefree days and to see each other in a new and
possibly unwelcome light.
Consider New Jersey Repertory Company members Marnie Andrews and
Al Mohrmann. Offstage, the two Actors Equity professionals have
long been married — to other people. For numerous hours of their
adult lives, however, they've stood before an audience as husband
and wife — and although their roles in such NJ Rep productions
as "Big Boys," "Touch of Rapture" and "Maggie Rose" have put them
at the center of some of the Shore-based company's most laugh-packed
scenes, their local stage legacies are just as likely to spring
from their time together in "Till Morning Comes," a bittersweet
duet they performed on the Long Branch stage a few seasons back.
He plays a man whose strength and spirit have been stolen by Lou
Gehrig's disease. She plays his energetic, ever-supportive spouse,
a woman whose own spirit is tested by her husband's request for
assistance in his own suicide. Both actors infuse each moment of
the two-character script with a palpable sense of who these people
were in the decades before the lights went up on their final act
Andrews and Mohrmann return as husband and wife in "The Women
of Lockerbie," an award-winning drama by Alaska-born Deborah Brevoort.
Making its New Jersey premiere this weekend, it's a story about
a town in Scotland that was the site of an infamously tragic jetliner
crash in 1988. The fiery fate of Pan Am Flight 103 — and the subsequent
investigation that uncovered a bomb plot by Libyan nationals — placed
a glaring media spotlight on the once-quiet hamlet where the women
reached out to bereaved family members (represented here by Andrews
and Mohrmann as a grieving couple from New Jersey), even as they
struggled to cope with their own losses in the disaster's aftermath.
According to Andrews, it's a play that "deals with a serious subject,
but contains humor, community and a vitality that is rare in modern
plays." "When we did the reading last year, we got a standing ovation," the
actress recalls. "I can tell you, that is rare, especially in a
reading . . . it speaks to the power of the play in the hands of
this director (Jason King Jones) and these actors."
An ensemble piece that features Alice Connorton, Margery Shaw,
Michele Tauber, Corinne Edgerly and David Volin, "Lockerbie" is
a different sort of experience for Mohrmann. He recalls his "Morning" with
Andrews (during which the flu-stricken Mohrmann's struggles in
rehearsals allowed the actors to better understand their roles
as caregiver and patient) as a time when the two "looked back a
good deal on how life used to be for these folks and how rapidly
According to Mohrmann, their new project "seems to be about moving
forward . . . so this script doesn't allow for too much reminiscing."
"For this couple to have lasted the seven years prior to the time
of the play, we had to have a fabulous marriage early on," Andrews
Asked if she's developed a genuine chemistry with her stage spouse,
Andrews says, "We have a tough time as a couple in the struggle
of this play, (but) the work is so much easier with good chemistry
. . . timing shifts from night to night. Energy shifts."
"The really great runs are when the cast senses those adjustments
and moves with them," she adds. "The exhilarating times are when
I really have no clue what I am going to say next, but find it
in what the other actors are doing."
Given a chance to name a project she'd love to tackle with her
co-star, Andrews cites "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" and "The Lion
For his part, Mohrmann expresses a preference for a comedy "or
at least a script without fatal diseases, suicides, terrorists,
or plane crashes," he says. "That would be a start."
Call it what you will, the players enjoy a professional rapport
and synergistic "something" that comes across to the audience.
In Mohrmann's words, "Marnie and I clearly have a relationship
(that) grew out of the journey we took together in "Morning,' and
for better or worse, that experience will always be with us."
"It feels very easy and natural now to think of her as a spouse," the
actor says. "Obviously, it would be possible to form a bond with
a different actress, but it's so much easier when you can start
with someone you're already close to."
"For me," Andrews adds, "the commitment to marriage is renewed
daily . . . have I imagined those moments with Al, as my stage
"That's the beauty of working with Al," she says in summation. "I
can see the glint of a laugh in him; I can feel his strength and
kindness when we sit in silence listening to notes . . . he's easy
DUNCAN M. ROGERS
wants you to see his new short film, "Bust," but mum is the word about
its specific contents. It's playing today at the Garden State Film Festival
in the noon-to-2 p.m. block of screenings at Convention Hall in Asbury
Admission is $8 for the two-hour film block.
Shot entirely in Long Branch in September 2004 on the second floor of
the New Jersey Repertory Company's rehearsal room at 179 Broadway, "Bust" is,
Rogers said succinctly, "a cop drama."
"Jessica Parks, our production designer, turned the repertory's rehearsal
hall into an interrogation room," Rogers said by telephone. "We actually
had cops come by — they were providing technical help — and
take pictures of the set because it was so accurate." "Bust" stars Dan
Lauria, who has numerous off-Broadway and regional stage, film and TV
credits. They include portraying Fred Savage's father in "The Wonder
Years" and a role in the film
"Dan is also a huge advocate of new writers, which is part of why he
did this film. Lord knows we didn't pay anybody anything, except my thanks," Rogers
A Massachusetts native and an actor before he became a writer/director/producer/editor/marketer,
Rogers also is a member of the New Jersey Repertory group. A Maplewood
resident, he is the founder of Freshwater Films; its first production
was "The Ables House is Green," which played at festivals including the
Dancing Goat Short Film Festival.
"The Reader," a winner of numerous short film festival awards, was next,
followed by "Bust." Rogers said "Bust" was a "very grueling three-day
shoot" about the investigation into a mob-related murder. It runs 14
Rogers' other shorts are "The Reader" (10 minutes) and "The Ables House
Is Green" (13 minutes). He said some of his colleagues make shorts "as
a calling card (toward) making features, but one of my missions is to
never make a long story short or a short story long. I believe in the
value of short stories; that's why there are the O Henry awards."
And one of the upsides of making shorts and having them accepted on
the festival circuit is getting to travel. Rogers will go to Hawaii to
screen "The Reader," and he has shown it in Woods Hole and Williamstown,
Mass., festivals. At this point, he pays his own expenses.
Along the way, Rogers has accumulated awards, press coverage, allegiance
from prestigious actors such as Lauria and Tony Award-winner Elizabeth
Franz ("Death of a Salesman") — she's in "The Reader" — and
attention from the money people.
He has been approached with deals for distributing his short films,
including an offer from a major Hollywood studio.
"If I had been younger I would have moved to L.A. the next day, that's
how complimentary they were," he said.
Instead, Rogers is staying in New Jersey, where he and Middletown native
Michael Folie are planning to shoot a feature of the Folie play "Naked
by the River." The goal is to make it for less than $200,000.
"Depending on how our fund-raising goes, we will shoot 70 to 80 percent
of it in New Jersey with some New York shoots," said Rogers.
"We are now starting the business of setting up a company and approaching
His new series on Comedy Central has emerged as a "must-watch show" and a
late-night ratings boon, with The New York Times calling it "one of the best
television shows of the year." A savvy spinoff from "The Daily Show with Jon
Stewart" and a playground bully pulpit for its creator/co-producer/writer and
star, "The Colbert Report" — col-BARE re-POR to you freedom-fry fans — has
become an influential, even "grippy" little zephyr in the zeitgeist. No less
than the American Dialect Society named the show's Colbert-coined buzzword "truthiness" as
its 2005 Word of the Year.
So then what's Stephen Colbert — the truth-spewing, flag-wearing, bear-hating,
Charlene-stalking talking head of the class of TV pundits — doing in a one-shot
dramatic reading Sunday in Long Branch? Particularly when he could be kicking
back and living the life of O'Reilly?
According to director ames Glossman, it could be due to the fact that Colbert "has
a lot of stamina" — or it could simply be that "he's an astonishing chameleon," an
observation to which the veteran director adds, "he's also the nicest guy;
a great family man."
Then again, it could be that there's simply more to Colbert than that Peabody
Award-winning political satirist who holds forth four nights a week on basic
cable. There's the familiar comic character player of big screen ("Bewitched")
and small ("Strangers with Candy," a show he helped create). There's the commercial
pitchman (Mr. GoodWrench), comedy writer ("Saturday Night Live," "The Dana
Carvey Show") and — if you happened to have caught a memorable episode of "Law & Order:
Criminal Intent" last season — a dramatic actor with the skills to pay the
Truthiness be told, Colbert and Glossman — both of them Northwestern University-trained
actors with a number of mutual friends in regional stage circles — have been
looking for an opportunity to work together on the drama "The Good German" ever
since Glossman mounted a reading at the Madison-based Playwrights Theatre of
New Jersey; a show that featured, in addition to famed actors Edward Herrmann
and Austin Pendleton, Colbert's wife, Evelyn McGee, in a crucial supporting
As Glossman tells it, "We thought it would be fun if Steve brought his quick-witted,
methodical, dangerous style to the play" — and on Sunday, Shore theatergoers
will be able to join in the fun, as New Jersey Repertory Company welcomes Colbert
and company in a special Sunday installment of their popular series of script-in-hand
The associate artistic director of Madison-based Playwrights Theatre and a
visiting lecturer at Johns Hopkins University, Montclair resident Glossman
should be familiar to NJ Rep fans, as director of the very recent "Tour de
Farce" — as well as for his collaboration with actor Ames Adamson on "Circumference
of a Squirrel," a one-man show that he helmed at both NJ Rep and Playwrights
Theatre (and a happy partnership that's scheduled to continue with a production
this summer at Shadowland Theatre in Ellenville, N. Y.).
Set in Germany during the World War II, "The Good German" centers around an
aristocratic professor of literature named Karl (Paul Murphy), whose wife,
Gretel (McGee), takes into their home a man by the name of Braun (Shadowland
artistic director Brendan Burke) — a man whom she claims is a relative who
has lost his family in an Allied firebombing. When tragedy strikes, the truth
about Herr Braun and Gretel stands revealed — and Karl is compelled to face
some essential truths about who he is and where he stands in the madness that
swirls about him.
In Glossman's view, the script by James Wiltse "explores certain truths about
the human heart; how even in the midst of hell we can somehow make connections
with people, even against our will."
Appearing in the role played previously by Pendleton, Colbert plays Karl's
cousin Siemi — an amiable chap who also happens to be a clerical worker for
the SS. It's a part about which the director observes, "You're never sure if
he's just a fun guy, if he's actually here to warn you, or if he's going to
turn you in to the Gestapo."
"Steve brings a sharp, knifey edge to (Siemi) that's very good for the character," Glossman
explains. "He's either a truly gentle and generous guy, or he's a terrifying
manipulator — and Stephen can be surprisingly funny, in a terrifying way."
Ask anyone who's trying to manage an intrepid not-for-profit theatrical
troupe, and you'll be told that there are certain members of the stock
company who are pretty near indispensable.
There's the young leading
man who can carry a whole show on his shoulders. Then there's the mature
character player who can credibly embody the (sometimes twisted) authority
figures. Not to mention the utility guy who can take on a gallery of
smaller supporting parts, some not much bigger than a walk-on.
for New Jersey Repertory Company, all these positions are currently
filled, thanks to a rather versatile actor by the name of Ames Adamson.
A familiar face on the NJ Rep stages for the past several seasons,
Adamson has starred or featured in five different main stage productions,
attracting a great deal of attention and stepping into dozens of different
The reason that Adamson has amassed such
a gallery of personae in such a short time is that he is one of those
rare artists who's been able to make a specialty of performing multiple
roles in a single show. It's a multi-faceted set of skills that has
served the Philadelphia-based Adamson well in his current endeavor
at NJ Rep.
Now in its world premiere engagement at
the Long Branch company's Lumia Theatre, the Philip LaZebnik-Kingsley
Day comedy "Tour de Farce" is one of those good old-fashioned bedroom
escapades — a frenzied frolic of mix-matched partners, crossed
signals and slamming doors. It's the kind of romp that sends a slew
of madcap characters darting in and out of a hotel suite with the choreographed
grace of a particle accelerator.
The budget-conscious twist here is
that said slew is conjured up entirely by two actors, with Adamson
and co-star Prentiss Benjamin each handling five roles apiece.
bigger twist is that it's scarcely the first time Adamson has done
a five-fer in a single play. It was his quintet of exceedingly nutty
including a mad scientist, a martinet director and a sleazy agent — that
first got the attention of Rep regulars in the absurdist comedy "Panama." Then
there was "Circumference of a Squirrel," a one-man tour de force in
which Adamson, playing a gently neurotic young layabout with an irrational
fear of rodents, channeled an assortment of parents, fiancees and other
peripherals via his veritable toolbox of voices and body language.
In between the higher-profile projects
at the Rep, Adamson has further made himself indispensable by participating
in the regular series of script-in-hand readings, emceeing fund-raisers,
performing in and directing segments of the troupe's short-play festivals,
even getting involved with the administrative end of things.
"Most of my ability to dodge the occasional bullet comes from being a twerp
as a kid, and having to jump through windows and out of tree houses to escape
the torture of my playmates," Adamson said. "I think I was also a privileged
child to have parents who had me watching the Three Stooges, Stan and Ollie,
Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin from an early age."
In addition to Laurel and Hardy, the actor
credits such comic icons as Peter Sellers, a master of disguise,
and even Looney Tune's Foghorn Leghorn as being part of his preparation
for the show, although he's quick to point out that "I didn't study them or steal from them so
much, but memories of their work bathe me, as it were."
While many method actors have the luxury
of "inhabiting" or even "being"
their character for the run of a play, Adamson is inclined to take
a more pragmatic stance when gearing up for a performance, asserting
that "it's hard to
"develop' or "inhabit' a character from the inside in a play like this, and
frankly, not all that necessary. As long as I believe the words I'm saying,
it is simple, unadulterated make-believe for a couple of hours."
When not creating a lasting legacy at
the Lumia, Adamson picks up the odd movie gig (watch for him as an
extra in "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days"), does commercials for the
Philly market and performs in Shakespeare productions across the
2 performers rate a 10
Adamson and Benjamin whirl through 5 roles each
in 'Tour de Farce'
Monday, January 30, 2006
BY PETER FILICHIA
NEW JERSEY STAGE
The very best part of "Tour de Farce" occurs at the very end of the
Not at the very end of the play, mind you. Philip LaZebnik and Kingsley
Day's comedy, currently at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch,
doesn't end as amusingly as it might. Along the way, it isn't as funny
as it could be, too.
Yet the end of the evening is wonderful because at the curtain calls,
an audience gets to give tribute to Ames Adamson and Prentiss Benjamin,
who do amazing work in this two-person, 10-character play.
That's right: Both Adamson and Benjamin each play five different characters
in this slamming-door farce. Every time one leaves and returns, it's
as a new person. The cheers the two heard after Saturday's night opening
-- the longest sustained applause heard this season or maybe any other
-- were in appreciation that they made it through the grueling, two-hour-plus
Adamson starts out as a bellhop who ushers Rebecca into her hotel room.
She doesn't want to be there, and not just because it's a dump. Her husband
Herb (Adamson, of course), who's downstairs at the moment, is promoting
his self-help book on marriage. He's so focused on that that he has neglected
his own relationship, and Rebecca feels it.
This strife excites tabloid TV host Pam Blair (Benjamin, naturally),
who sneaks in cameraman Gunnar (Adamson, as if you didn't know) into
their closet so he can videotape their fights. Of course, when Pam discovers
that Senator Ryan (care to guess who?) is in the next room with his bimbo
Gwenda (you know who), she really smells paydirt. And so it goes, as
the authors deliver a solid message about media hypocrisy, but don't
come up with enough hilarious moments.
Actually, if audiences could see what's happening backstage at "Tour
de Farce," they'd have much more fun. What must it be like back there,
when a dresser rips a leopard-print dress off Benjamin in order to quickly
get her in a blouse and pants? Granted, both actors do get by with a
little help from their three friendly stage managers, but most of the
achievement is their own.
In addition, both have to adopt five different voices for their five
different characters. Adamson does better here, for Benjamin seems to
have only four. Nevertheless, considering that they often have to do
off-stage conversations between two characters in two different voices
-- while getting into new costumes, yet -- is another tall hurdle each
That New Jersey Rep's stage isn't large -- some stretch limousines are
longer -- makes matters more challenging, for an actor here could quickly
cross the small stage and open a door all too quickly before his confederate
is dressed as the next character. Director James Glossman clearly knows
that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, so
he smartly has Adamson and Benjamin walk in an arc when approaching a
door to stall for a few precious extra seconds.
"Tour de Farce" is one of those experiences that an audience can only
get in live theater. A movie or a taped TV version could show the versatility
of two actors playing different roles, but we'd all know that as soon
as one left the room, a director would yell "Cut!" What Adamson and Benjamin
are achieving is certainly many cuts above that.
At first blush, you've seen its kind before. Take a "happily married" couple,
strand them in a cobbled-together "suite" at a third-rate hotel and season
to taste with enough mixed-up menages, scandal-mongering schemes and
dopey interlopers to fuel a week's worth of "Three's Company" reruns.
Then provide sufficient bathrooms, closets and beds in which to stash
everyone. It's the sort of thing that sounds like it wouldn't be out
of place at a cruise-ship dinner theater; in fact, there's even a character
who looks to have wandered in from a neighboring production of "Nunsense."
But this is the New Jersey Repertory Company, the innovative professional
stage group that's made it a mission to disdain theatrical convention
and just generally put the "New" in New Jersey with each cheerfully challenging
premiere productions. So it stands to reason that the troupe's current
mainstage offering, "Tour de Farce," serves up a new twist on the trite
and true bedroom-comedy formula.
The script by actor/composer Kingsley Day and Philip La Zebnik
(writer of "Pocahontas," "Mulan" and other animated hits) is a
silly and skin-deep affair that plays its gimmicky hand from the
get-go: The play's 10 broadly etched characters are performed by
just two actors.
Benjamin (left) and Ames Adamson portray 10 different characters
in the frantically paced comedy "Tour de Farce" in Long Branch.
The time of their lives
The pair of very busy players are returning NJ Rep favorite Ames
Adamson and new face Prentiss Benjamin, cast here respectively
as wishy-washy academic (and author of "Marriage is Forever") Herb
Gladney and his bored, frustrated "I-want-a-divorce" spouse Rebecca.
Pretty poor company to share a room with for a couple of hours,
but naturally the quarrelsome couple are soon joined by a smarmily
strident local talk-show host, a fetishistic "family values"-spouting
U.S. Senator, a handful of bothersome hotel employees, a bimbo
with an agenda and that singing nun with the accordion.
All of them are channeled (under the sturdy direction and pinpoint
choreography of James Glossman) by a tag-team of pros who are having
the time of their lives, and, it goes without saying, working harder
than any stage performer has ever been called upon to work in the
history of live theater.
The fun derives from watching the actors put themselves through
these arduous paces — entering the scene as one character, ducking
into here or under there when there's a knock at the door, then
re-emerging in a different place as a completely different person.
Without benefit of camera effects, Adamson and Benjamin are called
upon to effect lightning-fast changes of costume, hair and voice; "fight" themselves
and, oh yes, remember a couple of reams of dialogue at the same
It's a situation that requires at the very least a crash-course
in such vaudevillian skills as pratfall acrobatics, ventriloquism
and plate-spinning — and we the audience, the same folks who attend
auto races hoping to see a colorful crash, eat this stuff up.
Although the mechanics of it all are something to revel in, by
the time this show really gets to hitting on all cylinders it's
best to simply surrender to the illusion and enjoy this display
of exemplary stagecraft in the service of a decidedly featherweight
script. A big chunk of credit must go to costume designer Pat Doherty
for her role in keeping the myriad details straight — and the stage
crew at the Lumia Theatre lends crucial assistance in people-moving
devices that border on Lance Burton territory.
There are times when you'd swear there were more than just the
two performers onstage — wait a minute, there were more than two
of them a moment ago. Now, how'd they do that?
Backward and in heels
A man who's fast becoming a genuine franchise player for New Jersey
Repertory Company, Adamson had already proven his readiness for
this sort of task with his quintet of memorably nutty roles in "Panama" a
few seasons back. The star-quality comic character actor, who's
also excelled in ensemble scenarios (as with the recent "Tilt Angel")
and even carried a whole show by his lonesome ("Circumference of
a Squirrel," also directed by Glossman) creates a variety-pack
of vivid portrayals here, from the stammering milquetoast of a "marriage
expert" to the cocksure barnyard bantam Sen. Ryan, and a particularly
crowdpleasing turn as a Swedish cameraman — a fatalistic former
protege of Ingmar Bergman whose dry observations are a real highlight.
Benjamin, whose famous stage-and-screen parents, Paula Prentiss
and Richard Benjamin, cheered her on from the opening-night audience,
does everything Adamson does (only backward and in heels), using
her dance-trained body language and classic-comedienne sensibility
to conjure up a Joan Rivers-ish TV personality, a kleptomaniac
maid and the Senator's fame-obsessed mistress (but not the Senator's
Bar Bush of a wife; you'll have to contemplate how they manage
Looking and sounding in fine mettle on opening night, NJ Rep co-founder
and consummate trouper Gabe Barabas was on hand to keynote the
company's 2006 season — as well as to deliver his customary entertaining
and impassioned pre-show monologue, a speech in which the good
doctor (who's in recovery from a recent stroke) pondered "playing
the stroke card" and capitalizing on the situation for the benefit
of the ongoing subscription drive.
"Tour de Farce" is a precision comic machine with broad crowd-pleasing
Crackerjack Production is the Real Tour de Farce
by Bob Rendell
Lovers of farce (count me among you) are in for a real treat at the
New Jersey Repertory Theatre which is presenting an amazingly fluid
and fabulously performed production of the very complex and more than
promising appropriately titled Tour de Farce.
As the curtain rises, Herb Gladney and his wife Rebecca are three
weeks into a book tour promoting Herb’s successful book “Marriage
is Forever” in which he dispenses advice on how to successfully
maintain a marriage. The catch is that Herb and Rebecca’s marriage
is floundering, and Rebecca is one upset away from spilling the beans
and destroying all future sales for Herb’s book.
