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Press Articles 2008-2010

A small theater with a big mission

New works launched on NJ Rep stage
BY ANDREW DAVISON Staff Writer, Atlanticville

LONG BRANCH — A small theater on lower Broadway, the New Jersey Repertory Company (NJ Rep), continues to bring small plays with big ideas to a wide audience.

The company’s latest production, “Puma,” a play about the romance between Hollywood icon Marlene Dietrich and author Erich Maria Remarque by Julie Gilbert and Frank Evans, will have its world premiere at NJ Rep’s Lumia Theatre on Feb. 24.Producing world premiere plays is at the core of NJ Rep’s mission, according to Executive Producer Gabor Barabas.“We started a professional theater whose mission is to develop and produce new plays,” Barabas said.Every popular classic began its run as an original, unknown play.“If there were no theaters that focus primarily on new plays, then sooner or later the American theater would get anemic and begin to wither,” he said.

The company receives 750 domestic and international script submissions every year, according to Barabas.He and his team sort through these submissions and select six plays for full production and 25 plays for developmental readings, he explained.The chosen productions are extremely eclectic, Barabas said, and the team ultimately chooses whatever speaks to them.“We don’t adhere to any genre or any specific type of play,” he said, adding that the company has performed everything from dark comedies to musicals, the surreal to the straightforward.“We like plays that have big ideas or are breaking ground in some way.”

“We are looking for something that’s a bit different, because when you get 750 scripts, you get a lot of scripts that deal with the same thing in the same way.“We really enjoy a play that takes you somewhere you haven’t gone before or didn’t expect to go.”Before a play is optioned for full production, Barabas said, the company often conducts developmental readings where audiences can see a play come to life for the first time and talk to the playwright about it.“Aplay might read wonderfully, but it may not work on stage as well as you thought. Or a play might read a bit clunky, and yet when you see it on stage, it works much better than you imagined,” he said.

If the developmental readings go well, the company may commit to producing the play the following year, Barabas said.“Puma” went through such a process, artistic director SuzAnne Barabas said, including a table reading, script-inhand reading, and revisions throughout the rehearsals.“Every day we are in rehearsal, we make changes as well with the playwrights,” SuzAnne said.“You learn whole new things when you have people moving around on stage, and the actors themselves have questions.“It’s all part of the development process of the play,” she said.“That’s what’s very exciting, as opposed to doing a play that’s been done that is set in stone, … you can’t work on [things like] the dialogue, and here we still have that opportunity.”

Pursuing a mission of new plays, Gabor Barabas said, is not always easy.“There are some risks involved in focusing your season almost entirely on new plays,” he said.“At least on the surface, it’s an easier path if you’re doing established works.”He said that these well-known plays are easier to market because they already resonate with the audience and theatergoers largely know what to expect.“It’s another issue when you have a play whose title is totally unfamiliar to an audience and where the audience doesn’t have a full sense of what that play is about,” he said.

Despite these hardships, Barabas said the company has attracted a dedicated following in its 13 years.“We’ve gradually built an audience that is adventurous and enjoys seeing new works come to life,” he said.“It takes time to build that kind of audience.”Barabas said the company has about 600 subscribers who see every play

Eighty-five percent of their audience, Barabas said, travels between 45 minutes to two hours to the theater, and 9 percent trek down from New York City.“We’ve been here 13 years, yet there are a lot of people in the community who are not aware of this resource of having great theater in your own backyard,” Barabas said.This is not due to a lack of publicity, Barabas said, since the theater is often featured in local publications as well as The New York Times and Variety.

Many of the NJ Repertory Company’s plays incubate and grow in Long Branch before emerging onto the national, and sometimes international, theater scene.“It’s a remarkably good launching point,” Barabas said.“We really are making a contribution to the American stage, which was the intention all along.”Many of their developed plays, Barabas said, are picked up by theaters throughout the country, including stages in New York City, Indianapolis, Texas, California and even Australia.

“[Guests] are amazed to see that here we are kind of out of the way and yet we have this extensive reach and ability to really propel plays,” he said.“Engaging Shaw,” a play by John Morogiello about George Bernard Shaw, is one such success story.After NJ Rep developed and produced the original play, Abingdon Theater in New York City then produced it, Barabas said.“Now it’s at the Old Globe Theater in California, a huge theater, and it all started on our small stage,” he said.“We developed it, we produced it, we gave it the push, and now it’s being done around the country.”

In addition to catapulting fresh plays onto the national stage, Barabas said that NJ Rep also serves as a catalyst for Long Branch.Barabas, who practiced at Monmouth Medical Center as a neurologist for 30 years, said he knew the neighborhood quite well.“We felt that a theater would do the most to help revitalize lower Broadway and the community,” he said about choosing the theater’s location.“When we began, we were really the only thing, so it’s not like we had a lot of foot traffic from restaurants, clubs, a movie house or art galleries.

“Here, we truly draw people in and act like an economic engine, where we’re sending our guests to the local restaurants that they may not know about.”


Click Here for NY Times Review of The Tangled Skirt


Dark Doings In A Deserted Depot

"The Tangled Skirt" at New Jersey Rep

By Philip Dorian

The term "noir" was originally applied by French film critics to American black-and-white movies of the 1940s and early 50s with themes of menace and mystery. ('Noir' translates as 'black' - more loosely, 'dark'.) Generally featuring stoic tough-guys and glamorous, conniving women, many noir films were clearer in style than in substance. (Try recounting the plot details of The Maltese Falcon.)

The Tangled Skirt, having its world premier at New Jersey Repertory Company, is Steve Braunstein's attempt at true 3-D noir; that is, flesh-and-blood on stage. By and large, Braunstein succeeds in recreating the tone of the old flicks. He doesn't parody or plagiarize the genre; his characters, dialogue and setting smack of originality.

It's 2 a.m. in a dingy bus station in upstate New York (another excellent Jessica Parks-designed set). Self-proclaimed "teller of stories" Bailey Brice (Vince Nappo) is waiting for the bus to Thunder Bay, Ontario, when Rhonda Claire (Carmit Levité) walks in. She's everything a noir dame should be: tall, sultry and seductive in black pencil-skirt and stiletto heels, with scarlet-slash lips and fingernails to match. She's trouble, no doubt, long before she informs Bailey "I've been despicable longer than you have."

Neither Ms. Levite nor Mr. Nappo is despicable even for a minute. They - and the playwright - obviously did their homework. Under Evan Bergman's astute direction, Nappo and Levite spit out the clipped dialogue and navigate the bus station's angles like a cat-and-mouse encounter, with frequent role reversals. Nappo's natty Bailey is deceptively easy-going, and Levite captures Rhonda Claire's tough veneer to a tee.

There's a probable murder in the past, and one a few hours old in the town. The audience is hooked from the start, wondering who did what to whom and why. Not knowing for sure isn't just part of the fun; it is the fun.

That fun flags when the plot thickens and a more conventional mystery story unfolds. Noir has always been more about tone than topic, and while Tangled Skirt does end cryptically, it's only after Too Much Information.

Also, besides changing that awkward title, Bergman might re-consider the format. No 90-minute noir movie includes a mood-killing intermission. This play, even shorter, does. Having to rev up twice to the slick pace the script demands isn't fair to the audience...or to the actors. Once that pace is attained, twice if need be, the play offers a neat excursion into a late, lamented film-form. Skirt is a minor literary work, but it's not fluff.



The Tangled Skirt
: Stylish Hard Boiled Pulp Fiction with Tongue Planted Firmly in Cheek

Tangled Skirt
Carmit Levité and Vince Nappo
A sharply dressed man enters a small, deserted bus depot in the wee small hours of the morning, pulls a small voice recorder from his overnight bag, switches it on, and speaks into it:

There was no moon on this dark, dank night. The rain-slick streets a relentless reminder that this is indeed a slippery world. The faint light inside the teetering bus depot offered little illumination, emitting, instead, the fatal glimmer of dread. He sat alone in the deserted station, his isolation looming as its own unnerving threat. A prelude, a warning perhaps, of what this moonless night had in store for him. He wondered, if he vanished that night, never to be seen or heard from again, if anyone would know. If anyone would care. He knew the terrible answer, but was more concerned about getting a proper burial. Everyone should get a proper burial. Even people like him. But he knew, more likely, some overly curious kids, poking around where they shouldn't be poking, will find his bones, fifty years from now, brittle and nameless in the dirt. They'll be too dumb to know at that tender age that things you touch, especially things you shouldn't, become part of you forever.

Thus begins The Tangled Skirt, a world premiere play by Steve Braunstein which expertly and deliciously both honors and sends up the great hard-boiled stories and novels of such masters of the art as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and, later, John D. MacDonald.

Without going beyond its stylistic boundaries, Braunstein recreates the genre at its most purplish and overripe edge. The result is the highest form of literary satire, that is satire which clearly loves and respects its target. Both the format and essential subject here is the genre of pulp fiction itself.

Bailey Bryce, the dapper man who has entered the bus depot, is shortly followed in by Rhonda Claire (as she is addressed throughout by Bryce), who is a curvaceous, glamorously dressed, and surely deadly femme fatale. Rhonda Claire and Bailey are both awaiting a bus that will take them from this unnamed, dreary, tired tiny burg across the Canadian border to Thunder Bay. Rhonda Claire doesn't know Bailey and, at first, he doesn't appear to know her. We are kept guessing just who Bryce is and what he intends to accomplish. Given that this is a two-character play, it is amazing that there are so many twists and turns, and genuine surprises, to which Braunstein delightfully treats us in this tale of passion, greed, deceit and murder. Just when you think that you have it all figured out, The Twisted Skirt may add (I'm thinking, I'm thinking) an at-the-buzzer twist to further tickle the brain.

Carmit Levité is an amazing find for the role of Rhonda Claire. She gives the role her best Double Indemnity Barbara Stanwyck, and tops the screen legend with looks that make her a ringer for the painted redheaded femme fatale featured in the poster art for the Larry Gelbart/ Cy Coleman/ David Zippel City of Angels. To paraphrase Gelbart, Levité's legs are so long that they would go on forever if they weren't stopped by the floor. Vince Nappo gives a solid noirish performance as Bryce.

The scenic design by Jessica Parks is extraordinary. As I've noted before, the narrow, relatively deep stage has frequently provided well solved scenic challenges. However, Parks' work is unique in that it provides a sense of a large, complexly realistic area which appears to expand into the auditorium. Both sides of the stage are angled from near center stage at the rear out to the far corners at the front of the stage. However, there are alcoves and a part of a hallway at stage left beyond this framing that actually widen the playing area to full stage width, and also create a sense of additional space beyond. Strategically placed doors and windows add to the sense of spaciousness. There is a look of concrete solidarity to all of this which suggests an improbably high design budget. In any event, this set would be a valuable and fascinating study for students of set design.

Director Evan Bergman has deployed his actors well about the complex, deeply angled set so that the play never becomes visually static, and directed them to always maintain the stylization that the play requires. Patricia E. Doherty's stylish costumes also enhance the genre. This is particularly true for Rhonda Claire's black leather jacket over a black skirt with a dark red scarf at the neck and a matching dark red travelling case. When the jacket is removed, Rhonda Claire is seen to be wearing a white blouse. I would have thought that a black blouse would better fit her image, but that may be only an addition to the many reasons I do not design costumes.

I've been re-reading those opening lines from The Tangled Skirt quoted at the top of this review. They keep putting a smile on my face. If your reaction is the same, then you are bound to have a really good time now through January 23 at the New Jersey Rep.

 


'Tangled' up in blood, at NJ Rep

By TOM CHESEK • CORRESPONDENT • December 8, 2010
Pheonix Vaughn and Corey Tazmania<br>
in <i>The Housewives of Mannheim</i><br>
(© SuzAnne Barabas)
Carmit Levite and Vince Nappo are two strangers waiting for the last bus out of town in "The Tangled Skirt," the thriller now in its world premiere engagement at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. (PHOTO: SUZANNE BARABAS)

It's not far removed from something you half-remember in an early morning "Twilight Zone" episode — in fact, someone even alludes to the possibility of its being the waiting room of Hell. Then again, considering its proximity to the Canadian border, it might just be some Yooper town in Michigan.

Wherever it may sit on the map, the desolate and dirty bus station that forms the setting for "The Tangled Skirt" is one of those forgotten corners that exist almost outside of time and place - or at least a few steps behind the rest of the contemporary world, decorated as it is with pay phones, candy stands, analog wall clocks and (ahem) newspapers.

In the two-character thriller by Steve Braunstein (now onstage in its world-premiere engagement at New Jersey Repertory Company), this godforsaken nexus of Noir and Nowhere becomes temporary home to a pair of strangers, each of whom has their own compelling reason to be on that late-night last bus out of town. Given the way they look and talk, these lost souls could have escaped from the pulpy pages of a 1950s potboiler paperback — and indeed, Braunstein's taut script takes a great deal of its caffeinated energy from the sort of dime-novel tales that travelers might have enjoyed back when this dingy depot last had a coat of fresh paint.

First seen dictating some Spillane-style prose into a tape recorder, Bailey Bryce (Vince Nappo, who once portrayed Shakespeare's "Richard II" on a trapeze) is "a well-dressed weaver of tales, waiting for a bus or something greater" — the kind of small-town hustler who "would do a lot better with women if I were the last man on Earth." Ostensibly headed to Thunder Bay on business in the middle of the night, this too-talkative townie asks a lot of questions, jumps to a lot of conclusions, and always seems to be working some not-quite articulated agenda.

Then, as if called into being like a character conjured onto a microcassette, She walks in out of a murky night of barking dogs and wailing sirens — she being Rhonda Claire (Carmit Levite of the film "Zombie Strippers"), a stiletto-svelte redhead with "a mouth like a knife" and a need to "go home" in a hurry to a place that she makes no secret of detesting.

Taking high-ground advantage from her co-star in to-die-for heels, delivering her world-weary but wordly-wise dialogue in a voice that mixes classic Forties Femme Fatale notes with an alluring lisp (lending an unfortunate Looney Tunes lilt to her enunciation of the word "despicable"), the drop-dead gorgeous Levite seems to have slinked straight from the cover of a Jim Thompson novel — while Nappo, her worthy opponent in this round of head games, could well be the account rep in the next cubicle.

The whole genre of thrillers — at least ones that aren't strictly comic by nature — has been woefully under-represented onstage in recent years, and Braunstein displays an obvious affection and affinity for the Noir form, while the actors under the direction of Evan Bergman handle their dialogue-heavy parts with flair. Like the most sharply written Noir novels and screenplays, the script offers up plenty of quotable lines — with more than a modicum of laughs — and it wouldn't take much to camp this material up to the extreme, if so desired.

Trapped as they are by the vagaries of Destiny and the bus schedule, Rhonda and Bailey spend two real-time acts invading each other's space, delving into each other's sordid pasts, confessing sins, and working up to a shared secret that would be horrifyingly outlandish if it weren't so on-the-money for the genre. No, they don't talk or act like real people — and no, the story, when you get right down to it, doesn't make a whole hell of a lot of sense — but in the hands of Bergman (NJ Rep's "Place Setting" and "Poetic License"), "The Tangled Skirt" maintains a tense, sleepless dynamic that seems somehow comfortable within its claustrophobic night-owl world.

Set designer Jessica Parks has used the similarly claustrophobic dimensions of the NJ Rep stage to great advantage, boxing the actors into the grimy grey-green walls of her marvelously seedy station in a way that heightens the anxiety and makes their need to escape this place truly palpable. Lighting designer Jill Nagle has done some of her best work ever here — you'll believe it when that late bus finally pulls in, and if you look fast you'll get a kick out of that ominously prescient "candies" sign.

While the atmosphere may be thick with the ghosts of the past, "The Tangled Skirt" is as refreshingly removed from "A Christmas Carol" or any other holiday humbug as a theatergoer could wish for in this sickly-sweet stage season. The show continues until Jan. 23, 2011 with performances Thursdays through Sundays (holiday scheduling applies; no performances December 23 through Jan. 2).


'The Tangled Skirt': New drama weaves a 'Tangled' web
 

by Peter Filichia, The Star Ledger

We’ve heard of Southern accents and Boston accents. But is there such a thing as a Washington State accent?

Vince Nappo, a former resident of “The Evergreen State,” swears there is. “For example,” says the actor, “people there say ‘college’ very differently. ‘KAWL-edge.’ ”

Nappo is a graduate of Western Washington University in Bellingham. So he knows that the way he speaks — with an accent that comes from Woodhaven, Mich. — was not the reason he was chosen to play a native Washingtonian in “The Tangled Skirt.”

This new drama, written by Steve Braunstein, has its world premiere at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch this weekend. Nappo portrays Bailey Bryce, a self-proclaimed storyteller who is waiting at a bus stop just south of the Canadian border at midnight. Then a pretty young woman named Rhonda Claire saunters by.

“Actually,” says Nappo, “Rhonda is a genuine knockout — the type of woman who entices a man into killing her husband just to have a chance with her.”

In other words, a film noir siren. “Yes,” says Nappo. “It’s a contemporary version of film noir. There’ll be a lot of exciting and chilling things happening before its 90 minutes are up.”

Given that Bailey is a storyteller, Nappo wouldn’t mind if director Evan Bergman cast him for his abilities as a raconteur. Right now, Nappo is putting together a one-person show about growing up south of Detroit, where his mother “understood me from the day I was born” and his father was an assembly-line worker for Ford.

“He thought I’d wind up doing that, too,” says Nappo. “Of course he only wanted the best for me, which meant a steady paycheck. But then in high school, I got involved with the drama club and …”

He purposely lets the sentence trail off. Nappo knows he needn’t offer any additional explanation.

In the play, Bryce hasn’t had much of an education or a life, and that’s where he and Nappo part company. After he was graduated from Western Washington University, Nappo headed to the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff, Wales. Then he received his Master of Fine Arts at the National Conservatory in Denver.

Nappo’s work at both places helped him secure one of his most gratifying roles: Lorenzo, the Gentile suitor who wins the hand of Jessica, Shylock’s daughter in “The Merchant of Venice.”

“Not the one that’s on Broadway now with Al Pacino,” he says. “The one that was done off-Broadway three years ago with F. Murray Abraham as Shylock. In February, we’re reviving it New York. A little later, we’ll take it to Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles.”

With a name such as Nappo, one might assume that the actor has Italianate looks that would make him right for portraying a Venetian.

“Not at all,” he says. “I’m rather blond, and I get my looks from my mother, who’s from Hungarian and Scottish stock. In that way, I may be just right for Bailey Bryce.”


NJ Rep Puts Long Branch Center Stage in World of Theater

New Jersey Repertory Company is a fun experience for theater-goers

By Robert Kern, Long Branch Patch

If Gabor Barabas has his way, Long Branch may become the center of the universe for new playwrights looking to get their first exposure to an audience.

Thirteen years ago, Barabas and his wife, SuzAnne, decided there was "a paucity of theaters dedicated to new works." He walked away from a career as a pediatric neurologist and they went to work creating New Jersey Repertory Company, which was to be an anchor for an arts and entertainment district in Long Branch.

New Jersey Repertory Company is located at 179 Broadway in Long Branch.

The Barabases decided from the beginning to focus exclusively on world premiere productions to add a counterweight to the glut of plays produced over and over on stage.

"We look at a thousand scripts a year," he explained, "to produce only six or seven in a season. We have no particular genre or philosophy when selecting a play. We look for a unique voice and an engaging subject. We run the gamut."

The current show, "The Tangled Skirt" by Steve Braunstein, delves into the film noir genre. A two-character piece, it is filled with double meanings and wisecracks as two characters keep the audience guessing which one may (or may not) be the villain of the piece. Who walked in guilty and who walks out alive keeps the audience guessing up to the end.

It's relatively straight-forward, Barabas, explained, compared to the more experimental "Tilt Angel" done at the theater in 2005 and described by the playwright, Dan Dietz, as a "deadpan Tennessee fairy tale."

Barabas is obviously proud to report that many of the world premieres at NJ Rep have gone on to have additional productions elsewhere. "Out of the 60 or so productions, 20 have gone on to be published or produced in theaters in this country and abroad."

He pointed specifically to a recent production of "The Housewives of Mannheim," a nostalgic comic-drama set in a Brooklyn tenement in 1944.

It deals with "four women on the home front, living without their men, discover new dimensions of love, friendship and tolerance. They also discover that the freedom that comes with the end of the war and their returning men is a double-edged sword."

Barabas said that the play has gone on to productions in Indianapolis, Santa Barbara and 59E59 Theater in New York City.

"It's now under consideration for a larger New York theater," he said.

In addition to the Main Stage productions, they offer staged readings that give writers a chance to hear their works and get feedback from audiences.

Artistic successes like "Housewives" make the practical side of the business worth it.

When they started building their dream, the Barabases needed a home. At the same time Margaret and David Lumia had a building in Long Branch they were looking to donate to a nonprofit.

According to Barabas, "I met with them and they listened as I outlined our vision. After about half an hour and he stood up, shook my hand and said 'You have a home.'"

Hence, NJ Rep's home is gratefully named The Lumia Theater.


'Character Assassins' review: Writer and critic face off in comedy premiere

by Peter Filichia, The Star Ledger
Published: Thursday, September 30, 2010, 8:09 AM    
Updated: Thursday, September 30, 2010, 3:16 PM

At last! A play that shows how silly, inconsequential and vindictive theater critics can be! (And how playwrights can be exactly the same.)

Charlie Schulman, whose “Character Assassins” is enjoying a solid, comic production at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, does what the best playwrights do: He is fair to each party, examining both of his characters’ strengths, weaknesses and points of view.

The conflict starts immediately when playwright Jonathan Burns smashes his way into the apartment of critic Simon Frank — who recently panned his new opus. Jonathan is armed, but not dangerous. He’s more upset than vicious, so he’s soon wallowing in self-pity.

“It took me three years to write the play,” he moans. “You missed the point. You shouldn’t be a theater critic. You don’t know what you are talking about.”