Herb and Rebecca are checking into a hotel room (they’ve lost
track of what city they are in) where we will spend the next two hours
with them in real time. During this time, they will be harassed by
the play's eight other characters, the snoopy Pam Blair (1) who is
the host of a television interview show on which they are scheduled
to appear; Gunnar Gustafson (2) her Swedish cameraman whom she instructs
to photograph one or the other of them in a compromising position;
conservative U. S. Senator Grant Ryan (3) who has commandeered their
very room (which adjoins his) for his floozy girlfriend, Gwenda Hill
(4); the Senator’s wife Delilah Ryan (5) who is (well actually
not quite) waiting in the wings to stir things up; Sister Barbara (6),
a singing nun; and Bill (7), the meddlesome bellhop, and Nina (8),
the maid, who is an illegal alien with sticky fingers. Importantly,
given that this is a farce, there are four entrances (or exits, if
you prefer): one each to the hall, the bathroom, a closet and the adjoining
room. Additionally, the set harbors secrets that will not be described
Ames Adamson and Prentiss Benjamin star as Herb and Rebecca Gladney.
And, as you are about to discover (in case that you didn’t know
already), Adamson and Benjamin also play all of their eight tormentors
(four each) - not just once or twice each, but each of these folk show
up repeatedly throughout the entire play. Oh, what you probably didn’t
notice is that only three of the eight are men (or, if you prefer,
you probably didn’t notice five of the eight are women), so expect
some shades of Dame Edna.
Ames Adamson gets most of the juicier farce material and he runs with
it. His characterizations are each very specific, often inspired and
supply the lion’s share of the evening’s laughs. His whiny
bellhop (“I guess it’s better not to meet your idols face
to face”) and dour Swede (“Once I was assistant cameraman
for Ingmar Bergman; now I’m hiding in closets” – my
notes say “apartments”, but “closets” sounds
right) are especially funny. If commercial producers get to see Adamson’s
work here, we may end up sharing this most reliable and valuable “New
Jersey actor” with the Big Apple.
Prentiss Benjamin does excellent work throughout. The tormentors whom
she portrays fall into a narrower range (three are conniving manipulators),
and she has less opportunity for broad farcical strokes. Benjamin is
a sympathetic Rebecca and mines as much humor as possible from her
other roles, displaying distinctive body language, and accents and
speech patterns for each.
Authors Philip LaZebnik and Kingsley Day have put together elements
which seem to have been purloined from a grab bag of farce material.
They are recycling material that Ken Ludwig recycled in Lend Me a Tenor,
and even Peter Shaffer’s Black Comedy comes to mind (although
here, when it’s dark, it’s dark). No problem here. LaZebnik
and Day have come up with an unusual, if not unique, and truly delightful
notion in employing only two actors to perform an old fashioned, eight
character farce. However, so far, they have done so at the price of
muddling their story line and throwing in too many complications that
do not sustain our laughter and involvement to the extent desirable.
I’m still wondering why Herb Gladney took two showers even though
his luggage had been misplaced and he had no clothes to change into.
So, this farce still needs work.
A possible solution would be to have four actors with two (straight
men) playing the Gladneys, and two playing all the comedic tormentors.
LeZebnik and Day might then have more freedom to better structure their
farce, and they could up the ante with additional characters (and changes),
so as not to lose the considerable and awe-inspiring fun that the current
logistics provide. Of course, it is possible that LeZebnik and Day
will be able to find the best answers within their two actor format.
The authors should also upgrade a few of the jokes, such as the double
entendres employed when Rebecca describes Herb as “soft”, “quick” and “small.” In
any event, they have done so much fine and clever work so far that
it is devoutly hoped that they can go the distance. None of this should
deter anyone from seeing Tour de Farce, and the terrific production
which it is receiving in Long Branch.
Not enough can be said about the marvelous pace and clarity provided
by James Glossman’s direction. Not only is he a sensational traffic
cop here (and that is no small feat), but he also has elicited richly
imaginative, dimensional performances from two actors who by the nature
of their roles have to be beleaguered at every performance.
It is impossible to see Tour de Farce without thinking of the second
act of Noises Off in which we see the farce within that farce from
backstage. Well, the complexities of staging here are so breathtaking
that we can’t help but wonder and try to imagine what is going
on behind the scenes. Keeping every change of character and all the
lines in order is an almost unimaginable feat, even with the help of
Stage Manager Rose Riccardi and her crew. Assistant stage managers
Stephanie Dorian, Jane O’Leary and Corey Tazmania deserve on-stage
bows and they appropriately and generously receive them. Someday, I’d
like to see a production of Tour de Farce with transparent walls which
allow us to see the insanity which must be going on off-stage. Yes,
it is possible that it could diminish the magic. However, since it
is real magic, I believe that it would double our pleasure and awe.
The excellent scenic design of Carrie Mossman provides amazingly playable
space on the NJ Rep’s small stage. The costumes (Patricia E.
Doherty), and the uncredited wigs and makeup are excellent, and provide
for quick changes which have to be seen to be believed. Just wait until
you see the entire cast of ten take their hilarious curtain calls.
So don’t just sit there, get your tickets to see Ames Adamson
and Prentiss Benjamin knock themselves silly for you. You may never
get the chance to see anything quite like it again.
Tour de Farce continues performances (Thurs. – Sat. 8 p.m./
Sun. 2 p.m. / Some Sat. 4 p.m.) through February 26, 2006 at the New
Jersey Repertory Theatre, 179 Broadway, Long Branch, New Jersey 07740;
Box Office: 732-229-3166; on-line: www.njrep.org/
Tour de Farce by Philip LaZebnik and Kingsley Day; directed by James
The LINK NEWS
Feb.2 thru Feb. 8, 2006
'Tour de Farce' is a tour de force
The new offering by the NJ Rep at the Lumia Theatre, downtown Broadway,
a comedy called "Tour de Farce," by Phil LaZebnik and Kingsley Day, could
just as well be called "Tour de Force, " because that describes a remarkable
evening of acting and stagecraft that leaves one wondering how in the
world it was all done.
This is a comedy of average length, with just two performers, one male
and one female, in the main role of a husband and wife at each other's
throats in their hotel room while on tour promoting a book the husband
has written. But the two actors carry off this door-slamming riot by
donning completely different costumes and performing four other
roles each. This results in a hilarious cast of characters, which as
mentioned above, leaves us shaking our heads at how well it is managed.
Skillfully directed by James Glossman, this delightful and surely not
to be missed show features the veteran NJ Rep star of pervious offerings,
Ames Adamson, as the beleagured husband; and a newcomer to the Rep, Prentiss
Benjamin, as his bent-on-revenge spouse. Interestingly, Ms. Benjamin
happens to be the daughter of Richard Benjamin, who starred in "Goodbye
Columbus" some years ago, and Paula Prentiss, who appeared in a number
of Hollywood films as well; and both of them were in the audience at
Saturday night's gala to applaud their daughter's remarkable and versatile
The play can be seen until Feb 26, with evening performances on Thursday,
Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. , some Saturdays at 4 p.m. and on Sundays
at 2 p.m. Regular admission is $30, with some discounts available.
The number to call for seats is 732-229-3166. Go! You will not be disappointed.
At first blush, you've seen its kind before. Take a "happily married" couple,
strand them in a cobbled-together "suite" at a third-rate hotel and season
to taste with enough mixed-up menages, scandal-mongering schemes and
dopey interlopers to fuel a week's worth of "Three's Company" reruns.
Then provide sufficient bathrooms, closets and beds in which to stash
everyone. It's the sort of thing that sounds like it wouldn't be out
of place at a cruise-ship dinner theater; in fact, there's even a character
who looks to have wandered in from a neighboring production of "Nunsense."
But this is the New Jersey Repertory Company, the innovative professional
stage group that's made it a mission to disdain theatrical convention
and just generally put the "New" in New Jersey with each cheerfully challenging
premiere productions. So it stands to reason that the troupe's current
mainstage offering, "Tour de Farce," serves up a new twist on the trite
and true bedroom-comedy formula.
The script by actor/composer Kingsley Day and Philip La Zebnik
(writer of "Pocahontas," "Mulan" and other animated hits) is a
silly and skin-deep affair that plays its gimmicky hand from the
get-go: The play's 10 broadly etched characters are performed by
just two actors.
Benjamin (left) and Ames Adamson portray 10 different characters
in the frantically paced comedy "Tour de Farce" in Long
The time of their lives
The pair of very busy players are returning NJ Rep favorite Ames
Adamson and new face Prentiss Benjamin, cast here respectively
as wishy-washy academic (and author of "Marriage is Forever") Herb
Gladney and his bored, frustrated "I-want-a-divorce" spouse Rebecca.
Pretty poor company to share a room with for a couple of hours,
but naturally the quarrelsome couple are soon joined by a smarmily
strident local talk-show host, a fetishistic "family values"-spouting
U.S. Senator, a handful of bothersome hotel employees, a bimbo
with an agenda and that singing nun with the accordion.
All of them are channeled (under the sturdy direction and pinpoint
choreography of James Glossman) by a tag-team of pros who are having
the time of their lives, and, it goes without saying, working harder
than any stage performer has ever been called upon to work in the
history of live theater.
The fun derives from watching the actors put themselves through
these arduous paces — entering the scene as one character, ducking
into here or under there when there's a knock at the door, then
re-emerging in a different place as a completely different person.
Without benefit of camera effects, Adamson and Benjamin are called
upon to effect lightning-fast changes of costume, hair and voice; "fight" themselves
and, oh yes, remember a couple of reams of dialogue at the same
It's a situation that requires at the very least a crash-course
in such vaudevillian skills as pratfall acrobatics, ventriloquism
and plate-spinning — and we the audience, the same folks who attend
auto races hoping to see a colorful crash, eat this stuff up.
Although the mechanics of it all are something to revel in, by
the time this show really gets to hitting on all cylinders it's
best to simply surrender to the illusion and enjoy this display
of exemplary stagecraft in the service of a decidedly featherweight
script. A big chunk of credit must go to costume designer Pat Doherty
for her role in keeping the myriad details straight — and the stage
crew at the Lumia Theatre lends crucial assistance in people-moving
devices that border on Lance Burton territory.
There are times when you'd swear there were more than just the
two performers onstage — wait a minute, there were more than two
of them a moment ago. Now, how'd they do that?
Backward and in heels
A man who's fast becoming a genuine franchise player for
New Jersey Repertory Company, Adamson had already proven
his readiness for this sort of task with his quintet of memorably
nutty roles in "Panama" a few seasons back. The star-quality
comic character actor, who's also excelled in ensemble scenarios
(as with the recent "Tilt Angel") and even carried a whole
show by his lonesome ("Circumference of a Squirrel," also
directed by Glossman) creates a variety-pack of vivid portrayals
here, from the stammering milquetoast of a "marriage expert" to
the cocksure barnyard bantam Sen. Ryan, and a particularly
crowdpleasing turn as a Swedish cameraman — a fatalistic
former protege of Ingmar Bergman whose dry observations are
a real highlight.
Benjamin, whose famous stage-and-screen parents, Paula Prentiss
and Richard Benjamin, cheered her on from the opening-night
audience, does everything Adamson does (only backward and
in heels), using her dance-trained body language and classic-comedienne
sensibility to conjure up a Joan Rivers-ish TV personality,
a kleptomaniac maid and the Senator's fame-obsessed mistress
(but not the Senator's Bar Bush of a wife; you'll have to
contemplate how they manage that one).
Looking and sounding in fine mettle on opening night, NJ
Rep co-founder and consummate trouper Gabe Barabas was on
hand to keynote the company's 2006 season — as well as to
deliver his customary entertaining and impassioned pre-show
monologue, a speech in which the good doctor (who's in recovery
from a recent stroke) pondered "playing the stroke card" and
capitalizing on the situation for the benefit of the ongoing
"Tour de Farce" is a precision comic machine with broad
A CurtainUp Review
Tour de Farce
is an illusion. Between two people there is only despair and
silence and alienation. Bergman knew about such things. ---
Gunnar, A former assistant camera man to Ingmar Bergman. Into
the closet, Gunnar.---Pam, a TV talk show host.
Prentiss Benjamin and Ames Adamson
(Photo: SuzAnne Barabas)
With a title that leaves little room for doubt about what we are in for,
comes the sudden impulse to count the number of doors in the simply furnished
hotel room (designed by Carrie Mossman), its off-yellow walls as telling
as the off-color and off-the-wall action ostensibly prescribed by co-authors
Philip LaZebnik and Kingsley Day. A goofy-looking bellhop escorts a discontented
woman to the room. She has left her husband at the front desk where he
is presumably trying to find out what happened to their luggage. Within
seconds after the bellboy leaves, the husband arrives. It only takes a
few seconds of their conversation to realize that their marriage is on
the rocks. Nevertheless Rebecca Gladney, who is accompanying her preoccupied
husband Herb on a whirlwind multi-city book-signing tour to promote his
book Marriage is Forever, wants to be sure of her investment.
The conversation, mostly punctuated by Rebecca's insinuations about Herb's
sexual inadequacies, goes on hold when she exits to the bathroom. Herb
responds to a knock on the hotel door to find Pam Blair, a local TV host
eager to have Herb appear has her guest that night. Having heard raised
voices in the hall, Pam's suspicions about the couple are aroused. Nevertheless,
Pam gives Herb the details of his TV appearance and leaves. Rebecca comes
out of the bathroom with a headache and leaves the room to purchase some
aspirin. Herb exits to the bathroom paving the way for the hotel maid to
enter the room from the door to the adjoining suite. After stealing a watch
she sees on a table, she gives the all-clear sign to the indiscreet Senator
The maid has mistakenly assumed that the room is vacant and will be perfect
for the married Senator's peccadillo with his bimbo girlfriend Gwenda.
During the ensuing hanky-panky whichincludes a little derriere slapping
and handcuffs amid split-second comings-and-goings, Pam manages to hide
Gunnar Gustafson, a Swedish Ingmar Bergman-trained photographer in the
closet to catch Herb in the act. Of course, there is the senator's wife
Delilah to contend with when she gets wind of what's going on -- and, not
to be overlooked, is a singing accordion-playing nun eager to ingratiate
herself with Herb with the hopes of making an appearance on the TV show.
One has only to have looked at the program to see that there are only
two actors in the cast. The authors have calculated the action with a
meticulous if absurdist attention to probability. The dialogue is silly
to a fault: She: "There is something between us." He: "Where?" This is
a comedy that unashamedly wallows in the broadly comical genre that has
maintained its popularity with the public from Plautius to Moliere to
Feydeau and up to the contemporary under-the-bed, in-the-closet, out-the-window
farces of Britisher Ray Cooney. Hardly in that league, but nevertheless
fodder for the undemanding, Tour de Farce tries hard to duplicate that air
of compromising naughtiness, questionable wit, and mindless lunacy. However,
respect iw owed to the actors whose job it is to make quick-second changes
of costume and morph into different characters for two hours over two acts.
Ames Adamson and Prentiss Benjamin hurtle bravely through the shtick-filled
demands of this convoluted comedy with the speed and dexterity of Olympic
Adamson, a versatile farceur, has played numerous roles at N.J. Rep. and
other New Jersey venues, but none, I suspect, were as demanding as the
five roles he is currently playing. Shades of the late comic Red Skelton
can be seen in his recklessly over-the-top acting, facial contortions,
double takes and blatant mugging. Funny as it is to see a man romping around
in boxer shorts, hand-cuffed to a bed, or dressed in drag (think Barbara
Bush), it is the aura of doom and gloom that Adamson hilariously projects
as the Swedish photographer that rings the bell.
Benjamin may not be Adamson's peer when it comes to defining a character
but she nevertheless employs some deft body language as she assumes the
guise of an East European maid, the sexiest maneuvers of the publicity-seeking
Gwenda, the screeching of a tone-deaf nun (eat your heart out Florence
Foster Jenkins), and the haranguing of the disgruntled wife. Benjamin is
the daughter of actor/director Richard Benjamin and actress Paula Prentiss,
both of whom were in the audience beaming throughout the nonsense, with
There are moments when the actors have to change a wig and a costume off-stage
while they simultaneously continue a conversation as another character.
If the overall impression one gets of this comedy is that it is less about
its characters than it is about multi-tasking, director James Glossman
makes no bones about his willingness to have his players chew the scenery
with a ferocious sense of abandon. The audience appeared to be seduced
by the scent of amateurism that pervaded throughout and they responded
with vigorous applause at the end. However, a director with a clearer vision
and a stronger control over performances could have shaped this hapless
affair into a real howler. Regional and community theaters with a small
budget and a pair of fearless thespians should have a field day with this
On a more sane note: Executive Producer of N.J. Rep. Gabor Barabas gave
a short pre-show that touched the hearts of everyone as he shared with
us the news that he was recovering from a stroke. ""How could I play the
stroke card and encourage subscriptions," he pondered to himself as he
lay in the hospital bed. Also a medical doctor by profession, Barabas
is also a theater lover whose dedication to N.J. Rep. is duly noted.
Hats off to wife SuzAnne, N.J. Rep's Artistic Director, for getting both
a show and a husband on their feet.
'Tour de Farce' is 'Tour de Force' for Adamson
and Benjamin - Grab the Tickets While You Still Can!
Attendees of Saturday's cast party at NJRep's east coast premiere of
Kingley Day's and Philip LaZebnik's "Tour de Farce" were
treated to celebrity close ups with Hollywood's favorite couple, Paula
Prentiss and Richard Benjamin, there to see daughter Prentiss Benjamin
and co-star Ames Adamson bring
the packed house down with their frenetic portrayal of 10 hilarious characters,
expertly directed by James Glossman.
Better known for the high-budget world of musical theater, Day and
LaZebnik set out to create a play so cheap to put on that no reasonable
producer could resist it. The result: two actors, inside ten characters,
in a humble hotel room set. But oh my what two fantastic actors can do
with a great script and the imaginative genius of director James Glossman.
Impossible you say? Damn near, yes.
Prentiss Benjamin, who is the obvious recipient of every talent gene
from both her comedic parents, and Ames (Circumference of a Squirrel)
Adamson, dart back and forth among the ten souls, and ten elaborate costumes,
to a musical rhythm that gradually builds to a wild staccato beat. But
the logistics would be only silly without the excellent timing the playwrights
apply in deciding just when to go for the wisecrack, the character flaw,
the running gag, the inside joke, the cutting wit, slapstick, and on... "Tour
de Farce" may be the most economical production but they sure didn't
scrimp on the humor!
(LONG BRANCH, NJ)
-- The New Jersey Repertory Company opened its 8th season with "Tour de
Philip LaZebnik and Kingsley Day on January 28th. The extremely entertaining
show continues through February 26th.
Adamson (a familiar face to NJ Rep audiences) and Prentiss Benjamin
in a madcap adventure involving the author of "Marriage is Forever" and
his wife, a senator and his mistress, a local television reporter and
her Swedish cameraman, a bellboy, maid and an accordion-playing nun all
somewhat trapped in a rather indistinguishable hotel in a city somewhere
along the author's book tour.
Oh yeah, and all of the characters are played by Ames and Prentis!
It's a zany hour and a half that will thoroughly entertain you as apparent
by the steady laughter throughout the audience on opening night. Similar
to the style of Neil Simon, the play is a true farce taking on several
issues (such as marriage infidelity, political hanky panky, and the media)
at the same time in rather ludicrous fashion.
In spite of the rapid fire character changes and the idea of ten characters
played by two actors, this is perhaps one of the most mainstream plays
you will ever see on the NJ Rep stage. And judging by the response of
the audience, I'd bet the company gains several new subscribers during
this run. So the idea of doing something without killer vegetables yet
still a little off of the standard path might be a good way to introduce
people to this fine company's largely experimental and challenging work.
The premise behind "Tour de Farce" is that Herb Gladney, the author
of the self help guide "Marriage is Forever" and his wife Rebecca are
pretending to maintain their own marriage through a book tour. They are
in town to appear on the local talk show hosted by Pam Blair. Unfortunately,
Pam Blair shows up at their hotel room early and overhears an argument.
She then decides to catch Herb in an affair to make her career take off.
Meanwhile, a senator is arranging for a tryst and somehow gains access
to the suite occupied by the Gladneys. As people go in and out of the
rooms, you really have to leave logic aside and just enjoy the ride.
There are loads and loads of hilarious situations and brilliant one-liners
In a way, the play reminds me of a live action cartoon for adults (maybe
because Ames' accent for the senator sounded a bit like Yosemite Sam
to me). It's funny, silly and a little insightful all wrapped up in one.
Ames Adamson is absolutely wonderful in capturing five different voices
and personas. My favorites are his take on the senator and Gunnar, the
Swedish camerman. Prentiss Benjamin (the daughter of actor Richard Benjamin)
does a fine job as well although I think the play really didn't need
her maid and nun characters. Those two extra voices and personas were
unnecessary. They added a laugh or two here or there but wouldn't have
been missed at all. I would have prefered to see just how much extra
she could have developed the three main roles without the extra burden.
Each of you handles five characters in this play
- a monstrous challenge in itself. Was that your biggest challenge?
If not, what was?
PRENTICE -- I think for me it was probably differentiating the off-stage
voices because we're also changing clothes in a huge hurry. So, to take
the time to differentiate it was probably the biggest challenge.
The women who are backstage changing us literally have to tell us where
to go and what costume to put on because we're so involved. They're like
air traffic controllers - this way... that way.
AMES -- Yeah, that would be the hardest challenge because I may be putting
on Mrs. Ryan and speaking as Gunnar or Herb. Just keeping that straight
in your mind is sort of like driving. It's like by the end of this we
can shift, pressthe clutch and gas then release and look out all the
windows and mirrors. But right now we're sort of like student drivers
guiding through this.
How exhausted do you get after doing this show?
PRENTICE -- I'm exhausted! Right now we just did one show and I don't
know how on Thursday and Friday we did two because I feel so tired
right now! We had an hour rest and that seemed to rejuvenate me. It's
like training for a marathon. Your body's muscle memory begins to kick
in and your endurance goes up little by little.
AMES -- Thankfully there's some respite. I can go backstage and breathe
for just a moment while Prentice is speaking or vice versa. This show
is just so physically demanding because you do so much running. I've
already lost two inches on my waist!
Which is your favorite character to portray?
PRENTICE -- Gwenda is probably the closest to me. She's right under the
surface for sure and Rebecca too. Those are right under there for me.
AMES -- I think Herb is a chance to be a relatively normal person, which
is nice, but Gunnar is a lot of fun. People respond to him. He's an interesting
Even though there are multiple characters and a zillion
character changes and exits, this is probably the most mainstream play
you've done at NJ Rep.
AMES -- Oh yeah, it really is. This is very mainstream but I think there's
nothing wrong with that. It's a very interesting choice. I thought it
was cute but I'm honestly used to doing either Shakespeare or doing weird,
weird stuff. I was like this is cute, but it didn't bowl me over. And
the more I read it the more I got into it and thought this could be quite
PRENTICE -- I think it's the type of show where afterwards you come out
maybe just a little bit happier than when you stepped into the theatre.
And I think that's a very valuable thing. I think that's actually worth
a lot to come out of an hour and 45 minute experience a little bit happier
for an afternoon or evening.
Don't blink, or you might miss what's happening onstage at the New Jersey
Actors are on stage one minute, off the next. They're changing
characters within seconds. And those mistaken identities . . .
What's it all about?
"The two actors who appear in this play are like athletes in a
relay race," explained director Jim Glossman, referring to "Tour
de Farce," making its East Coast premiere at the Long Branch theater.
The play is a bedroom farce in which 10 characters are played
by two people.
"Ames Adamson and Prentiss Benjamin seamlessly jump around from
character to character in a way that makes the audience root for
the actors as well as the characters," Glossman said.
Glossman said he came across the play, written by Philip LaZebnik
and Kingsley Day, when he wanted a change of scenery after doing
a string of serious opuses, like "Waiting for Godot" and "All My
"I was working with Paula Prentiss and (Richard) Benjamin in "All
My Sons' last summer. I also met their daughter, Prentiss."
Glossman later directed Prentiss Benjamin in a comedy called "Sunrise
at Monticello," produced at Playwrights Theater of New Jersey.
He was so impressed with her that he cast her in "Farce."
Reached at her famous parents' home in Beverly Hills, Prentiss
Benjamim said: " "Farce' is about a couple who are promoting a
book that they wrote called "Marriage is Forever.' It all takes
place in one hotel room, and we each play many characters. We have
literally 10 seconds to make the costume changes."
Adamson has appeared in several plays at the Long Branch theater.
"Sometimes, I think jumping around from one character to the next
is going to kill me," he said. "But it is all fun."
Comedy calls for quick change artist
'Tour de Farce' star derives name and talent from
noted acting couple
Friday, January 27, 2006
BY PETER FILICHIA
NEW JERSEY STAGE
Prentiss Benjamin is making sure that the door doesn't hit her on her
way out. Or in.
"That's the big danger when you do a farce," says the tall, striking
brunette as she prepares to open "Tour de Farce" on Friday at the New
Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.
So far Benjamin has escaped injury from any of those slamming doors. "But
I did smash a phone down on my thumb," she says, examining it to see
how it's coming along. "That taught me to never do that again."
The show, directed here by James Glossman, is more demanding than many
farces. Most have a lot of people running in and out of slamming doors.
However, in Long Branch Benjamin is half the cast -- Ames Adamson is
her other half -- in this 1993 knockabout by Philip LaZebnik and Kingsley
Benjamin starts out playing Rebecca, whose husband has written "Marriage
Is Forever," a self-help guide he's promoting on a book tour. "She's
stuck in this hotel, but she doesn't want to be there," says Benjamin. "Neither
does he, once a variety of characters come through the door: a housekeeper,
a nun, an assistant to a senator, a reporter, and some others, too."
And Benjamin must play them all.
"It's not just the getting in and out," says Benjamin. "I've five seconds
to change clothes and shoes. Thank God for those three wonderful women
backstage who help me."
It's the first farce Benjamin has done since "Noises Off" in 2000 at
Northwestern University -- the same school where her parents met in 1958.
They're Paula Prentiss and Richard Benjamin, the actors who have been
married since 1961.
"I grew up in a magical world," Benjamin says. "I remember when I was
a little girl, maybe 8, for a school assignment I had to read an abridged
version of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream.' Then my mother read the original
to me and acted out all the characters, and I thought, 'What a wonderful
thing to be able to do.'"
By this point, she'd already been taken to movie sets by her father.
"He brought my older brother, too," she says of Ross Benjamin. "I always
wanted to stay in the trailer. I hated going to the set, because I felt
I was getting in the way."
Still, she has fond memories of being a 6-year-old on the set of "The
Money Pit," which her father directed. "That's because my brother and
I played with Colin Hanks, Tom Hanks' son."
Once Benjamin decided she wanted to perform, ballet was the route she
"I always had to fight my natural shape," she says, patting a stomach
that's not at all large. "But of course you have to be very thin to do
ballet. So like Rebecca in the play, I've looked at my fair share of
self-help books -- if you count diet books as self-help ones."
Ballet quickly ages its ballerinas, so Benjamin, now 27, has been centering
on theater these last few years. She's traveled from her Manhattan home
to play Miss Prism in "The Importance of Being Earnest" in Lancaster,
Pa.; many roles in "The Dining Room" on Cape Cod, and, last fall, appeared
in "Sunrise at Monticello" at Playwrights Theatre in Madison. Her parents
come to see her in every show, and will take in her stint in Long Branch,
"I'm not interested in being famous or being wealthy, particularly," Benjamin
adds. "I really enjoy working on plays. I love the rapport with the audience.
It's hard work and tiring, but it's an honor and a pleasure. If this
could be my whole life, that would be a great thing. But I'll take whatever
I can get."
One might easily say that Prentiss Benjamin, 27, was born to be in show
The star of New Jersey Repertory's "Tour de Farce" is the daughter
of Paula Prentiss and Richard Benjamin, one of Hollywood's "it" couples
of the '60s and '70s.
Paula and Richard met as theater students at Northwestern University
in 1958 and were married in October 1961. Paula caught the eye
of an MGM talent scout and was brought to Hollywood to co-star
in "Where the Boys Are" (1960). The tall, slender actress turned
out to have excellent screen chemistry with actor Jim Hutton: They
would be cast together in two more MGM films, "The Honeymoon Machine" (1961)
and "The Horizontal Lieutenant" (1962).
But Paula and Richard eventually would bring their real-life chemistry
to screens as well, not just as stars but as characters who were
married to each other, Lucy/Desi-style, in the 1967-68 CBS sitcom "He & She."
Richard made his motion-picture breakthrough in 1969 in "Goodbye,
Columbus." His portrayal of Philip Roth's hero, a poor, urban-raised
Jewish librarian in love with a girl from a wealthy family brought
him worldwide critical acclaim and catapulted him to the top of
Hollywood's A-list. He subsequently landed starring roles in several
'70s films, most notably "Catch-22" (1970) (in which Paula also
appeared), "Diary of a Mad Housewife" (1970) and "The Sunshine
Boys" (1975). Richard has since become a director and producer.
"When I was growing up in California," Prentiss recalled during
a rehearsal break in Long Branch, "the family would often sit together
and watch my parents' films when they would be on TV. We particularly
liked watching "Catch-22' and some movies that my dad directed,
such as "My Favorite Year' (1982)."
The Benjamins also have a son, Ross, 31, an actor who lives in
One glance at Benjamin, whether she's racing across the stage
in character, or just being herself, reveals her origins: Tall
and sleek like her mother, with a face that bears her father's
eyes and smile, she carries herself with a graceful, elegant glide,
and speaks with a sweet, unaffected disposition.
"My parents have always been very supportive of anything I wanted
to do," Prentiss said. When I decided to study drama (after surviving
a serious knee injury as a ballet dancer) and be an actress, both
my parents were very helpful.
"Both my parents come to every play in which I appear. They are
the best audience members that anyone could possibly imagine."
BY TOM CHESEK
You've got to hand it to Gabe and SuzAnne Barabas and their surrogate
family at New Jersey Repertory Company. While much of their concerns in running
a small and scrappy professional stage company fall into the realm of the pragmatic
and logistical -- scraping together funds; putting butts in seats; making sure
said butts are heated or cooled to a reasonable comfort level -- the troupe has
seldom played it even remotely safe in its choices of featured presentations.
Flash back to "Beyond Gravity," the Ruth Wolff drama that occupied the main stage
of the Rep's Long Branch facility in April. A dense, difficult piece packed with
poetic soliloquies and dreamlike atmosphere, the play featured actors who were
more concepts than characters and dead-end plot points that were drenched in
metaphor -- hardly the stuff of crowdpleasing closure. Other offerings from "Spain" and "Whores" to "Child's
Guide to Innocence" have similarly played out inside the heads of their protagonists,
with results that ranged from mind-blowing to merely head-scratching.
"Tilt Angel," the play now in its world premiere engagement at the troupe's Lumia
Theatre, has a lot in common with those other productions (as well as such cultural
resources as Tennessee Williams, Eugene O'Neill, David Lynch and, trust us, "Swamp
It's an oddball show that tackles some big dramatic themes -- abandonment and
reconciliation; confrontation and denial; hometown roots and escape routes
-- in a colorfully convoluted and largely comic fashion. What this puzzler has
over "Gravity" and
other such arty-facts is an honest-to-goodness entertainment value that comes
courtesy of a solid cast of Rep regulars and rookies.
In the award-winning script by Texas playwright Dan Dietz, a strange (and none
too terribly bright) young man named Ollie (Ian August) remains a recluse within
his family home in some dusty Tennessee backwater. He's been living in self-imposed
exile since the plane-crash death of his mother Lois (Andrea Gallo), obsessively
cleaning house and dreading any incoming calls from the monstrous hearse-black
telephone on the table. His father, Red (Ames Adamson), stays holed up in the
meantime at his neighborhood auto body repair shop, channeling his frustration
through hammer and hacksaw and neglecting not only his slowly starving son but
his once-proud vegetable garden -- an evil-looking tangle of tubes and vines that
threatens to consume the entire family homestead.
This standoff of domestic stasis can't continue -- not when it becomes evident
that somebody must finally pick up Lois's boxed remains after some nine years.
Traveling to the vaguely mystical "Airplane Place," Ollie encounters an ethereal
guide in the person of Angel Bones (Reginald Metcalf) -- a serene if somewhat
less than heavenly presence in tattered wings, filthy airline uniform and carnivale
What follows can perhaps only be described as a fantastic voyage through phone
lines, loamy underworld and chilly stratosphere; featuring local stops at transcendence,
epiphany, resurrection and rebirth.
Heffernan knows how to sell a show, and her cast follows suit. Looking like
a battered Mardi Gras figure left behind in receding floodwaters, Metcalf
uses his mellow-toned singing voice to keynote the action with a series of
Dietz-penned blues ballads. While the angel's motives are sometimes a tad
suspect, the actor comes close as anyone to providing a Zen center to the
often frenzied proceedings.
Adamson takes absolute command of his role as the grizzled, sweaty, maimed
(but not unloving) third-generation fix-it man. Expressing emotion as much
with a toolbox as with stage-honed tonsils, the versatile actor provides
a genuine source of energy and intensity.
August is an inspired fit for the weak and needy (yet ultimately resolute)
Eminem-look-alike Ollie, a boy who pines for his momma even after she died
attempting to forge a new life apart from him and her stuck-in-the-mud husband
(for whose disfigurement Ollie bears no small responsibility). For a character
who's supposed to be dead from the get-go, Gallo is able to take centerstage
with her wordy and challenging role.
The crew members assembled here by tech director Quinn K. Pawlan (including
scenic designers Randy Lee Hartwig and Matthew Campbell, costumer Patricia
Doherty, light source Jill Nagle, sound expert Merek Royce Press and puppetmaster
Jessica Scott) make this show move and flex and function, from Red's workbenched
hand, to that giant phone, jigsaw-puzzle walls, hammered-steel wings and
an especially eye-popping stage effect that climaxes the first act.
A fairy tale that's seriously off kilter
Wednesday, October 19, 2005
BY PETER FILICHIA Star-Ledger Staff
Let's put this as nicely as possible: With its production of "Tilt
Angel," New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch firmly establishes
itself as the state's premier experimental theater.
Artistic director SuzAnne Barabas gravitates to plays that few
theaters would touch. Her taste embraces the weird, as witnessed
now by Dan Dietz's 2001 fantasy, which he describes as a "deadpan
Tennessee fairy tale."
At its core, Dietz's story is simple enough, and has been told
many times: A housewife needs more mental stimulation. A son is
afraid of his father and rails against him. Some theatergoers may
be excited that the tale is told in a maddeningly symbolic, experimental
fashion and think admiringly, "Isn't that wild?" Others will wish
that Dietz had just rolled the plot without pretentious embellishments.
Randy Lee Hartwig's set first shows a bisected Earth, where a
woman is flying without benefit of airplane, somewhere over Greenland.
The lights black out and come up on an Angel, whose wings are in
woebegone condition. "I was only born an hour ago, and now I'm
92," he announces.
Cut to a Tennessee cabin, where a young man named Ollie is cleaning
to the point of obsession. What isn't clean is Ollie's face: It
sports a large tattooed question mark, from hairline to chin. (Perhaps
it's a visualization of the questioning looks that many are bound
to give this play.)
Ollie is the son of Lois and Red, once a happy hillbilly couple,
until she started reading The New Yorker and wanted more out of
life. Red had been bullying Ollie to help him in his body shop.
Now he snarls at his son, "Work is important. Talk is salad dressing."
Ollie's incompetence with tools inadvertently causes his father
to lose a hand, so Red now wears a menacing-looking shoulder harness
and clamp. How he made this complicated device with one hand is
The guilt-ridden Ollie is then abandoned by his mother, pushing
him into nine years of agoraphobia. Maybe he's right to stay inside,
for when he finally leaves the house, he has a fateful encounter
with a man- eating plant. Lois dies in a plane crash -- that explains
her flying over the world in the first scene -- and is recycled
into a garden.
As a result, she's glad to be outdoors on this lovely day. She
and Ollie like nature so much that soon they're deconstructing
their house, which is composed of jigsaw puzzle pieces. The play
Dietz's characters often use startlingly fresh images and rarely
rely on clichés; when Lois discusses Ollie with Red, she
talks about trying to "put up curtains in the empty rooms in his
head." That shows a writer at work, but one who wants to express
his own voice, not those of his characters.
Ames Adamson's Red has a defensive demeanor, lest he admit that
his life has been a failure. Ian August's Ollie partakes in many
imaginary conversations and adopts voices of different characters
in a distinct manner.
Andrea Gallo's square-jawed, careworn face is an apt reflection
of Lois' hard life. Even in this non-realistic play, she never
lets an audience forget that the character has a life-crunching
Then there's Reginald Metcalf as the Angel, who says he comes
from Cloud Umbilical Airways and securely spouts a lot of lush
Credit goes to director Cailin Heffernan for staging "Tilt Angel" fearlessly,
and for casting it so well. All four performers are game in treating
this play as if it were a straightforward classic.
the beginning of Dan Dietz's play Tilt
Angel, now receiving its professional
premiere, Lois (Andrea Gallo), a middle aged woman, falls
gracefully though a blue sky toward earth. She is the victim
of a mid-air plane crash. Later in the play, she will quite
literally transubstantiate herself as a vegetable garden
for Ollie (Ian August), her hungry mentally impaired 21 year-old
agoraphobic son, who is helping her to go peacefully into
the afterlife. This is done with the help of a blues-singing
Angel Bones (Reginald Metcalf), apparently a winged half
angel/airlines pilot with goggles. There is no help forthcoming
from Red (Ames Adamson), Ollie' s resentful, indifferent
father who refuses to claim the ashes.
Cailin Heffernan's cleverly surreal staging of this play,
described by the author as "a deadpan Tennessee Fairy Tale," worlds
as well as the members of a working class family collide.
In actuality, Tilt
Angel appears to be an impressionistic
dark comedy in which the skewed perceptions of a socially
disenfranchised young man are given a vivid reality. In this
very imaginatively conceived yet unsettling play, we are
privy to Ollie's skewed world, notably his home comprised
of disquieting distortions and expectations.
had taken about all she could from Red, a callous, crude
3rd generation owner of an auto body repair
shop in East Tennessee. She had also done as much as she
could for the pathetically limited Ollie, who hasn't left
the house in 9 years. Lois, who finally made up her mind
to leave them both and begin a new life that includes getting
a college education, took the fateful airplane ride and died.
home, the simple-minded Ollie, who likes to dance
while doing the housework and laundry, keeps getting calls
from "an airlines
guy" for someone to claim Lois's remains. Ollie's
pleas to the insensitive Red, who barely acknowledges
Ollie's existence, only spark Red's fury which he
takes out mostly on the metal parts of cars. Red
has been estranged from his son ever since an accident
occurred years ago in the body shop causing the loss
of his arm, but continues to do his repairs with
the help of a prosthetic pincer-type apparatus controlled
by a harness he wears over his shoulders. Blaming
Ollie for the accident, Red has left Ollie to fend
Red's help to retrieve Lois' remains, Ollie deals with the
problem in the only way he knows: by seeking help from the
angel pilot. As both Ollie and Red wrestle with their grief
through flashbacks and metaphysical communication, Lois's
presence asserts itself as a soul needing closure. Ollie's
anxieties about his mother's burial takes him to such abstracted
places as inside the telephone lines, the ethereal world
and eventually into the fearsome underworld, while Red's
unwillingness to claim the body or deal with his son's presence
provokes a rather unexpected resolve.
to analyze this play may not prove as fruitful as the experiencing
of it. Heffernan's direction appears to be in complete accord
with the playwright's eerily dramatic contours. And the performances
are effective in their eccentricity without being cartoons.
August creates a rather poignant portrait of Ollie, who,
despite being a social outcast and a failure in his father's
eyes, is determined to find a way to help his mother go peacefully
into the after-life.
is terrific as the rage and resentment-propelled Red whose
life is shattered by the accident and a disintegrating marriage.
There is a disarming charm to Gallo's performance as Lois,
a woman who, soon after she is married and has done all she
can to nurture and protect Ollie, discovers her own potential
and seeks out a new life. And perhaps capturing the essence
of the ethereal most wittily is Reginald Metcalf, as the
lyrical Angel Bones. Praise to the wittily integrated songs
and lyrics, assumedly the creation of award-winning Texas-based
playwright Dietz, who may have mixed more grit (or is its
grits?) into his Southern Gothic comical-tragedy than some
people will cotton to. But the experience was refreshingly
haunting (seems just right for Halloween).
Production values are imaginative.
Randy Lee Hartwig and Matthew R. Campbell are both credited
with the expressionistic set (impressively lighted by designer
Jill Nagle) that provides a virtual collage of various places
in and out of this world. Costumer Patricia E. Doherty has
to be praised for creating Lois' vegetable garden costume
that proves to be as incredible as it is edible.
(LONG BRANCH, NJ) October
15, 2005 -- This isn't your father's family drama, that's for sure. There
really are maniacial vegetables...
New Jersey Repertory Company's latest production is Tilt Angel by
Dan Dietz, a modern day family drama told as a fairy tale. It's wildly
entertaining, a bit baffling, and rather humorous throughout. It
is also the best collection of actors I've ever seen on the NJ Rep
Ames Adamson (Red) and Ian August (Ollie) are NJ Rep veterans who
star as father and son. Ames does a wonderful job as a red neck body
shop worker who's abusive streak has decimated his family. Ian plays
Ollie, an autistic child of 21, who gives Forrest Gump a run for
his money. He is a simply loveable character performed masterfully
by August. Ollie hasn't left the house in nine years, spends all
day cleaning and misses his mother terribly. Together they are as
far apart as a father and son could be.
Andrea Gallo (Lois) plays Ollie's mother who died in a plane crash
as she was leaving her husband. After spending years home-schooling
her son, she realized she had a thirst for knowledge and decided
to leave for college. She knew that her husband would never understand.
Reginald Metcalf (Angel Bones) is the angel that seeks to unite
the family and her ashes (which were never claimed yet). Reginald
adds a spiritual feel to the play with several bluesy, soulful acapella
numbers. His costume reminds me of someone from the sixties film,
Barbarella - but he manages to make it look dignified nonetheless.
The play revolves around the plane crash and how their family was
breaking apart long before the crash took place. Flashback scenes
reveal Lois trying to explain why she needed to move on.
"If I wasn't going to make it with you, I was going to make it with
Nietzsche... with Proust... with Kant," she says.
His reply, "You trying to tell
me you're a lesbian now?"
One-liners are mixed in with
serious matter as Dietz succeeds in transporting the audience into
a fantasy world. Credit goes to the set designers (Randy Lee Hartwig
and Matthew R. Campbell) who have created a scene out of "Alice in Wonderland".
It is a set that extends into the audience space and peaks your interest
because every part is used - sometimes in crazy ways and sometimes
in ways that will totally surprise you.
The play contains adult language, but doesn't abuse it. All in all,
it's a hilarious look at a Tennessee house gone amuck. Somehow I
get the feeling that Dan Dietz was the type of guy who never listened
when they said everything's already been written. This play is as
original as they come! Dietz has done something rare - he has created
a fine drama wrapped in fantasy. It's doubtful you'll be prepared
for what happens when her ashes are returned to the family. Let's
just say that by the time that happens you'll be so wrapped up into
this fantasy world that you'll believe anything. So just sit back
and enjoy the ride. It's a good one!
"Tilt Angel" Flies
in Many Directions
A Review By Asbury Radio
If you're the type of theater goer who likes to sit back, relax and watch a
linear plot unfold, you may want to run from the theater during the first act
of "Tilt Angel". But don't. You'd miss some fantastic acting and playwright
Dan Dietz's sometimes brilliant dialogue. Some lines are delivered within a
verbal dance of sorts worthy of a Balanchine. There is more than one scene
where the actors, separated by an unseen wall, wield their lines like deftly
timed swords through the 'wall', their meanings crossing in mid-air. Whoosh!!.
Timing is not the problem with this play.
No, the quandary here is, well, what exactly Dietz wants us to think about
Tilt Angel. Imagine "Little Shop of Horrors" set in an auto body shop. No,
maybe it's like "Alice Doesn't Live (in Tennessee) Anymore". Or, "It's a Wonderful
Life" with Jimmy Stewart never getting that final taxi ride home. And yet Tilt
Angel might be none of these.