Although Simon is initially scared by the gun, he soon sees that Jonathan isn’t a killer. And wouldn’t you know that he starts immediately criticizing the guy — insulting “the cloying banalities of your mind.” He also has some advice: “Most people abandon working in the arts,” he says in a no-nonsense, down-to-brass-tacks voice. Jonathan rebuts with one of Schulman’s best lines: “I gave up on giving up a long time ago.”

The playwright reasons that after newspapers and TV broadcast reports of his assault, there will be another assault — of morbidly curious ticket buyers storming the box office.

The conversation that ensues includes a raft of theater world clichés, including Simon’s insistence that “Critics don’t close plays, producers do.” (Yes, but producers wouldn’t close them if the critics hadn’t eviscerated the productions.) Jonathan indicts Simon for being clever at his expense. “It’s humiliation as entertainment,” he accurately states.

Both agree that “A good two-character play is hard to find” — but “Character Assassins” is one.

And yet, “Character Assassins” would soon run out of gas if it were just a polemic. But Schulman and able director Dana Benningfield purposely let the Long Branch audience know they’re just having fun. Every now and then, one or both of the actors will look out at the crowd to underline what’s just been said. While this sounds as if it could become pretentious, it’s very much in keeping with the light tone and surprise ending that Schulman has devised.

As Simon, Warren Kelly has the perfect unctuousness and supercilious air of one who always believes he’s correct. Brad Fraizer gives Jonathan the perfect sad-sack demeanor in the first act. In the second, Fraizer is asked to show a completely different side of Jonathan’s personality, and does it splendidly.

Simon mentions that many times “a theater critic must explode with enthusiasm” for a play he likes but doesn’t love. The reason is that readers need exciting adjectives and lavish praise to get them out of their homes and to a box office.

He’s right. Critics have indeed been known to over-praise in order to help a production.

But this is not one of those times.


'Assassins' aims to knock 'em dead

By TOM CHESEK • CORRESPONDENT • September 24, 2010

The scene is the tastefully appointed, book-lined apartment of a big-city theater critic — a figure of enormous influence; one whose merest shrug can ignite a star, or strangle a career cold in its cradle. A figure whose smug reverie is about to get interruptus, when a disappointed playwright comes knocking at the door.

Well, "disappointed" is hardly the word. Neither, for that matter, is "knocking."

Hold that thought for a moment — and consider a world in which there are such things as kick-ass dramatists; a world in which theater reviewers are actually taken seriously, let alone treated with deference at Motor Vehicles. Who writes this stuff, anyway?

A celebrated playwright, as it turns out — and in the case of New York City native Charlie Schulman, his script "Character Assassins" takes the artist-and-critic relationship to a place where just about every writer has dreamed of going at some point, even if they ultimately couldn't summon the guts to commit their personal revenge fantasies to paper.

Schulman, whose produced works include the award winner "The Birthday Present" and a merry musical called "The Fartiste," has not only cut in on that delicate dance, but taken it 10 steps beyond, as "Character Assassins" prepares to make its world premiere this weekend on the stage of New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

The two-character show is directed by longtime Rep regular Dana Benningfield, a performer whose warmth, intelligence and (apparently effortless) elegance have shone through in such past productions as "Winterizing the Summer House" and "Lemonade." While she remains offstage for this project, Benningfield (who made her directorial debut at NJ Rep in 2005) has staked a personal interest in its progress, having helped shepherd it through development since presenting the script as one of the company's Monday evening reading series.

"Charlie's been really great throughout the whole process," says Benningfield of the playwright, who paid a house call during rehearsals in Long Branch. As the director tells it, Schulman began writing 'Assassins' during a time in which "he was frustrated trying to mount a musical; frustrated with the business — he wanted to write something that the business would be interested in."

What resulted was not, as Benningfield stresses, so much a story of revenge (although it does boast "doors torn from their hinges, police sirens, calls to 911, and a gun") as it is "a dialogue about what makes a good play — but it's not just two talking heads either."

"There's some suspense to it," observes the director in likening it to such deliciously brainteasing duets as "Sleuth" and "Deathtrap."

The scene is the tastefully appointed, book-lined apartment of a big-city theater critic — a figure of enormous influence; one whose merest shrug can ignite a star, or strangle a career cold in its cradle. A figure whose smug reverie is about to get interruptus, when a disappointed playwright comes knocking at the door.

Well, "disappointed" is hardly the word. Neither, for that matter, is "knocking."

Hold that thought for a moment — and consider a world in which there are such things as kick-ass dramatists; a world in which theater reviewers are actually taken seriously, let alone treated with deference at Motor Vehicles. Who writes this stuff, anyway?

A celebrated playwright, as it turns out — and in the case of New York City native Charlie Schulman, his script "Character Assassins" takes the artist-and-critic relationship to a place where just about every writer has dreamed of going at some point, even if they ultimately couldn't summon the guts to commit their personal revenge fantasies to paper.

Schulman, whose produced works include the award winner "The Birthday Present" and a merry musical called "The Fartiste," has not only cut in on that delicate dance, but taken it 10 steps beyond, as "Character Assassins" prepares to make its world premiere this weekend on the stage of New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

The two-character show is directed by longtime Rep regular Dana Benningfield, a performer whose warmth, intelligence and (apparently effortless) elegance have shone through in such past productions as "Winterizing the Summer House" and "Lemonade." While she remains offstage for this project, Benningfield (who made her directorial debut at NJ Rep in 2005) has staked a personal interest in its progress, having helped shepherd it through development since presenting the script as one of the company's Monday evening reading series.

"Charlie's been really great throughout the whole process," says Benningfield of the playwright, who paid a house call during rehearsals in Long Branch. As the director tells it, Schulman began writing 'Assassins' during a time in which "he was frustrated trying to mount a musical; frustrated with the business — he wanted to write something that the business would be interested in."

What resulted was not, as Benningfield stresses, so much a story of revenge (although it does boast "doors torn from their hinges, police sirens, calls to 911, and a gun") as it is "a dialogue about what makes a good play — but it's not just two talking heads either."

"There's some suspense to it," observes the director in likening it to such deliciously brainteasing duets as "Sleuth" and "Deathtrap."

"It's a play that mocks itself; comments upon itself — it's a real comedy mystery; the kind of play where you could come back again and see something totally different."

Charged with realizing this "comic thriller with more twists and turns than the Colorado winding its way through the Grand Canyon" is Brad Fraizer — a newcomer to NJ Rep who co-stars as Jonathan Burns, a once-lauded playwright driven to drink (and the brink) by the relentless panning of his work. He's joined by Warren Kelley, a familiar face on the Long Branch stage ("Evie's Waltz," "The Little Hours"), as the man with the pan, critic Simon Frank.

Do we detect a sideswipe at the legendary New York reviewers John Simon and Frank Rich? While Benningfield allows that "there was a day and age when a John Simon could take a play down," these days it's more common to find "critics being champions for writers — there's a relationship there, a common interest."

Indeed, in the world of Schulman's play, very little is reportedly as it might first appear — even Simon Frank, who is described by the director as "not simply a judge, but someone with a real philosophy, a passion for theater" (none of which is to suggest that he doesn't get off a couple of acerbic zingers at the expense of the humiliated scribe).


nytheatre.com review

Nita Congress · September 23, 2010

It is a dark and stormy night, and a writer is typing at his keyboard.

Thunder, lightning, a loud knock at the door. An intruder in a ski mask. An altercation, an accusation, a revelation. The game is afoot.

Against a backdrop of every hoary cliche in the book, Character Assassins marries thriller to comedy in the temple of the Theatre, in the process eviscerating writers and critics alike. It is a literate and clever piece, evoking Sleuth, Mamet, and all things dark and twisty in between. As the press materials state, it's a "knowing backstage play that skewers knowing backstage plays."

And it's very funny.

Miserably failed playwright Jonathan Burns has decided to take revenge on fabulously successful theatre critic Simon Frank, who has savaged his latest play. The tables turn, and turn again, and maybe thrice more, in a 90-minute arm-wrestle between these two very sharp—in all senses of the word—protagonists.

Not too much more can safely be said about the plot, but much praise needs to be heaped on the two very skillful actors who carry it out. Warren Kelley plays Simon Frank with an air of affected disdain redolent of theatre critics who only exist in movies and plays—think Addison DeWitt and Sheridan Whiteside—and yet avoids making him a caricature. And Brad Fraizer's worm effortlessly turns, swiftly powering back and forth from desperate drunk to Gordon Gekko. Director Dana Benningfield keeps the play moving quickly and tightly, ratcheting up the suspense as the play moves toward what the characters, talking shop, praise as an inevitable ending that is nonetheless surprising.

Playwright Charlie Schulman draws on an obvious wealth of theatrical familiarity. Crackling observations and dry digressions evoke, invoke—and likely provoke—Chekhov, Beckett, Ibsen, O'Neill, Shakespeare, and their ilk. (A drunken Jonathan Burns muses as to where Nora was going at that hour of the night anyway?) The art and craft of making theatre are smartly dealt with (Notes Jonathan, plaintively reflecting on the advantages of heightened dramatic time in a play, where actions can unspool swiftly or slowly: "In life, things last too long or not long enough."), along with the relentless politics, personalities, and general cluelessness of the whole play-making enterprise. But counterbalancing the arch and the wry is a genuine appreciation of the theatre and what it can do when it's at its best: lift us up, take us away, and bring us back ennobled and enlightened.

This comic thriller may not do all that, but it makes for a thoroughly entertaining evening, with high production values and strong acting. Particularly deserving mention is the terrific lighting design by Jill Nagle; her opening thunderstorm rivaled any seen on the shore this week. And Jessica Parks's set—Simon Frank's tony uptown apartment—is tasteful, intelligent, and interesting, lightly underscoring the character's pretensions and love of creature comforts.


"Assassins" is a comedy thriller

By TOM CHESEK • CORRESPONDENT • September 29, 2010

It's a "cheaply constructed house of mirrors." A "self-indulgent, masturbatory exercise."

That's not this reviewer talking. It's the eminent (and fictional) drama critic Simon Frank — and he's savaging a play called "Character Assassins," a script that he himself happens to have authored. It all takes place within a real-life play that's also called "Character Assassins," a fun little show now in its world premiere engagement at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

As to the question of why Simon (NJ Rep company regular Warren Kelley) is being so unkind to his own creation — or why he chooses to retain someone to front as the actual author of the play - well, that's complicated. Or rather, it's "twisty" — which can be infinitely more entertaining than "complicated," provided you don't think about it too terribly much.

In Charlie Schulman's script, a very upset playwright named Jonathan Burns (Brad Fraizer) kicks in the door to Simon's Upper West Side apartment one dark and stormy night, armed with a potentially loaded handgun and a scheme of sorts (something about taking the critic hostage, thereby bumping up publicity for his failing show); a scheme that's unfortunately as well thought-out as the plotline to his critically panned play.

This matters not a bit, as Jonathan's scheme is quickly tabled in favor of an alternate plan from Simon. Seems that the reviewer (who adamantly denies the observation that "nobody actually grows up wanting to be a theater critic") has penned a play of his own; a two-character "comedy thriller with a heart" that he'd love to see produced — although to put his own name on it would make him fair game to an army of enemies, real or imagined. The solution? Salvage Jonathan's wounded reputation by presenting him as the author of this brilliance, and then call a press conference in which the reviewer stands revealed as the true artist. In the process, nobody gets shot, nobody goes to jail - and the Bialystock-Bloom partnership could not have engineered a more airtight strategy.

Of course, none of this really needs to make any sense whatsoever, as Schulman and director Dana Benningfield waste little time in making it clear that these two characters are very aware of the fact that they are themselves actors on a stage. Referencing and commenting upon itself in some often inventive ways, "Character Assassins" does for theatrical convention what the "Scream" movies did for slasher flicks — such as a reminder that "a gun introduced in the first act must be fired in the third act."

But wait, isn't this just a two-act play?

Don't tear down this wall

Relax, and let Schulman and company carry you along their twist-kissed path. The people in charge have it covered — and while things don't exactly run too deep here, they do go broad, early and often. With the "fourth wall" of the stage left in the same tattered condition as Simon's front door, the floodgates are open for Fraizer and Kelley to shoot quizzical glances at the audience, invite reactions and otherwise step outside themselves to an extent that's often silly and downright surreal (which is not to suggest that the most telegraphed gags always get the biggest laughs). In that respect, one can view it as a crazy person's "Deathtrap" — or a slightly more rational person's "Accomplice," the Rupert Holmes shaggydog tale that reappears in October at Beach Haven's Surflight Theatre.

Benningfield, herself a Rep regular as an actor, manages to dial back the dumbness in time for her two-man cast to conjure a consistent groove in the play's second half. With the balance of power and the mojo shifting back and forth between the critic and the playwright, Kelley and Fraizer find their marks as characters who transition from smarmy controllers to desperate plotters. And don't even bring up the unseen girlfriend that the two apparently share — a device that allows "Assassins" to fulfill its self-ordained destiny as "a two-character play with a twist — a third character!"

To spoil out any more of the show's twists — and twists again — would be as punishable by death as it would be pointless. Packed as it is with sly winks at the whole self-important theater game, "Character Assassins" ultimately is all about the ride — and, in the end, quite possibly critic-proof.


NJ Rep takes "Housewives' to NY

Shore stage company takes its most acclaimed play to New York

By TOM CHESEK • CORRESPONDENT • May 5, 2010

Placed in the heart of 1940s Brooklyn — a setting in which the men are away at war, and the women are engaged in their own alliances and battles — "The Housewives of Mannheim" tells the story of a young wife and mother whose entire existence is thrown off its axis when she's given a glimpse of the world that lies both beyond and within the kitchens, clotheslines and fire escapes of Flatbush.

The memory play by Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Alan Brody received its world premiere in the spring of 2009 at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, in a production that was an across-the-board hit with audiences and the subject of superlative reviews from the media — including the Asbury Park Press.

It was a production that the forever forward-thinking NJ Rep and artistic director SuzAnne Barabas took an exceptional amount of pride in — and, in an echo of the yearnings experienced by the character May, it was a show that looked beyond the neighborhood of its birth, to the big world beyond.

Earlier this year, Barabas traveled to Indianapolis to direct another production of "Housewives" for that city's Phoenix Theatre. Beginning Friday, May 6, the original NJ Rep cast of "Housewives" convenes once more when the play comes to 59E59 Theaters in Manhattan as the first-ever New York production in NJ Rep's 11-year history.

It's a momentous occasion for the Rep regulars — as well as a step toward the sort of endeavor that famed troupes like Chicago's Steppenwolf company specialize in — and it traces its genesis back to discussions that SuzAnne and her husband, executive producer Gabor Barabas, had with Elysabeth Kleinhans, founder of the performing arts complex that's located (as you might have guessed) at 59 East 59th St., between Park and Madison Avenues.

While the producers didn't immediately settle upon "Housewives"as their maiden vehicle in New York City — the NJ Rep resume boasts dozens of new offerings, including one ("Engaging Shaw") that's currently on view off-Broadway — the ensemble drama increasingly made sense as a calling-card for the company, particularly in light of the rave reviews coming out of Indianapolis.

"The play really resonated with the Midwest audiences, every bit as much as it did here in Long Branch," Barabas explains. "All audiences seem to really enjoy it, and to find something to identify with here." With Barabas back at the helm and playwright Brody refining and strengthening the script, the production briefly flirted with the prospect of casting one or more well known actresses — a set of discussions that broke down when the director realized that the name players all had "certain demands that had to be met — there were calls for us to build up the roles beyond what we were comfortable with."

The only logical solution was to go with the quartet of actors who originated the parts back in Long Branch — including Pheonix Vaughn, who steps back into the role of May immediately after finishing her stint this weekend in the current NJ Rep production, the dark comic thriller "Yankee Tavern." Lauren Briggeman replaces Vaughn for the remainder of the run.

Vaughn is joined in New York by "the four actors are so into their roles, so protective of who they are — they own them," explains Barabas.

"It's an unusual chance for us," she said. "We can dig deeper into these characters than ever before."

A gut-wrenching play of raw emotions — and the kind of rapt, appreciative silences that are even more priceless than cheers — "The Housewives of Mannheim" opens May 6 and continues through June 6 with performances Tuesday through Saturday evenings (plus selected Sundays), plus Saturday and Sunday matinees. Ticket reservations, showtimes and additional information is available by calling (212)279-4200 or visiting ticketcentral.com .


The Housewives of Mannheim

Reviewed By: Sandy MacDonald · May 15, 2010  · New York

THEATERMANIA.COM

Pheonix Vaughn and Corey Tazmania<br>
in <i>The Housewives of Mannheim</i><br>
(© SuzAnne Barabas)
Pheonix Vaughn and Corey Tazmania
in The Housewives of Mannheim
(© SuzAnne Barabas)
Jessica L. Parks' set for Alan Brody's nuanced 1944-set-drama The Housewives of Mannheim, now at 59E59Theaters, is so true to the movie norm of the day you half expect the actors to materialize in black and white. The tidy Brooklyn kitchen, with its gas stove and new-fangled "fridge," belongs to May (Pheonix Vaughn), who is as Betty Grable-pretty as she is unsophisticated.

We first see her sneaking a peek at an oversize book, which she's quick to hide when a neighbor, Alice (Wendy Peace), comes kibitzing, hoping to cadge some spare labels. Alice fancies herself a contest queen, even if the winners are "always from someplace in South Dakota." She's also the self-appointed neighborhood snoop: unprompted, she provides an itemized list of the furniture -- including a grand piano -- being funneled into a turned-over apartment.

The complex's new tenant, Sophie (Natalie Mosco, true to character but nonetheless affected), an elegant German widow whose career as concert pianist was quashed by Nazism, will soon put in an appearance -- but not before May's closest friend, Billie (Corey Tazmania), blows in, peddling linens and using language that would make a sailor blush.

Billie's an original, no doubt about it, and the atmosphere starts to crackle the minute she shows up. Not only does Tazmania defy you to take your eyes off her, but her Billie is aboil with as yet unexpressed passions, and not just for selvage and Chantilly lace.

Meanwhile, Sophie proves a catalyst for May. During her husband's long absence overseas, May has begun to develop some cultural curiosity and personal ambition. After hearing about the fictional Vermeer painting that gives the show its title discussed on a radio talk show, she has actually taken the initiative to go into Manhattan and visit the Metropolitan Museum -- and she's now eager to broaden her horizons further before resuming the role of dutiful spouse. May gloms onto this visitor from a far more rarefied milieu like a schoolgirl with a crush, and her new allegiance proves a tipping point for Billie's own long-suppressed obsession.

Brody and director SuzAnne Barabas handles the ensuing seduction scene -- and its chastening aftermath -- with extraordinary sensitivity, even if it somewhat schematically draws parallels between anti-Semitism and the intolerance that continues to surround sexual preference. May is revealed to be more clued-in than she lets on; still, it's difficult to imagine someone quite so gushily naïve to begin with.


The Housewives of Mannheim

Review by Tulis McCall (15 May 2010), New York Theatre Guide


If you are following my reviews then you will know that there is a passel of good story telling going on around town. May Black (Phoenix Vaughn) is fresh from visiting an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is a trip about which she is reluctant to speak, because going all the way into Manhattan, alone, is not something a woman like May is supposed to do in 1944 (unless of course she had a job, which anyway was only to last until her husband got home). A solo trip to Manhattan was especially not the thing to do if the expressed purpose of the trip was to see a painting that was hanging in a museum. If women who lived near Kings Highway wanted to see art, they could look at a movie magazine. That was plenty good enough.

So when our gal May makes it to the Met to see the rare Vermeer painting called The Housewives of Mannheim (a fictional painting that is s composite of several Vermeers)– she is bowled over by her own daring, and then bowled over by the painting itself. These were real live women, not movie stars, and they must have felt trapped in their lives because they only see the present. The future is unimaginable. May knows this because that is how she feels, and somehow the 400 year old painting opens a window in her life and lets in new light.

With new light comes new observations. They start tumbling out of May faster than she can speak. This frightens one neighbor Alice (Wendy Peace) but thrills another, Billie (Corey Tazmania) and her newest neighbor Sophie (Nantalie Moscco). May’s life picks up speed. She thinks about attending college. She buys an art book. She attends a Bohemian party. Then she takes one step too many and life spins out of control.

Alan Brody does a pretty good job of defining these women for us. (If you want another example of this subject see Swing Shift, with Goldie Hawn and Christine Lahti, directed by Jonathan Demme.) Housewives of Manheim has a story line that is not only refreshing, it is provocative, and it is way past time for this subject was examined without the cheesecloth filter over the camera lense. These are our mothers and grandmothers. Their stories deserve our attention.

While our nation’s chroniclers go bonkers defining and honoring The Greatest Generation, it is the men about which most of the hooplah is written. The women who greased the wheels of the war machine, who put down roots and created stability while men were off making war, who raised families and held down full time jobs simultaneously – these people get short shrift. The history books would have us think that the country was on Pause while men, and let us not forget the thousands of women service personnel, were fighting in WWII. This is simply not so. But the myth as accepted makes the glass ceiling for millions of women all over the world stronger.

So congratulations to Alan Brody and New Jersey Rep for giving this story legs. While most of the acting and text may not overwhelm you, the story will stick to you like white on rice.

One quibble regarding the title: Housewives of Manheim is a sucky title. Number one – Vermeer never referenced his subjects as housewives – “Woman”, “Lacemaker”, “Maiden”, “Girl” but not housewife. Mr. Brody goes to great lengths to make these women three-dimensional but his title makes this show sound like a reality series and undermines that effort and leads him away from his goal. Number two: I resent the term housewife. Women marry other people. They don’t marry houses.