Dietz wants us to think about nature and our irrevocable connection to it -
and especially about death - the ultimate punctuation mark to that point. So
he tries to engage all of our senses, with drumming and banging and music and
singing and creative lighting, excellently executed through Jill Nagle's design.
And there is no plot device Dietz will not try. Tilt Angel is about abandonment,
guilt and redemption, loss of love, hope, limb, legacy, and life -- to name
but a few -- and maybe a few too many. Tilt Angel is both a comedy and a drama,
which is where Dietz sometimes lost this member of the audience.
Despite his youthful appearance, this is not the Austin, TX-based Dietz's first
play. He has had at least a half dozen performed and has gathered his share
of awards, including the James A. Michener and Josephine Bay Paul fellowships
and the Austin Critics Table Award for Best New Play. If there is an award
for fearlessness, Dietz should have that one, too, for he tempts all.
Director Cailin Heffernan, who has a long string of credits to her name as
well, had her hands full with this one. Soliloquies abound, as do physical
flights and fist fights. That Randy Lee Hartwig (who you may remember as the
husband in Asbury Radio's production of Dave Talbot's one-act play, "Thermostat
Wars") and co-designer Matthew R. Campbell's set can support all of this is
a credit to the two. Through them and a superb cast of actors, Heffernan executes
it all quite flawlessly. Yet, the question nags, do we need ALL of it?
But then Ames Adamson, as the Neanderthal, third generation body shop owner
in this back water town, whose progenitors' spirits still permeate the walls,
grabs hold of our attention again like the dented fender of a Chevy and pulls
us back in. Even when Adamson's character, Red, is crude, sweaty and infuriatingly
misogynistic it's impossible to turn away. Maybe it's the way Adamson physically
wraps himself inside a role, even if it's playing a squirrel (in John Walch's
Circumference of a Squirrel). And, when Adamson breaks the fourth wall by acknowledging
the audience, as he does in Tilt Angel, we forgive him if not Dietz.
Andrea Gallo, who as the mother, Lois, must act the role of a vegetable
tree, gives a whole new dimension to 'Mother Earth'. As Red's wife, Gallo
makes the mistake of getting sucked into the knowledge tree by a snake bearing
an uncanny resemblance to Jeopardy's Alex Trebek. Gallo's rapid-fire description
of this transformation is worth the price of admission alone. As Red recalls
of this period, Lois actually started reading, "The New Yorker." It's
the familiar scenario of the wife mentally outgrowing the simple, but honest
husband and flying the nest. Only this time the plane isn't air worthy, which
explains the blues singing winged-pilot who must coerce the next of kin into
claiming Lois' remains and thus cutting his earthly bonds. Reginald Metcalf
plays the pilot, Angel Bones, a part which functions as both scene connector
and tension breaker. Metcalf croons a mean spiritual in his first role for
NJ Rep, which I strongly suspect will not be his last.
But the scene stealer in Tilt Angel is Ian August who turns the impossible
part of the mentally tapped, reclusive son of this dysfunctional union into
a tour de force for his singing, dancing and acting talents. Despite Red's
admonition that his son would, "get a sunburn from a bright idea", and Lois'
recognition that "behind those eyes is all blue sky back there," August makes
us like and respect this character, something the playwright doesn't always
accomplish for the entire play. Tilt Angel is experimental -- crazy, daring,
corny, trite, insightful and campy --which is what theater on the cutting edge
perhaps has to be. So go and laugh. Over and out! The play runs
through November 20th.
All Over the Map: Finn in the Underworld in
San Francisco and Tilt
Angel in Long Branch, NJ. Plus: The Oregon Shakespeare Festival
wraps up its 70th season
In Dan Dietz's latest play, Tilt Angel, a mother leaves her Tennessee
family to pursue her lifelong dream of going to college, but her
plane crashes along the way. "The story is about how the father and
the son cope with this and deal wsith the fact that they're estranged
from each other as well," says Dietz. Sounds like a straightforward
family drama -- but Dietz throws in a couple of curveballs. In one
scene, a character travels through telephone wires, and in another,
Such stage directions can strike fear into the hearts of theater
companies, but they certainly caught the attention of New Jersey
Repertory, which is presenting Tilt Angel. Dietz's lush
style also hooked the Salvage Vanguard Theatre in his hometown
of Austin, Texas, with which he often works. "[These companies]
like nothing better than to take a play that seems impossible to
stage, and stage it," says Dietz, who acknowledges that finding
directors intrepid enough to do them is a daunting task. "When
I find a director who really 'gets' my voice," he says, "I really
cling to that person."
Dietz partly developed his quirky style while writing English
translations of Japanese animated films for ADD, the largest distributor
of anime in North America. "I was really into anime in my teens
and early 20s because I was just fascinated by its storytelling
traditions, as well as the idea of fusing man and machine and the
high-octane action sequences," he says. His favorite anime series
that he's worked on is Dai-Guard -- about a team of hapless
office workers forced to commandeer a giant robot to save the world
-- which ran here briefly on the Cartoon Network.
His playwriting career began to take off after he submitted one
of his short works to the Humana Festival on a teacher's recommendation
to his graduating class. ("She said, 'Someone's bad play is going
to win this contest; it might as well be your bad play.' ") Like
most emerging playwrights, Dietz constantly submits scripts to
theaters around the country. He remarks: "Those two things, really
working on my voice and the pieces I was writing and being brave
or stupid enough to spend all that money on postage, have seemed
to work for me."
For a time, Dietz worked with an underground theatrical society
known as RAT, a collective so shadowy that it never even defined
its acronym. "It sort of envisioned this idea of theaters that
were willing to take risks and do a lot with a little," he explains.
Most of RAT's members were small companies but, according to Dietz,
a few of them tried to bring their aesthetic to the mainstream. "As
the audiences for larger theaters start to dwindle, which they
are, my hope is that those theaters will find themselves in a position
where they need to take a risk," Dietz says. "That's my hope, anyway."
"TILT" A WHIRL
A "blues-infused fairy tale" bows at NJ Rep
Posted by the Asbury Park Press on
BY TOM CHESEK
From "Hamlet" to "Hairspray," "Medea" to Miller, domestic dysfunction
remains a thematic stage staple that continues to pique audience interest
and paint balance sheets black. After all, what better way to escape
the petty pyrotechnics and molehill melodrama of one's own homelife
than with a couple of hours spent literally looking down upon some
angst-infested brood of flustered and frustrated family members, encapsulated
like a globeful of sea monkeys on a set that's equal parts living room
No strangers to the more vein-popping side of family life, the
producers and performers at New Jersey Repertory Company have dished
up their share of dinner-table decibels: from the country-house
conflicts of "On Golden Pond" to the trailerpark tribulations of "Maggie
With this weekend's debut of the new mainstage production "Tilt
Angel," the acclaimed Long Branch-based theatrical troupe presents
a show that's been described as a "gritty and lyrical comic-epic
about a most unusual family." It's a story in which characters
cross the threshold between planes of existence as easily as they
darken their own doorstep.
Set in Tennessee, the play by Texas-based author Dan Dietz conjures
a very unhappy household lorded over by Red (Ames Adamson), a mechanic
with a prosthetic hand and a son who's even less useful to him.
While the withdrawn and reclusive Ollie (Ian August) hasn't set
foot outside the house in nearly a decade, it takes a tragedy — the
death of his mother, Lois (Andrea Gallo), while en route to Memphis,
Tenn. — to shake him from his self-imposed exile, and send him
on a mission that will bring him to the uncertain border between
this world and the next.
When Red shows no interest in claiming his wife's remains, it's
up to Ollie to escort her on her journey back home; a journey joined
by an apparently helpful but enigmatic character known as Angel
Bones (Reginald Metcalf, who performed the role at NJ Rep's 2004
reading of the play).
This engagement marks the world professional premiere of Dietz's "blues-infused
fairy tale," which was staged to award-winning acclaim as a community
production in the author's native Austin, and workshopped in a
couple of other locales before arriving in its current fine-tuned
version as the last NJ Rep offering of the year 2005. It's helmed
here by Cailin Heffernan, a director with an impressive list of
credits among the Shore's most forward-thinking stage companies.
NJ Rep subscribers and other frequent-fliers should perk up at
the presence of Adamson, a Rep regular whose colorfully vivid character
portrayals (in "Old Clown Wanted," "Circumference of a Squirrel" and
Mike Folie's "Panama") have made him something of a breakout performer
among this stellar stock company. He's joined by fellow "Panama" survivor
August (by the by, it was writer-actor Folie who played Red in
last year's reading of "Tilt Angel") and company man Metcalf, as
well as Rep rookie Gallo.
odd couple of the literary world Monday, August 29, 2005
BY PETER FILICHIA
There have been plenty of plays and movies
where a character proclaims, "I hate and despise him, and I can't
live without him." When the line is said in "Klonsky and Schwartz," however,
it manages to sound fresh.
For one thing, in Romulus Linney's play at
the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, the line isn't
said by a woman, as it seems to be in all those other properties.
A man is the speaker, but his motivation is not a homosexual
Linney is looking at another kind of passion
here -- the highs and lows of friendship -- and in the process
has created an often gripping and fascinating play.
Milton Klonsky is the speaker, and the love-hate
he has is for Delmore Schwartz, the noted American poet. They
meet when Schwartz is judging a poetry contest that young Klonsky
has entered. Of course, Klonsky is flattered when this literary
celebrity takes an interest in him, for at the moment, Klonsky
is unpublished -- and will be for some time to come.
That may be because he spends so much time
taking care of Schwartz. No question that Schwartz is what many
people would call "a handful." Indeed, the rich and complicated
character that Linney has written here would be such a handful
that he'd stymie an octopus. He and Klonsky have many fights,
most of them verbal, though they're not above a rowdy physical
So why does Klonsky bother? There's more than
a dollop of hero-worship here, to be sure, but by often chiding
Schwartz for not maintaining his health, Klonsky can find one
way in which he's superior. Klonsky may admit to having an affinity
for "bourbon, broads, weed, and the track," yet he doesn't let
any of those escalate into addictions that keep him from writing.
Still, Linney suggests that Schwartz's willingness to taste,
feel, experiment, and grasp life by both hands made him the superior
Certainly Schwartz has the better role, and
John FitzGibbon is delivering a dynamic, must-see performance,
under SuzAnne Barabas' strong direction. He's expansive and bigger
than life, roaring with the rage of the frustrated artist, and
wailing to the skies. Here's a dipsomaniac who enjoys a drunken
dance in Times Square from time to time, but then suddenly reverts
to quieter moments. With his tie askew, he weaves as he walks,
and he has a squint that shows the pain of being annoyed. When
he rubs his exhausted eyes, he seems to be blocking a view of
his tortured soul.
FitzGibbon has perfectly captured the confident
man who believes he has all the answers, as well as the high-maintenance
dependent who expects unconditional love from everyone. When
he states, "I feel as old as worn-out shoes," he says it with
a smile that's meant to suggest he's still in control, and nobody
really has to worry about him.
David Volin gives excellent support as Klonsky.
He expertly shows the neurosis of the writer who's afraid to
show his work, mixing it with a nervous need for approval. How
flummoxed Volin looks when he says quietly, "I was a prodigy
who was reading when I was three" -- wondering how after that
terrific head start he fell so far behind.
Near the end of the 80-minute, intermissionless
play, Schwartz tells Klonsky with certainty, "No one will remember
you without me." To a degree, that's turned out to be true. And
while Linney, who actually knew Milton Klonsky, has taken pains
to see that his old friend's name stays before the public, he
can't do it without linking it to Schwartz. But at least he's
put Klonsky back in the public eye.
Absolutely, Mr. Klonsky? Positively, Mr. Schwartz
Published in the Asbury Park Press 08/31/05
BY TOM CHESEK
JOSEPH J. DELCONZO/SPECIAL TO THE PRESS)
David Volin (left) and
John FitzGibbon star in "Klonsky and Schwartz" at
the New Jersey Repertory Company's Lumia Theatre
in Long Branch.
Through Oct. 2 — New Jersey Repertory Company, 179
Broadway, Long Branch
— (732) 229-3166
Their names have been said to sound like some classic vaudeville
team, and indeed there are moments when "Klonsky and Schwartz" get
off some real zingers: "A poet breaking into Yiddish is like a thief
breaking into prison." Or, "Why should I make one girl miserable
when I can make a hundred shiksas happy?"
Despite the audible rimshots, it wasn't all fun and games for poet
and essayist Milton Klonsky in the summer of 1966 — a mean season
wherein he struggled to find his own voice as a writer, even while
he played self-appointed guardian to the man who had given him his
first professional break, the legendary literary figure Delmore Schwartz.
The very untidy relationship between these two real-life writers — the
insults and inspirations, the fistfights and forgiveness, the hugs
as well as the drugs — forms the basis for Romulus Linney's play
bearing their names. The acclaimed playwright, himself a friend of
Klonsky's in the writer's later years, was on hand Saturday night
for the opening of a major new production of his work at New Jersey
Repertory Company in Long Branch.
New York setting
Recalling both the many sublevels of Manhattan's hollowed-out
island as well as Dante's various circles of hell, the multitiered
set design by Jessica Parks is a neon-graveyard evocation of New
York's jazz-age glory days, filtered through the smoggy prism of
the late '60s. It's the perfect place for two talented players
to skip across time and space, from the blazing energy of 1940s
Greenwich Village to a chilly bench in Bryant Park.
Chronicling what would come to be the final weeks in the life of
Delmore Schwartz, "Klonsky" begins, ends and continually returns
to that fatal summer of '66; a time when the city's hold on the
American imagination had been eclipsed by the currents blowing
in from the West Coast; a time when the grand institution of New
York baseball resided in the cellar and the Velvet Underground
was even then working up songs that the band would come to posthumously
dedicate to Schwartz.
His best work decades behind him, his marriage in ruins and his
life in a shambles upon the abandonment of his academic career,
Schwartz haunts the streets, saloons and Automats of the city in
a last-ditch attempt to recapture the muse that made him one of
the major poetic voices of the twentieth century — a paranoid drunk
who believes he's being tracked by an accusatory "dybbuk" and that
Nelson Rockefeller is having an affair with his wife.
Himself a figure plagued by self-doubts, unable to finish anything
new and haunted by the prospect that his own career is little more
than a footnote, Milton Klonsky would seem an unlikely pillar of
strength for the older writer. Yet he's there at Bellevue when
Schwartz is arrested for a delusional assault; he's there in Schwartz's
flophouse room when Delmore needs help finding his way home; he's
there to identify Schwartz's body on the morgue slab when no one
else comes forward. Still, he finds it impossible to argue when
Schwartz points at him and sneers his sadly prophetic "Nobody will
remember you without me."
Presented without intermission and punctuated by passages of klezmer
music, Linney's jazzy, Beat-inflected script is brought blazing
to life by a couple of familiar faces from the New Jersey Repertory
Company. As Schwartz — a role originated by TV star Chris Noth,
who also initiated the project — John FitzGibbon (seen most recently
as an unctuous art dealer in "Touch of Rapture") conveys the method
and madness of this brilliant and burned-out man with a scary facility.
As Klonsky, David Volin (from NJ Rep's "Laramie Project") is all
nervous energy channeled away from self-destruction and toward
the uneasy responsibility he's saddled himself with. The brief
interlude wherein a frustrated Klonsky endeavors to complete a
new poem is a particular gem.
Under the steady hand of NJ Rep artistic director SuzAnne Barabas,
these two really intense performers work very much in concert with
each other, when one could easily imagine each of them taking on
the project as a one-man show (the actors occasionally double up
as various spouses and rabbis).
Volin and FitzGibbon run the material for all its worth, with the
result being that an especially hard-hitting affirmation-of-friendship
scene plays spot-on true. Their chemistry ranks up there with such
classic New York duos as Kramden and Norton, Oscar and Felix, Seinfeld
and George — and at times you might think you're watching the greatest
movie that Edmond O'Brien and Tony Curtis never made together.
"Klonsky and Schwartz" is doubtless a difficult piece to master and
a definite challenge to the audience — nonlinear, densely packed
with references and allusions. Director Barabas and company have
put forward a smart and emotionally supercharged example of local
professional theater at the top of its game, acted with real conviction
and presented by people who very obviously believe in it.
Suck up all of those anxieties and meet this one halfway. Its rewards
are many and varied.
My mother named me after a
Pullman car. She thought it sounded Goyishe --- Delmore
John FitzGibbon and David Volin in Klonsky
It isn't surprising that Romulus Linney's aggressively schizophrenic
play about Delmore Schwartz opens in a 1966 mental ward at New York's
Bellevue Hospital. The noted American poet has been brought there
for observation by the police after he has assaulted a couple on
a Manhattan street. The obviously delusional Schwartz (John Fitzgibbon)
is visited by his friend Milton Klonsky (David Volin), the skilled
essayist to whom he has long been a mentor.
The play focuses on Schwartz' declining sanity after he has left his job
at Syracuse University to write poetry and live in New York City. Imagining
that his wife was stolen by Nelson Rockefeller and believing he was told
what to do by Dybbuks (plural), Schwartz is nevertheless urged by Klonsky
to think rationally, to recall his childhood as the son of irrational unhappily
married Romanian immigrants.
Schwartz's mental instability is dramatized in fits and starts following
his release from Bellevue as a kind of neurotic vaudeville act (shades
of Smith and Dale on speed) as the two writers review the high and low
points of their tight but testy relationship. The fast staccato paced
dialogue is unleashed by the manically envious Klonsky and the manically
depressive Schwartz in a lyrical point counter point style. Each man
is afforded his own time in the spotlight, each confronted by his own
demons. Their unlikely friendship began after Klonsky has submitted a
poem in a contest judged by an expectedly condescending Schwartz. As
egomaniacal as he was brilliant, Schwartz's influence on the 10 years
younger Klonsky proved profound, even as it served to block Klonsky's
creative flow ("You think any nutball idea
that comes into your head is poetry and you can't tell the difference.")
The play moves speedily through brief scenes that focus more on the men's
r emotional instability than on their intellectual gifts. Both marry
and divorce, Schwartz twice. As they concede in concert: "Why should
I make one Jewish girl miserable when I can make a hundred shicksas happy."
Although he doesn't get the opportunity to rant and rave like his co-star,
Volin is impressive as the more conventionally dysfunctional Klonsky,
whose preoccupation with horse racing and womanizing may also have led
to the artistic paralysis that consumed him during his friendship with
Schwartz. When you have friends like Schwartz who tells him, "You're just a prick,
posing as a poet," you don't need a bad review from a literary critic.
Fitzgibbon has the tougher assignment as he has been apparently encouraged
by director Suzanne Barabas to enforce and validate Schwartz's nutty behavior
(that includes drunken binges and waving a loaded gun around in Bryant
Park), with an excess of flailing hands and nervous body tics. One can't
say that Fitzgibbon isn't acting up a storm.
Various locales are simply established within Jessica Parks' setting featuring
a neon-lit cityscape. The quirky structure of the dialogue, some of it
almost singspiel in delivery suggests that Linney sees his play as a lyrical
convergence of these commiserating but creative poet/writers. The delivery
is sharp, but it eventually grows wearisome. Although he always wanted
to write like Schwartz but couldn't, Klonsky was a friend to the end of
Schwartz's life. When Schwartz was found dead, destitute and alone in a
rat trap of a hotel room, it was Klonsky who came to the morgue to identify
Though Linney maintained a friendship with Klonsky during the last ten
years of Schwartz's life he maintains that Klonsky never once talked about
Schwartz, even after his death. Following Schwartz's death, Klonsky began
writing with a renewed intensity. One can see the motivation behind Linney's
play and find it compelling if also slightly unnerving.
Klonsky and Schwartz
and Romulus Linney
It is 1966. Little-known, little-published poet Milton Klonsky has
been contacted by the National Endowment for the Arts. It seems that
the Endowment has selected his friend and mentor, the noted American
poet Delmore Schwartz for an award and grant, and is trying to locate
him. Klonsky knows exactly where Schwartz is. In fact, in about an
hour and a quarter at the conclusion of Romulus Linney's new one-act,
two-character play, Klonsky and Schwartz, Klonsky will share
this terrible knowledge with us. However, first Klonsky will tell
us about their twenty-five year relationship and the commonalities
in their backgrounds which helped to bind them together.
David Volin and John FitzGibbon
Linney's play is about many things. The identity problems of first
generation American who love their immigrant parents, but are ashamed
of their accents and patterns of speech. The pain and loneliness
which can arise from being turned out by a spouse with whom one remains
in love. The anguish and difficulty of coping with and channeling
creative genius. However, in order to best understand and enjoy Klonsky
and Schwartz pay close attention to the title.
Going in, one naturally expects to see a play about the major poet,
Schwartz, with the little known Klonsky providing a unique perspective
regarding him. The opening gambit, the NEA search for Schwartz, re-enforces
this view. As the play develops, it is only a little more even-handed
in its focus. However, in the end, it may well dawn upon you that
it is with good reason (beyond it being possibly more euphonious)
that Klonsky's name precedes Schwartz in the play's title. It seems
that foremost, Linney is concerned with the deleterious effect that
the charming and brilliant, yet cruelly self centered and paranoid
Schwartz had on the underachieving and insecure, yet talented and
loyal Klonsky (yet, as Schwartz states in the course of the play,
if Klonsky's name were to survive over time, it would be because
of Klonsky's relationship to him).
Although not known to a wide public (most articles note that he
is the father of actress Laura Linney), author Romulus Linney is
one of America's most distinguished playwrights. Linney has authored
over twenty full-length plays, several short plays, and three novels.