05/19/2010
The Housewives of Mannheim
By: Stewart Schulman


Pheonix Vaughn, Wendy Peace, and Corey Tazmania. 
Photo credit: SuzAnne Barabas 
 
When we look at an image, a scene in a painting for instance, how often do we take the time to wonder what the truth of that moment might have been when it was initially captured... perhaps some four-hundred years ago? That’s the question playwright Alan Brody asks us to ask ourselves as we watch the New York premiere of his compelling new play The Housewives Of Mannheim, currently running off-Broadway as part of the Americas Off Broadway festival at the 59E59 Street theaters.
 
The time is 1944. World War II is in full throttle thousands of miles away. In the kitchen of an apartment in a high-rise building on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, three Jewish women, May, Alice and Billie, patiently wait for the safe return of their soldier husbands from overseas. The rhythm of their lives is slow. Children are cared for. Homes are maintained. They gossip, borrow coffee, trade ration cards and shop at Waldbaum’s and Loehman’s. Everything is status quo... till May, (a pretty, earnest, and subtly emotional Phoenix Vaughn), takes a step that forever changes her world. 
 
May has heard about a new Vermeer painting “The Housewives Of Mannheim”, currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In her desire to satisfy a budding curiosity about life’s possibilities beyond the walls of her modest two-bedroom home, she ventures out to see it. Quite to her surprise, as she views the Dutch Baroque painting, she begins to reflect upon who these women really were and what their  lives were like. And in that moment, something in the (fictitious) painting jump-starts a sense of wonderment and adventure in her. Suddenly, she understands that a whole new world of possibilities exists. Suddenly she’s full of questions. Suddenly May finds herself on a journey of self-discovery that will leave her questioning the very fabric of everything she believes to be right and true.
 
As May struggles to redefine herself and the direction of her life, her once solid friendships with Alice and Billie, the two women closest to her in her daily life, begin to redefine, as well. ‘Homemaker’ Alice (a prissily conservative Wendy Peace) grows threatened by May’s burgeoning lust for knowledge and experience; while ‘jokester’ Billie (a tough, brassy Corey Tazmania), grows increasingly intrigued and emboldened by May’s newfound adventurous spirit. This is all further complicated by the entrance into their quiet simple universe of cultured and worldly Sophie, (a flawlessly Parisian-Viennese-accented Natalie Mosco), a woman who has fled the Holocaust. It is Sophie’s appearance in May’s apartment that ultimately shifts the balances of power and friendship between the women and forces their lives to spiral off in new directions. Or does it? 
 
To give more away of the plot might undermine one’s fundamental enjoyment of the play. But suffice it to say, it is a piece worth seeing. “The Housewives Of Mannheim” is a thoughtful examination of perspective and the importance of vantage point. It is a play whose characters are asked to discover how drastically one’s views of the world can change simply by shifting where one stands. The women in that Brooklyn kitchen—who lead seemingly straightforward lives—experience great upheavals in their friendships, and are asked to brutally examine their loyalties, fears, jealousies and betrayals.
 
And it is interesting to realize—as one is given some insight into the moments in these women’s lives—how immensely different people’s existences truly are from the ‘snapshot’ impressions we form of them from but a cursory glance at their lives. And so, as we watch their stories unfold, beyond that ‘snapshot’, we begin to speculate about the lives of their predecessors too. We consider, just as May did, the existences of those women who lived four-hundred years before our Flatbush gals. The Dutch women performing their routine chores in a time before “The Great Wars”. Those women in the painting of the same name: “The Housewives of Mannheim”. And we attempt to imagine what their experiences and dreams might have been back then—before and after that ‘snapshot’ froze them forever on a canvas by Vermeer. But unfortunately... we’ll never really know. So we ask: Can we ever in fact judge anyone or anything fairly, from just a cursory glance? 
 
Which brings us to the most compelling question Brody’s play wants us to examine. It is in regard to the concept of “willful ignorance.” Early in the play the phrase is used to define the complicit inactions of the German and Austrian populations who turned blind eyes to the sufferings of their Jewish, homosexual and gypsy brethren. Later it describes those ordinary Americans—not unlike these housewives in Flatbush—whose unwillingness to grow past their own fear-based ignorance renders them deaf and mute to their own sufferings, as well as the suffering of others. And all throughout his affecting and demanding play, Mr. Brody is challenging us to ask ourselves if we are at all like them. And we do wonder. 
 
The production is beautifully directed by SuZanne Barabas. (It originally premiered at New Jersey Rep.) It has a marvelous realistic 1940’s kitchen set designed by Jessica Parks. Patricia E. Doherty’s ‘spot-on’ period costumes are brilliantly created to exist within the color palate of the set as well as the actual Vermeer painting itself—yet somehow you’d never notice this. The lighting design by Jill Nagle is lovely—especially the cool romantic blues she employs for the delicately directed seduction scene on the fire escape at the end of Act One. Even the sound design by Merek Royce Press is notable. The period music is well chosen and has been tweaked to emit the quiet haunting echo of a distant time.
 
There are many lovely moments throughout this production. For instance, the way May, in one simple gesture at the top of the show, removes dry clothes off a clothesline and the audience is swept back sixty-six years to a time not only before ipods... but before even the dream of a washer and dryer in every home. Or Sophie’s “Fourth Nocturne” recital reverie, where as she and May listen to her old recording, Sophie relives her glory days with a few simple gestures of piano ‘air fingering’. And where, with these gestures, we are transported back with her to a time in Vienna when life was still cultured and beautiful, and a hideous “willful ignorance” had not yet begun to rear its ugly head.
 
And of course there’s the final tableau, where the painting “The Housewives of Mannheim”, comes to life on stage. And in that glorious moment we realize that we’ve now ‘seen’ these ‘simple’ Flatbush housewives outside of their own ‘canvas’. And we begin to understand that beyond our initial snapshot impressions of them, these women lived immensely diverse and unexpected lives. As do we all. And then, as we’ve begun to understand and appreciate the intricacies of their struggles... we realize we’re all just creative souls yearning for that much more... each of us struggling every day to perfect the art of fully living our own lives. Stunning!

Adam Brody's play The Housewives of Mannheim Tackle the Female Identity

Corey Tazmania, Pheonix Vaughn, Wendy Peace and Natalie Mosco

There are plays you see that make you question everything. They delight you, make you reminisce, as they bring up past memories and make you think. Alan Brody's, The Housewives of Mannheim, does all this and more. Set during World War II in a kitchen, in the suburbs of Brooklyn, The Housewives of Mannheim tackle the female identity, both sexually and intellectually. It is surprising that a man has such insight into women’s personal growth, friendship and innate prejudices. The 59E59 street Theatre B, has been transformed into a typical Brooklyn kitchen, where the dramas of four women’s lives unfold. May Black, thirty, beautiful and awakening for the first time, to who she is, has spent her entire life living up to everyones expectations, including her own. Alice Cohen is a narrow minded busybody, who represents society. The close-mindedness, the repressed, the critical, self-appointed, judge of morality. Billie Friedhoff is a women who makes jokes to cover up her feelings and speaks to shock, with the mouth of a sailor. Billie, is like those of us who want what we want, because we are damned if we do and damed if we don’t. All three are married, with husbands overseas, except Billie, who despises her still at home, dentist husband. They have become each others life supports, though each is drowning. Enter Sophie Birnbaum, a Jewish concert pianist who has escaped both Europe and Connecticut. She has moved to Brooklyn to start again. Her entrance into the fray has stirred up emotions, wills and things that have become stagnant, though it began before she arrived with May’s discovery of the Vermeer painting The Housewives of Mannheim. Act 1: cumulates as Billie throws caution to the wind and May, hesitantly explores. Act 2: The fear of going against the norm and being different, backs May into a corner, as emotions, brought forth with personal growth make her afraid of her own feelings and she attacks. Sophie, becomes the voice of reason, the hurt, the creativity that becomes stifled when forced to face the reality, that the human race is unkind and will kill what it does not understand. We all are all four women and the question becomes in what degree. Together their personalities make up the four corners of a box that society deems proper and normal and those who don’t fit are unjustly persecuted.

The cast is first rate. Pheonix Vaughn, as May is blissfully naive and we see her growth, as she subtly conveys the inner turmoil. Wendy Peace plays Alice’s faults, like a red badge of courage. Corey Tazmania, from the moment she walks on, commands us to see into her soul and Natalie Mosco’s Sophie, is the quintessence of dignity still held high nomatter the disappointment. Through SuzAnne Barbaras, direction these four women are given depth. Jessica L. Parks set, Jill Nagle’s lighting, Merek Royce Press’s sound and Patricia E. Doherty's period costumes contribute to the production's feel and drop us into the world of the 1940’s. But it is Mr. Brody’s words, that are the language that you want to wrap your mind around. He convey’s so much in what is not said. It is like watching an Albee Play.

For those who have the courage to examine themselves and the world around you, this play will thrill you.


The Housewives of Mannheim

Written by Alan Brody

Directed by Suzanne Barabas

59E59 Theaters

59 East 59th Street

www.59e59.org

 

Review by Iris Greenberger

 

Show Business Weekly theater review

Lost In Flatbush
Phoenix Vaughn and
Corey Tazmania in The
Housewives of Mannheim
(photo: SuzAnne Barabas)

New York theater lovers have cause to cheer. A beautifully acted production of The Housewives of Mannheim has arrived on the Upper East Side, courtesy of the New Jersey Repertory Company.

 

Set in an apartment house in Flatbush, Brooklyn, in 1944, the story centers around three housewives: May Black (Pheonix Vaugn) and Alice Cohen (Wendy Peace) — whose husbands are away in the service — and Billie Friedhoff (Corey Tazmania). The delicate balance of their friendships is upended with the arrival of Sophie Birnbaum (Natalie Mosco), their new neighbor.

 

Vaugn is perfect as May, the beautiful housewife who realizes she has gotten by so far on her looks and is “used to being good.” Feeling trapped in her current, safe life, she begins to explore with trepidation what lies beyond her sheltered existence. In another standout performance, Tazmania is first funny, then heart wrenching in the role of the street-smart, foul-mouthed Billie, May’s best friend. Unhappily married, she laments that her dentist husband is “missing the part of his brain that helps you sustain human conversation.” She’s been an outsider her whole life and has learned to rely on her sharp wit to survive. Mosco is haunting as Sophie, the Viennese concert pianist and widow who escaped the Nazis. Sophie eventually becomes a role model to May, who is fascinated by her European sophistication. As Alice, Peace is the least developed character in this fine ensemble; however, she is convincing as the building’s judgmental yenta who appears incapable of changing.

 

The character of Billie is based on the mother of playwright Alan Brody’s childhood best friend. Brody has a keen understanding of the way women think and feel, and his rich dialogue demonstrates insightfulness as he examines the themes of loneliness, friendship, loyalty, tolerance and the struggle for self-fulfillment. Jessica Parks’s wonderful scenic design and Patricia Doherty’s lovely costume choices enhance this engrossing drama.

 

Audience members who are curious as to what happens when the men come home and the families move to the suburbs will be pleased to know that Housewives is the first play in a trilogy, following with Victory Blues and Are You Popular?



New Jersey Repertory Company's Lovely Production of Alan Brody's Housewives of Mannheim Is A Stellar addition of 59E59's Americas Off Broadway
By Elyse Sommer

Original Review by Simon Saltzaman

I don't know anything anymore. Everyone around me tells me what it's right to want and to feel. And when I think something different, it frightens me. — May
Corey Tazmania, Pheonix Vaughn, Wendy Peace and Natalie Mosco
Simon Saltzman's did not go overboad in his enthusiasm for Alan Brody's The Housewives of Mannheim. Yes it's another World War II drama with music, costumes and scenic details to take us back to an era that seems to be a never ending source for dramatists and novelists. But it is indeed a standout, and New York theater goers are fortunate that they now have a chance to see the sensitively directed, beautifully detailed New Jersey premiere production with the actors who originally made each character a real, distinctive and unforgettable human beings.

Coming as it does at the end of a New York season that's been notable for being awash in gay-themed plays, both newly-conceived revivals and brand-new plays, the arrival of Brody's play in New York is especially timely. Unlike these plays, The Housewives of Mannheim tackles the much less explored subject of female sexual identity. Unlike any of these other plays bringing "the love that dare not speak its name" into the mainstream, this is not a Lesbian play — well, it is, in that it does address the women loving women issue. However, it does so as part of a much broader, more fully fleshed out story that examines matters of personal growth, friendship and prejudice. It uses the microcosm of a kitchen like millions of other kitchens to view the macrocosm of a world war which would change those on the home front and those in the forefront of the battle.

I'm not familiar with the layout of Ms. Barabas' theater where Simon saw and reviewed the play, but all those authentic details of May Black's kitchen have transferred just fine to 59E59's Theater B. — including the sheet on the clothesline so ingeniously used to project the Flemish painting from which the play takes its title and which the playwright subtly uses to remind us the centuries its taken for the daily little kitchen sink dramas of women's lives to evolve.

If I would add one quibble's to Simon's otherwise right on the mark review, it's that a sophisticated refugee like Sophie Birnbaum would be unlikely to move into a working class apartment building in Flatbush. In 1944 apartments between 90th and 110th street or further up in Washington Heights where many European refugees lived were no more expensive than apartments in Brooklyn and a more believable escape from Greenwich anti-semitism. But without Sophie's arrival to stir up the dormant emotions of the other women, we wouldn't have had as powerful a play so I guess Brody can be allowed this bit of poetic license.

As I became more and more involved with these women's lives, I found myself hoping that Mr. Brody was working on a follow-up that would extend this story to after the war so we could see what happens when the war ends and the men come back — something like Arlene Hutton's Nibroc Trilogy which followed its characters from the 1940s into the post War era, which began life a play at a time but is currently being frequently re-revived as an all-in-one event. Leafing through my press kit after the play ended I discovered that the playwright has anticipated my wish. The Housewives of Mannheim is, in fact, the first of a trilogy. The story will continue with Victory Blues about the husbands' return and "Are You Popular?" which moves them out of Brooklyn and into the suburbs. But don't wait for these still unproduced plays. This installment has enough power to stand on its own and shouldn't be missed.

The Housewives of Mannheim - Golden Girls meets The Goldbergs Off B'way

Oscar E. Moore “from the rear mezzanine” for Talk Entertainmnt.com

What does it take to get a naïve woman to think for herself? What does it take to have a wife not miss her husband who is off fighting for his country? What does it take for a woman to be free enough to speak the truth about her innermost feelings for another woman?

To help you discover some very intriguing answers, go get yourself a ticket to a modest new play with some immodest ideas by Alan Brody - “The Housewives of Mannheim” that is sensitively directed by Suzanne Barabas and finely acted by the cast of four which has just opened at 59 E 59 Street Theaters. Originally produced by the New Jersey Repertory Company it has arrived in Manhattan with its original cast intact. And what a wonderful cast it is.

Four Jewish women, living in Brooklyn, during WWII. Husbands have gone off to war, leaving their wives behind to take care of the kids and wait for things to return to normal. Will they ever? After a new tenant – Sophie Birnbaum (Natalie Mosco) moves in with her piano that busy body Alice (Wendy Peace) can’t wait to describe to innocent and beautiful May (Pheonix Vaughn) over coffee in the richly detailed kitchen set by Jessica L. Parks we start to wonder.

The about to blossom May has begun to think what it would be like to be independent. She has uncharacteristically gone off to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan to see a painting attributed to Vermeer – The Housewives of Mannheim - women that appear to her to be trapped in their lives. So she is ripe for some new pleasures and even goes so far as to fill out an application to apply to college.

The arrival of the worldly wise widow Sophie (who has fled the Nazis and who was a concert pianist) is the catalyst that sets off a series of events that have been percolating for the past ten years. Billie (Corey Tazmania) sells fine linens to try to escape with her son from Brooklyn and an unhappy marriage to her dentist husband who remains on the home front. She’s the funny one. On the outside. Inside she harbors deep set feelings and fears that slowly emerge and culminate in her seductive dance after coming home tipsy from a Bohemian party with the newly thinking for herself and equally tipsy May. It’s one of the most sensitively directed and tasteful seduction scenes that you will ever see. All season long I have seen so many homosexual plays that I began to wonder, when will women get their turn. Well, this is it.

The dialogue by Alan Brody is rich in detail and humor. It’s a pleasure to hear these people speak with one another. His structure is also strong as are his characters. There is good story telling going on here. He makes all his points while keeping us interested throughout.

The use of period music between scenes is just another Midas touch.

How does May treat Billie after that fateful night? Will she accept Billie as she was before or reject her? It’s fascinating how this all plays out. And what will happen when the men finally do come home? For that we’ll have to wait for the next two installments of this trilogy of plays.


Wartime ‘Housewives’ Forge New Paths

Exposure Time
Phoenix Vaughn, Natalie Mosco and Corey Tazmania star in Alan Brody’s “The Housewives of Mannheim.”


Tuesday, May 4, 2010

by Ted Merwin

They may not all have turned into Rosie the Riveter, but women’s lives certainly changed once their men went off to battle. Alan Brody’s new play, “The Housewives of Mannheim,” focuses on four Jewish women living in the same apartment house in 1944 Flatbush who find different paths to growth and fulfillment in the absence of their husbands. When “Housewives” ran last year with the same cast at the New Jersey Rep in Long Branch, Robert L. Daniels of Variety called it a “keenly constructed and beautifully acted romantic drama.”

Directed by SuzAnne Barabas, “Housewives” revolves around a (fictitious) painting by Vermeer that shows four 17th-century Dutch women as they work together in the kitchen. May Black (Phoenix Vaughn) finds the painting at the Met and identifies with the figures who seem imprisoned in the domestic sphere.

The more conventionally minded Alice Cohen (Wendy Peace) cannot appreciate May’s dilemma, but May finds a ready listener in middle-aged Sophie Birnbaum (Natalie Mosco), a former Viennese concert pianist who has fled from the Nazis. But when May’s neighbor, Billie Friedhof (Corey Tazmania), tries to start a sexual relationship with her, May questions just how liberated she wants to be.

The playwright, who is a professor of theater at MIT, grew up in Brooklyn before moving to suburban Philadelphia in the 1950s and then returning to New York to study acting at Columbia with Uta Hagen. His first novel, “Coming To,” published in the 1970s, was hailed as the first feminist novel written by a man. His later work, including many plays, has often dealt with Jewish themes.

Among these dramatic works are “Inventions for Fathers and Sons,” about four generations of Jewish men in Brooklyn, and “The Company of Angels,” about a Yiddish theater company that toured the displaced persons camps after World War II. “Housewives” is the first play in a trilogy that continues with “Victory Blues,” which shows what happens when the husbands return, and “Are You Popular?,” which follows the families as they make the move to the suburbs.

In a telephone interview, Brody told The Jewish Week that the play is about “what happens when men were away and women discovered that they didn’t need to identify themselves only through their husbands.” When May visits the museum, he said, she “discovers a whole world of history and art that she never knew existed.”

Brody based the character of Billie on the mother of his best friend from childhood. “I could never find the way to realize her; then I found it and a lot of things coalesced.”

Like the building that his characters inhabit, Brody recalled that the apartment house where he grew up was a “high-rise village” for which the word “community” had not yet been invented. “We didn’t need to use that word,” he said. “It’s only when something dissipates that you put a name to it and try to get it back.”


  Click Here for The New York Times' Review of Yankee Tavern
 

'Yankee Tavern' stage review: Long Branch play something to toast about

By Peter Filichia/For The Star-Ledger

April 22, 2010, 4:04AM
Yankee Tavern
SuzAnne Barabas Jim Shankman as Ray and Pheonix Vaughn as Janet in Yankee Tavern at NJ Rep in Long Branch now thru May 23.

So why did noted playwright Steven Dietz name his new drama “Yankee Tavern”?

The nearly excellent play, presented in its world premiere at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, has nothing to do with Americans living in the Northern stretches of the country.

That world championship baseball team isn’t part of the plot, either.

And while the fascinating script does take place in a watering hole, it could just as easily be set in any place where people congregate.

What’s really on Dietz’s mind is the 9/11 tragedy. Ray, a barfly who spends an inordinate amount of time in this tavern, incessantly listens to talk radio. He even wears a headset lest he miss a morsel.

That apparatus also gives Ray the opportunity to call the program at a moment’s notice. He constantly feels the need to “correct” both the talk show host and other listeners who call in.

Ray is the loosest of cannons as he dispenses his version of the truth. He has opinions on everything, including this howler: “The fall of communism was a Communist plot!”

And yet … and yet … only the rarest of theatergoers won’t feel that every now and then, Ray has a plausible theory or a believable take. That’s the main fascination with “Yankee Tavern.” Who knows for sure what’s true and what isn’t? Can we trust what the politicians tell us?

Adam, portrayed in a low-key fashion by Jason Odell Williams, owns the bar. He’s more concerned about the chance the city will condemn it than with the big wedding his fiancée, Janet, is planning.

These two get the play off to a shaky start. Certainly Williams and Pheonix (that’s the way she spells it) Vaughn, who plays Janet, make a cute couple, but what does that ultimately mean where a marriage is concerned? Janet grills Adam as to why so many of the “save-the-date” cards she mailed were returned; he admits that he made up the names just to seem as if he has more friends. While this establishes Adam as an unstable character — one who may be inclined to fudge the truth as much as some government leaders — Janet gets over this lie much too easily. Don’t blame either Vaughn or director SuzAnne Barabas; the trouble is in the writing.

Another complication comes courtesy of an ominous-looking stranger who enters, sits at the bar, and orders two beers. This unnamed person doesn’t have much to say for the entire first act, but he certainly becomes loquacious in Act Two — with more information about 9/11 than even Ray could imagine. Michael Irvin Pollard excels in making us believe that this man has better-informed answers, and that he’s someone who should not be challenged.

Jim Shankman is best of all as the grizzled hothead Ray. He’s reason enough to see the play.

Whether or not Ray is spouting fiction, Shankman makes certain that all his emotions are real and raw. The actor stalks across the floor of Jessica Parks’ too-neat set as if he’s staking his claim to the entire operation.

One of the more arresting moments arrives as the lights come up on Act Two, Scene Two. The bar is covered with baskets of flowers. Were they sent to celebrate Adam and Janet’s wedding — or out of respect for someone who died?

“Yankee Tavern” always keeps the audience guessing.


Stop, children . . . What's that sound?
"Yankee Tavern" serves a deceptively light blend of revelation & paranoia
Anne Sherber, Tuesday, April 27, 2010

When it comes to conspiracy theories, most people land somewhere between the extremes. Perhaps they believe that Oswald acted alone, but the Apollo space landing was a hoax. Or they implicate the CIA in killing Martin Luther King, but accept Princess Diana's death as a tragic accident.

Exposure Time
Jim Shankman testifies to Pheonix Vaughn in Yankee Tavern, through May 23 at New Jersey Repertory.

But at the very ends of that spectrum, you'll find the nuts and the hopelessly naïve: Those who believe that nothing happens without a hidden (and, more often than not, malevolent) subtext; and those who insist on believing that things are exactly as they appear, regardless of the contrary evidence.

Yankee Tavern, a new play by Steven Dietz at New Jersey Repertory Company, is all about those extremes, and what happens when the ground beneath closely held positions shifts.

Adam is a serious young grad student, working on a dissertation about urban myths and their role in perpetuating dangerous, elaborate conspiracy theories. He is angling for a job with the CIA when he graduates. Meanwhile, he is stuck tending the bar in his late father's tavern while he waits for the city to condemn the place. Adam's fiancée Janet works at an unnamed foundation and is knee deep preparations for their wedding.

The play's beating heart is Ray, a clever but very crazy homeless man who was once the best friend of Adam's father. Ray sees conspiracies everywhere he looks. He is chock full of doomsday predictions, unprovable assertions and half-baked speculations about everything from the occult Starbucks logo to the real story behind those notorious hanging chads.

It is the events of September 11, 2001 for which Ray saves his most zealous theorizing. Obsessed by questions about who knew what and when, by which parts of the tragedy constituted coincidence and which were the result of covert schemes, his rantings are eloquent quackery.

But Ray's crackpot notions suddenly seem less implausible when a mysterious stranger sits down at the end of the bar. In the midst of one of Ray's rants, the newcomer finishes one of Ray's sentences. And he proceeds to reveal a surprising intimacy with the details of September 11 and, even more menacingly, with Adam's research. Suddenly, all of the odd details of the World Trade Center tragedy, which so preoccupy Ray, are seeming much coincidental.

SuzAnne Barabas directs the first act as black comedy. Despite the dark topics, Ray's rat-a-tat tirades are both silly enough and true enough to be very funny, and even the entrance of a mysterious stranger supplies a kind of Gunfight at the OK Corral campiness.

But that good-natured bemusement is completely absent in the play's second half. With Adam off to Washington, D.C. for a round of secretive meetings and Ray off in search of a suit to wear to the couple's wedding, the mysterious stranger returns to find only Janet behind the bar. The simmering menace of the first act erupts into a rolling boil.

Jim Shankman chews the scenery as Ray, delivering twice as much dialog as the other characters in half the time. He manages to make his rants at the same time self-deprecating and egomaniacal, completely conveying the incontrovertible proof of hundreds of conspiracies, everywhere he looks. In the second act when Ray is largely offstage, the play seems to deflate a little.

Despite being deliberately upstaged by Shankman, Pheonix Vaughn and Jason Odell Williams are both very good as the couple whose center cannot hold when their facades begin to disintegrate. Michael Irvin Pollard carries a tortured menace as Palmer, the mystery man who knows too much,

Barabas' crisp direction steers the play along briskly enough to gloss over any small plot holes. Yankee Tavern is a surprising and effective piece of theater that is both funny and suspenseful.


A CurtainUp New Jersey Review

Yankee Tavern



Vigilance, Adam. Eternal vigilance. And, hey, some guy heard my theory about Yoko Ono and the Bay of Pigs, and he wants me to do a blob. What's a blob, anyway? — Ray
Yankee Tavern
Jim Shankman as Ray and Pheonix Vaughn as Janet
(Photo: SuzAnne Barabas)
Steven Dietz, one of America's most prolific contemporary playwrights, has written a humdinger of a play, a suspenseful, thought-provoking thriller that is above all else vastly entertaining. Part of the National New Play Network Rolling World Premieres, Yankee Tavern is giving New Jersey theatergoers a real treat, one that should also make them tremble enough to say, "Is this really possible?"

I have to admit that I am a sucker for conspiracy theories. I am still not completely convinced that there isn't something a little too patently coincidental between the exacerbated grief at Toyota and the longtime accumulating resentment by the American automobile industry. It is a wonder that among the litany of conspiracies that Ray (Jim Shankman) carries on about that he doesn't mention the above while he paces frenetically about the run-down almost derelict Yankee Tavern on lower Broadway. His target audience at the tavern, that is when he isn't speaking to the ghosts who reside in the empty hotel rooms above, is Adam (Jason Odell Williams) the current proprietor/son of the deceased owner and Adam's fiancée Janet (Pheonix Vaughn).

Ray is not only a diehard conspiracy theorist but also (as he calls himself) the "itinerant homesteader" at the Yankee Tavern which he uses as his soap box. If Adam is basically willing to listen to Ray's theories, it is Janet who senses in them the potential to create a schism in their relationship. Listening to Ray carry on about weddings being "a conspiracy — a brutal and pervasive strategy to empty the pockets of guilt-ridden parents and tie up the good hotels in the month of June," is just one of a slew of amusingly theoretical notions that serve almost as a trap to his more ominously convincing theory regarding what and who really brought down the Twin Towers.

After some motor-mouth rants on how Disney participated in the fall of communism and who really rigged the elections that would send Al Gore on the road to save the planet, Ray settles down just enough to pose his often scarily logical accumulation of data and facts about the events on 9/11. Pieced together they make just enough sense to make us wonder.

But what are we to make of the sudden appearance of Palmer, a mysterious stranger (played with an unnervingly effective smirk by Michael Irvin Pollard.) With the anticipated demolition of the old building, Adam, a graduate student, has set his sight on joining the CIA upon the counsel of a college mentor/professor with whom he makes furtive little side trips and with whom he also apparently shares a somewhat secret alliance.

The increasingly agitated Janet finds it discomforting to listen to Ray's theories but even more concerned about how Adam's life appears influenced by the unseen professor. Things get really scary when she unwittingly becomes a party to a conspiracy.

The performances, under the taut direction of SuzAnne Barabas, are a confluence of excellence. You don't have to ascribe to Ray's arguably nonsensical diatribes to be totally won over by frenetic Shankman's impassioned delivery. It is the Hitchcockian ordinariness of both Adam and Janet, as convincingly portrayed by Williams and Vaughn that keep us on our guard.

I was especially impressed with the jukebox in Jessica Park's evocation of a shabby bar. I suppose it was Jill Nagel exemplary lighting that made it spring to blinking life at a climactic moment. The play is enhanced and cleverly underscored by a delightful synthesis of themes by Hitchcock's favorite composer Bernard Hermann, Philip Glass and others. All other technical credits were top notch.

It's Happy Hour, sort of, at NJ Rep's "Tavern"

By TOM CHESEK • CORRESPONDENT, Asbury Park Press • April 16, 2010

There's the dramatic setting — a lower Manhattan building scheduled for a date with the wrecking ball. A young man is caught in "a web of intrigue" as he comes to grips with his late father's hidden legacy. Plus, his father's friend, a dealer in outlandish conspiracies, may just be a paranoid schizophrenic. And add "a mysterious stranger who appears to know far more than he should about the 9/11 attacks."

Not only is "Yankee Tavern" a comedy, it's one of those devilishly dark comedies regularly served up as the specialty house cocktail at New Jersey Repertory Company.

The play by Steven Dietz makes its regional debut this weekend at the company's Long Branch playhouse — part of a "rolling world premiere" from the National New Play Network, and an effort that director SuzAnne Barabas maintains "should have a long life, way beyond NJ Rep."

Barabas, who will transfer her NJ Rep production of "Housewives of Mannheim" to New York for a May 6 to June 6 engagement at the 59E59 Theaters (more about that in a future edition), confesses that it was the irresistible lure of the conspiracy theory that attracted her to the script by the Texas-based playwright — noting "When I started to hear the sort of stories they were telling, it made my hair stand up; it was that creepy."

Of course, as one of the rolling premieres, the play can be staged in many places at once — it's already been read and performed in at least three other cities, and a successful stand here could ensure that this study in "outlandish theories" and "dangerous realities" may not be easily escaped in the months to come.

Coincidence? Perhaps. Bear in mind, however, that "Yankee Tavern" is being brought to you by the same folks who staged such sardonic snickers as "Old Clown Wanted," "tempOdyssey," "Ten Percent of Molly Snyder" and "Sick" — paranoid fantasies all, from a troupe about whom it could be said nobody does it better.

"Many things are going on in this play," Barabas said. "Who's behind what; that sort of thing.

"It's a lot of fun to listen to, a little ridiculous — until it starts to go beyond," she says.

The bulk of the play's humor, Barabas asserts, comes from the conspiracy chatter — brought center stage by "Sick" veteran actor Jim Shankman as Ray, the "itinerant homesteader" whose only permanent address is his bar stool at the Yankee Tavern.

Jason Odell Williams plays Adam, the graduate student whose stewardship of his father's failing business is cast in an unexpected light. Also in the cast are two welcome NJ Rep regulars. Pheonix Vaughn, a sensation as May in "Housewives" and a role she'll reprise in New York, who plays Adam's practical fiance Janet — the show's only character not in danger of slipping into the "Twilight Zone." Also, on hand as the enigmatic Palmer is Michael Irvin Pollard, an actor who's segued in recent seasons from broad comedy ("Big Boys") to some awe-inspiring dramatic work in "Apple" and "Dead Ringer."

"I'm grateful to be working with this cast," director Barabas observes. "They've been off-book for weeks, and they're ready to do this thing."

Just announced by NJ Rep is a new season's worth of shows commencing in July with Sharr White's "Sunlight," a drama touching on the events of 9/11, followed in September by Charlie Shulman's "Character Assassins" and in December by Steve Braunstein's noir-ish thriller "Tangled Skirt."

The 2011 calendar year is highlighted by "Puma," a based-on-fact play by Julie Gilbert and Frank Evans, in which actors portray Marlene Dietrich, Jimmy Stewart, Paulette Goddard and Erich Maria Remarcque, author of "All Quiet on the Western Front."


‘EXPOSURE’ DEVELOPS AT NJ REP (Red Bank Orbit)

Exposure Time
Sitting pretty: John FitzGibbon, Andrea Gallo, Jessica Howell and Adam Jonas Segaller star in EXPOSURE TIME, the play by Kim Merrill that makes its world premiere in Long Branch this week. (Photos by SuzAnne Barabas)

By TOM CHESEK

Who says Alice doesn’t live here anymore? As movie audiences look forward to director Tim Burton’s star-studded, three-dimensional riff on Alice in Wonderland, interest is once again heightened — as it’s periodically been since 1865 — in the concepts and characters created by the parson, poet and portrait artist who wrote under the pen name Lewis Carroll.

Meanwhile, on the intimately scaled but expansively visioned stage of New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, the story of Alice gets viewed through an altogether different looking glass — the glass plates and heavy lenses of the Victorian camera — in a drama that centers around the competition between Carroll (a/k/a Charles L. Dodgson) and the pioneer photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. The prize? The favor of the girl who would serve as the real-life inspiration for Alice.

Yes Virginia, there really was an Alice — Alice Liddell, a clergyman’s daughter who grew up to be a noted society hostess (and who died in 1934 at the age of 82). In Exposure Time, the play by Kim Merrill that kicks off its world premiere engagement with a pair of preview performances this Thursday, she’s a maturing young thing (portrayed by Jessica Howell) who becomes something of a muse to Dodgson/ Carroll (Adam Jonas Segaller) — the daughter, in fact, of Dodgson’s superior, and a figure who fascinates the man who’s torn between his church career and his artistic impulses.

Andrea Gallo, who co-starred in a couple of previous shows at NJ Rep (including a weird and wonderful show called Tilt Angel that pretty much no one saw) plays the amazing Cameron, and the cast (under the direction of Alan Souza, who helmed the Rep musicals The Little Hours and Cupid & Psyche) is rounded off by another stock company stalwart — John FitzGibbon, whose plummy-toned vocal prowess and grand characterizations (as everything from The Butler to train-wreck poet Delmore Schwartz) have graced many a local production. He’ll be playing the famed Charge of the Light Brigade poet Lord Alfred Tennyson — a match-up that already hits the spot, sight unseen.

Red Bank oRBit spoke with New York-based playwright Merrill — a sometime actor, mother of two, and otherwise author of contemporary dramas with names like Criminal Acts and Sex, Death and the Beach Baby — about the seemingly miraculous process through which this picture of bygone people emerged. Read on. 

RED BANK ORBIT: Like so many of the mainstage productions at New Jersey Rep, your play was first seen there as one of their little script-in-hand readings. Has it changed much since that time, or were you pretty well satisfied with what you had?

KIM MERRILL: I’m not one of those writers who think what they’ve got is perfect from the start, so I’ve done a fair amount of rewriting since they presented the reading, back in August of 2008, I think it was. We had a two week workshop in Minneapolis also — I even made some more changes before rehearsals started.

It’s been interesting, revisiting these characters that I began writing years ago. Going back to an old play is like going back to someone you broke up with!

Take us back to the beginning of the project — what was it about Julia Cameron and Lewis Carroll that struck you as a worthwhile dramatic subject?

I read an article about a display of Carroll’s pictures — I hadn’t even known he took photos before that; he really considered himself a professional, and he was meticulous about archiving his work — and in this article there was a mention of Julia Cameron. I thought she’d be an interesting subject, not only because she was a woman who was very involved with the early days of photography, but also because of the impact that photography had on the Victorian era.

I’ve always been interested in that era, when the seeds of our current culture were affected by all this new technology. A comparable thing would be the introduction of the internet to our society. 

So you must have done a fair amount of homework before starting in on the script.

I researched it for about a year. This is my only historical play, so even though I made a lot of it up — in particular, I pumped up the competition aspect for the sake of the story — it’s based on things that actually happened. 

One of the things I looked into was the whole process of photography as it existed back then — I found a woman who’s an expert on Julia Cameron, and I spent a day with her taking my portrait as it would have been done back then. I learned how complicated the chemicals were; how time consuming the whole process was…

We’re talking about the days before film, when she and her contemporaries were using, what, daguerrotypes? Glass plates?

She used what was called the wet collodion process, which involved glass plates and a silver nitrate solution; a lot of dangerous chemicals — it was a pretty difficult method of taking pictures, but it was popular for a while.

There was an argument going on back then over whether photography should be considered an art or a science, given how complicated the process could seem at the time. Ever since she was rediscovered around the 1940s, Julia is known primarily in art circles; a lot of her work wasn’t archived but the photo albums that have survived are well known with collectors and museum people. 

One of the more interesting things about those early photos is that, because of how they were produced, they’re really not captured moments in time — they’re actually very orchestrated events.

Those old photos look weird to us because they’re so staged and constructed — personally I find them to be very orderly and creepy! I also admire the Alice books, but they’ve always been scary to me!

There’s also a creepy undercurrent to the whole story of Lewis Carroll and the real-life Alice, if you believe a lot of the more recent biographical material. Do you address that here, in the midst of this story about the two photographers who are kind of competing for the attention of this girl Alice? 

The play’s not realistic, although I stay true to their story — they did actually meet, and both of them photographed Alice Liddell. Most of the fictionalizing here is in Carroll’s relationship with Alice.

I’m aware of the stories of pedophilia that have circulated about Lewis Carroll, but in the course of my research I found that there was this aesthetic back then for taking pictures of naked kids. Julia took these too, but being that she was a middle aged woman I guess that she hasn’t come under the same sort of scrutiny. I think there was an idealization of innocence in the way that many photographers portrayed children back then, although our modern eyes would see things differently.

I’m more interested in them as artists anyway — I did my best to make this a story about aspiration. Julia Cameron was obsessive about photography.

I know that you’ve taken an active interest in watching this production develop, as it were — so how’s it been seeing the show come to life on the stage? And working with a director who specializes in musicals?

I think in an ideal world I’d love to be able to do this on a big stage, with big projections of photos behind the actors. But working with New Jersey Rep has been a great experience, just as working with Alan Souza — the play as I said is not realistic, so it does present some of the same directorial challenges that a musical can present. We received an American Play Award, which allows for extra collaborative time, so we had some extra weeks to work with Alan. And I’ve learned a lot from the rehearsal process.


GO ASK ALICE

NJ Rep develops "Exposure Time" for world premiere

Asbury Park Press, February 12, 2010

As a big-budget new screen treatment of "Alice in Wonderland" prepares to open nationwide next month, New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch offers up an entirely different take on the Alice saga — one that, while it's based in fact, is equally surreal, and also in 3-D.

The real life Alice Liddell, who died in 1934 at the age of 82, may have inspired some fanciful adventures under the ground and through the looking glass. "Exposure Time," the play by Kim Merrill that makes its world premiere this weekend at NJ Rep, peers through a different sort of glass — the photographer's lens — to create a study of the young woman and her relationship with two prominent citizens of Victorian England; one a pioneering female photographer, the other a man who would come to write under the pen name of Lewis Carroll.

It's actually the lenswoman Julia Margaret Cameron who's at the heart of "Exposure Time," a play that the New York-based Merrill was inspired to write upon becoming fascinated with this prominent portrait artist of the 19th century.

"I've always been interested in that era, when the seeds of our current culture were affected by all this new technology," the playwright explains. "A comparable thing would be the introduction of the internet to our society."

Those pioneer days of photography — a time when there was some debate over its being an art form or a science — were defined by heavy glass plates, dangerous chemicals and lengthy exposure times that made an old photo portrait something more "staged and constructed" than spontaneously captured. In researching Cameron, Merrill investigated the techniques used by the early professionals, even spending most of a day sitting for a recreation of a formal portrait session.

"This is a story about aspiration," says Merrill of the play that was written several years ago, and which, like so many offerings at NJ Rep, developed from one of the theater's popular series of script-in-hand readings.

"It's based on things that actually happened, but it's not a realistic play," the author maintains. "I made a lot of it up — in particular, I pumped up the competition aspect for the sake of the story."

That competition - between Cameron and her fellow camera enthusiast, the young clergyman and poet Charles L. Dodgson — becomes a thing of Mozart-Salieri proportions in Merrill's hands. The two contemporaries vie not just for supremacy in the marketplace, but for the favor of the girl to whom Dodgson would come to dedicate his pseudonymous "Alice" stories.

"Most of the fictionalizing here is in his relationship with Alice," says Merrill in reference to the recent and controversial speculation regarding the Dodgson-Liddell connection — adding that "there was an idealization of innocence in the way that many photographers portrayed children back then, although our modern eyes would see things differently."

Andrea Gallo, a veteran of several past productions at NJ Rep, stars as Julia Cameron, with Rep newcomer Adam Jonas Segaller as Dodgson. Jessica Howell makes her company debut as Alice, and another familiar figure on the Long Branch stage — the estimable character man John FitzGibbon — portrays one of the "A-list" figures of the era, the celebrated poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson. In the director's chair is Alan Souza, whose previous credits at NJ Rep include the musicals "Cupid and Psyche" and "The Little Hours" (a show that he'll be reprising in New York this spring).

For Merrill, who's workshopped and revised her script considerably in the years leading up to this world premiere run, it's "been interesting revisiting these characters—going back to an old play is like going back to someone you broke up with!"

Suppose they gave a "War' . . . and "Two Jews" walked into NJ Rep premiere
by Tom Chesek for The Asbury Park Press

As the days counted down to Hanukkah and now to Christmas, the ongoing war in Afghanistan continues to present a situation in which the numbers are the news.

The Rant
All hopes for a community are in the hands of Reathel Bean of Montclair (left) and John Pietrowski of Long Valley, in "Two Jews Walk Into a War" at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. (STAFF PHOTO: BOB BIELK)

While a nation argues the efficacy of committing tens of thousands of new troops to that rocky and forbidding land, over at New Jersey Repertory Company the focus falls upon two souls in particular.

As delineated in "Two Jews Walk Into a War," the elderly men named Ishaq and Zeblyan are the last two surviving members of the Afghani Jewish community, holed up in the last synagogue standing during the last days of the Taliban regime.

One would think that these men of unwavering faith would have each other's backs — but this being NJ Rep, it's more a matter of them having at each other's throats.

"It's a little bit "Waiting for Godot'; a little bit "Odd Couple,' " says director James Glossman of the play opening in Long Branch this weekend. "Anything that's like oil and water."

In the script by Seth Rozin (a "rolling world premiere" from the National New Play Network, an organization once headed by the playwright), Ishaq and Zeblyan are bunkered down for the noble purpose of recreating the sacred texts of the Torah, but a little thing called lifelong acrimony keeps getting in the way.

"There's an upper-class, working-class thing going on — they haven't liked each other their whole lives," explains Glossman in reference to the story that's reportedly based in fact. "The play is very traumatic, but very funny at the same time."

Glossman, a sought-after and nationally renowned director who previously helmed "Tour de Farce" and "Circumference of a Squirrel" at NJ Rep (and who once brought his friend Stephen Colbert to Long Branch for a script-in-hand reading), has worked closely with actors ranging from Ed Asner, John Astin, Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentiss to Jack Klugman, Priscilla Lopez, Fred Savage and Vin Scelsa — yes, classic rock radio fans, that Vin Scelsa.

For "Two Jews," Glossman has called upon a couple of players with whom he's collaborated repeatedly in the past — busy stage and TV actor Reathel Bean (who worked with the director in the Arthur Miller dramas "Death of a Salesman" and "The Price") and the actor-director-educator John Pietrowski, acclaimed star of Glossman's "Sedition" at Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey.