He has taught playwriting at Columbia (where he chaired the MFA Playwriting
program), Princeton, Penn and the Yale School of Drama. Currently,
Linney is a Professor of Playwriting in the Actors Studio MFA program
at the New School. His highly regarded work covers subject matter
with a wide global expanse and different historic eras. Still the
Madison, Tennessee and Boone, North Carolina (where several of his
plays have set) reared Linney is a member of the Fellowship of Southern
So who would have thought that Linney would have written a play
in which his characters sometimes speak in the rhythms of such ethnic
comic vaudevillians as Smith and Dale? Furthermore, throughout the
play, the expressions and argot, and concerns of his protagonists,
unerringly reflect speech and attitudes common to mid-twentieth century
New York Jewish intellectuals. Of course, Linney has been intimate
with such individuals, but his ear for their speech and empathy with
them is as admirable as it is remarkable. Although his tale is a
cautionary one, the style in which he tells it along with his inclusion
of some sharp excerpts from the pen of Delmore Schwartz, keeps things
David Volin and John FitzGibbon fully embody Linney's portrait of
Milton Klonsky and Delmore Schwartz. Volin's persona conveys likeability,
kindness, enough smarts to kind to hold his own with Schwartz, and
a vulnerability which renders him ineffective. FitzGibbon combines
considerable charm with the bullying dominance and a very credible
paranoid madness. Together, they deliver Linney's rapid fire, interlaced
dialogue with the practiced ease of long time partners.
Much credit for the smooth integration of the work of Volin and
FitzGibbon is due to NJ Rep Artistic Director SuzAnne Barabas, who
has directed the play with skill and affection. Scenic Designer Jessica
Parks has designed an impressionistic set with cutouts of New York
City landmarks (including evocative signs for Klonsky and Schwartz
restaurant hangouts, Katz's and the Automat) which nicely complement
Although Linney has fictionalized any number of details, it is essential
truths which Klonsky and Schwartz illuminates.
Review of Klonsky and Schwartz
by Gary Wien
(LONG BRANCH) - I've often wondered
what it must have been like to be among the first audiences to see a
Samuel Beckett play. Did the people at the early showings of "Waiting For Godot" really
know they were watching history? Did they revel in the confusion? Were
they laughing incredibly at the jokes? Or did the play simply sail over
their heads, leaving them perplexed as to what they had just witnessed.
Was it art? Madness? Or did they
walk out muttering 'what the hell was
As I watched the New Jersey premiere of Klonsky and Schwartz by Romulus
Linney, I felt as if I was among the crowds at an early Beckett performance.
And the experience was thrilling.
Klonsky and Schwartz is a roller-coaster ride of nonsense and true
meaning rolled into one. It tells the tale of Milton Klonsky, a struggling
writer and Delmore Schwartz, a brilliant poet who becomes his friend.
The play is based on the true story of the two artists who lived in
New York City during the 1960s.
Klonsky (played by David Volin)
is haunted by the thought that he will only be remembered for being
a friend of Schwartz (played by John Fitzgibbon) - a thought driven
into his subconscious by Schwartz repeatedly. Klonsky finds himself
constantly in a state of rewriting his work over and over. Nothing
is ever good enough to be deemed finished - or good enough to present
to Schwartz for his approval.
SuzAnne Barabas, the Artistic Director of the New Jersey Repertory Company,
is the director of this production. She has put together a show that
just might be one of the fastest paced productions I have ever seen.
Between the pace of the play, the language of the artists (including
moments of poetry recited throughout) and splashes of music, the play
takes on the appearance of a beatnik poem.
"I think it's in the writing," explained SuzAnne Barabas. "It leads
us there. It's the type of play that you should see a few times and you'll
get something different out of it each time. The first time you kind
of go along for the ride and then when you see it again you can begin
picking out things because it's not a linear play. And yet there is a
story that does have linear movement. We've tried to make it as accessible
"When I first read it I thought the payoff was amazing. I didn't know
who Klonsky or Schwartz were. I was just so moved by the experience and
the human relationship of the two men - it didn't have anything to do
with the poetry. The poetry is glorious, but it was the relationship
of these two men of 25 years and the payoff at the end, which was very
moving to me."
The play was obviously very moving to her husband, Gabor Barabas as
well. Prior to the performance, he told of his childhood in Hungary and
how he developed his love for poetry. That love and hunger for words
was the perfect introduction to the play. We've included an excerpt here.
The play succeeds on many levels and the two actors do a wonderful job.
Romulus Linney, a two-time Obie Award winner, has come up with another
brilliant work. If you like theatre to challenge you, you'll love Klonsky
NOT STARSKY AND HUTCH
Tale-of-two-scribes "Klonsky and Schwartz" premieres at NJ Rep
Published in the Asbury Park Press 08/26/05
BY TOM CHESEK
It's an age-old dramatic premise: the intellectual and emotional
tug-of-war between mentor and protege, with the iconic hero ultimately
revealed as a very flawed, very human being. In the two-character
play now onstage at New Jersey Repertory Company, the mentor has
pretty much bottomed out by the time the curtain goes up — and
it's the protege who assumes the leadership role as the older,
more famous figure spirals into the closing act of a lost life.
While the title might bring to mind a pair of polyester-age TV
cops, "Klonsky and Schwartz" promises to make up for a distinct
lack of airborne car chases with snapshots of a turbulent relationship
between two writers — each speeding his way along a physical and
spiritual journey of his own. It's that relationship between the
two (real-life) literary figures that forms the basis of Romulus
Linney's script — a story charged with the author's own personal
connection to one of the principals.
The "Schwartz" in question is the legendary scribe Delmore Schwartz
(1913-1966), a poet, prose artist and editor known as much for
his own works ("In Dreams Begin Responsibilities") as he is for
the posthumous tribute paid him by people from Saul Bellow ("Humboldt's
Gift") to Lou Reed ("My House").
The other half of the play's equation is Milton Klonsky. A poet
and scholar of considerable talent, he's a guy who also had the "genius" tag
applied to him in his time — albeit a man whose reputation lacked
the rock star mystique that the burned-out Schwartz would accrue
in the decades after his passing.
That the name Delmore Schwartz retains a certain undeniable cachet
with artistic types became evident when the playwright was approached
by TV star Chris Noth (of "Law & Order" and "Sex and the City" fame)
to develop a stage project based on Schwartz's life. In the course
of his research, Linney (whose daughter is screen actress Laura
Linney) stumbled upon an astounding fact: His own good friend Milton
Klonsky had been Schwartz's closest confidante in his final days — to
the point of having been the one to identify Schwartz's corpse
at the city morgue following the writer's death at a local transient
"I found to my surprise that the man who was closest to him when
he died had been a good friend to me in the last 10 years of his
life," Linney recalled in an interview from a few years back. "Yet
after Delmore died, Milton never talked about him."
Characterizing his late friend as "a very nurturing person, even
though he was disappointed in his literary accomplishments," Linney
set about crafting a theatrical chamber piece that honors the life
and legacy of Klonsky as it examines the last days of Schwartz — a
man who, as we meet him, has quit his academic job to drink, ingest
barbituates and, hopefully, compose the most scintillating poetry
of his once-stellar career.
Kicking around the bars, Automats and institutions of downtown
Manhattan in the summer of 1966, the two men fight (to the extent
that most productions have required the services of a fight choreographer),
bond, reference pop-culture touchstones and work to dispel the
demons that dog them.
Following a 2002 premiere in Connecticut (with Noth in the part
of Schwartz), the play has appeared in professional productions
on both coasts, and arrives at NJ Rep's Lumia Theatre in Long Branch
for a New Jersey premiere engagement that opens Saturday night,
following preview performances that continue at 8 today. Directed
by NJ Rep co-founder SuzAnne Barabas, the show stars a pair of
actors with an impressive list of credentials on Shore area stages.
As Schwartz, NJ Rep regular John FitzGibbon promises to bring
some of the powerful stuff that informed his role as a washed-up
alcoholic professor in "Winterizing the Summer House" a couple
of seasons back. David Volin, whose resume includes a fine turn
as Bottom in "Midsummer Night's Dream" at Holmdel Theatre Company,
tackles the part of Klonsky after a busy summer spent with Monmouth
University's Shadow Lawn Stage series in West Long Branch.
Driven actor racking up miles, roles
NJ Rep show is Volin's 6th this year in his home
Friday, August 19, 2005
BY PETER FILICHIA
David Volin marks his sixth Garden State show of 2005 on Thursday,
when he opens in "Klonsky and Schwartz" at the New Jersey Repertory
Company in Long Branch.
"I'm racking up thousands of miles on my car," the 39-year-old Tenafly
native and resident says.
Volin feels the commuting is worth it to play Milton Klonsky (1921-81)
-- "a poet, a writer and a recluse when he wasn't a womanizer. Very
little is written about him."
All of Klonsky's books -- including the well-received "The Fabulous
Ego" (1974), which dealt with the corruption of power -- are out of
"Klonsky wrote poems that, he admitted, nobody understood but him," Volin
says. "Maybe he felt that if you can't understand a piece of writing,
you really can't say if it's bad or good."
The play by Romulus Linney, father of actor Laura Linney, concerns
Klonsky's relationship with Delmore Schwartz (1913-66) -- also a poet,
writer, recluse and womanizer, though a far more famous one.
"He was the only person Klonsky would let judge him, even though Schwartz
was often uncomplimentary. In fact, they met when Schwartz was judging
him in a poetry contest," Volin says.
The play takes place in 1966. The National Endowment for the Arts
is trying to find Schwartz to give him an award and can't find him.
They finally do, thanks to Klonsky.
"Klonsky embraced his poverty," Volin says. "He held it up as a shield
to anyone who said he wasn't successful. 'No,' he said, 'I am writing.
What I do isn't business, but art.' And I relate to that."
Between 1993 and 1999, Volin was working in a low-level job for a
consulting firm. By night, he would act with his own New York troupe,
The White Buffalo Theatre Company. ("The great thing about working
in an office is that you can Xerox scripts for free.")
When the company shut down, Volin went for broke. He gave up his day
job, moved back to Tenafly and concentrated on acting.
He has worked steadily ever since. "I'm my own publicist-manager-agent,
always checking to see who needs an actor at what theater. That's led
to a lot of repeat work. So many theaters say, 'We'd like you to do
this play because we know you can.'"
After he appeared at New Jersey Rep in "Raft of the Medusa" in 2001
and "The Laramie Project" in 2002, SuzAnne Barabas, the theater's artistic
director -- and the director of "Klonsky and Schwartz" -- decided that
Volin was her man.
He'll be busy until October, which precludes his doing "Art" at the
Women's Theater Company in Wayne, where he played an obsessed Mae West
fan in "Dirty Blonde" in January. In March, he was at Tri-State Actors
Theatre in Sussex, playing Bottom in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" -- "which
means playing part-animal, part- human," he says, before noting that
he got to play an entire animal in "Go, Dog! Go!" at The Growing Stage
in Netcong. "As emcee," he says, "I was the only dog to have lines."
This summer at Shadow Lawn Stage in West Long Branch, he was in Steve
Martin's "The Underpants" as the mortified husband. As soon as it closed,
Volin grew six weeks' worth of beard to play a 70-year-old judge in
Jules Feiffer's "Little Murders."
Volin points out that though Feiffer had written the judge for the
play's original 1967 production, he dropped him just before the Broadway
premiere. "I'm glad he put him back."
Drama depicts three ages of 'Innocence'
Published in the Asbury Park Press 07/13/05
BY TOM CHESEK
PHOTO: MICHAEL SYPNIEWSKI)
Corey Tazmania (left),
Catherine Eaton (center) and Deborah Rayne star in "A
Child's Guide to Innocence" at the New Jersey Repertory
Company in Long Branch.
CHILD'S GUIDE TO INNOCENCE
New Jersey Repertory Company — 179 Broadway, Long
Branch — Through Aug. 14 — $30 — (732) 229-3166
"Something is happening to us somewhere — but not here," intones
first-generation Italian-American Francie (Catherine Eaton) at more
than one point during Vincent Sessa's "A Child's Guide to Innocence," the
drama now in its world-premiere engagement at New Jersey Repertory
Company in Long Branch.
Francie (or Frances or even Francesca, as she's variously branded
throughout) could be commenting upon the fact that the dramatic peaks
of her family's history — the births, the deaths, the challenges
of forging a new life in a strange place — mostly occur offstage,
or in a time frame separate from that in which the characters are
Unseen, too, are the men who figure prominently in Francie's life — her
husband, her neighborhood grocer Papa, her seaman brother Johnny — although
these absent characters are vividly invoked at times through reminiscence
and a bit of playful imitation.
As it turns out, much of "A Child's Guide" revolves around what's
not there — the missing persons, misplaced objects and unspoken secrets
taking center-stage prominence over the more mundane details of what
at first glance appears to be a largely uneventful life. What we
do have on display (in a production directed by NJ Rep regular Dana
Benningfield) are snapshots of a 50-year span in the life of a woman
who's spent a lot of time "praying that God doesn't lose interest
in me" — a woman who comes late to the realization that it's impossible
to make it through the present while living in the past.
The Brooklyn-born Sessa's script opens in the wartime summer of 1944,
with Francie and her sisters Catherine (Corey Tazmania) and Marion
(Deborah Rayne) in tentative mourning over brother Johnny, gone missing
from the naval vessel on which he was stationed. Adding to the anxiety
is the fact that Francie's beau also is off to fight the good war — and
assuming a bizarre prominence is the apparent loss of a glass crystal
decoration from a table lamp, an object variously described as a "prism" and
Then again, certain objects take on a special significance in this
play, tinged as it is with a realism that's distinctly more magical
than matter-of-fact. The family dinner table is said to possess a
soul, celery plays a recurring role in the proceedings and the eventual
rediscovery of the glass "star" treats the bargain-store bauble with
the deference normally granted some talisman out of Tolkien.
A saga of bonds
In fact, you'd do well to check all preconceptions of what this
play is all about at the door. Playwright Sessa has cited the script
as "autobiographical" in its origin with his own Italian-American
family members, but if you're anticipating a lot of caricature "fuhgeddaboutit" accents
and expecting the action to be punctuated by busy kitchen scenes,
then get thee instead to a venue that's showing "The Godfather's
Meshuggenah Wedding." While the actresses occasionally affect a
Lawn Guyland inflection or two and Papa Luigi hovers just this
side of tangibility, it's first and foremost a saga of bonds that
can never be severed — of words and deeds that resonate across
time, of ordinary lives that have a profound influence.
What it's not is a true ensemble piece. While Tazmania and Baum
lend solid support in their triple-duty roles as sisters, daughters
and grandchildren, it's indisputably Francie's story. Eaton, onstage
for every moment of this no-intermission production, fixes her
pale blues toward the audience and conjures things from V-E Day
in Times Square to the fate of her sailor brother — as "unstuck
in time" as Kurt Vonnegut's Billy Pilgrim, with the Great War every
bit as much at the center of her being.
Carrie Mossman's set design — a slightly surreal amalgam of 1944
store, 1975 dining room and 1995 bedroom — suggests as well that
it's Francie's head we're looking into, appropriate to a show that
captures the liquid flow of time and memory (and reminds us that
very few people in this life are afforded an "intermission" to
change into their future selves). Company veterans Jeff Knapp and
Jill Nagle provide a music-and-lighting environment that's smoothly
cinematic and fitting with the often dreamlike quality of the production — although
a climactic oooh-aaah effect is arguably not a necessity.
Director Benningfield has been quoted to the effect of having taken
a less-is-more approach to Sessa's play, trimming expository lines
and pitching the material as "more universal than just the Italian-American
experience." With her first full-length professional production,
Benningfield makes some intriguing choices — and reminds us that
New Jersey Repertory remains a laboratory in which new works come
to evolve, often right before our eyes.
NEW YORK TIMES THEATER REVIEW
Three Sisters, With No
Chekhov in Sight
By NEIL GENZLINGER
Published: July 17, 2005
THE New Jersey Repertory Company may never win the Tony Award for
regional theater, but it deserves some kind of prize for sheer unpredictability.
Its last show here, ''Ten Percent of Molly Snyder,'' was as whacked-out
a comedy as New Jersey is likely to see this year. But its
new show, ''A Child's Guide to Innocence'' by Vincent Sessa, is as
delicate and nuanced a drama as you'll find, its three actresses telling
a sublime intergenerational tale beautifully.
At the center of it is Catherine Eaton as Frances, whom we first meet
in Brooklyn in 1944. She is the oldest of three sisters, and of course
it is wartime and there is a brother overseas. Corey Tazmania and Deborah Rayne play Frances' sisters in the opening vignette, but by the final
segment of Mr. Sessa's intriguingly structured triptych they are playing
her grandchildren, and it is 1995. We don't see much of Frances' life
over this 51-year span -- the play's middle segment is set in 1975
-- but somehow by the end we know a lot about her, and about those
she loved and lost.
Mr. Sessa's inspired stroke is to tackle almost nothing head-on. Indeed,
it takes a while in the opening segment for a story to catch hold --
the sisters are so chirpy (far chirpier, in fact, than any real sisters
would be) that they're hard to listen to. Gradually, though, it sinks
in that their brother is missing in action and what we're seeing is
their collective defense mechanism; each copes with the news differently.
Even so, though, Mr. Sessa stays away from anything overt; the first
segment remains a collection of fragments. It's a deliberate device
and an effective one; not until 31 years later, in a harrowing, heartbreaking
monologue by Ms. Eaton midway through the play, does he let all the
pieces coalesce, and the waiting makes the moment all the more powerful.
''A Child's Guide'' becomes irritatingly New Age-y at times (''I think
a table has a soul when a family sits at it''), and the final segment,
with its ''greatest generation'' references and Frances in a coma,
feels a bit shopworn. But in general Mr. Sessa shows great
restraint, as does the director, Dana Benningfield; they don't try
to do too much with the story, and thereby do quite a lot. It's a lovely
portrait of how ordinary lives can be defined by a few pivotal moments,
of how the world's great events can have a profound impact at a very
small, personal level.
''A Child's Guide to Innocence'' continues through Aug. 14 at the
New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch, (732)229-3166,
A Child's Guide
to Innocence -- a review
by Restore Radio
This review was broadcast live on July 14th,
In the Sicilian-American,
Brooklyn household of 1944 that
Vincent Sessa transports us to, something is always left on the
dinner table. The spirits of the people who sit there over the years
are infused into its very wood, animating it -- if you will. So you
leave a bit of food for the table. I noticed an audience member
nod at this. But the few pieces of fruit that can be spared for this
ritual are covered. Sessa's character explains, "Nothing
that people want should be seen all of the time."
Indeed Sessa's play, A
Child's Guide to Innocence, is run through with themes of anticipation,
yearning, longing, joy deferred and innocence lost. And yet
there is a delicious taste to this hunger unrequited.
at times truths, half-truths and downright superstitions so
distantly familiar that their sudden recollection can cause
one to physically ache.
touches on the metaphysical element that exists in every period,
present in the everyday as well as the profound. Francie, the
eldest sister in the first act played by Catherine Eaton, declares, "Something
is happening to us -- somewhere else." And we believe her feeling
is palpable. That we can be affected by the actions of others somewhere
else acting in our name is a powerful theme. One can't help but draw
parallels between the World War whose scars our three principals
carry through three generations and the Iraq War we find ourselves
in now. Just as the characters strive to retain -- or feign -- their
innocence about the war, because knowledge would carry responsibility
maybe even complicity, we can't help but make comparisons between
Mr. Sessa's quote-unquote just war and the atrocities at Abu Ghraib
can affect and be affected by actions of others near or far
is a tantalizing concept. Marion, played by Deborah Rayne, says, "Mama is ready to go now.
I hear her. She has a different walk when she holds her handbag." We
are affected consciously or unconsciously by even the most
subtle of actions.
Perhaps it is not the
recognition of how buried in our pasts the experiences are that Mr.
Sessa resurrects for us, but how innocent we were when we first had
them. And it is the interplay between knowing and not knowing and
the fear that occupies both states that is the central theme of Mr.
Sessa's excellent play.
Tazmania, as Catherine, Joan and Julia, has exquisite comic
timing. All three actors are flawless. Dana Benningfield does
an excellent job of direction. One suggestion: since the three
actors play numerous characters -- with no intermission, some
cues -- black outs between acts, changes in dress or hairdos
might smooth these transitions a bit. For
tickets call 732-229-3166 or call to win a pair of tickets now. Vincent
Sessa has accepted our invitation to join us in the studio very soon,
hopefully with Dana Benningfield. And the cast and
I discussed doing a radio drama -- they're very excited
about the prospect... Maureen
Shortly before the world premiere of Vincent
Sessa's "A Child's Guide
to Innocence" I overheard one of the patrons at NJ Rep's Theatre tell
somebody a little about the theatre. He said that the acting was always
incredible but to remember that the plays were experimental...
In case you're familiar with
NJ Rep (New Jersey Repertory), it's a wonderful theatre company located
in downtown Long Branch. It uses Equity actors - sometimes well known,
sometimes not so well known - but it is not an experimental theatre.
It's a theatre that prides itself of presenting NEW work. In fact,
the overwhelming majority of productions through the company's seven
years have been world premieres. Some of those works have been outstanding,
some have needed a little polishing, and some have already moved on
to many more productions across the world. But theatres like NJ Rep
are where these works get a chance to be performed in front of an audience.
And, every now and then you get a glimpse of brillance from an emerging
playwright. Last Saturday night, I saw such brilliance from Vincent
I can't say that "A Child's Guide to Innocence" is a perfect
play. The production had many flaws, but the final two scenes were
as good as any American drama I've seen in the past decade. So good,
in fact, that it almost makes you forget about the problems that marred
the production in the beginning.
The play starts out telling the
story of three sisters from Brooklyn who are awaiting their brother's
return from World War II. One of the sisters (Francie) is also awaiting
the return of a soldier she has fallen in love with. As the play progresses
we follow Francie's life through the next fifty-odd years with
stops in 1975 and 1995. It's a remarkably well written look at how
the generations change within a family as we are introduced to Francie's
daughters and later her granddaughters.