It should be noted that Pietrowski, in addition to being a classmate of Glossman at Northwestern University, is also Artistic Director of Playwrights Theatre — and that the Madison-based Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey (PTNJ) is co-producing this show with NJ Rep.

It's a "very happy partnership" for Glossman, who's slated to follow up the Long Branch project with a chance to direct Alley Mills in a rare fully staged production of Noel Coward's "A Song at Twilight" in Los Angeles.

"Places like NJ Rep, PTNJ, care about developing new plays," he explains. "If it weren't for these theaters, there'd be no place for playwrights to bring their work."

As to the question of how he's come to have so many famous friends at his beck and call, Glossman tends to view himself as a matchmaker between people and projects.

"All the best actors are always wanting to do more interesting work," he says. "Give them the chance, and they will find a way to make it happen."


Sharing a shul in Kabul

'Two Jews Walk Into a War...' offers more than just a punchline
by Jill Huber
SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH STATE
December 18, 2009

The title implies comedic overtones, but "Two Jews Walk Into a War...", a new play by Seth Rozin that will run at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch through Jan. 10, 2010, offers a mix of comedy, tragedy, hope, faith, and compassion.

The two-character play, which features Reathel Bean as Ishaq and John Pietrowski as Zeblyan, the only surviving Jews in Afghanistan during the final days of Taliban rule, takes place in the ruins of synagogue in Kabul. While sporadic gunfire can be heard on the streets, the two men decide that the only way to preserve their religion for the next generation of Afghani Jews is to recreate the text of the Torah, which Ishaq has committed to memory -- complete with correct spelling and proper punctuation.

The project would be challenging under the best of circumstances, but the pious Ishaq and the skeptical Zeblyan have another hurdle to overcome -- they detest each other and must find a way to co-exist in order to complete their Herculean task. As Zeblyan begins transcribing the text dictated by Ishaq, the two engage in general name-calling, argue about who suffered worse torture at the hands of the Taliban, and which family led a more oppressed life.

The play, which is co-produced by NJ Rep and Playwrights Theatre in Madison and is directed by James Glossman, is inspired by a true story, said Rozin, who has written several other plays and is the founder and producing artistic director of InterAct Theatre Company in Philadelphia. (He also has directed more than 45 productions at InterAct and received a 2002 new play commission from the Foundation of Jewish Culture).

"A friend and colleague came into rehearsal one day with an article he'd read about the last two Jews in Kabul," Rozin told The Jewish State. "These two extraordinary men had seen their once-thriving community dwindle down to just themselves. They had survived the Russians and the Taliban, and, to make their true-life story even more ripe for dramatization, they hated each other."

The circumstances were rich with comedic potential and offered the chance to explore a truly existential relationship, he added.

"I imagined a kind of Near Eastern 'Waiting for Godot'," Rozin said. Though he discovered that two other playwrights had read the same article and wrote similar plays, those works had been released to tepid reviews.

"But after learning that their dramatic impulse was limited to a story about two old Afghan Jews hurling insults at each other, I decided to depart from the facts and consider what might actually come of this relationship," said Rozin. "It occurred to me that the only thing that could hold these two rivals together in pursuit of their common cause of rebuilding the Jewish community in Kabul was recreating a Torah."

The result is an existential comedy that subtly evolves into a human drama about faith, friendship, and community, he said.

"With all my plays, I'm interested in why people believe what they believe and what would rock the foundation of that belief," Rozin said. "In this play, both characters have endured a lifetime of extraordinary challenges in war-ravaged, politically dysfunctional, religiously oppressive Afghanistan. But Ishaq devoutly believes in God's higher purpose and plan, while Zeblyan has become increasingly skeptical.

"I wanted to explore whether Ishaq's faith will crumble in the face of all of Zeblyan's boorish and provocative questioning of the Torah, or will Zeblyan discover a reason for his suffering," Rozin added.

Although the play starts off on the comedic side and then takes a more serious turn, the two actors achieved the transition through the evolving circumstances of their characters.

"In Ishaq's case, I think the secret is exhaustion that weakens his resolve to be right, and heightens his need for others and consolation of his faith," said Bean. "And the issue of affirmation of faith is very relevant in today's world. For too many people, faith has come to mean fundamentalism. Thus, you hear about the 'Christian vote' and it means 'right-wing nuts.'

"There is something legitimate there, though, but I fear it will always be a minority position, as it has so often been for Christians and Jews," he continued. "And maybe that's what it ought to be. I don't think triumphalism is appropriate for any faith."

And Zeblyan's natural intelligence and abundance of curiosity are among the traits that enable him to move through the play, said Pietrowski, who also is the artistic director of Playwrights Theatre.

"Zeblyan has not been formally trained in the lore of the Torah, so when he's actually forced to confront it, as he is in this situation, his readings are new, funded by his experience and not driven by old assumptions," he said. "He's literally hearing it for the first time as he writes it, so it's an intimate connection. I feel his confrontation with God is on a very pragmatic and physical level, and that pragmatism turns into a profound respect. He's wrestling with God and it's a good match."


STOP US IF YOU’VE HEARD THIS ONE (Red Bank Orbit)

Don’t ask us why so many of New Jersey Rep’s shows wind up with the characters strangling each other — but when TWO JEWS WALK INTO A WAR, things get interactive for John Pietrowski (left) and Reathel Bean (right).  (Photos courtesy SuzAnne Barabas)

By TOM CHESEK

His résumé groans beneath the weight of high-profile productions with some of the greatest “actor’s actors” in the business — Ed Asner and Jack Klugman, for instance. John Astin and Orson Bean; Paula Prentiss and Richard Benjamin; William Schallert and Len Cariou. To say nothing of Jay O. Sanders, Priscilla Lopez, Fred Savage, Vin Scelsa. Vin Scelsa?

Don’t call him a namedropper, though — at least not while the oRBit desk is still around to show how some truly skeevy namedropping is done. No, James Glossman sees himself as more of a matchmaker — a stage professional who mates performers with a bottomless passion for their craft to the kinds of projects that they’ll give their left Emmy to do. 

The Montclair-based director remains one of the most sought-after on the theatrical landscape (not just the region but the entire map of the USA) — and this week finds him in Long Branch, where New Jersey Repertory Company is getting ready to open their latest mainstage offering; a duet entitled Two Jews Walk Into A War.

Glossman, who previously helmed two past productions at NJ Rep (and who brought his pal Stephen Colbert to town to play the part of a Nazi bureaucrat in a reading a few years back), directs actors Reathel Bean and John Pietrowski in a timely two-up set in Afghanistan during the final days of the Taliban regime — where, in the last remaining synagogue in Kabul, the last remaining Jews in the entire country hole up to survive, and to recreate the sacred texts of the Torah.

Sounds like these gentlemen of faith and courage have each other’s backs — but in the script by Seth Rozin (a “rolling world premiere” from the National New Play Network, an organization once headed by the playwright), these characters are more likely to have at each other’s throats. Nursing ancient grudges and refusing to cede an inch of philosophical turf to the other, Ishaq and Zeblyan carry on their own little war within the larger conflict that batters their besieged sanctuary from without.

As the Two Jews, Glossman has cast a couple of guys with whom he’s worked repeatedly in the past — Bean (who worked with the director in the Arthur Miller dramas Death of a Salesman and The Price) and Pietrowski, who starred in Glossman’s own Sedition at Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey (and who, as Artistic Director of Madison-based PTNJ, is co-producing this show with NJ Rep).

After the opening on Saturday night, Glossman wings out to L.A. to start working on a very rare revival of Noël Coward’s late play, A Song at Twilight. Red Bank oRBit managed to catch this busy matchmaker for a few moments; Continue Reading for best results.

RED BANK ORBIT: Welcome back down the Shore, James. Seems to me we’ve met before during one of the other shows you’ve done at NJ Rep.

JAMES GLOSSMAN: In Long Branch I did Circumference of a Squirrel, with Ames Adamson — we wound up doing that one together in five or six different places — and Tour de Farce, with Ames and Prentiss Benjamin. Also the reading of The Good German.

New Jersey Rep is such a congenial place to work — they really care about developing new plays. It’s such a happy partnership.

Well, a fightin’ little nonprofit theater has to do what it has to do to survive these days, and in this case we’re seeing anther partnership, between NJ Rep and Playwrights.

It gives a play twice the audience; it can run a month in one place and a month in the other. If it weren’t for these theaters, for places like NJ Rep and PTNJ, there’d be no place for playwrights to bring their work. I spend about 65 percent of my time working on new plays, writing and directing, and there are just a limited number of places where a non-musical play can be nurtured along and developed. It used to be that the New York producers would be looking for plays of any size to bring to town, and nowadays when something like August: Osage County makes it to Broadway, it’s because it was already a huge hit elsewhere.

So tell us about TWO JEWS, which I suppose passes for this year’s big holiday extravaganza at NJ Rep… 

It’s an absolute alternative to all of the holiday stuff, all the Scrooges. It’s a great place in which to escape the holidays.

I didn’t expect there’d be anything in there about Christmas, but no Chanukah? No touching upon holidays of any kind? 

Nope. This play is very traumatic, but very funny at the same time. It’s a little bit Waiting for Godot; a little bit Odd Couple. Anything that’s like oil and water — Laurel & Hardy, Abbot & Costello.

The characters have to rely on each other, but they can’t stand each other. There’s an upper class, working class thing going on — they haven’t liked each other their whole lives.

Now, you and John Pietrowski have worked together for years, but here you’re directing him as an actor; a context in which I’m not really familiar with him.  

Oh, I’ve known John since we went to college together at Northwestern, since 1978, and he was always very much an actor. Still is. But I guess that when you’re a multi-talented sort of person as John is, some of those talents end up having less time devoted to them. It’s surprising to me that after a number of years away from acting, he’s even better now then he was when he was 20.

John was in Sedition, which I directed him in last year; about a stubborn idealist in the World War One era. He played the lead and I knew he’d be perfect for it. When it came time to cast Two Jews, Seth Rozin and I both thought of him at the same time. 

And you’ve worked also with Reathel Bean in the past? 

I’d seen Reathel in Inherit the Wind with George C. Scott, and when I found out he lived in New Jersey, we wound up doing Death of a Salesman, and then Flying Crows, which I adapted from the Jim Lehrer novel, and which also featured Prentiss Benjamin. And then we did The Price, with Orson Bean — which meant the two of them would have to explain continually how they were not related to each other. And now I’ll be getting on a plane to L.A. to work with Orson again, in Noel Coward’s A Song for Twilight, with his wife Alley Mills.

I’m sure there’s no mystery as to why the same actors keep showing up in your projects. 

It’s because you’re giving them something that they’re always looking out for; the kind of work that relates back to why they became actors in the first place. When you work with somebody like Jack Klugman, who’s had this storied career, who could easily have just had a comfortable retirement — he wants to act, to take on those challenges the same way he approached them when he was a young up-and-coming actor.

Jay O. Sanders is another actor with whom I’ve been collaborating on different projects. We did this Jay O. Sanders piece, Unexplored Interior, with 14 people in it; it had Fritz Weaver as Mark Twain among the characters. Then Jay and my wife, Maryann Plunkett, did a reading of a new David Wiltse play — the playwright who did The Good German — it’s just this amazing comedy mystery sort of play, like a Sleuth or a Deathtrap.

You must have the most incredible Rolodex, or whatever your tech of preference, of people that you can call upon for your projects. People that will drop what they’re doing and answer the call.

You know, in 20 years I’ve never gotten a turn-down for a reading. It’s as simple as the fact that all the best actors are always wanting to do more interesting work. Ed Asner, if he has the choice between waiting for one more lovable grandpa role, or a chance to do something like Spread Eagle — a great, lost political thriller — will go where his actor’s instincts take him. Give them a chance, and they will find a way to make it happen.


Click Here for New York Times Review of Dead Ringer


"Dead Ringer' is a thriller

by TOM CHESEK • CORRESPONDENT • October 21, 2009

Of all the things that can be adapted to either the screen or the theater, the scenario commonly called the "psychological thriller" is surely the toughest to pull off on the stage. A staple genre of most moviegoers' diets (even if things skew a bit toward the "psycho" more often than the "logical"), it can be a tricky thing to manage in a setting where the camera's selective eye is absent, and where pinpoint timing is of the essence.

In other words, they can't all be "Wait Until Dark" — not even, as we're often reminded, a lot of productions of "Wait Until Dark." With "Dead Ringer," however, playwright Gino Dilorio and the folks at Long Branch-based New Repertory Company have crafted a piece in the "thriller" genre that wears the clothes of an altogether different genre — the Western.

The "cowboy creds" of director SuzAnne Barabas and her husband, executive producer Gabe Barabas have long been established. (They presented a festival of short plays with the theme "The American Cowboy" and authored a guidebook to TV's "Gunsmoke.") But the NJ Rep co-founders are also enthusiastic fans of spinetingling stories, and this love of a good scare makes itself evident in this twisted tale of the bizarre interplay between three characters in the high-lonesome setting of nineteenth century Texas.

As the play opens, a young man named Dwight (Christian Pedersen) has come to see a man about a horse — literally. Dwight (or "Dewey") has traveled to the home of trainer Tyrus Cole (Michael Irvin Pollard) for advice on how to break an uncooperative mare, when he has a tense encounter with Mary (Natalie Wilder), Ty's sister and an invalid who spends her days and nights behind padlock and chain in a detached root cellar alongside the house.

Born with a "knotted head" and useless legs, Mary is glimpsed almost entirely as hands through the bars of her little prison of stone and earth — and heard throughout as a voice that recites poetry, sings like an angel, spins the origin of the phrase "dead ringer," and cajoles Dewey into a murderous plot against her brother.

Given over to drunken benders and flashes of abusive behavior, Ty has his own rationale for doing what he does — as well as his own contradictory take on his familial relationships. He even raises the notion of having Dewey do away with Mary — a prospect that the hapless farmboy, who's apparently unable even to fire a warning shot over the head of a horse, finds particularly distressing.

Things quickly get complicated against this simple landscape of wide open spaces. Secrets are revealed (including one that ways heavy upon Dewey), oaths are sworn to, and we hear mention of a large sum of money stashed away somewhere, although exactly where seems to be at issue. As the "web of intrigue" tightens, we begin to wonder just who that lock and chain are designed to protect.

The freestanding cellar with the barred wooden door sits at the center of the characteristically detailed set by Jessica Parks (this is one time when the "postage stamp stage" at NJ Rep could surely have benefited from a touch of Texas scale), becoming an extension of the deformed shut-in's personality. With a little dressing up it might have passed for a forest creature's home in the Hundred Acre Wood (and in silhouette it looms like Winnie's big pile of dirt in Beckett's "Happy Days"), but as lighting director Jill Nagle and sound designer Merek Royce Press turn day to night and back again, the maddeningly vague glimpses we get of the structure's interior only serve to reinforce it as a cool, dark place of mystery and secrets.

Wilder, a performer we've known largely in comic situations, takes on the challenge of this deceptively "easy" role with an intelligence that keeps pace with the complex machinations of the self-schooled, inscrutable woman behind the door. Pollard — another graduate from comedy parts, and now one of the finest dramatic actors in the NJ Rep stock company — lends authority to a conflicted character who dwells in his own prison of promises. In his Rep debut, Pedersen recalls the gangly 1960s Western actor Will Hutchins in his portrait of the seemingly nave and kind-hearted Dewey.

SuzAnne Barabas has wrangled a set of intense turns from her cast, a trio of characters trapped in a claustrophobic corner of big sky country. While there are any number of ways in which this tale (expanded by Dilorio from a 10-minute piece that premiered in Long Branch five years ago) might have played out, the production's violent, unsettling final moments make clear the director's intentions — NJ Rep has delivered to their audience a hell of a Halloween surprise.


 NJ Rep premiere puts cast through the 'Ringer'

NOT YOUR DADDY'S WESTERN By TOM CHESEK • CORRESPONDENT • October 16, 2009

The Rant
From left, Dwight (Christian Pedersen) and Ty (Michael Irvin Pollard), during a dress rehearsal of 'Dead Ringer' at the New Jersey Repertory Company. Long Branch, NJ. (Asbury Park Press/Michael Sypniewski)

Now here's a right peculiar notion — a drama set in 1885 Texas, on the porch of a horse rancher's house, making its world premiere in downtown Long Branch, New Jersey.

If you're wondering what business the founders of New Jersey Repertory Company — Hungarian-born Gabor Barabas and his Brooklyn-bred wife SuzAnne - have galavanting around the big sky country, look no further than "Gunsmoke: The Complete History," their still-in-print guidebook to TV's longest running Western series and a volume that has seen the West Long Branch residents recognized as the ultimate authorities on the subject (we are not making this up).

Then again, there's the historic home in Long Branch that NJ Rep uses to house its out-of-town actors during the run of a show — a place known familiarly as the "Buffalo Bill House," having once been owned by the business manager of Wild West showman William Cody.

It's even said that Sitting Bull himself stayed there overnight.

Of course, SuzAnne and Gabe may have tipped their hand five years ago, when they presented a festival of short plays organized under the theme of "The American Cowboy," and branded "My Rifle, My Pony and Me."

A three-night affair that drew upon the Rep's deep stock company of actors and writers, the event featured a playlet by Gino Dilorio, an odd little pocket drama by name of "The Hard Way."

An exercise in personal dynamics between the rancher, a young stranger who comes seeking his assistance with a horse, and the rancher's sister — an invalid who's confined by her brother to the root cellar of the house throughout the day — the well-received sketch became the basis for a full length script by Dilorio entitled "Dead Ringer." The play in its expanded form makes its debut on the Rep mainstage on Saturday, Oct. 17.

According to SuzAnne Barabas, the play's director, Dilorio "was originally reluctant even to write a 10-minute piece for us, in addition to not being interested in westerns."

Other members of NJ Rep's extended family — prominent among them actress and writer Natalie Wilder — were able to convince the playwright that he had the germ of something special, and later in 2004 Dilorio, Wilder and the Rep crew were able to do a staged reading of the new, longer "Hard Way." Somewhere along the line the title changed to the current "Dead Ringer," and elsewhere on the timeline the script was adapted for a prize-winning BBC radio drama.

Related 'Dead Ringer' at NJ Rep "It's changed quite a bit since then," says Barabas of the ever-evolving script. "But the basic story of the brother, the sister and the stranger remains at the heart of it — the dynamic among these three people is what makes it interesting."

Also of interest is the fact that Wilder, a frequent presence on the Long Branch stage and a performer of comic gifts and expressive range, is onstage throughout as a character who's locked away and largely unseen.

"There's a challenge to having one of your actors in a root cellar," the director says matter-of-factly. "Natalie has to work entirely with her voice, and her hands."

In another interesting bit of casting that speaks volumes about NJ Rep's propensity for shaking up expectations, the brother rancher is being portrayed by Michael Irvin Pollard, the very capable player of comic 'nebbish' parts who showed his considerable dramatic depth in last year's "Apple." The young stranger is played here by West Long Branch native Christian Pedersen in his first mainstage role for the Rep — but, despite the comedic skillsets of the cast, the director points out that the play tells a straightforward, dramatic story that unfolds over the course of a few days.

"I think it's a dark piece, with a fair amount of humor in it," Barabas maintains. "We're still discovering things about it, still exploring it - but it remains a linear story that everyone will be able to follow."


The Rant: Deft and Sophisticated Socio-Political Theatre

The Rant
Rahaleh Nassri and Mark Hairston
A sixteen-year-old black youth has been fatally shot by a police officer on the porch of his parental home in the East New York section of Brooklyn. The shooting was followed by a riot during which neighborhood residents threw rocks at police officers on the scene. Lila Mahnaz, an investigator for the civilian Department to Investigate Misconduct and Corruption, is conducting an inquiry into the incident. Sgt. Clark, the white officer who shot the boy, retired shortly thereafter. The boy's mother, Denise Reeves, tells Mahnaz that she saw a black policeman, Charles Simmons, hold her son down on the ground while Clarke shot him. Simmons, Clarke's driver, tells her that he never left his police vehicle and did not witness the shooting. Mahnaz, who believes Reeves' version of events, leaks her interview of Reeves to a newspaper reporter in the belief that its publication will bring this injustice to public attention and force the police department to uncover its own criminality.

This is the set-up for The Rant, the new play by Andrew Case which is being presented by the New Jersey Rep, a member of the National New Play Network, in one of three "rolling world premiere" regional theatre productions. What sets The Rant apart from run of the mill policiers is the complexity of the characters and its insightful exposition of the social foment and injustice promulgated by the deeply ingrained prejudices which poison too many of us. If you think that those of any particular race or political persuasion are immune to this poison, then The Rant will likely make you uncomfortable (and you need to see it).

Author Case has written an excellent, extended rant/monologue for the cynical newspaper reporter which begins by informing us that the Amsterdam News took a position when white Duke lacrosse players were accused of raping a black woman diametrically opposite from the position they took when Kobe Bryant was accused of raping a white woman. An all too true description of the no win situation that racial and gender animosities place us in is part of his monologue :

Tell me what you believe about these two cases and I will prove you are a bigot. If you believe that despite Ms. Faber's bruises Kobe was framed; and DNA be damned, the lacrosse players are guilty, you have decided ... that black voices are to be trusted more than white. If you believe Kobe is the rapist, if the semen from three different men in Ms. Faber's underwear gives you no pause; and you think the Duke lacrosse players hired two strippers for their drunken brawl and behaved like perfect gentlemen, you are a racist, believing the white accuser and the white accused. If you think both women are lying, you are a sexist, and if you take both women at their word, you are biased against men. That's it—there is no answer to get you off the hook. You believe the women, you believe the men, you believe the whites, or you believe the blacks.