"A Child's Guide to Innocence" is held
together with a secret that Francie kept to herself throughout her
life until revealing to her children one day. It's a secret that will
most likely take everybody by surprise and plays a significant role
in shaping her life. The little things in life - like family secrets
and the bond between family members - are a major part in Sessa's creation.
final two scenes are so good that it makes me yearn to see
a slight rewrite of the first scene to take this production to the
level it deserves. Sessa tries too hard to make us like three sisters
(two of which we will not see again) to develop the idea of the family
tree. As the trio waits for news of their brother the conversation
simply rambles back and forth. The effect is that while the sisters
are waiting for any news, the audience begins to wait for something
new to happen. Waiting is very difficult to show on stage and Sessa
needs to trim some of the early pages to get the story moving a bit
quicker. The early one-liners almost make it seem like a drama that
wishes to be a comedy. But once the story is allowed to breathe, it
is a breathtaking dramatic piece.
The play mixes in ideas about
family and religion amidst the hopes and dreams of the sisters. Francie's
big dream is to be a good housewife - and Sessa shows how even that
dream is much bigger than we ever imagine. Francie touches so many
lives through one lifetime that it makes you wonder who are the lives
that you yourself may have changed.
One flaw in this production was
a rather poor selection of accents from the sisters. They sound
nothing like first generation Italian-Americans or even resemble the
accents one hears in Brooklyn. This wouldn't be so bad in many parts
of the country, but in an area where so many people are from New York
City - it becomes very noticeable.
All in all, it is refreshing
to see playwrights still digging deep into their soul to produce dramatic
works like "A Child's Guide To
Innocence". Even more refreshing is to see theatres like NJ Rep continue
to take chances and succeed more often than not.
You can catch "A Child's Guide
To Innocence" at NJ Rep Theatre in Long Branch until August 13th.
OUT OF THE ORDINARY
"A Child's Guide to Innocence" gives women a positive voice
Published in the Asbury Park Press 07/8/05
BY MICHAEL KAABE
GUIDE TO INNOCENCE
— Through Aug. 14 — NJ Repertory Company — 179 Broadway, Long Branch — 8 p.m.
Thursdays through Saturdays; also 4 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays — $30 — (732)
Dana Benningfield has found a creative haven at the New Jersey Repertory
Company in Long Branch.
"I like to wear many creative hats," explained Benningfield, originally from
As an actress, she has appeared in several NJ Rep productions, including
Mike Folie's "Lemonade." As a literary manager, Benningfield assists
with the reading and assessment of original scripts that are considered
for staging by NJ Rep.
While reading through the many submissions the troupe receives, Benningfield
came across a drama by Vincent Sessa called "A Child's Guide to Innocence."
"The play is about a series of ordinary women who can make an extraordinary difference
in the lives of people around them, not necessarily by doing extraordinary things," Benningfield
Having taken an interest in directing, and already having a directing
credit at NJ Rep, Benningfield is making her directing debut with "A
The story originated for Sessa as an autobiographical piece, said Benningfield,
who believes her experiences as an actress have influenced her in developing
the desire to direct.
"I found that I was focused on how to present a story theatrically, and dramatically
in terms of seeing it onstage and not just being about the research of the piece
or writing revisions," she said. "My contributions to the plays were really becoming
about putting the play on its feet and cutting lines that I felt . . . you don't
have to tell an audience."
With this play in particular, Benningfield has felt the artistic scheme
with the play from the printed page and enjoys the opportunity to stage
it, working with actors.
"The thing about Vincent is that he grapples with big ideas and then puts them
in settings in which they can be easily identified," she said.
In "A Child's Guide," the big ideas are exploration of family tradition
during a time of war, religion and secrecy. The action of the play takes
place in a grocery store in Brooklyn in 1944. It is the beginning of
a family story that sprawls 50 years into the future, capturing a legacy
of hope tradition and courage in three Italian women.
According to Benningfield, Sessa originated his work as an autobiographical
drama because the women in the play contain elements of his mother and
his aunt, both Italian, "but we wanted the play to be more universal
than just the Italian-American experience, so that the play can be seen
as an experience of very ordinary people and how they influence their
Also, World War II has a very significant impact on the characters, she
There are a few surprises in the play the director will not give away,
but she does want us to know what message she sees in this work.
"The play makes a point about the importance of knowing your past," Benningfield
explained. "There's a line in the play when Franchesca, the main character, says, "Knowing
the best, knowing the worst, knowing is the only innocence.' And, in a sense
it provides us with a release because knowing one's past gives one license to
move forward with a new sense of wonderment and astonishment of going through
life. It's that tie to the past that gives input into the experience of moving
The LINK NEWS
July 14, 2005
Theater Review By Madeline Schulman
"A Child's Guide
to Innocence," by Vincent Sessa, is a beautiful and touching play, designed
to move and delight an audience. Running at the New Jersey Repertory Company,
on Broadway in Long Branch, this family history is wonderfully acted by Catherine
Eaton, Corey Tazmania and Deborah Rayne, and splendidly directed by Dana Benningfield.
An actress herself, the director brings out the nuances of the characters as
they re-live three days, but decades apart.
Eaton serves as the connecting thread,
playing the same woman at 21, 51, and 71, as she believable changes from
young woman to matron to older woman without altering makeup or costume.
Her two co-stars each cleverly morph into three very different characters,
appearing first as her sisters, then as her daughters, and finally
as her granddaughters.
The action starts in a Brooklyn grocery store
in June, 1944, at the height of the war (WWII) as sisters Francie,
Catherine and Marian wait for news of their brother Johnny, lost at
sea, and Francie, the oldest, longs for letters from her fiance, Freddy.
They vacillate between hope that Johnny has survivied and fear that he
The events of that day echo through the years in the second
and third scenes, as the years pass and we learn how that day in 1944
has affected the family's life. Throughout, the dialog is leavened
with flashes of humor - while describing the movie "Jaws" one daughter says she would need a "horse Valium" to go swimming
in the ocean at night. A granddaughter, challenged to identify Charles Lindbergh,
mutters, "He invented the Lindy?"
One symbol throughout the play, as evocative
as Laura's unicorn in "The Glass Menagerie," is a piece of glass which dangles
from a hurricane lamp, variously described by the characters as a star or a
prism. We learn in the first scene that it is missing, but not how or why. Just
as we learn Johnny's fate and Freddy's, we do find out the significance of the
prism, and as a star or prism should, it scatters a light on all that has gone
The single set serves equally well as a grocery store, Long Island
dining room, and grandmother's bedroom.
"A Child's Guide to Innocence" is highly recommended
as an emotional and intellectual pleasure.
A paranoia paradise at NJ Rep
Published in the Asbury Park Press 05/24/05
BY TOM CHESEK
JOSEPH J. DELCONZO/SPECIAL TO THE PRESS)
Stephanie Dorian and Michael
Irvin Pollard in "Ten Percent of Molly Snyder."
PERCENT OF MOLLY SNYDER
By Richard Strand — New Jersey Repertory Company — 179
Broadway, Long Branch — Performances through June
26 — $30 — (732) 229-3166
A conspiracy buff's comic fantasy that's all too disconcertingly
rooted in 21st-century reality, "Ten Percent of Molly Snyder" is
a sharply written and performed bit of burlesque for the X-Philes
among us. It's also a show that should really strike a chord with
anyone who's ever experienced a "Twilight Zone" moment at the local
motor vehicles office (read: anyone who lives in Jersey).
If you're a nonhabitual theatergoer who's looking for something a
little edgier than "Annie" but still accessible in its own way, Richard
Strand's two-actor play — now being seen for the first time on the
East Coast in a new production by New Jersey Repertory Company in
Long Branch — is a good place to get your dash of bitter social commentary,
chased by a frosty mug of flat-out funny business. Under the direction
of NJ Rep co-founder SuzAnne Barabas, it's an entirely accessible
and (at a tad under 90 minutes) economical excursion into paranoia
paradise, the Abbott and Costello routine that famed funnyman Franz
Kafka never got around to writing.
The "fun" begins when one Molly Snyder (Stephanie Dorian) arrives
at the office of one Mr. Aaron (Michael Irvin Pollard) with a simple
request to have her street address corrected on her driver's license.
When the blandly annoyed civil servant suggests she accept what has
been given to her — insisting that he's only looking out for her
best interests — Snyder moves to take control of the situation.
Big mistake. While Molly — a somewhat full-of-herself artist who
dresses in what she probably thinks is some sort of thrift-store
chic — attempts to assert her rights as an individual, she opens
up a wormhole that sends her careening into a pencil-pushing purgatory.
Issued a death certificate instead of a corrected license, she very
quickly finds her house repossessed, her assets frozen and her butt
in convict orange as she awaits execution for Murder One.
Molly's attempts to put her affairs in order — from pleading with
the local bank officer to seeking a pardon from the president of
the United States — are met each step of the way by Mr. Aaron, or
a whole lot of people who happen to look exactly like him. Ostensibly
appearing as several different characters of assorted races, genders
and sexual preferences (all of which seem to take the form of that
same bald-headed bureaucratic Beelzebub with an office painted in
what's variously described as beige, ecru, alpaca and champagne),
the enigmatic man behind the desk never fails to throw down roadblocks
of paperwork and protocol at every turn. It's a process that leads
our frustrated heroine from a mild simmer to volcanic eruptions of
verbal vitriol and vein-popping violence.
As an underlying theme, loss of one's identity used to be largely
the province of Rod Serling and his sci-fi brethren; these days
the dehumanizing effects of modern American life and the very real
threat of identity theft put all of us at the threshold of our
own personal trip to the Zone. Playwright Strand knows that we
know this, and consequently his script avoids beating the audience
over the head with an obvious stick in favor of going for the gut-level
There's even some knock-down, drag-out slapstick (Pollard seems
to wind up getting strangled in every show he's in), as well as
a positively shocking climax and a weird little denouement that
turns the whole shebang on its ear.
The main thing that keeps Strand's play from being little more
than a padded-out skit is the power of the players involved, and
Barabas (who's also the artistic director of the Shore-based professional
troupe) has wisely cast her show from the ranks of Rep regulars.
Both cast members have proven their comic credentials many times
over on the NJ Rep stage.
Anyone who enjoyed their efforts in such past productions as "Big
Boys" and "Lemonade" can pretty much guess that Dorian doesn't
skimp on her masterful slow burns and cathartic tirades, even as
Pollard delivers his patented portrayal of the suit-and-tie good
guy with a heart of daffy darkness.
While it's often helpful to enter into a theatergoing experience
without a preconceived set of notions, this correspondent has always
looked forward to the shows that feature some of our favorite faces
from what has become the finest stock company of actors in the
Presented without intermission, "Ten Percent of Molly Snyder" continues
through June 26 with performances on Thursday, Friday and Saturday
evenings, as well as (newly introduced) Saturday and Sunday matinees.
There's also a cool and concurrent exhibit of artworks by Red Bank
Regional High School students, built around the theme of driver's
licenses and the good old DMV.
MOLLY SNYDER 100 Percent Enjoyable at NJ Rep
The Link News
Review by Milt Bernstein
"The Percent of Molly Snyder," a fast-moving two-person play, and
the latest offering of the NJ Repertory Company in Long Branch ,
can easily qualify as one of the funniest and most original comedies
To anyone who has ever had to visit a Bureau of Motor Vehicles,
a tax department, or any similar governmental organization, Molly
Snyder's experience in trying to correct a tiny error in her records
will evoke a spark of recognition. In this case, the results are
quite hilarious, though eventually tragic as the unfortunate young
woman, beautifully played by Stephanie Dorian, encounters the "ultimate
bureaucrat" in a rapid succession of tableau-like scenes which differ
from each other in very subtle but suggestive ways.
Playwright Richard Strand spares no opportunity to satirize the
self-serving pomposity and indolent indifference of the bureaucrat,
played wonderfully well by Michael Irvin Pollard, in a succession
of various guises – each one more ridiculous than the one preceding
This little play comes full of surprises, and was enthusiastically
received by the full house on the night we saw it. SuzAnne Barabas,
who is artistic director of the company, and with husband Gabor founded
the company seven years ago, did an outstanding job of staging this
comedy, which ought not to be missed by anyone with a free evening
or afternoon and a lover of the theatre.
Here's a comic nightmare all New Jerseyans can relate to
Published in the Asbury Park Press 05/20/05
BY TOM CHESEK
PERCENT OF MOLLY SNYDER
By Richard Strand — New Jersey Repertory Company — 179
Broadway, Long Branch — 8 p.m. today and tomorrow;
2 p.m. Sunday; performances through June 26 — $20-$35 — (732)
If you've lived at or near the Shore for the past fistful of years — and
have an appetite for culture that at the very least transcends turkey
bowling and turtle races — you probably know the New Jersey Repertory
Company as the intrepid professional stage troupe that has made it
its mission to produce, promote (and often premiere) stage works
that are stimulating, innovative and seldom "safe." It's a mission
and a mandate the company has fulfilled many times over — but with
the words "New Jersey" in its name, one could rightfully expect NJ
Rep to address issues that are of particular interest to residents
of the Car-den State.
Of course, if you've lived for as little as a month in New Jersey,
you've probably got at least one good true-life horror story centered
around the old Department of Motor Vehicles and its no-less intimidating
successor. Soviet-style waiting lines, "Twilight Zone" losses of
identity, "X-Files" bureaucratic conspiracies, Kafka-esque runarounds — jaded
Jerseyans have seen all this and more in their time.
And it's about time somebody in the arts community did something
about it, even if that somebody is West Coast-based playwright and
professor Richard Strand.
In "Ten Percent of Molly Snyder," a two-character play making its
East Coast premiere at New Jersey Rep's Lumia Theatre in Long Branch,
author Strand presents a comic rhapsody-in-red-tape that commences
when a young woman (Stephanie Dorian) sees a DMV agent (Michael Irvin
Pollard) with a simple request to rectify an incorrect bit of information
on her driver's license.
Suffice to say that it goes on from there, spinning off into a nightmarish
scenario that director SuzAnne Barabas characterizes as "capturing
the frustration that we all experience in dealing with things like
the cable provider, the credit card company, the insurance company
. . . only done in a very funny way."
According to the NJ Rep co-founder and artistic director, "Simply
trying to get a person on the phone sometimes illustrates how our
society is taking away all trace of the individual . . . it's as
if everybody is becoming the same person."
The play, which was originally staged by Chicago's legendary Steppenwolf
company, features a couple of familiar faces from NJ Rep's fantastic
stock company. Both actors were seen to fine advantage in previous
Rep productions — Dorian as a fiancee and mistress in the riotous
romantic quadrangle "Lemonade," and Pollard as a nebbishy corporate
neophyte in the giddily absurd "Big Boys."
They laugh, they cry, they scream, they
live life right before our eyes and it all comes crashing down with
the weight of the metaphysical, with the weight of words. The NJ Repertory
Theatre presents the world premiere of Ruth Wolff's compelling Beyond
The NJ Repertory has brought the specter
of high art to Long Branch and the whole cast and crew are ready to blow
your mind with it. Beyond Gravity is a play about life's seemingly neurotic
nuances that challenges the viewer to admit that we all have to fool
ourselves sometimes in order to deal with life. In the very act of attending
the theatre we are invited to willfully suspend our disbelief, and Ruth
Wolff's expertly crafted play reminds us that we live constantly inside
various states of "the willful suspension of disbelief." Such nuance
could not be conveyed on stage without skilled performers. They have
indeed honored us with their presence and surpassed any possible expectations.
Gail Winar (Jan), Peter Brouwer (Harry) and Ellen Wolf (Frederica)
are class acts and you will feel very privileged to have them emote
for you. The smallness (there really is no better way to put it)
of the Lumia Theatre actually works to the great advantage of this
work by putting you practically on stage with the actors, who are
themselves cramped together, physically and emotionally. The intimate
setting created by Carrie Mossman comes to vivid and surprising life
through the top-notch lighting design of the skilled Jill Nayle.
Originally titled "The Aviators", this play is better
represented by that flighty title than by the less
direct (and likely less copyrighted) "Beyond Gravity".
With identity invention and glamorous role playing
Wolff has created a tiny world of believable illusion.
She leads us on a journey inside the mind of what
should be your typical academic couple, college professors
Jan and Harry Hawkesworth. We first encounter the
raw oozing brains of Jan trying to deal with her
reality. In her titular (and maybe bizarre?) aviation
fantasy she perhaps seems more hysterical than she
actually is. But then quickly unfolds a story about
couples and what happens in the mind-meld when two
people are closed up together for a long time. A
curious visitor, a questionable past, and a secret
kept from one half of a couple combine and disrupt
the carefully fabricated life of Jan and Harry. Problems
thought forgotten, fester like a secret kept from
oneself. Brushing away the intense superficial cobwebs
of seeming insanity reveals the kernel of truth.
Wolff's work demonstrates that if the fiction is
instantiated for long enough, a kind of schizophrenia
takes over. At the same time it is shown that we
all could be like Jan and Harry, creating our own
realities to help us cope with our own existence.
They laugh, they cry, they scream, they live life
right before our eyes and it all comes crashing down
with the weight of the metaphysical, with the weight
of words. The high energy of the cast is to be praised.
The tension bursts off the stage with a crescendo
in the second act and then increases again to an
emotionally wrought collapse of a finale. These fine
actors push it to places you did not think it could
go as they involve you in this mysterious fable about
coping. As a study in life and human adaptation,
the production succeeds and soars beyond expectations
with the subtle character exploration of the cast.
This unique and delicate work is a testament to the
depth of culture to be unearthed in our community.
John de la Parra is a writer and poet living in
Red Bank, NJ.
up at NJ Rep
Published in the Asbury Park Press 03/31/05
By TOM CHESEK
PHOTO: ADENA STEVENS)
Peter Brouwer, Gail Winar
(center) and Ellen Wolf star in "Beyond Gravity," opening
this weekend at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long
By Ruth Wolff —New Jersey Repertory Company —179
Broadway, Long Branch —Previews at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.
today and 8 p.m. Friday; openings at 2 and 8 p.m.
Saturday; continues Thursdays through Sundays through
May 8 —$20-$30
New Jersey Repertory Company founders Gabe and SuzAnne Barabas are preparing
for another in an impressively long string of world premieres at their
Lumia Theatre in downtown Long Branch.
"Beyond Gravity" (a play that was billed as "Aviators" until the success
of the Leonardo DiCaprio/Howard Hughes biopic apparently forced a name
change) is a newly unveiled work by the celebrated author Ruth Wolff,
whose prodigious portfolio has been staged at such venues as the Old
Vic in London and the Kennedy Center in Washington (and who has penned
plays and screenplays for the likes of Glenda Jackson, Liv Ullmann,
Lilli Palmer and Peter Finch).
In Wolff's script, under the direction of Donald Brenner, Jan
and Harry Hawkesworth (Gail Winar and Peter Brouwer) are "two middle-aged
college professors living a comfortable life in a comfortable home
on the beach" — a recipe for disaster, according to the tenets
of American theater. The cracks in the couple's staid facade appear
soon enough, as Jan is mistakenly led to believe that she's been
awarded a major honor for her work as a poet — followed soon thereafter
by the unexpected appearance of an ambitious journalist (Ellen
Wolf), whose presence casts doubt upon every aspect of this respectable
Secure in their carefully crafted existence just moments before,
the Hawkesworths are suddenly forced to reveal their secrets, abandon
their elaborate fantasy life and deal with reality — all of which
causes their world to literally crash around them.
In addition to director Brenner, all three actors are undertaking
their first mainstage project as members of the NJ Rep stock company.
Their efforts will be augmented by the talents of a crew of company
regulars. They include set designer Carrie Mossman, whose expressionistic,
nightmarish environment for the recent "Old Clown Wanted" lent
that Iron Curtain absurdity a great deal of its power. NJ Rep also
will present another new work by Wolff, "Shakespeare Road," as
part of the troupe's Monday-night series of script-in-hand readings
on May 2.
"Beyond Gravity" previews with three performances this week and
opens with an 8 p.m. show with a reception on Saturday. The play
then continues its Long Branch run with performances at 8 p.m.
Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through May 8.
Admission is $30. There is a $10 discount for anyone who brings
a toy airplane, to be donated to the Ronald McDonald House in Long
Branch. In keeping with the theme of the play, NJ Rep also is hosting
an exhibit of aerial-view paintings by Jill Kerwick in the Dwek
Theatre Gallery. Admission to the exhibit is free.
An Interview with Ruth Wolff
The play was originally called
The Aviators. I'm guessing you changed it because of the film.
How did you guess that? Beyond Gravity is a better title actually. Everybody
kept asking, "who's the aviator?" So this is more philosophical or something
like that... more interesting.
The play is really being marketed in a very vague way...
I know. It's because it's a complex play. I can't come up with one sentence
but I'll try. It's about an academic couple, it takes place in a college
that's nameless, in a house by the sea. They've been married for over
20 years and are facing a personal and professional crisis when a mysterious
young woman enters their lives.
The meaning of Beyond Gravity is that gravity is the force that holds
you down and going beyond gravity is somehow being able to life up above
that. Some things that happened in their past now explode and the way
the woman deals with it is through her imagination and the way the husband
deals with it is kind of through sarcasm and wit.
It's a play about marriage and that's a subject that I've come back
to again and again in a lot of my plays. Marriage is a basic thing and
I'm just very interested in that relationship; why some stay together
and some break apart. Some marriages that have a lot of challenges manage
to stay together. Like the Clintons and the Roosevelts for example. You
can name an awful lot of those and there's a lot of drama in that.
Is it more of a drama or a drama with comedic elements?
It's kind of a mixture. I'll be happy to have any laugh I can get! I
love to have laughter in the midst of a lot of angst.
How does the play run?
It's four scenes played without intermission.
This is the world premiere, right?
Yes, this is the world premiere. It's also going to be done at the Barter
Theatre in September to November. The Barter did my play, "The Second
Mrs. Wilson" which is about Woodrow Wilson and his second wife. That
play opened the week of September 11th. It was very strange because
a lot of the themes in that were very apt.
What does the set look like?
It's an interior. The play takes place in one room and there are elements
which keep it less than totally real. I like to do things where people
are using their imagination. I've never loved realism. And so I like
when the sets have a kind of abstractism to them.
In addition to plays, you have also written a few screenplays. How
do you find the difference between writing for film and for the stage?
I happen to love both. I love words, but I also love images.
Your plays have been produced all over the place, yet you hold the
traditional playwright's home in New York City. What are your thoughts
on regional theatre?
I think it's wonderful. I say this before everyone comes here, of course!
I feel protected. I feel nurtured certainly and the Barabas' are wonderful.
They just tenderly let every one of their plays grow. They will also
be doing a reading of my newest play, "Shakespeare Road" on May 2nd.
What would you like an audience member to leave with?
I hope they are able to both feel and to think. I hope they'll be moved.
I am! I'm always like, 'where's my Kleenez!' because the actors are
terrific and they get me every time. I know this play. I really know
the play, but they're marvelous and they make things very moving and
they make me laugh. I would like an audience to feel that way too. -- Gary Wien, Upstage Magazine
Who's Afraid of Ruth Wolff? (Not NJ Rep)
Published in the Asbury Park Press 04/6/05
By TOM CHESEK
PHOTO: ADENA STEVENS)
Ruth Wolff's "Beyond Gravity" is
being staged by the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long
"Everything you see before you is illusion," imparts poet and educator
Jan Hawkesworth (Gail Winar) to her history prof hubby Harry (Peter Brouwer)
at one point during "Beyond Gravity," the three-character drama by Ruth
Wolff now in its world premiere engagement at New Jersey Repertory Company's
Lumia Theatre in Long Branch.
Harry, for his part, peppers his conversation with reverie on "the
lies we perpetrate to burnish our image with our unperpetrated sins." Even
a supposedly neutral third party character (played by Ellen Wolf
with one "o") gets into the act, helpfully goading the middle-aged
academics to "play along . . . pretend!"
The esteemed playwright Wolff drops enough clues into her new script
(a single-act work that originally showed up on NJ Rep's schedule
under the title "Aviators") to drive home the fact that we are not
looking in on a simulacrum of "real life" here. The little beach-house
world that these characters inhabit is a fragile box propped up by
lies and delusions, caulked and insulated with hallucinatory episodes
and confessional monologues.
At face value, it's a setting straight out of the playwright's standard
playbook — the long-married professional couple, the skeletons in
the closet, the uninvited guest who serves to shake up their razor-thin
margin of comfort.
Wolff's "Beyond Gravity" seeks to soar free of the forces that serve
to pin most American dramas to the floorboards of "realism," with
enough materialized metaphors, stream-of-consciousness soliloquies
and puzzling plot points to keep the audience off-balance for the
duration of its relatively brief time on stage.
With the NJ Rep tech team doing its best to conjure the unseen world
beyond the fruit-crate walls of the (college-owned) house, the play
kicks off with an auditory illusion. It then moves immediately into
a bizarre sequence wherein wife Jan is mistakenly anointed the winner
of a Pulitzer Prize — an odd bit of business that is just as quickly
reversed and never discussed again.
It's the appearance of an intrepid freelance journalist named
Frederica — who slips Lois Lane-like into the house and hides behind
a screen as the old-timers make whoopee — that throws the weird
plot mechanism into drive. More a literary device than a fully-fleshed
character, Frederica serves to penetrate the veneer of domestic
bliss (and the hallucinatory haze of role-playing) that surround
the spouses; drawing out not just the secrets but the secrets within
the secrets — and revealing that she herself has a prominent personal
stake in the couple's past, present and future.
Oh, and then there's that obsession with Charles Lindbergh. It
would appear that the quasi-sane Jan lapses at times into a belief
that she is Anne Morrow Lindbergh — celebrating her famous husband's
solo success with a re-enactment of his famous flight, mourning
the loss of her kidnapped son and chastising her spouse for his
apparent support of the Nazi regime. Lucky Lindy is just one of
the forces pushing and tugging on the beleaguered little people
inside the box. There's the true nature of the reporter, as well
as the offstage visitor who arrives with her at play's end in a
beam of bright light.
There's also the alarmingly sudden appearance of a wrecking crew
outside that comes to forcibly evict the couple from the property
when they're unceremoniously canned from the faculty in a twist
that relates to one of those aforementioned nesting secrets. The
sequences having to do with the beach house under siege (and the
literalized demolition of their safe haven) are impressively staged
by tech director Randy Lee Hartwig, lighting designer Jill Nagle
and sound sultan Merek Royce Press.
The cast works hard under director Donald Brenner, but none more
so than Winar in her debut main stage production as a member of
the NJ Rep stock company. Winar generates genuine momentum and
lends flashes of levity to "Gravity," breaking down resistance
with her mastery over some purplish prose and oft-times ridiculous
A VIEW OF SUBURBIA
Published in the Asbury Park Press 04/3/05
By MARIE MABER
Paintings by Jill
Kerwick are on view at the New Jersey Repertory's
Dwek Theater in Long Branch.
ART AND THE ARTIST
Featuring paintings and prints by Jill Kerwick — Through
May 8; public reception at 4 p.m. today — The Dwek
Theater at New Jersey Repertory Company — 179 Broadway,
Long Branch — (732) 229-3166
IMAGINE COMING OUT
of a theater production and finding that themes from the play
are portrayed in original artworks displayed on the lobby wall.
Although not created by the playwright, they carry the play's
themes from inside the darkened theater into the light of day.
Instead of hushed silence, chit-chatting is encouraged, as
the audience processes its responses to both the play and the
artworks in a casual, public setting.
"The Art and The Artist" series is New Jersey Repertory Company's
way of honoring visual artists of all kinds. In addition to
embracing theater and the people that make it happen, a new
effort began with the last production to turn the more intimate
Dwek Theater, adjacent to the larger Lumia Theatre on Broadway
in Long Branch, into a permanent art gallery.
Artists are chosen to complement and reflect a specific production,
and their work is on display throughout the run of that individual
play. This is the theater's second collaboration with an artist
and features Fair Haven resident Jill Kerwick, an established
painter and printmaker.
The current play at NJ Rep, "Beyond Gravity" by Ruth Wolff,
focuses on the complex life and fallen dreams of a suburban
couple. Therefore, the theater has chosen to exhibit several
of Kerwick's paintings reflecting suburban life from an aerial
"I often feel like I have landed in suburbia, as if it were
an alien, fictitious, humorous, lonely and comforting place," she
Kerwick, originally from Hawthorne in Passaic County, has
taken views from the 17th floor of Monmouth Beach's Channel
Club to telescope the ordinary observance of local neighborhoods.
In keeping with the theme of a new perspective, Kerwick recently
has developed a far more distant view.
Since 2002, Kerwick has taken extended trips to Costa Rica
and has exchanged images of Jersey's track housing for one
of Costa Rican lusciousness- rich, full, green fruit trees,
fabulously colored birds, and nature in a raw, voluptuous state.
"It's a totally different perspective on life," Kerwick said. "Here
(in New Jersey) everybody watches the news — there you watch
the sunrise and the sunset."
Theatre Brut Festival explores art
unfettered by convention Second festival features 19 short plays this weekend at NJ Rep BY KATHY HALL
(above, foreground) and Betty Hudson (r) performed
in plays that were presented during NJ Rep's
first Theatre Brut Festival last year.
Gabor Barabas, executive producer of the New Jersey Repertory
Company in Long Branch, isn't content just to produce new plays.
His upcoming second annual Theatre Brut Festival encourages playwrights
to speak a new theatrical language and provides adventurous theatergoers
with the opportunity to see 19 short plays written by 16 different
playwrights, directed by 19 directors and performed by 45 actors
in just one weekend.
A different series of plays will be
presented each day of the three-day festival, which will take
place at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and at 2 p.m. Sunday in
the Dwek Studio Theatre at NJ Rep, 179 Broadway, Long Branch.
"It's a goal and a dream of the theater," he said. "We are
so involved in developing new works that try to explore and stretch
the boundaries of theater as an art form."
Barabas' motivation for creating the
festival grew out of his vision of theater as a vital social
His inspiration for its framework
came from the early 20th-century "outsider" art movement first described in 1923
by the German psychiatrist Hans Prinzhorn, who saw artistic
merit in paintings and drawings by untrained inmates in insane
asylums. Later Jean Dubuffet and the surrealists broadened
the idea of "outsider art" to include intuitive and original
works produced by anyone who worked free of normal cultural
influences. It was later renamed art brut (raw art).
to the NJ Rep Web site, Theatre Brut celebrates "the creative
impulse unfettered by social and artistic convention."
year, the first Theatre Brut Festival titled "My Rifle, My
Pony and Me" explored the myth of the American cowboy.
Despite taking place during a major snowstorm, the event
sold out all three days.
One of last year's plays went
on to be selected as a finalist at the Humana Festival
in Louisville, one of the largest festivals of new
plays in the country. Another was expanded into a full-length
work that was given a reading at NJ Rep.
More than 250 submissions
were received for this year's festival, which is
organized around the idea of "sacrifice."
want to get new playwrights involved and get them to do something
they wouldn't automatically think about by encouraging them
to focus on a specific topic and use that topic as a catalyst
to get them to think outside the box and explore," said
NJ Rep's artistic director SuzAnne Barabas.
is up to the individual director almost as if
it is self-produced. It's all about trusting the raw
theater aspect of it," she
"We want to get away from traditional ideas, do something
quickly, creatively, get the ideas out there without resorting
to old tricks," she added.
The festival also showcases NJ Rep's
"Part of it is to give a lot of our company
members, designers, actors and directors an opportunity to
show their talent," she explained.
SuzAnne Barabas thinks the
fast-paced experience is something the
audience will enjoy.
you hear the word sacrifice you have a certain image, but then
you see all the different interpretations. It's amazing. Sometimes
we would read a play and say, 'We really like this,
but what does it have to do with sacrifice?' Then
we'd find it. I think it's something the audience
will enjoy trying to figure out as well.
drama, theater of the absurd, and everything in between. We
are calling it a smorgasbord of raw theater," she continued. "You
go quickly from one thing to another and you see how creative
and inventive people can be on a single theme and all the different
ideas that come up. It's an experience, especially if you see
all of the plays."
member Ian August, a graduate of Rutgers with a degree in English,
has two plays in this year's festival. Although he has written
longer pieces, August enjoys writing within the limitations
of a 10-minute time frame.
minutes is exciting, refreshing. I find that the 10-minute
piece is just long enough to express an idea creatively and
still keep it contained," he
play "Le Supermarche or What I Did for Lunch" was the first
one selected for this year's festival.
"It's a fairy tale in
food speak, a lovely little revenge story with constant food
references," he said. "I had never had anything produced professionally
before. I was so pumped I went home and wrote 'Abraham on the
Mount' and submitted it two weeks later."
play, which takes place the
week before the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac, also made
the cut. The work features Abraham and a "Bugs Bunnyesque" goat. August describes the
piece as a cross between "a
vaudeville sketch and a Warner
will play the goat. The part of Abraham is played by Mike Foley,
one of NJ Rep's playwrights in residence, who had two pieces
in last year's festival.
a Middletown native,
studied acting at Rutgers and at the HB studio in New York
and performed professionally as an actor for eight to 10 years
before starting to write plays.
He has participated in many
short play festivals but thinks that Theatre Brut is special.
"Other festivals have a theme, but Gabe and
SuZanne always do something that means something to them," he
said. "NJ Rep is a very
very inventive. They
have such a broad group
of actors and writers
and people love them
[the Barabases], so they
do their best work for
them. Everybody brings
a lot of themselves to
playwright, Foley understands the pros and cons of a festival
that presents "raw work."
a double-edged thing. In some ways it's nice to write a short
play quickly and see it go up fast. You get gratification quickly.
That's good. The other side is, it's hard to write a good 10-minute
play. You have to be so succinct, establish your conflicts
and characters quickly, get to the resolution and get off," he
He thinks the variety
of pieces is
important to the audience's enjoyment.
the weather," he said. "If you don't like something, wait 10
minutes — another
one will come
you might love."
the festival's role in helping playwrights hone their skills,
company member Brian O'Halloran, who starred in Kevin Smith's "Clerks," is
enthusiastic about the opportunity to attract new theater audiences.
an actor, live theater is my favorite medium, and something
I've always gravitated to," he said. "Taking
in two of the festival's more dramatic works, "Trouble
on the Path" with Bob Senkewicz and "Sara" with
"If you can only see one theater experience
this season, this is what you should see," he said. "It's like
seeing an entire season of a theater company wrapped up in
Asbury Park Press 2/18/05 Tom Chesek
The smell of Brut
This correspondent called it the Shore area's "theatrical event
of the year" for 2004 — a three-evening festival of short dramas,
comedies, sketches, monologues and all-around madness that pooled
the talents of a staggering number of actors, directors and playwrights
from around the region, built around the theme of the American
cowboy and presented to full houses (on some very icy midweek nights)
under the umbrella title "My Rifle, My Pony and Me." The event,
produced by New Jersey Repertory Company as an experiment in what
founder Gabor Barabas has branded Theater Brut or "outsider theater" (check
the Website at njrep.org for a mission statement/manifesto on
the concept) would have remained encapsulated as a happy memory
were it not for that unmistakable whiff of Brut in the air today.
Yep, Theater Brut returns to NJ Rep's Lumia Theatre in Long Branch on the nights
of March 4, 5 and 6 — that's a weekend engagement this time out; and if you've
ever wanted to dip a tentative toe into the more adventurous waters of the
area stage scene, this smorgasbord looks to be the perfect point of entry.
Built around the concept of "Sacrifice" — a theme that resonates within settings
from biblical days to the baseball diamond — the tri-night series will feature
some 19 new works from such scribes as Dickey Nesenger (whose liltingly surreal "Harvest
Moon" was a particular highlight of last year's fest), Joel Gross and Vladimir
Zelevinsky; with writing contributions also coming from Ian August and Barney
Fitzpatrick, a pair of familiar onstage faces at the Lumia. Cast members have
yet to be announced, but with so many talents on display, the seats are sure
to fill up fast with friends and family — reserve your place at the table now
by calling (732) 229-3166.
This review by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the January
26, 2005 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
NJ Rep: 'Touch of Rapture'
At the opening of "Touch of Rapture," a new play by Mary
Fengar Gale, Clovis Myrtle Minton, a reclusive sculptress,
is dying. She asks her husband Quince Dillingham, a patron
of the arts and the proprietor of the prominent Shallots
Gallery in the West End of London, "Will you take my hands?" At
first, Quince assumes that Clovis is merely requesting that
he hold and caress her hands in her final moments. But then,
just as his wife dies, something miraculous happens. To Quincy's
amazement, he is suddenly filled with the urge to not only
begin sculpting, but to continue working on a series of figurative
statues of mythological goddesses begun by his wife, whose
work has never been shown. For reasons that the play later
explores, Quince has kept Clovis' work under wraps.
Working under a pseudonym, Quincy is soon displaying and
promoting the sale of the goddesses in his gallery. Running
a business and sculpting round the clock like a man possessed,
Quincy is near exhaustion. The new sculptures, however, are
recognized as the work of Clovis by her elder brother and
barrister Garlin Mandrake Minton. He accuses Quince of hiding
from him his sister's most recent work, all of which was
supposedly left to him in her will. It is not surprising
that Quince's explanation does not satisfy Garlin, who feels
that Quince is trying to deny his sister her glory and cheat
him out of an inheritance. Garlin is dumbfounded when Quince
demonstrates that he has, in fact, somewhat miraculously
gained the ability to draw in the exact style of Clovis.
Quincy, who believes that a dealer who exhibits the work
of his wife would be perceived as nepotistic, convinces Garlin
that they should form a partnership to exploit the sculptures,
which are sure to be very valuable. Things get even more
strange and unsettling when Clovis' talent is transferred
to Garlin, and then transferred to Rosemary, Clovis' frumpish
Under the facile direction of Stewart M. Schulman, "Touch
of Rapture" which seems at first like a barrage of silly
chatter and absurd situations evolves into a rather sweet
and gentle allegory about gender and the rules of the game.
Just know that when Garlin and Quincy decide to bring Rosemary
into their scheme to pose as the artist at public appearances,
the play begins to assert itself with whimsical twists and
turns. The play takes an audacious approach to its theme
- the circuitous route to recognition and empowerment that
women strive for in a world where men either provide the
way or put up the roadblocks.
John Fitzgibbon, as the smug motor-mouthed Quince, rattles
off his dialogue faster than the patter of Gilbert and Sullivan's
modern major general. Davis Hall is increasingly amusing as
Garlin, a closeted prig. Probably the most interesting turnabout
is offered by Marnie Andrews, as the earthy Rosemary. Her transformation
from an unappreciated and unmotivated woman to a graceful artist
allows for a change in the balance of power, providing the
play with its most affecting resonance.
Designer Carrie Mossman's stylized setting (cleanly lighted
by Jeff Greenberg) brings us from a bedroom and parlor at
the estate of Fennfield in Hampstead Heath to Shallots Gallery
with rotating white panels, some sculptured figures, and
a few chairs and tables. Despite frequent lapses into verbosity, "Touch
of Rapture," ultimately wins us over through the sheer playfulness
of its fantastical plot.
Touch of Rapture
Artistic talent is tricky. Is it innate or
the province of critics? And if you possess it, is it a blessing
or a curse? Touch of Rapture delves into the meaning
of art — with a catch. The breezy drama, now playing at the
New Jersey Rep Company, a little jewel box of a theater in
Long Branch, addresses both the nature of art and the reality
of women artists. The playwright, Mary Fengar Gail, understands
that men dominate the art world. Women's achievements, long
relegated to second-class status, demand attention. But
as this zippy production makes abundantly clear, misogyny
prevents it. Until providence intervenes.
a dying sculptor whispers a simple phrase to her husband: "Will
you take my hands?" He does and in one transcendent moment,
her remarkable talent becomes his — setting off a stunning
chain of events. Suddenly, Quince (John FitzGibbon), a successful
gallery owner, has an awakening: His long-neglected wife,
who crafted large, exquisite goddess sculptures, was supremely
talented. How does he know? Because he can duplicate her
artistry. Once he has the power to create, the work
is bestowed with meaning, beauty, and most importantly, it
will sell. In a nod to Pgymalion, Gail gives
the sculptures, a living quality, a touchable quality, that
proves seductive and irresistible. Art, she explains, is
a living, breathing entity. Women birth; men take.
while Clovis, Quince's deceased wife, gets short shrift in
life, she's a marketable commodity in death. Trouble is,
the public likes to celebrate live artists. So Quince and
Clovis' staid barrister brother, Garlin (Davis Hall), concoct
a clever scheme: In fairness, Garlin, a sincere booster of
his sister's work, is appalled by Quince's chicanery. Unlike
Quince, he realizes women artists haven't received their
due. The siren call of commerce, however, proves too hard
Rosemary (Marnie Andrews), Clovis' kooky, albeit literate
cousin, who smokes cigars and worships literature. She's
wacky and wonderful and recognized Clovis' genius long ago.
Unfettered by sexism, she sees art, not gender. But can the
two men pass her off as the real thing? More pointedly,
which of the three has the right to inherit Clovis' gift?
possession and the nature of creation are just two of the
heady themes Rapture confronts. Yet the play isn't
didactic, thanks to the deft, fluid direction of Stewart
Schulman, who wisely keeps the action moving, and Gail's
clever storytelling. Schulman uses the small stage to good
effect; his talented ensemble inhabit their roles so completely,
audiences fall in love with the notion of artistic creation.
Strip away the gallery politics, the greed, the critics and
the hype, and what's left is magical. Gail reminds us that
art is a calling. And we are all humbled before it. —Fern
The LINK News January
"TOUCH OF RAPTURE" IS
By Milt Bernstein
- Saturday night saw the world premiere production
of New Jersey Rep's newest dramatic offering, a play called "Touch
of Rapture," written by a promising young playwright,
Mary Fengar Gail.
play, done with one partly movable set, is an interesting combination
of drama and fantasy, with some comic touches, about a gifted
sculptress, Clovis, whose plaster creations of nymphs and goddesses
adorn the paneled walls of her home - but whose art gallery
owner husband has never seen fit to exhibit her work. (Perhaps
he didn't think they were good enough.)
In any event, the play
begins with Clovis on her deathbed, mysteriously managing to
pass her sculpting gift, through a holding of hands, to a disbelieving
spouse. Quince (his name) is both transformed and seduced by
this cloning of artistic gifts; but convinces the reluctant
Garlin, a friend and supporter of his late wife, that someone
still living (like Garlin) should take credit for the works
to be shown.
Before the action has
stopped, the mysterious gift has passed from Quince to Garlin
and eventually to the female in the cast, Rosemary, the cousin
of Clovis, (for whom the gift may have originally been intended.)
The play, ably directed
by Stewart Schulman, features fine performances by John FitzGibbon
as husband Quince, Davis Hall as friend Garlin; and Marnie
Andrews, as cousin Rosemary, who undergoes a transformation
from a dowdy and frowsy persona in Act I to a radiance in Act
II that put me in mind of Eliza Doolittle in "My Fair Lady."
The opening night performance
was followed by a gala reception for the audience and company,
generously provided by the Ocean Place Resort and Spa.
A fascinating addition
to the evening was also provided in the Dwek theater space
where the reception was held, with a display of sculptured
bronzes by the Israeli-American artisti Benjamin Levy. The
sculptures, all for sale, will be on view through Feb 20, and
are well worth seeing.
"Touch of Rapture" is
also very much worth seeing.
Review: Touch Of Rapture
(LONG BRANCH) -- It takes
imagination to lie. So says one of the characters in Touch
Of Rapture, the latest production from New Jersey Repertory
Company. In this wonderfully creative comic-drama imagination
and lies truly run wild.
The play starts with a
London artist (Clovis) dying in her bed asking her husband
(John Fitzgibbon as Quince) to "take her hands". Little does
he know that she was about to pass on her gifts as a sculptor
to him. Quince was the owner of an important art gallery,
but had no artistic talent before suddenly having his "hands" guide
him through the process. Essentially, he became able to
make sculptures that were virtually identical to those
by his late wife.
Unfortunately, his brother-in-law (Davis Hall
as Garlin) learned of the sculptures and thought Quince was
trying to rip him off by hiding sculptures that were given
to him from her will. Garlin is first seen bringing Quince
a notice that he is being sued. Quince does his best to
convince him that he created the sculptures but Garlin doesn't
buy it. Finally Quince gets him to pose very quickly while
Garlin sketches his portrait. Knowing that Garlin had no artistic
talent before he is intrigued by the wonderful sketch drawn.