Under the swift, sure-handed direction of Jesse Ontiveros, all of the performances ring true. Rahaleh Nassri as the Iranian-American investigator projects an honest, enthusiastic naivety which convinces us that she is unaware that her attitude toward the police is rife with prejudice. Maconnia Chesser plays the mother with a forthrightness and dignity that tells us that the bad decisions that she has made and her prejudice are the result of the rough road that she has had to hoe as a member of two under classes. Mark Hairston as Officer Simmons projects the anguish of everyone who has had to make a difficult, untenable decision. His decision (blue over black) offers us a thought-provoking conundrum which author Case presents nonjudgmentally. Bob Senkewicz nicely modulates the role of Alex Stern, the amoral, opportunistic reporter who has so found that he can get by with self-deprecating honesty and a casual smile.

Scenic Designer Jessica Parks has designed an arresting all-purpose set whose walls are covered with newspaper articles reporting on the people and events relevant to the play. Patricia E. Doherty's costumes and Jill Nagle's lighting complete the seamless design work.

The Rant is a very complex and tightly written play. The events under investigation are tailored to demonstrate that various witnesses can see the same events differently, and that there can be innocent reasons for witnesses not being fully forthcoming. The play is also constructed as a mystery in which audiences are likely to make assumptions which will be upended as the play races rapidly to its climax.

Much of what passes for serious socio-political theatre today is simply old-fashioned agit-prop which massages and stokes the preconceived prejudices of its audience. Such plays often present their villains as cruel, evil, venal, bigoted and stupid hypocrites with poor social skills and hygiene. However, The Rant is a thought-provoking and engrossing play in which hot button social issues and the people caught up in them are portrayed fairly and honestly. Still, the play has a clear point of view and is infused with passion. With The Rant, author Andrew Case has brought a welcome breath of fresh air to American socio-political theatre.


A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
The Rant

I have been afraid for my safety. — Investigator Mahnaz
You have. — Police officer Simmons You put my name on the Rant (a website blog). You said someone should kill me. Someone should rape me. Just for asking -- just for doing my job. — Mahnaz
So now you know what it's like.— Simmons

The Rang
MaConnia Chesser (Photo: SuzAnne Barabas)
The Rant by Andrew Case does what few exposition-driven dramas do successfully: keeps the audience riveted by a timely and incendiary situation, intrigued by provocatively nuanced dialogue and characters who resonate with the specificity of their reality. That it also builds towards a surprising, if also logical, denouement is also to this play's credit.

In it, four people — a citizen, a prosecutor, a policeman and a journalist — become entangled in a web of circumstantial and incomplete evidence in which the truth is suddenly relative, bias becomes a motivating force and guilt or innocence almost achieves irrelevance. As the play is primarily motored by the delivery of testimony and the delivering of information, it is incumbent upon the actors to make the dramatic sparks fly. Under the taut direction of Jesse Ontiveros they do.

Case, who spent seven years aside from his playwriting working as an investigator for the Civilian Complaint Review Board in New York City, dives into the muddy waters of truth-telling and the questionable reliability of witnesses, the police, the press and the prosecutors.

An unarmed black autistic teenager is shot and killed by a policeman while on the front porch of his Brooklyn, New York home. His mother Denise Reeves (MaConnia Chesser) provides a detailed account of the incident to Lila Mahnaz (Rahaleh Nassri), a city prosecutor. Based on the facts as presented to her, Mahnaz sees the shooting as a means to validate her long-standing, deep-seated assumptions about the NYPD and what she perceives as its fellowship of cover-up. Her attempt to ally herself with a tabloid journalist Alexander Stern (Bob Senkewicz) becomes as confounding in its convolutions as is her frustrating attempt to get the young African-American policeman Charles Simmons (Mark Hairston) to admit that his actions may not have been justified.

Reeves's rage toward the policemen who patrol the neighborhood is pronounced and unwavering. But why has she left out some pertinent background information? And how relevant was that 911 call that she made minutes before the shooting? Mahnaz's disgust with the corruption in the Police department is barely contained. She's on a vendetta. What consequences will there be to her almost reckless and flawed pursuit for truth that has put her own life in danger? Stern's dissemination of the facts is predictably self-serving. Are ethics something he has no use for when it comes to blowing the prosecutor's cover? Simmons is adamant about his arguably defensive actions during the incident. Are his climactic revelations the shock that we expected?

The truth is as malleable and adaptable as are the inevitable and incontrovertible biases that surface from each of these characters, often expressed in long expository speeches. "Truth is a kind of bias," admits Mahnaz, who, when asked if she is an American responds, "I'm a Persian." Nassri gives a plausible account of a head-strong prosecutor whose own racial biases make her vulnerable to major errors in judgment. Chesser is excellent as the mother with a resolve for retribution. Senkewicz's stringent performance as the glib, callously cynical journalist is right on the money.

Hairston, who is making a formidable debut at the NJ Rep., inevitably makes Officer Simmons the most emotionally engaging as well as the play's most conflicted character: one who not only has a completely different version of the story told by Reeves. His commitment and loyalty to the police force is consistently being put to the test in a dangerous and predominantly African-American neighborhood. Jessica Parks's scenic design, that includes some projections of various locations in New York, consists of a few chairs and tables and flats posted with blow-up of news stories about the killing are simple and effective.

Under close scrutiny, perceptive audiences are likely going to uncover holes and discrepancies in the plot as well as in the way most professionals might more normally follow protocol and procedure. Not being bored for a moment, however, allows for the few lapses in credibility. Except for its lack of irony, some may also see in The Rant a similarity to the film Rashomon, in which various people offer differing accounts of a rape.

'The Rant'

NJ Rep premiere "an indictment of what truth is"

By TOM CHESEK • CORRESPONDENT • August 21, 2009


According to Andrew Case, "There are two obstacles to certainty in an investigation — certainty in the facts, and certainty in the law."

As a former investigator who spent close to a decade working for the Civilian Complaint Review Board in New York City, the nascent playwright came to that assessment from his experience on the front lines of "this volatile environment where the public and law enforcement came into daily, and sometimes deadly contact."

Toiling in a gray area far from the sixty-minute resolutions of "Law & Order" or the scientific verities of "CSI," the aptly-named Case has observed that it is "often nearly impossible from real-life evidence to make a totally reliable finding of facts." It's a phenomenon that you might have heard referred to as the "Rashomon effect" — a reference to the classic Japanese film in which a violent incident is played out in several different ways, according to the recollections of various participants — and it plays a part in "The Rant," the drama that comes to the stage of New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch this weekend as part of a National New Play Network "rolling premiere" event.

In Case's script, a female Review Board investigator pulls down a particularly radioactive assignment — an inquiry into a highly charged tragedy, in which a police response to a domestic dispute call in Brooklyn ended with a boy's death. As the story unfolds, these few facts are about the only aspects of the case that haven't been called into question — and the presence of a tabloid newspaper reporter, pursuing his own parallel investigation, adds another dimension of difficulty to the job of the city caseworker; an effort that's complicated as much by her own personal prejudices as by the external layers of lies, silence and intimidation.

Featured in the four-person cast under the direction of Jesse Ontiveros are a couple of newcomers to the NJ Rep stage, Rahaleh Nasri as the conflicted, Iranian-American investigator and Mark Hairston as the cop accused by the boy's mother of murdering her son. Shore-based character ace Bob Senkewicz returns to the local stage as the sensation-seeking journalist, and MaConnia Chesser — acclaimed for her work in "And Her Hair Went With Her" at NJ Rep — plays the mother, whose accusations of police misconduct set the search for the elusive truth in motion.

Interviewed at the downtown Long Branch playhouse, Ontiveros characterized the play as "an indictment of what truth is — it's not something absolute; all of the baggage of our life experience influences what we remember as the truth."

Ontiveros, who discussed the play in detail with its author in the early stages of rehearsals, finds in its "search for that nugget of truth, that semblance of what really happened" an undercurrent of the racial discord that continues to pulse through all strata of society, despite the fact that both the officer and the dead boy in this story are black.

"We're all a little racist, no matter how much we try not to be," the director observes. "We really are tribal at our core, and it's an extremely human thing."

On the other hand, the Mexican-American theater professional maintains that "we've come a phenomenally long way in this country, and we've learned to get along to a great extent."

"Public transit is the great equalizer in New York, where I live now," Ontiveros says. "In Los Angeles, where I lived for a long time, you've got the same mix of people, but if you don't want to interact with others, you don't have to."

Of course, "The Rant" seems exactly the sort of work that invites interaction, whether in the forum of an officially scheduled "talk-back" between cast and audience, or on that awkward drive home from the theater - a quality that Ontiveros appears to relish.

"I doubt the story will please everyone," the director says with a smile. "Just the very nature of it will incite passions."


RANTING AND RAVING AT NJ REP (Red Bank Orbit)

The cast of THE RANT at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch includes (clockwise from left) Rahaleh Nasri, Bob Senkewicz, Mark Hairston and MaConnia Chesser (Photos courtesy of SuzAnne Barabas).

By TOM CHESEK

The Rashomon effect, they call it (after a classic Japanese film by Akira Kurosawa) — that phenomenon in which several people can be present at the same event, and each recall a wildly differing version of what they all swear to be “the truth.” Law enforcement professionals, journalists, counselors all know this big grey area very well — and, as Andrew Case maintains, it is “often nearly impossible from real-life evidence to make a totally reliable finding of facts.” 

The aptly-named Mr. Case ought to know — he’s a former investigator who spent seven years working for the Civilian Complaint Review Board in NYC, a high-stress, lightning-rod position in the battle-scarred No Man’s Land between the police and the general public (and surely an express ticket to career burnout). 

“There are two obstacles to certainty in an investigation,” writes Case, from the vantage point of his new identity as a playwright. “Certainty in the facts, and certainty in the law.”

Those obstacles — and more — litter the landscape of The Rant, the play by Case that opens this week at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. As with much of NJ Rep’s body of edgy new works, it’s an uncompromising drama in a season usually given over to frothy musicals; a story that pushes several hot-button issues and invites what can diplomatically be called a “spirited” level of talkback.

Although it makes no claim to being based upon any specific real-life incident, Case’s script has as its default protagonist a Civilian Complaint investigator — in this instance, a woman of Iranian ethnicity named Lila (Rahaleh Nasri) — who’s assigned to a tragic case out of East New York, in which a boy is shot and killed when patrolmen are called to respond to a domestic dispute. The boy’s mother (MaConnia Chesser, sensational in NJ Rep’s And Her Hair Went With Her) makes a convincing case as to gross misconduct on the part of the cop who fired his gun, leading Lila into tense conflict with the accused officer (Mark Hairston) — who of course has his own, very divergent account of the event. 

Complicating things further is the simultaneous investigation by a New York Post reporter (familiar character actor Bob Senkewicz), who, like everyone in this four-person play, carries a set of hidden agendas, personal demons, prejudices and emotional scars that color their every perception — and make that thing called Truth an entirely subjective concept. 

Directed by Jesse Ontiveros, the play is a National New Play Network “rolling premiere” work; one in which several stage companies across the country get together to each present their own production of a highly touted new script. The play’s previously been staged in Coral Gables, Florida and in Philadelphia — and, if you don’t mind spoilers, you can see a review of the Philly production here.

If spoilers tend to spoil things for you, however, stay with us and Continue Reading for our talk with director Ontiveros.

RED BANK ORBIT: THE RANT really invites comparisons to RASHOMON and the “effect” that most folks are at least vaguely aware of. But does it present multiple versions of the central incident, like the old movie did?  

JESSE ONTIVEROS: I would call it an indictment of what ‘the truth’ is…you get a couple of different versions of the story here, and when you try to interpret or dissect them, you realize that truth is not something absolute. It’s more malleable; all of the baggage of our life experience influences what we remember as the truth.

When I first read about this play, knowing only the very basics of the story and that prejudice plays a part, I was assuming a very racially charged scenario with a black kid and a white cop. Which turned out to be prejudiced on my part, as the cop in the story is black as well.  

Prejudice does figure into it — or at least the idea of people acting on preconceptions from their life experience. The woman who pursues the case for the Civilian Complaint board has some issues that affect her thinking, which will become evident when you see the play. The mom of the boy involved in the shooting brings her own prejudices, and the other characters, the journalist and the policeman, all do things and make choices that come from their own preconceptions. 

Well, does anybody NOT do that at some point?  

We’re all a little racist, no matter how much we try not to be. Even someone like me, I’m a Mexican American, who leans more to the left — my family’s much more conservative than I am — I’m probably guilty of the same thing. We really are tribal at our core. It’s one of our undoings, but it’s extremely human. 

We’ve come a long way in this country, however — a phenomenally long way. We have learned to get along to a great extent.

Until such time as the next hot-button incident comes along.  

I lived in LA for a long time, where you know we’ve had our incidents, and in LA you’ve got all the same racial mix that you have in New York City, where I live now. But if you don’t want to interact with other people, you don’t have to.

In New York, public transit is the great equalizer. Any huge metropolis like that, where people aren’t totally isolated in suburbs and living in their cars, has a blend that’s just beautiful to see. We all wind up borrowing the best of each other’s cultures.

I imagine that Mr. Case, the playwright, might take a less rosy view of the city based on his experiences.  

I’ve talked with him about this play, and while it’s not directly based on any one case — you could say it’s a compilation of his experiences — there’s a little bit of hope to be had from the process of trying to search for that nugget of truth, to get a semblance of what really happened. But things like memory, post-traumatic stress, the speed of life itself — they get in the way of that search.

In an age when just about everybody carries with them a hand-held camera and recording device, how current and realistic can a story like this be after a few years? I’m also intrigued by the playwright’s decision to have a newspaper reporter as a…well, not a protagonist, but as a character that kind of moves the story along. There’s a chance that the whole newspaper angle might make this a period piece not too many years from now.    

The journalist character is used here as an exploratory figure — and really, making the character a TV news person or a blogger just wouldn’t mean the same thing. A lot of people still look to newspapers for the investigative work that you really don’t find elsewhere. There’s also a tactile comfort to a newspaper; a black and white to it. 

And “read all over.” So would you say this play is done in sort of a stylized way, so as not to favor one version of the so-called truth over another?

There’s some stylization involved, since we do have multiple scenes — we’re competing with episodic TV stories for the audience’s attention, after all, so we must remain visually competitive.

It seems on face value to be the kind of story that LAW & ORDER would have a field day with, although they’d be compelled to wrap it up one way or another by the end of an hour.  

The original Law & Order would do it much better than the other spin-offs! I’m a fan of the original; it gives you a good sense of what the police do, what the lawyers do. But here, as opposed to a TV show, there are a lot more questions than answers. I doubt it will please everyone, but it will get you thinking. Just the nature of it will incite passions.


'Evie's Waltz' offers a perceptive, if harrowing, look at teenage rebellion

by Peter Filichia/For the Star-Ledger

Tuesday June 23, 2009, 5:38 PM

Portraying the main characters in The Housewives of Mannheim are, clockwise, Corey Tazmania, Natalie Mosco, Alexandra Eitel, and Wendy Peace.

Kate Kenney, Warren Kelley and Andrea Gallo star in Carter W. Lewis' new play "Evie's Waltz" at the New Jersey Repertory Company.

 

As Ira Gershwin wrote long ago, "Summertime, and the livin' is easy." But that's not the case at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, where a most harrowing play will be on view for the next month.

Carter W. Lewis' "Evie's Waltz" quickly grabs the audience's attention, and director SuzAnne Barabas keeps the tension at swine flu fever-pitch for the last 70 of its 80 minutes. But if Hollywood ever gets around to filming this tale, don't look for it to be released as a summer movie.

It's the story of Clay and Gloria Matthews, whose teenage son, Danny, has become, to say the very least, a problem. He's been suspended from high school, and not for smoking in the boy's locker room. His infraction was so horrible that the police had to be brought in.

Lewis smartly orchestrates the parents so that Clay is indulgent and forgiving, while Gloria has all but washed her hands of the lad. As the embattled Clay, Warren Kelley sports a glassy smile and soothing voice when trying to convince his wife - and himself - that "He's only a kid," while Andrea Gallo, playing Gloria, is drop-dead frank when she announces, "I want to smother him in his sleep."

Many a parent who has suffered with an incorrigible child will recognize the look of anguish that floods Gallo's face, and the wild, unsubstantiated hope that finds its way onto Kelley's.

Then Evie arrives. She's Danny's girlfriend, and an unholy terror, from her cherry red-streaked hair to her combat boots. Tattoos abound, and her ears are pierced with more than mere earrings. Kate Kenney brilliantly brings to life this adolescent who believes herself both omnipotent and omniscient. She snarls, sneers and, of course, snarkily says, "Whatevvvvverrrr" to indicate her impatience with these two adults whom she regards as dolts.

Sarcasm is what Evie does best, though blame is only a whit behind. Lewis makes the point that children are quick to remind parents about an isolated incident that hurt their feelings years ago and how they'll never forgive it. And yet, they rarely hesitate to hurt parents' feelings now and forever.

Needless to say, through all of Evie's accusations and profanities, Clay and Gloria must seem unnerved, lest they be accused of what a teenager considers the worst of crimes: losing their cool. Watching both Kelley and Gallo struggle to stay calm and negate what they're actually feeling is one of the more heart-wrenching aspects of Lewis' play. "We need to keep everything normal," Clay says as he serves a light summer meal under very dark circumstances.

Lewis establishes that Danny has been harassed by classmates because of his funny looks and his voice. Issues of school bullying are more and more in the news, and Lewis was shrewd to indicate that a teen's peers are partly to blame for anti-social behavior.

But near the play's end, Lewis also includes a plot twist involving Clay that doesn't help his script. It does startle, but had this event happened to Clay, he would have acted very differently during the previous hour. This is not Kelley's fault, but Lewis'.

While Danny himself never appears, a theatergoer will know what he's up to through a clever stage device. In essence, he's there all the time, though a theatergoer may wish that he would just go away.

For that matter, some theatergoers will wish that the play had an intermission so they could go away, too. "Evie's Waltz" is admittedly effective theater -- for those who want to put themselves through such an emotional wringer.


A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
Evie's Waltz

You have a few years of invincibility left, Evie, but only a few. The process of dying is the bulk of your life and it's much more frightening than a bullet, because it's a subtle undetectable morphine-drip-of-a-fear that's always there - unless you're drunk or religious, which, by the way, are also two peas of the same pod. — Gloria
Evie's Waltz
Rear: Warren Kelley, Kate Kenney; Front - Andrea Gallo
(Photo: SuzAnne Barabas)
Although it's been ten years since the Columbine High School massacre, there has been a lot of subsequent speculation on what drove two angry and alienated teenagers to that point. In his 2003 film Elephant, film-maker Gus Van Sant coolly and brilliantly extracted aspects of that horrific incident without drawing any conclusions. Carter W. Lewis's fictional play Evie's Waltz is similarly committed, if not in the specifics to that very real and troubling event, to explore the potential for teenage rage. While this is a very harrowing and unnerving play, it has been well directed by SuzAnne Barabas with an eye on bringing credence to its characters (even an unseen antagonist) and creating and sustaining suspense to the bitter end.

The veggie shish kabobs may be ready to be placed on the patio grill, but Clay (Warren Kelley) and Gloria (Andrea Gallo) Matthews are not quite ready for the ordeal they are about to endure. Their immediate concern is how to cope with the increasingly incorrigible behavior of their son Danny, a junior in high school who has been suspended from school for possessing a gun. There's a familiarity to the kind of parental bickering they are engaged in as Clay tends to evade the darker side to Danny's behavior. Gloria is more sarcastic by nature and takes an angrier less forgiving stand with Danny who has become increasingly uncommunicative.

The question of what to do about Danny's clearly anti-social behavior becomes temporarily moot with the arrival of Danny's girl friend Evie (Kate Kenney), who arrives like a storm trooper in camouflage pants and combat boots, her tattooed arms, fuchsia streaked hair and bare midriff adding to her rebel look. Evie, who happens to live next door, has apparently not only abetted Danny in his purchase of the gun on the internet but also admits to Clay and Gloria that Danny has drawn floor plans of the school in his locker.

What gives the play its most illuminating if also disconcerting perspective is the way Evie takes on Danny's case— justifying, explaining, excusing and defending the young man she professes to love. As Evie, Kenney takes full charge of the drama's dynamics, using her body as an infuriated force of nature. She gives a wild and wacky depiction of hostility. But it is through her that we get to understand how the humiliations and frustrations that Danny has endured at school have provoked him. Soon enough, we realize Danny is watching these three from a critical vantage point and that their lives are endangered.

Both Kelley and Gallo are believable as the distressed parents who cannot come to terms with their son's behavior. Danny's love of Strauss waltzes adds an ominous touch to the climactic scene, but to explain more would undermine an important plot device. The play, which also includes the revelation of an off-stage tragedy and an extra-marital affair, has more than enough conflict and contrivance to sustain its 85 in real-time minutes.

Evie's Waltz is having its New Jersey premiere as part of a project "rolling premieres," in which several stage companies across the country present their own productions of new and worthy plays.

Kate Kenney finds her inner troublemaker in 'Evie's Waltz' at the N.J. Repertory Company

by Peter Filichia/For the Star-Ledger

Thursday June 18, 2009, 1:31 PM

Portraying the main characters in The Housewives of Mannheim are, clockwise, Corey Tazmania, Natalie Mosco, Alexandra Eitel, and Wendy Peace.

Kate Kenney, right, stars with Andrea Gallo and Warren Kelley in Carter W. Lewis' new play, "Evie's Waltz."

Kate Kenney had to do community service. "Not because I broke any law," the diminutive actress hastily says. "It's just that a teacher at my high school in Southwest Harbor, Maine, thought that students should do 30 hours of community service as a requirement for graduation."

Kenney estimates she wound up spending more than 1,000 hours at the place of her choice -- the Penobscot Theatre Company in Bangor, Maine.

Her interest in theater only grew from there. She attended the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University, and has been acting ever since. Now she's starring in Carter W. Lewis's "Evie's Waltz" at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

The irony is that she's playing a character who probably will wind up doing community service before long.

"Evie is one tough cookie," says Kenney. "She's only a junior in high school, but already she's got herself in a lot of trouble at school and with the police."

Thanks to her relationship with the easily led Danny, Evie's not well regarded by the boy's parents. They're surprised when Evie shows up in their backyard dressed in army fatigues and sporting a militant attitude.

"Evie's the type of kid who loves to challenge people, because she believes she's invincible," says Kenney. "She's able to make Danny's father feel bad for her, because she's the daughter of an alcoholic mother and an absent father. Danny's mother, though, feels that Evie has no excuse for the way she's been influencing her son."

Kenney, 26, knows that she has little in common with today's teenagers, so she's kept a keen eye on the adolescents in her Washington Heights, N.Y., neighborhood. "So many of them think they're so worldly, while they're really not," she says. "Maybe that's why they feel the need to do so many things to prove they're worldly."

It's a very different life from the one she experienced growing up in Maine. "I think one reason I was cast in this play is because I look like the girl next door," she says. "And this character is definitely not the girl next door."

While Kenney was growing up, she planned to be a jockey, because some relatives owned a horse farm. "But then I grew to be 5-foot-2," she moans. "That's too tall."

Suddenly, Kenney had no idea what she'd do with her life. So when her high school teacher invoked the community service clause during Kenney's junior year, it spurred her to look hard. She considered day-care centers and nursing homes, but felt drawn to the local theater. "I still don't know why," she says, shaking her head back and forth quickly, as if trying to rattle her brain for an explanation.

The powers-that-be at the theater told her that 30 hours wouldn't help them much, but they offered an internship. "Soon I was hanging lights, running follow-spots, costumes and sound boards," she says, still sounding excited by the tasks.

But Kenney confesses that being so near yet so far from center stage was a little frustrating. That problem was solved the next year, when the theater produced Lillian Hellman's "The Children's Hour." She played Mary, the lying, manipulating adolescent who tries -- and succeeds -- to ruin her teachers' reputations.

"Playing Mary was good practice for Evie," Kenney says. "You can even say that Evie is Mary all grown up. Well, not all grown up. Who knows what Evie will be like when she reaches adulthood -- if she even makes it that far."


Evie's Waltz' addresses big issues

Three characters, big issues in NJ Rep premiere

By TOM CHESEK • CORRESPONDENT, APP.com • June 19, 2009

Summer's almost here, and a million barbecue grills send their smoky signals wafting up from backyards all across America — even the artificial backyards of an indoor stage set.

On the back patio of Clay and Gloria's suburban home, there's more heating up than just the chicken kebobs — there's a slew of long-simmering domestic tensions between the two parents and their troubled teenage son Danny, and an uninvited visitor is about to pour lighter fluid on the embers.

In "Evie's Waltz," the play by Carter W. Lewis now in its world premiere engagement at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, the smoke emanates from the strained relationship between Clay (Warren Kelley), Gloria (Andrea Gallo) and their son — a bullying victim whose increasingly antisocial behavior has escalated into threats of violence and a police investigation. The sparks come from Danny's girlfriend Evie (Kate Kenney), an angry, sociopathic child of an alcoholic single mother — and the focus of much of the exasperated parents' blame.

Clay and Gloria's idea is to meet with Evie's mom, Sandy, to discuss their kids' increasingly out-of-control relationship. But it's Evie who shows up in advance of her mother, promising to help and carrying an obscure agenda that suggests she's not there simply to talk. Danny, who remains offstage throughout, manages to hover over the action, aiming for the center of attention with some fairly emphatic ways of making a point.

It's a dark comedy, according to the show's marketing — and if the above described doesn't seem so funny, bear in mind that NJ Rep's productions often take in a lot of mayhem and moral turpitude in the name of comedy. NJ Rep artistic director SuzAnne Barabas directs the production, which is being presented without intermission (and is not recommended for anyone younger than 16).

The director, who also helmed the company's acclaimed and successful previous production "The Housewives of Mannheim," calls this "Waltz" a "kind of energized piece" that "brings up a lot more questions than it answers."

"It's like a five-character play, really," Barabas says. "You learn a lot about Danny and Sandy, the mom — those unseen people move things along."

Lewis has seen his latest work produced as a "rolling world premiere" by theatrical troupes across the continent, with at least one reviewer of an earlier production calling it a "tense, frightening thriller."

"There's a mystery that unfolds in front of your eyes," says Barabas' husband, NJ Rep executive producer Gabor Barabas. "It's like an alienated Romeo and Juliet."

You don't have to brush up your Shakespeare to know that things ended harshly for the Bard's star-crossed lovers, but the director stresses that the playwright's pitch-black comic sensibility manages to manifest itself, albeit in some peculiar ways.

"It's certainly a drama, a thriller, but I can't say that it's not fun," SuzAnne Barabas says. "It's fun to watch the dynamics of the characters — to watch things come to a climax."


A GARDEN OF GOOD AND ‘EVIE’

It’s not a waltz per se, but Evie (Kate Kenney) has some moves to put on Warren Kelley and Andrea Gallo, as EVIE’S WALTZ takes over the stage of New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

By TOM CHESEK, Red Bank Orbit

You want edgy? Something in a more sophisticated cut than the run of suburban stripmall culture? Something that tells you that you’ve made the right decision by planting it here in the greater Red Bank orbit; that it’s not all about the Crispy Orange Chicken Bowl at Applebee’s and a Special Edition Blu-Ray of Stepbrothers?

Edgy you got — in fact, you’ve had it in your back yard for some ten years time now, courtesy of New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. That’s the little professional stage company dedicated to spawning, developing, experimenting with completely new, completely untested, often very weird works for the stage — none of which you’ve ever heard of before. Which is precisely the point.

No, you never quite know what to expect from a “typical” NJ Rep production. We’ve been to nearly everything they’ve done and we’re still reeling over some of what we saw on that little shadow-box of a stage, embedded deep in the heart of lower Broadway. Sailor-blue language that’d peel the paint off Jackie The Joke Man. Adult situations and sights that we never thought feasible within 50 kilometers of a school zone. Enough full-tilt surrealism to choke a Rhinoceros. Things like full-frontal male nudity with onstage prostate exam (Love and Murder); bawdy vaudeville spun from a real-life murdered-nuns story (Whores); priests behaving badly, people killing themselves and each other.

Also seen on the NJ Rep stage? Emotional honesty; sweetness and uplift; hard-earned laughter and tears; absolute dedication to craft and invention, and that jolly nagging notion that none of this is even supposed to make any sort of economic sense — otherwise get ready for opening night of Nunsense 2!

Don’t believe us? Check out some of the people who went out of their way to be able to say they’ve performed there. Guess you must have missed that night.

Anyway, among the many specialties of the NJ Rep stock company is a vaguely defined genre known as “dark comedy;” a brand that sounds like the sort of snickering satire and headline-hustling irony that currently wins Emmys. Only in the hands of Rep founders SuzAnne and Gabor Barabas, “comedy” can get very dark indeed; taking in all manner of pain, abuse, and spiritual devastation. 

In fact, the recent (extremely successful) offering The Housewives of Mannheim was marketed as a “comic drama” — when in fact what audiences saw was a sensitively acted, even tender study of friendships torn asunder and alliances thrown off balance, when a woman professes her longstanding love and desire for a beautiful, dutiful wife and mother who lives in her building. And Zayd Dohrn’s Sick was a bloody, negative “black comedy” about an isolated family whose hyper-allergic kids have made them prisoners in their unhappy home. Not a “laff” in either of them.

This week sees the opening performances of Evie’s Waltz, a play by Carter W. Lewis (whose Women Who Steal was a successful part of the 2008 season) in which the frustrated parents (Warren Kelley, Andrea Gallo) of a sullen, antisocial teenage son are drawn into the obscure schemes of the boy’s girlfriend — a diminutive sociopath in camo pants named Evie (Kate Kenney), whose apparent talent for head games is the stuff of budding genius. It’s a script that folds in violent interludes, heavy-duty adult themes and a general fish-in-a-barrel sense of hopelessness — and it’s being marketed as, you guessed it, a dark comedy.

It’s also a “rolling premiere” work; one in which several stage companies across the country get together to each present their own production of a highly touted new script. That means there have been a few stagings of this material already — and, if you don’t mind spoilers, you can see reviews of those other productions here and here and here.

If spoilers tend to spoil things for you, however, stay with us and Continue Reading for our talk on Evie’s with director SuzAnne Barabas.

RED BANK ORBIT: Here it is summer, and New Jersey Rep is once again preparing to put on another downer of a play, when by rights it ought to be a summer-stock revival of THE MUSIC MAN...

SUZANNE BARABAS: It’s not that much of a downer! It’s a kind of energized piece, about the alienation of a kid who doesn’t get along with his family or peers. It’s a play that brings up a lot more questions than answers — in fact, we’ll be having a talk-back with the audience after the 2:00 preview on Friday.

It’s also one that we’re not recommending for anyone under 16. It’s being done without an intermission — and we’ll be having a barbecue for the opening night.

Now, even though this play is “about” the kid and his relationship with his parents, we actually don’t ever see the character of the son onstage?

No, but you learn about Danny, the son, as well as Sandy — Evie’s mother. It’s like a five-character play really; those unseen people move things along. 

Sandy is a single mom who drinks and works at a hair salon; when the play opens we see Clay and Gloria, who are the parents of the boy, getting ready to meet with Sandy at their home. They’ve invited her over because their kids have gotten involved in a police matter — Danny’s been suspended from school, and they blame Evie for a lot of what’s been going on with their son.

So Evie is someone who they regard as a bad influence on their son; the idea is that he was a good kid before she came along and led him astray?

They’ve actually known her since she was a sociopathic little kid — they watched her do things like shave her head and get a pierced lip, and Clay and Gloria, who are good parents that love their son, are just exasperated by this long series of events involving Danny and Evie.

They’re waiting for Evie’s mom to arrive, when Evie herself shows up, on her own. She’s there basically to talk about what happened before her mom gets there.

From what we’ve been able to pick up about the play, it seems more of a drama, even a thriller, than anyone’s idea of a comedy…

It’s certainly a drama, a thriller — but I can’t say that it’s not fun! It’s fun to watch the dynamics of the characters — to watch things come to a climax.

GABE BARABAS (joining the conversation): There’s a mystery that unfolds in front of your eyes — it’s like an alienated Romeo and Juliet. Although I suppose you could say that Romeo and Juliet were alienated themselves.

As were the two main characters in HOUSEWIVES OF MANNHEIM, and arguably every character who’s ever stepped out onto your stage!

SUZANNE: We did very well with that play — I was actually surprised that so many people accepted it. Young people in particular loved it; they accepted the characters’ actions — I know a young man, a sophomore in college who told me, ‘That’s my story — I was Billy (the female character who comes out to her friend); I was in love with my best friend and that’s exactly how everything happened.’

Well, HOUSEWIVES, which of course you also directed, SuzAnne, hit just the right pitch from the start. It resonated in some way with just about everyone who saw it. But here you are starting work on another challenging script, while the other one was still playing. Did you realize all that you were taking upon yourself when you put together this schedule?

Directing two in a row is not something I would normally want to do. But this year, of course, economic factors are even more of a concern than they usually are with everyone in the arts, and you’re seeing more companies assigning directors from in-house rather than hiring freelancers.

But the real reason I took on both of these projects, is that I really felt for these plays. When I read them, I just had to be the one to do them — and once I make that decision, I can’t let anybody else talk me out of it. I don’t want to give away my babies!


Click Here for New York Times Review of The Housewives of Mannheim


At NJ Rep, a great play grows in Brooklyn

By TOM CHESEK • CORRESPONDENT, Asbury Park Press • April 22, 2009

Portraying the main characters in The Housewives of Mannheim are, clockwise, Corey Tazmania, Natalie Mosco, Alexandra Eitel, and Wendy Peace.

Pheonix Vaughn (left) and Corey Tazmania rehearse a scene from "The Housewives of Mannheim," now being staged at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.
(STAFF PHOTO: BRADLEY J. PENNER)

Defying expectations is kind of what it's all about, or ought to be anyway.

In the case of "The Housewives of Mannheim," the world premiere drama now onstage at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, what looks to be a nostalgia-infused ensemble piece of World War Two-era Brooklyn takes off in some fairly unexpected directions, even while keeping its footing in the Waldbaums-and-clotheslines world of its city kitchen setting.

This correspondent admits to having approached the play by Alan Brody with some wariness. After all, yet another script set in the greatest-generation days of home-front rations and make-believe ballrooms is hardly the way to attract a younger clientele to the theater. Some of the other themes at work here — the character who escapes a humdrum existence through the healing powers of art and culture; the quest for one's sexual identity set to a piped-in hit parade soundtrack — are straight out of the playwright's playbook.

Something happens here, however, between Brody's sharply etched characters and the keenly choreographed direction of SuzAnne Barabas. The story takes flight on the efforts of a quartet of skilled actresses, and the clothesline is set high for the honor of the year's best play on the local stage.

In last winter's "Cupid and Psyche," at NJ Rep, Pheonix Vaughn was merely bright and gorgeous and fun; here, she's equally radiant (while showing real depth and emotional complexity) as May, a young wife and mother who's as aware of her own good looks as she is cognizant that something is missing in her life, with or without the presence of her serviceman husband, Lenny. It's a performance that's all the more impressive when you consider that Vaughn was an 11th-hour replacement in the play's lead role.

May, who muses sometimes about what it would be like to be a man, has a friend named Billie (Corey Tazmania), a tart-tongued, entrepreneurial sort who runs a linens business out of her apartment, sports masculine-style hats, goes to bohemian parties and makes no effort to disguise her contempt for her dentist husband. Even if you can see where this is all going from the get-go, there are countless variables at work here that make this play's central story line — the radically changing relationship between two close friends — a compelling thread that seldom falls just where we'd expect it to be at any given point.

The catalyst that sets things in motion is the arrival of new neighbor Sophie (Natalie Mosco), an older, more sophisticated Jewish refugee from Europe who offers a tantalizing glimpse of a larger world beyond the fire escapes of Flatbush. Sophie's polar opposite, building busybody Alice (Wendy Peace), rarely if ever leaves the neighborhood, and is apt to invite herself into her neighbors' homes, seeing as to how she's in the business of everybody else's business.

While the characters of Sophie and Alice aren't quite as fully delineated as May and Billie, they are nonetheless not drawn in black and white. Alice isn't played as an evil schemer, and Sophie is more of a representative emissary of the outside world than simply a lady who introduces May to things like the "Vermeer" painting from which the play takes its name. Peace and Mosco each do fine work with their roles, eliciting laughs and tears and all that good stuff.

At heart, though, the story is that of May and Billie — and returning NJ Rep players Vaughn and Tazmania do the sort of work here that elicits not cheers but the sort of priceless silences that indicate an audience that has become completely engrossed in the story. May's too-late insistence that she is "just a housewife," one who "can't afford to go around thinking all the time," is as heartbreaking to watch as tough-gal Billie's confessional breakdown, a strong woman nearly pulled apart on the rocks of her own raw honesty.

There are times when "Housewives" veers toward preaching its points rather than trusting the finely tuned instincts of its cast, but by and large, Brody and Barabas have crafted the sort of intimate drama that this company does best, with a perfect little ending that leaves you wanting more.

And it just so happens that the playwright has penned not just one but two sequels: a "Victory Blues Trilogy" that we're anxious to see take shape on the NJ Rep stage.


Variety.com
Posted: Tue., Apr. 21, 2009, 2:51pm PT

The Housewives of Mannheim 

By ROBERT L. DANIELS

In Alan Brody's lovely new play, "The Housewives of Mannheim," premiering at the New Jersey Repertory Company, four Brooklyn women on the home front during WWII create a warming bond of friendship that manages to endure through unexpected conflicts. What seemingly begins as a banal, gossipy kitchen-sink comedy turns into a keenly constructed and beautifully acted romantic drama.

May Black (Pheonix Vaughn) is the mother of a 10-year-old boy; her husband is fighting overseas. Her neighbors include enterprising merchant Billie Friedhoff (Corey Tazmania), who markets linens from her home; gabby Alice Cohen (Wendy Peace) and worldly Holocaust survivor Sophie Birnbaum (Natalie Mosco).

Afraid of being considered a snob, May conceals her discovered passion for great paintings, her pilgrimages to the museum and her precious art books. Eventually she shares her newfound appreciation with the older, sophisticated Sophie, a Jewish widow and former concert pianist.

But when Billie makes an unexpected sexual advance, the joy and dignity of May's comfortably structured life are suddenly threatened by shame and guilt. But resolve is revealed in an emotional finale that finds the women in common pursuit of survival during a time of worldly crisis.

The performances are keenly drawn, notably Tazmania as the aggressive Billie, Mosco's wise Sophie and especially Vaughn, who stepped into the role of May at a week's notice. She balances a deeply ingrained sense of decency, dangerous naivete and the concerns of a protective, caring parent.

N.J. Rep artistic director SuzAnne Barabas has staged the piece with great insight into the war years, skillfully harnessing the restlessness, longings and frustrations of vital women deprived of the comfort and support of their men.

Final curtain draws inspiration from "Sunday in the Park with George" as the ladies position themselves at a tenement window only to freeze and dissolve into a huge scrim recreation of Vermeer's painting of four Dutch women gathered around a kitchen table. The flavorful sound design accompanies scene changes with recordings by artists like the Andrews Sisters, Glenn Miller and Harry James, their nostalgic tunes helping to define the long-ago era.
 
Set, Quinn Stone; costumes, Patricia Doherty; lighting, Jill Nagle; sound, Merek Royce Press; production stage manager, Rose Riccardi. Opened, reviewed April 18, 2009. Runs through May 17. Running time: 1 HOUR, 45 MIN.


'Housewives of Mannheim' takes provocative look at female bonding

by LIZ KEILL/Independent Press
Saturday May 30, 2009, 5:11 PM

Issues of propriety and raw emotions are entwined in this moving drama set in Brooklyn in 1940.
"The Housewives of Mannheim" is completing a successful run at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. It deserves an after-life and will, hopefully, come to a theatre near you.

The four women in the play show their fangs as well as their gentler qualities. May is the central character, a pretty wife and mother, who wants to do everything the 'right' way. But there is a part of her yearning to break free of her self-imposed, safe existence. She invites a new resident, Sophie, into her apartment and is drawn to her love of art and music, her European view of the world.

Then we have May's neighbor Alice, easily shocked and offended by anything beyond the status quo. That leaves Billie, a married but independent woman who runs her own business. She's not afraid of the hard sell, but her emotions are continually on edge. In the long run, she challenges May and forces her to acknowledge depths she had denied.

The crux of the matter, and a searing revelation, is playwright Alan Brody's ability to show how a few generalizations can lead to distortion and cruelty.

The cast in the small, 65-seat theater is superb. Phoenix Vaughn gives May the innocence and excitement of someone just reaching out for life. Natalie Mosco is stunning as Sophie Birnbaum, a Jewish immigrant who had been a concert pianist in Europe. She has lost much, yet fully understands what these young housewives are going through.

Corey Tazmania as Billie Friedhoff demonstrates the hurt and anguish of someone who riles against the constrictions of accepted behavior.

Wendy Peace, as Alice Cohen, has the least sympathetic, and least complex, role. Yet the contrast is startling, as she refuses to acknowledge change among her friends.

This play, directed by SuzAnne Barabas, is fascinating on every level. The title is taken from a Vermeer painting of four Dutch housewives in the 17th century. A simple sheet on a clothesline, at the beginning and end, becomes the background for an image of the painting, implying that life was just as complex in earlier centuries as it is today.

Quinn K. Stone's scenic design and Jessica Parks' properties are a trip in nostalgia themselves, with a real sense of a 1940s kitchen, from the gas stove to the sink with spigots, open shelves for dishes...and none of the sleek appliances that came along later or for those who were wealthy enough to afford them. Music and sound design by Merek Royce Press bring back those big band melodies of the era. Costumes by Patricia E. Doherty reflect the period, right down to the hats, gloves and seamed stockings. Jill Nagle's lighting enhances the late night scene between Billie and May and provides smooth transitions from scene to scene.

And for those who haven't ventured to Long Branch in recent years, the excursion makes for a lovely day of boardwalks, restaurants and Pier Village shops.


Solid Drama In Long Branch
"The Housewives of Mannheim" at New Jersey Rep

Corey Tasmania (left), Wendy Peace, Pheonix Vaughn and Natalie Mosco, (seated) are the Housewives of Mannheim at New Jersey Repertory Company.

 

For the cover art of Alan Brody's The Housewives of Mannheim at New Jersey Repertory Company, some skilled techie digitally blended four Jan Vermeer paintings of different women into a single image that captures 17th Century Dutch housewifery. Brody's play does the same for four apartment-neighbor women in Brooklyn in 1944.

Housewives covers a multitude of topics, but it's not scattershot. Its themes of loneliness, frustration, tolerance and love are all distinct, but each influences the others. It's the same with the women. They could not be more different from one another, nor could they mesh more smoothly, both characters and actors. May Black (Pheonix Vaughn) is the play's center; how Alice Cohen (Wendy Peace), Billie Friedhoff (Corey Tazmania) and Sophie Birnbaum (Natalie Mosco) behave toward her - and vice versa - makes for a solid drama. (Not without its share of laughs, I might add.)

May and Alice's husbands are away at war; Billie's is at home, but is "missing the part of the brain that sustains human conversation." May is a restless beauty who is torn between enjoying her independence and pining for her husband's return; Alice is an openly nosy gossiper; Billie is the brash potty-mouth stuck in an empty marriage. Into their comfort zone pops Sophie, a widowed refugee from Nazi-dominated Eastern Europe, whose experience and outlook have a profound effect on May and the others.

Brody's play succeeds on two levels. The story line holds interest throughout, and the relationships elevate the play well above soap opera. Under SuzAnne Barabas's finely tuned direction, the production gives equal weight to both components. She and her cast are under the skin of these housewives. (And Quinn Stone's set, May's kitchen, could not be more realistic.)