Garlin is convinced that Quince is the sculptor but still
refuses to believe that his sister passed on her hands
and her gift to him. The two agree to go into business together
selling her sculptures and those he had created as well.
Since she was a virtual unknown artist who specialized
in sculpting goddesses, and since none of her sculptures had
sold while she was alive, it was up to Quince to use his
gallery to drum up attention for her work. The only question
left was what would they do when people eventually wanted
to see the artist?
They decided they needed
someone to play the role of the sculptor and they agreed
that it had to be a woman. Garlin suggested Clovis' cousin
Rosemary, an un-employed "hag" of
a woman; unkempt and the farthest thing from what one would
expect an artist to look like. As she herself remarks, "who
would ever believe such beautiful sculptures were created
It's after the introduction of Rosemary that
the zaniness and comedy really kick in. All three actors are
simply wonderful in their roles and the chemistry is
perfect. As the play moves on, the laughs seem to come more
and more often and the jokes get stronger and stronger.
play is actually a brilliant display of character development.
As the audience learns more about each character, they
become more and more comfortable to peer into the fantastical
world created by playwright Mary Fengar Gail. It's
a world in which anything can happen including passing the
gift of artistry from person to person and a woman can literally
go from being an overweight woman who smells like cabbage
to one of the world's most important artists.
of Rapture reminds me somewhat of the off-Broadway classic
Prelude To A Kiss by Craig Lucas; however, Mary Fengar Gail
seems to have created a better (and far more believable)
plot line than Lucas. Although this world is clearly fantastical,
it's highly believable as well, especially when considering
that no one truly knows how great artists receive
Touch of Rapture runs until February 20th
at the Lumia Theatre in Long Branch (179 Broadway). In
addition, the theatre's lobby is currently showing an exhibit
featuring bronze statues by Israeli-American sculptor Benjamin
Levy. These are not your ordinary sculptures I can assure
you. Some will make you laugh and even blush! --
Interview with Playwright Mary Fengar Gail
Q) What do you think
Touch of Rapture is about?
I think it's about love and loss. It's the idea of possessing a
gift and passing it on. I've actually have always been fascinated
by genetics and the idea that people will be customizing their
babies and someday they may find the genetic marker for gifts such
as being a musician or a painter or mathematician; someone's destiny
will be completely figured out for them before they're even born.
So I thought, what if a gift could be passed through shear will?
And that's the impetus of the play. Also there's a red cloth that
goes from scene to scene and it's about how we perceive an object.
They've discovered that the person perceiving the object actually
affects the object at a subatomic level. All of these ideas coalesced
in my mind - my demented mind - and became this play.
Q) Was there a particular reason that you have the play set
Well, one of the characteristics of the English people is eccentricity,
so I thought it would be more fun to have it take place there.
There's also a big sculpture movement in England; a very active
art world. And I'm allowed a lot more liberties with regards
to language. I can use words like bullocks. It's a wonderful
language that I couldn't use if it took place in New York.
The other thing I like is a heightened passion that takes me
to unfamiliar worlds. If the characters have English accents
and a kind of slanted speech it asks the audience to listen in
a different way. And maybe they'll enter the whole fantastical
world... Or maybe they'll resist but it's more fun for me.
Q) The laughs in Touch Of Rapture seem to grow larger as
the play moves on.
I think people need to get comfortable with the play and each
other and give themselves permission to laugh. It is a comic
Q) The play is very much based in fantasy but plot driven
Aristotle said the essence of drama is story and I think he means
plot. I have to admit I do love plot. Look at the shows on tv
that are successful - shows like Law & Order - and they're
plot driven. So, because I love story I do put the story element
in my plays. And sometimes it takes me a long time to figure
out what the story exactly is but the characters are clear and
they help write the story.
I'm just grateful when anybody agrees to my run with my perversions.
I don't think I write in the normal, more conventional-linear-sequential-domestic-realism
style. I prefer a more fantastical theatre and not everyone's
willing to enter my demented world. -- Gary Wien
A Look Inside The Set With Carrie Mossman
Every now and then when people
leave the theatre the design of the stage is on their mind. That was the
case after the opening night of New Jersey Rep's production of Touch of
Rapture. As the groups gathered to talk about the play, the production's
sparse yet effective set design came up often in conversation. Set design
is something that often gets overlooked, but set design is a very important
part of each production. Upstage decided to talk with Carrie Mossman, the
designer for this production to get her feelings on the set, and the role
of set designers in general. Her answers were a bit surprising...
Q) Tell me a little about your work with Touch of Rapture. You not
only designed the set but helped create the sculptures on stage as
It was very interesting. The thing about the script is that they
talk about the sculptures being so magnificent and so overwhelming
that there was a concern at first whether or not we would be able
to create something that would still make you feel that. Honestly
the set that you see is quite different from my original idea. The
director and I originally talked about an idea of having the walls
actually being a stretchable fabric with the sculptures being living
people pushing through the back of the fabric because they talk about
the sculptures being alive. But, as it turned out it was going to
be much more difficult to do in a small space. So the sculptures
sort of come out of the wall. It's not a sculpture that you can walk
around. It's not a 3-D sculpture and yet, at the same time, it is
3-D because it's coming out and you can physically touch it and it's
Q) What is the goal of a set designer?
The truth is that designing a set is really a glorified way of designing
entrances and exits. My job is to help the flow of the action of the
play; to move the actors on and off stage in the best and easiest and
most interesting way possible. But if it doesn't serve the play and
if what I do upstages what they do then I haven't done my job. It's
not about my set. It's about the play and what's going on between the
actors. The best thing I can do is serve that in a way that helps it
and moves it along. I don't think you go into set design to be a star;
you go into it because it's a collaborative process. There are many
Broadway set designers who want to shine, but I don't agree with that. --
NJ Rep to host art exhibit
LONG BRANCH — The art of internationally renowned sculptor
Benjamin Levy will be on view at the New Jersey Repertory Co. Jan. 13
though Feb. 20. A special reception for the artist will be held on Sunday,
Jan. 16 from 5:30-8:30 pm.
The exhibit will coincide with the world premiere of "Touch
of Rapture" by Mary Fengar Gail, a play that celebrates the love
of art. The exhibit will feature Levy's bronze sculptures.
reception are recommended. Gallery hours are Thursdays, Fridays,
Saturdays 5:30-7:30 pm, Sundays 11:30-1:30 p.m., and by appointment.
Levy, an Israeli/American artist originally from Tel-Aviv,
Israel, has had over 100 one-man exhibitions in museums and galleries
around the world, as well as 500 group exhibits.
The theatre needs more people like
Dan Lauria. He's best known for his role as the father on TV's "The Wonder
Years", but, in addition to his work in television and movies, he's a
true champion of the theatre. More importantly, he's a true champion
of new theatre.
Dan will be making his return to the George Street Playhouse stage this
January for Lee Blessing's new production, The Winning Streak. In the
play, he portrays a retired major league umpire who lives near a ballpark.
His world is shaken up a bit with the introduction of his son, the byproduct
of a one-night stand that happened roughly 30 years ago.
The play takes you inside a father-son relationship that's never existed
and may never get off the ground. As with most plays by Lee Blessing,
there are comedic moments, bitter-sweet moments, and harsh doses of honesty
making for a highly enjoyable story.Dan Lauria's return to George Street
was largely due to Lee Blessing. For 10 years, he ran a writing program
in Los Angeles where they read a new play every Monday night. The idea
was to help writers get literary agents. One of the writers they read
each year was Blessing.
"It's always the writing that attracts me," explained Dan Lauria. "I
was supposed to go back to L.A. for pilot season right after the first
of January and Lee called and said, 'hey, I've got a new one' so I said
let's go. It's a crime that we have so many good new writers that can't
Lauria knows a thing or two about getting new work produced. As an actor
that has performed in theatres from coast to coast, Lauria is adamant
about only acting in new productions.
"I don't do plays by dead white guys," said Lauria. "I've only done
one revival in 17 years. Jack Klugman made me do The Price. He only got
me to do it because he said Arthur Miller's not dead yet! But that's
the only revival I've done."
When Lauria talks about theatre, you hear a passion in his voice that
yearns to see theatre reclaim its place in the entertainment world. He
mentions places like Seattle and Chicago, but admits that there isn't
any one true spot for new works anymore. And he's seen the changes happen
"Even 15 years ago, 50 regional theatres would all do a new play that
was not done anywhere else," he explained. "Now five or six theatres
will do a new play. One will make a little noise and the other 45 theatres
will do that play and say it's a new play. This year it's Richard Dresser's
Rounding Third; a couple of years ago it was Marc St. Germain's Camping
With Henry and Tom. The Laramie Project must have been done in 50 regional
theatres and every one said it was a new play. But it wasn't new, it
was new the first time it did it.
So, we don't have regional theatres now trying to discover the new writer
and get to New York. We have somebody in New York who will put up a play
and make a little noise and then that play is done as the new play for
the regional theatre. And you wonder why the audience is getting older
and older when you don't bring kids in. Well, we don't do plays by younger
Lauria believes that there are two main reasons why the theatre has
failed to attract younger audiences. One is that the young group of actors
coming up now don't feel the need for theatre. The other is that theatre
itself has simply gotten too expensive.
"When I started, we got a few dollars together, went into a basement,
built a set, put on a new play and hoped that agents would come and see
us," recalled Lauria. "We knew that no agents were going to come see
another revival or something, so we were always looking for something
new that would make a little noise. If you talk to people like Gary Sinise
at Steppenwolf it was always young people looking for young writers and
that's what started a group off. But nowadays, it's too expensive to
do a showcase. For the same amount of money you can go to a Radio Shack,
buy a digital camera and shoot a 20-minute movie that the actors have
to show agents forever. So, we have a core of young actors who don't
have a theatre background and feel no obligation to the theatre; therefore,
they don't go back. See, I blame my fellow actors for the demise. Moreso
than critics. Because if these young stars would go back to the theatre
with new plays, it would build a whole new audience. I did a play with
Fred Savage (The Wonder Years) about 7 years ago. It was his first professional
play and we played Westport, Cape Cod and Algonquin, Maine and we sold
out every night."
Lauria wishes that there was one major regional theatre close enough
to New York City that it would attract the stars on a regular basis.
The theatre would be committed to developing new works. Critics would
be encouraged to come to only the last night so the plays would not be
about success or failure but development. He feels that stars would feel
safer going there if the critical pressure was removed.
In the Upstage coverage area, Lauria is encouraged by the work of George
Street Playhouse (although he keeps pressing David Saint to add more
premieres each season) and the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.
Lauria has known Gabor Barabas, NJ Rep's Executive Producer, for quite
"I wish Gabe was the Artistic Director of a major theatre," said Lauria. "See,
he only does new plays. And he went from two-week runs to three-week
runs and now they're up to four-week runs. He's built an audience. You
cannot pick a style because every style is done there. They do abstract
plays, realistic plays - but they do new plays. And his audiences are
young and old.
"I think it's a terrible thing to assume that the old people only want
to see old plays," he continued. "One old fan told me, 'I was there when
Willy Loman first walked on the stage. I was there when Blanche first
walked on the stage. What makes you think I don't want to see a new Willy
Loman or a new Blanche?' I think it's so insulting to assume that they're
only going to see Kiss Me Kate."
You can see Dan Lauria in action during this month's run of The Winning
Streak at the George Street Playhouse. After the run is over, Lauria
will probably be seen in some television shows or maybe a film or two.
His passion is the theatre, but the other mediums help financially to
keep his passion alive. His work on The Wonder Years will always follow
him wherever he goes, but he says that he regards it as a blessing.
"They wouldn't be considering me for these regional theatres if I didn't
have some kind of name. John Ritter always said the same thing and he
was right. He said start worrying when they stop bothering you about
The Wonder Years. That's when you're in trouble..." -- Gary Wien
Review: A charming 'Touch of Rapture' in Long Branch
Published in the Asbury Park Press 1/19/05
By TOM CHESEK
'Take my hands," the dying artist pleads from her deathbed, meshing
her fingers with those of her husband as the last bit of strength ebbs
from her earthly vessel. And in those moments a miracle transpires,
as the woman's gift of creation passes from her hands to those of her
spouse -- endowing the worldly-minded man with a newly-minted passion
to create, and a newfound appreciation for the spirituality of art.
TOUCH OF RAPTURE
New Jersey Repertory Company Lumia Theatre
179 Broadway, Long Branch
Through Feb. 20
It all comes off sounding more than a little bit precious, but if we
learn anything from "Touch of Rapture" -- the play now in its world-premiere
engagement at New Jersey Repertory Company's Lumia Theatre in Long Branch
-- it's that an idea really only comes together when it's in the right
set of hands. Fortunately, the key-stroking digits of playwright Mary
Fengar Gail seem to be the right hands for the task; putting a playful
stamp on a potentially ponderous premise (and avoiding the scenario of
artists who are so intoxicated with the act of creating art that they
fall out of synch with their stone-cold-sober audience).
Played out on one of Carrie Mossman's characteristically inventive shadowbox
set designs for this economically-scaled stage, "Touch" opens with just-widowed
gallery owner Quince (John FitzGibbon) working feverishly to continue a series
of plaster goddess figures initiated by his late wife Clovis -- a body of work
that has the artist's barrister brother Garlin (Davis Hall) accusing the art
dealer of secretly warehousing pieces that should rightfully have been willed
to him. Quince manages to convince his erstwhile in-law that a miraculous and
supernatural process has indeed taken place, and -- still very much the businessman
in mind and soul -- hatches a scheme to keep supplying the art-buying public
with fresh product in the Clovis style; transforming the uptight attorney into
a one-man production line by (rather forcibly) transferring the sculptor's
gift to him.
What the two partners require is a public face to play the part of the sculptress
at all of the anticipated art-world events, and they find it (more or less)
in the person of Clovis's unemployed cousin Rosemary (Marnie Andrews), a self-described "frumpy
old bubbler" who smells like sauerkraut and has split ends on her split ends.
While something of a familial resemblance exists (Andrews also has a cameo
as Clovis at the outset of the show), the attempt to place the well-read but
socially-challenged Rosemary as the purported star of a one-woman show is not
exactly a resounding success at first (witness her pigging out at the gallery
buffet and the attendant consequences).
aving introduced these farcical elements, however, the playwright shifts direction
as Rosemary grows ever more comfortable in the spotlight, and makes an unexpected
request: that she herself become the logical custodian of "The Hands"; insisting
even that her deceased cousin would have wanted it that way (the "unseen" character
Clovis is a magical being indeed, communicating with the others via direct contact
with her plaster creations). Naturally, each of the three cohorts has their own
design upon the gift -- a source of conflict that's further complicated by some
tricky interpersonal dynamics among the principals.
Under the direction of Stewart M. Schulman (who helmed a very satisfying script-in-hand
presentation of Mark Dunn's "Dix Tableaux" here last summer), the three cast
members -- all of them veterans of major turns in previous NJ Rep productions
-- work together like the stock-company pros they very well are. And why not;
the same players originated their respective roles in a tryout reading of Gail's
text last February -- making "Rapture" merely the latest of the company's 'raw'
productions to be successfully developed as a mainstage offering.
The story's fanciful conceit aside, the actors manage to make the most of
the situation even when the last remaining dollop of logic goes missing. While
the script has as many unresolved ends as Rosemary's frizzle-fried 'do (more
than one audience member brought up the question of why a stand-in would be
required for an artist who labored largely in anonymity), the fact that this
American author's action is set in the British art world is a puzzlement, when
the search-and-destroy of the New York scene would have filled the bill quite
nicely. This requires the stars to affect put-on accents, with FitzGibbon having
particular fun oozing his plummy baritone around some drolly drawling put-downs
-- as when he describes Rosemary's "purple trowel of a tongue," or legs that
conjure "pills of gorgonzola."
The route between points A and B is dotted with other off-ramps best left
unexplored (an undercurrent about the transcendent powers of the Goddess seems
almost a parody of old-school feminist writing), but suffice to say that this
ultimately charming little play ends happily, pleasingly and in an economical
time frame. Continuing Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings (plus Sunday
matinees) through Feb. 20, "Touch of Rapture" is paired with a concurrent exhibit
of whimsical bronze statues by Israeli-American sculptor Benjamin Levy. For
information about both events, call (732) 229-3166.
By Simon Saltzman:
Marnie Andrews, John Fitzgibbon,
At the opening of "Touch of Rapture," a
new play by Mary Fengar Gale, Clovis Myrtle Minton, a reclusive
sculptress, is dying. She asks her husband Quince Dillingham,
a patron of the arts and the proprietor of the prominent
Shallots Gallery in the West End of London, "Will you take
my hands?" At first, Quince assumes that Clovis is merely
requesting that he hold and caress her hands in her final
moments. But then, just as his wife dies, something miraculous
happens. To Quincy's amazement, he is suddenly filled with
the urge to not only begin sculpting, but to continue working
on a series of figurative statues of mythological goddesses
begun by his wife, whose work has never been shown. For
reasons that the play later explores, Quince has kept Clovis'
work under wraps.
Working under a pseudonym, Quincy
is soon displaying and promoting the sale of the goddesses
in his gallery. Running a business and sculpting round
the clock like a man possessed, Quincy is near exhaustion.
The new sculptures, however, are recognized as the work
of Clovis by her elder brother and barrister Garlin Mandrake
Minton. He accuses Quince of hiding from him his sister's
most recent work, all of which was supposedly left to him
in her will. It is not surprising that Quince's explanation
does not satisfy Garlin, who feels that Quince is trying
to deny his sister her glory and cheat him out of an inheritance.
Garlin is dumbfounded when Quince demonstrates that he
has, in fact, gained the ability to draw in the exact style
Quincy, who believed that a dealer
who exhibits the work of his wife would be perceived as
nepotistic, convinces Garlin that they should form a partnership
to exploit the sculptures, which are sure to be very valuable.
Things get even more strange and unsettling when Clovis'
talent is transferred to Garlin, and then to…
Under the facile direction of
Stewart M. Schulman, "Touch of Rapture" initially gives
one the impression that it is propelled by a superficial
glibness that strives to summon up the ghost of Oscar Wilde
(unfortunately without his wit). Within what seems at first
like a barrage of chatter and absurdities, emerges a rather
sweet and gentle, rather fantastical, allegory about the
genders and the rules of the game.
Just know that when Garlin and
Quincy decide to bring Clovis' frumpish cousin Rosemary
into their scheme to pose as the artist at public appearances.
Ms. Gail's play begins to assert itself as a whimsical
allegory. Although I'm not familiar with any of Gail's
plays that include such curious titles as "Drink Me," "Fuchsia," and "Carnivals
of Desire," this play takes an audacious approach to it
theme: the circuitous route to recognition and empowerment
that women must take and their relationship with the men
who unwittingly provide the way or put up the roadblocks.
It isn't clear to me why the playwright
thought it necessary to set the play in London and its
players so veddy veddy British. But John Fitzgibbon, as
the smug and condescending motor-mouthed Quince, rattles
off his dialogue faster than one would expect the patter
from Gilbert and Sullivan's modern major general. Davis
Hall is increasingly amusing, as Garlin, a closeted prig
who not only inherits for a time Clovis' talent but her
sexual interest in Quince. Probably the most interesting
turnabout is offered by Marnie Andrews, as the earthy Rosemary.
Her transformation from an unappreciated and unmotivated
(except when it comes to eating) woman to a graceful and
energized artist enabled to change the balance of power
provides the play with its most affecting resonance. Despite
frequent lapses into verbosity, "Touch of Rapture," ultimately
wins us over through the sheer force of its fantastical
Designer Carrie Mossman's stylized
setting (cleanly lighted by Jeff Greenberg) brings us from
a bedroom and parlor at the estate of Fennfield in Hampstead
Heath, to Shallots Gallery with rotating white panels,
some sculptured figures, and a few chairs and tables.
"Touch of Rapture" (January
15 th – February 20th)
Touch of Rapture Roars Through NJ Rep's
Leaving Everyone Satiated (A Restore Radio Review)
"People can't pass along
talent like a tray of salami" -- or can they?
That tantalizing question
forms the basis for Mary Fengar Gail's witty, sophisticated farce,
set appropriately in a country manor house just outside London. Gail's
choice of locale affords her the right to take more than a few hilarious
jabs at the eccentric Brits with her sharp tongue: Referring to barristers
as having the usual attractions "to torts and tarts" and Cambridge
spawning "fruiters". Think of your first British movie, the one that
had you rolling over the inside jokes. Then add a generous dollop
of delicious bawdiness and unapologetic lust. The latter by the way
is perfectly matched, by the Rep's new Assistant Stage Manager and
PR person Lily Mercer, with sculptor Benjamin Levy's charmingly zaftig
ladies in bronze. His exhibit opened officially today (Jan.16).
The acting team of Marnie
Andrews, as the wonderfully self-indulgent (zaftig) cousin Rosemary,
John FitzGibbon as the widower Quince, and Davis Hall as Garlin,
the sexually uncertain brother-in-law with a hopelessly pathetic
crush on Quince, are flawlessly directed by Stewart M. Schulman.
All are superb. Kudos to them for not overplaying their excellent
and varied accents and for squeezing every drop of caustic wit from
Gail's rapid-fire dialogue.
Schulman must be commended
for his creative bag of tricks. When Rosemary achieves sudden fame,
Schulman handles the media frenzy, despite his tiny working room,
by flashing a square box of light on her from the waist up. Bingo,
we?re watching her live on TV and then in video recorded form, sound
on, sound off, freeze frame, smooth as a remote control, all through
the magic of expert direction and fantastic timing on the part of
Andrews and FitzGibbon. And, a lesser actor might have turned the
crestfallen Garlin into a creepy sap. But Hall plays this character
with the depth and sensitivity of a Leslie Howard, while handling
the comedic elements with equal success.
Rather than give more away,
watch how Gail handles the obvious temptation to go down a Pygmalionesque
path. This play is a box of chocolates without the calories. Indulge!!
Maureen Nevin, Host