The women change - grow - in the course of the play, and it is remarkable what the actors accomplish in the two-hour two acts. Rising like a phoenix from the vapid Cupid and Psyche, Vaughn is a marvel. Pulling off the line "I'm a beautiful woman" without alienating at least half the audience is a feat in itself. It's true of the actress, no question, but via her sensitive interpretation, May Black is even more beautiful than Pheonix Vaughn.

There's a lot more to Billie than her brassy exterior, and Ms. Tazmania lets us in on it all. Her performance is every bit as layered as her character. Newcomer Sophie is guarded at first, but May wins her over. Playing the refugee's gradual thaw from remote coolness to open-hearted warmth, Ms. Mosco wins over the audience as well. Alice resists change, but as craftily acted by Ms. Peace, sympathetic qualities peek through the rigid-minded busybody, indicating that Alice will eventually make peace.

Brody's play is not perfect, of course. (Is any?) There are a few lapses into melodrama, and the final scene wraps everything up too easily. Also, equating some of the women's behavior toward one another to the Holocaust diminishes the horror in Sophie's past and diverts attention from emotional aspects, which we all share, to physical ones, which we can only imagine. The comparison would be better implied than stated.

What is implied as well as revealed (and so well acted) about the four housewives of Brooklyn brings them up close and personal - to one another and to the audience. Did I mention that this is the play's World Premiere? Good for NJ Rep.


The Housewives of Mannheim

Review by Bob Rendell, Talkin' Broadway
 

The Housewives of Manheim
It is early spring, 1944, and we are in a kitchen in an apartment house on Kings Highway in a middle-class Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn. It is in the apartment of May Black. Here she schmoozes with her two long-time friends who also live in the building. Each of these thirty-ish women is very different from the other. Billie Friedhoff is a bit hoydenish; she buys and sells on the black market and is sometimes given to vulgar, straight-forward speech. Alice Cohen is a judgmental, self-appointed, moralist busybody. It is the warm, easygoing, not given to self examination, May who is at the center of this tripartite relationship. All are married, with May and Alice's husbands in the army overseas, and Billie's dentist husband, whom she despises, at home ... As The Housewives of Mannheim begins, Sophie Birnbaum, a 60-year-old concert pianist who had escaped Europe and lived with her artist husband in Connecticut until his recent death, is in the process of moving into the building. May is on the verge of expanding her intellectual horizons, having recently taken an interest in the paintings of Vermeer. Sophie will be drawn to her in a maternal way and encourage her to further educate herself.

With Glenn Miller's recording of "It's Make Believe Ballroom Time" leading off a hit parade of World War II popular music, references to contests for recipes and advertising slogans, food ration books and the black market, and war bonds, it seems that we are in for homey, nostalgic memories of the homefront in Brooklyn during World War II. As things turn out, this could not be further from the truth.

On a mundane, prosaic level, the central subject that will emerge in The Housewives of Mannheim is the female version of what Oscar Wilde's Lord Alfred Douglas called "The love that dare not speak its name". However, on a deeper and more exalted level, author Alan Brody has delivered a powerful play which, in a fully fleshed out, unpedantic, and dramatically satisfying manner, examines such matters as unexamined lives, personal growth, loyalty, friendship, prejudice, gender discrimination, self acceptance and education. Not to say that it is small potatoes to write a play which strongly arouses the viewer's empathy for those who had (and still have) to hide their sexual identities to survive among their family and friends. Author Brody is a professor at M.I.T. where he is the Associate Provost for the Arts.

Guided by the splendid, unobtrusive direction of SuzAnne Barabas, the four women are vividly brought to life. Natalie Mosco brings out enourmous depth and dimension in the newly arrived Sophie. The beauty, dignity and heartbreak brought Mosco brings to this role is quite rare. Corey Tazmania embraces the harsh edges and mannishness that author Brody has provided for the closeted and needy Billie, and makes us truly care for Billie's bruised soul. Pheonix Vaughn subtly conveys the turmoil which May is experiencing while maintaining, in so far as she is able, the mild, compromising persona that is being reduced to a façade. Wendy Peace does a fine job in bringing out the reality and humanity of Alice, the most ridiculed and least dimensional of the women.

Quinn Stone's richly detailed set and Patricia E. Doherty's period costumes contribute strongly to the production's feel for time and place.

The play's title comes from a composite "fictional" 17th century attributed here to Vermeer. It actually features paintings of four Dutch women "lifted" from four separate Vermeer paintings. These women appear to be living cloistered lives which would make it impossible for them to contemplate the relatively larger scope for growth which later generations of women would have. Unlike them, May wants to be able to contemplate the increasing freedoms which would be available to generations of women yet to come.

This world premiere production of The Housewives of Mannheim clearly demonstrates the importance of the New Jersey Repertory Theatre. It is outstanding


Women stretch limits in a wartime drama 'The Housewives of Mannheim'

by Peter Filichia/The Star-Ledger
Monday April 27, 2009, 12:06 PM

 


Pheonix Vaughn and Corey Tazmania perform a scene from Alan Brody's "The Housewives of Mannheim" at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. The play is set in the early 1940s.

The Housewives of Mannheim. Where: New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch. When: Through May 17. Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 3 and 8 p.m. Sunday at 2 p.m. How much: $40. Call (732) 229-3166 or visit njrep.org.


 

 
Novelist Ira Levin wrote "The Stepford Wives" in 1972, but playwright Alan Brody is here to remind us that subservient spouses existed long before that.

In "The Housewives of Mannheim," his incisive new play presented at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, Brody takes us back to the early 1940s, when wives not only "knew their place," but thought they felt comfortable in it. When the lights come up on May Black, note the satisfied smile she has on her face as she folds the laundry.

May's husband is overseas at war, and though she must tend to their son, Bobby, she now has more time to spend on herself, the most since she was wed. She's surprised how good this semi-freedom feels, and even dares ask her neighbor, Alice Cohen, "Don't you find yourself happy to be on your own?"

Alice has no idea what she's talking about.

However, another housewife, Billie Friedhoff, does. Billie has started her own black market business -- "a career, not a job," she stresses. May doesn't disapprove, but she can't understand why Billie doesn't want children. Doesn't everyone?

Billie is more interested in encouraging May to become her own person, but a Vermeer painting turns out to have a greater influence. May would have enjoyed it even more had she not felt so ashamed for going to a museum on a weekday. Nevertheless, the painting has allowed her to see life in a new way.

May will get many more chances to question her life -- whether she wants to or not. Sophie Birnbaum, a Viennese Jew who emigrated to America, becomes a new neighbor and another new catalyst. Until now, May has only assessed herself through her great beauty that made her quite the catch. As Sophie tells her, "People think that someone beautiful cannot do anything else."

In fact, Pheonix (yes, that's how it's spelled: Pheonix) Vaughn can do substantially more than just be beautiful. She turns in a stunning performance. No matter how much Brody's character vacillates, Vaughn beautifully maneuvers each twist and turn. Watch as she dares to feel good about herself, and then almost immediately feels bad for feeling good. Vaughn must also get through such tricky lines as, "I can't go around thinking all the time" and "I'm just a housewife." Delivered by a lesser actress, they could come across as trite and laughable. Not here. Only the hardest-hearted theatergoer won't be moved when Vaughn says them.

Given that Alice is the most satisfied of the bunch, Wendy Peace has the least interesting role, so give credit to the actress for getting us to pay attention to her. Far more compelling are Billie and Sophie, and director SuzAnne Barabas, who's staged the show with sensitivity and style and has found two excellent actresses to play the parts.

Corey Tazmania enjoys portraying the foul-mouthed, utterly unconventional Billie. But the character has her problems, too, and Tazmania does splendidly when she reveals them in a powerful second-act monologue.

Natalie Mosco excels as Sophie, who was born much too early for the concept of "tough love," but delivers a good deal of it to May. Mosco's best moment comes when she pulls herself up and says to May, "You cannot expect me to clap every time you have an idea."

We, though, can applaud Brody for the ideas he's given in "The Housewives of Mannheim."


A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
The Housewives of Mannheim


A couple of weeks ago Dorothy and Dick had this man from the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the radio and he was telling how they had just gotten this famous painting of these Dutch women by this painter, Vermeer. It's called "The Housewives of Mannheim" and Dorothy was describing how you could see the way life was back then just from this painting. And I was so impressed I went to see it. — May


Corey Tazmania, Pheonix Vaughn, Wendy Peace and Natalie Mosco
Look carefully at the four women in the mock Jan Vermeer painting projected at the beginning and end of Alan Brody's "memory play" The Housewives of Mannheim and you will undoubtedly recognize at least two them: The Milk Maid and Young Woman with a Water Jug. They have been as cleverly and significantly integrated as are the women who congregate and commiserate in May Black's kitchen in 1944.

As beautifully realized in its realistic dramatic composition as it is in the inventive conceit of the painting, this play, now having its world premiere, revolves around the changing and evolving relationships of four Jewish women, all of whom live in the same working-class Brooklyn apartment building. Far be it from me to gush, but just being in the company of these four deeply affecting characters proved to be one of the more memorable evenings of the New Jersey theatre season.

Both May (Phoenix Vaughn), a wide-eyed blonde beauty, and Alice Cohen (Wendy Peace), the neighborhood busy-body, have husbands overseas fighting the Nazis. Billie Friedhoff (Corey Tazmania) is married to a dentist but their marriage is an unhappy one. Billie has, out of desperation, become entrepreneurial and sells linens from her home. She keeps the gals amused with her crude language and her "bohemian" streak. Billie and May each have a son of grade-school age, although it is May's son whose memories and recollections are evidently those of Brody, the playwright. Brody's gift for making the talk among the women ring with an uncanny truthful resonance is more than commendable; it's a grand achievement.

When a new tenant, Sophie Birnbaum (Natalie Mosco), an elegant-looking German widow and former concert pianist, moves into their building their shared, long-standing camaraderie is suddenly strained and put to the test. Sophie has escaped the Holocaust, and is at first reluctant to tell the women the truth of what is going on in Europe. However, her aura of sophistication and her European inclination for "ceremonies" intrigues May who feels the rumblings of something within her that makes her want to enrich herself and reach beyond her insular predictable life. It is the Vermeer painting she sees that prompts her to consider going to college and studying art.

The play, that begins with the women amusingly dealing with such every-day issues as rationing and shopping for bargains at Waldbaum's and Loehmann's, soon evolves into deeper intellectual, sexual and psychological territory that plays havoc with them as individuals and as a group. The actors, under the excellent direction of SuzAnne Barabas, have done a lovely job of recreating the attitudes, temperaments and the cultural specificity for the times. Vaughn is splendid as May, whose deep-seated yearnings ("something's happening inside me") and unresolved life result in conflicted signals to her best friend Billie.

Tazmania is heart-breaking as Billie, who is cruelly victimized when her true feelings are revealed. Peace is amusing as Alice, who spends as much time collecting labels off soup cans and entering contests as she does being judgmental. As the worldly Sophie, Mosco creates an indelible impression as a survivor who maintains her grace under fire, but mainly serving as a catalyst for these women, as they learn to be open and receptive to what they may not always understand.

The authenticity and meticulous detail that has gone into the scenic design by Quinn Stone deserves praise. The old stove with a pilot that is lit with matches, the vintage pots and pans, radio, tea kettle, the sink on legs, may seem almost obligatory. In this play, they contribute to a reality that reflects these meaningfully realized lives in a very real time. The costumes by Patricia E. Doherty are also period-perfect delights.

The Housewives of Mannhanm (taken from an article in the New Jersey Jewish News) has been a recipient of a number of awards including the Rosenthal Award in 1989 and the 1990 Eisner Award from the Streisand Center for Jewish Culture. It was also cited as Best Play at the Harvest Festival of Plays and subsequently won the Reva Shiner Award at the Bloomington Playwrights Conference. Housewives of Mannheim is the first of a trilogy in progress (and the first to be produced).

If ever a new play deserved a long and prosperous life, this is the one. For whatever my word is worth, it would be a splendid addition to the Manhattan Theatre Club season. It deservedly won cheers from the audience at the performance I attended and its run has already been extended twice.

NJ Rep premieres "Housewives"

Great group of women assembles at NJ Rep

By TOM CHESEK • Correspondent, Asbury Park Press • April 17, 2009

As Alan Brody sees it, it is possible for a man to be able to write some great roles for women.

"When you're a child, you're around your mother, and probably other women as well," explains the author whose play "The Housewives of Mannheim" sees its world premiere this weekend at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

"At that age, you're not socialized to not see things — you see the relationships between women in a different way than you might when you're an adult."

While the playwright and professor concedes that the turn of the new century has seen some changes in regard to family dynamics and gender roles, it's his own childhood during the Second World War that serves as the inspiration for "Housewives." It's a "memory play" that draws from the people and events of a time that he describes as "a goldmine for me."

Set in 1944 Brooklyn, the ensemble comedy-drama — the first of a work-in-progress series called the Victory Blues Trilogy — takes place at a time "just on the cusp of when the men started coming home from the war," according to Brody.

As neighbors in an apartment building, May, Alice and Billie are part of an insular little world in which everyone knows everyone else — as well as everyone else's business. As bored beauty May and self-righteous gossip Alice count off the days until their husbands return home, Billie attempts to further her family's lot by starting a small business out of her home.

While life on the wartime homefront seems to exist in a sort of stasis for these housewives, the appearance of new neighbor Sophie — an older, more worldly woman and a war refugee from Europe — throws their small society for a loop. The "delicate equilibrium" of their routine is jeopardized, and their eyes are opened to the horrors that exist in the war-torn world beyond their building.

NJ Rep artistic director SuzAnne Barabas directs a four-woman cast divided between Rep veterans: Corey Tazmania (who co-starred in "A Child's Guide to Innocence") and Pheonix Vaughn (the stunning Psyche of last winter's musical "Cupid and Psyche"), as well as newcomers Natalie Mosco and Wendy Peace.

A professor of theater at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Brody came to the famed science and engineering school more than 20 years ago to assist in the development of a drama curriculum.

"They needed to build up the humanities and arts there," says Brody of his responsibilities at MIT. "It's designed to introduce scientists to what it's like to be in the world as an artist."

The veteran academic, who confesses to be "still trying to figure out how to get young people into the theater," has nothing but praise for the Shore-based company that's developed and produced this personally significant work.

"This place is one of the few that can do a reading of a new work and then follow through each step of the way to a finished production," Brody says of the entity founded by SuzAnne and Gabe Barabas. "Their commitment to new plays, and to good writing, is terrific."


THE REAL ‘HOUSEWIVES’ OF 1944, Red Bank Orbit

Disparate Housewives: Corey Tazmania, Pheonix Vaughn, Wendy Peace and Natalie Mosco star in THE HOUSEWIVES OF MANNHEIM, the play by Alan Brody making its world premiere on the stage of New Jersey Repertory Company this weekend.

By TOM CHESEK

Brooklyn, 1944. A time of ration cards and shortages. A life that centered around radio programs and Waldbaum’s and waiting for the men in your world to maybe make it home from the war. Even the big-league talent pool was so diluted that the St. Louis Browns actually won the pennant, for the first and only time.

For the bored bombshell May (Phoenix Vaughn), the building busybody Alice (Corey Tazmania) and the budding businesswoman Billie (Wendy Peace), a more or less orderly existence is about to be shaken up by a new arrival to the apartment house — Sophie (Natalie Mosco), an older, more sophisticated refugee from the turmoil of the European front.

That the self-contained world of the building surely gets shaken to its foundation probably goes without saying, as The Housewives of Mannheim captures that moment when a couple of faraway wars forced every American household to adapt — and the first tricklings of returning servicemen came home to households that, in many cases, had been irrevocably changed.

Such is the setting for Alan Brody’s ensemble comedy-drama, a “memory play” that makes its world premiere this week at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. It’s directed by company co-founder SuzAnne Barabas, and it presents an all-female cast equally divided between a pair of NJ Rep veterans (Ms. Vaughn you might recall as the gorgeous mortal half of the recent musical Cupid and Psyche) and a couple of players making their mainstage debuts on the Shore stage.

Brody, by day a professor at MIT — a school not generally known as a training ground for the dramatic arts — dropped in at Long Branch during an electrically hectic week of rehearsal. Red Bank oRBit was there to catch him.

MIT professor and playwright Alan Brody has been dropping by Long Branch to look in on SuzAnne Barabas’s realization of his HOUSEWIVES OF MANNHEIM.

RED BANK ORBIT: At first glance, your play fits into what I guess we could call the STEEL MAGNOLIAS syndrome, in which a male playwright scripts a play with an all-female cast. Were you confident going into this project that you could get a convincing grip on the ways that women talk and interact with each other?

ALAN BRODY: I was willing to take that risk. It’s possible for men to write great roles for women, since when you’re a child you’re around your mother, and probably other women as well. At that age, you’re not socialized to not see things — you see the relationships between women in a different way than you might when you’re an adult.

Supposedly things have changed — I’m not sure how much they have — but this is certainly true of my generation. This play is a memory play; set in a time that’s been a real goldmine for me — the period when I was between six and twelve, thirteen years old. So I ended up trusting my ear.

The character of Billie is my best friend’s mother. I adored her; I always wanted to capture her — and here I found a structure that would make her happen on stage. She’s an energy source here.

With the understanding that the second world war worked its way into every aspect of American life, how big a role does it play here?  

Well, this play is the first in what I call the Victory Blues Trilogy — there’s this one, then all the characters are in the one called Victory Blues, where the men come home from the war. And then the latest project is called Are You Popular?  — it’s got all the characters from the second play plus three more, and it’s about what happens to these couples when they move to the suburbs.

In Housewives of Mannheim, which is the only one of the three plays to be produced so far, I deal with the underlying sense of fear that comes from the war taking place overseas. The roots of all that’s happening now; the seeds of everything we’ve known were planted back then. We won the war, we believed we were invincible — we still do, really; there’s that mindset at work.

I guess that’s something you’ve probably discussed many times with your young students. Tell me about your work at MIT — I wasn’t even aware they had theater professors there! 

They brought me there to start a theater program; they needed to build up the humanities and arts there at MIT. The thinking is, it’s designed to introduce scientists to what it’s like to be in the world as artists. 

Have any of your students caught the theater bug from you and ditched the career in science and tech? 

If they have, I’d consider those to be my failures! It’s the ones who are able to practice their work, and to get that perspective that the arts programs provide, who get the most out of the program. On the faculty we have an understanding of what our mission is; we’ve been able to put together a great curriculum that’s meaningful to the students.

I still love teaching; it feeds my writing. And it feeds me — in order to be able to write what I want to write, I need the job. It’s the only way because you can’t make a living as a playwright. You can only make a ‘killing!’

Not to get all these-kids-today on you, but there’s as big a generational divide now in the ways that we communicate, as there’s ever been. What are some ways in which that works its way into your exchanges with students? Do they speak to you differently; do they write differently than you’ve been used to seeing in the past?

What’s peculiar to MIT, I guess, is that they’re all writing science fiction! Their language of metaphor — it’s a way of avoiding being emotionally involved sometimes. But at the same time there’s an expectation that everything has to have an interactive element to it.

The sense of structure has become very fragmented — whether by MTV, the internet, that sense of the unit is very different now. It’s hard to get students to understand the pleasure of sustaining a scene.

Yet when you look at some of the filmmakers with younger followings, who came up in the 1990s — Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino are good examples — these guys are all about the long, sustained scene. So much of their screenplays are lengthy conversations, and you stick with them because they’re often so much more interesting than a tired-looking action sequence. 

I suppose what I’m saying is that generationally there’s a different sense of literacy — we are all very literate people in our way. I remember when I was a young turk, telling myself that when I get old, I’m not going to be as closed-minded as the old folks were then. And now I look at my students and I realize that there’s an entirely different sky they live under than mine.

You’re certainly not the only person who’s grappling with the question of how to get younger audiences to come to the theater. 

We’re all still trying to figure that out. I suppose that one way to do it is to have that sort of commitment to new plays, like they do here. This place, New Jersey Rep, is one of the few that can do a reading of a new work and then follow through each step of the way to a finished production. Their commitment to good writing is terrific. To develop a new generation of theatergoers, we need to give them a sense of that commitment. And we need to make it all look easy!


ZAZZI, ZAYD AND ONE ‘SICK’ COMEDY

Germ of an idea: Zayd Dohrn is the author of SICK, the dark comedy making its bow on the stage of New Jersey Repertory Company this weekend.

By all accounts, Zayd Dohrn has acquitted himself well in the role of family guy. 

The 31-year old writer and educator, a faculty member at both Columbia University and The Juilliard School, has set up house with his wife, actress and teacher Rachel DeWoskin, and their two young children. Other than the fact that Mom was once the star of a wildly successful Chinese soap opera, there’s nothing unusual to see here; move along. 

But introduce the topic of Dohrn’s parents, and you’ll get not just a nod to the values they instilled in their oldest child, but a couple of disclaimers to the effect that he’s “always been more about art than about activism,” and that he and his father have “different priorities…different outlooks.”

Such is life as the son of 1960s Weather Underground members Bernardine Dohrn and William Ayers — the same Bill Ayers who became a human talking point of the slightly surreal 2008 presidential campaign. Young Zayd, whose namesake was the Black Liberation Army member (and Tupac uncle) Zayd Shakur, lived his first few years “hiding in plain sight” in Harlem with his parents, then wanted by the FBI in connection with a 1970 bomb blast. 

Although his father was never tried, Dohrn watched his mother go off to prison for a year when he was six — and his relatively low-key persona belies a man who’s spent his days in close proximity to people of fame and notoriety.

Family figures prominently in Sick, the play by Dohrn that debuts this week at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, as part of National New Play Network “rolling premiere” event. It’s a portrait of the Krebs family, a college professor and his brood who live in fear of germs and disease, and who isolate themselves within a sterile environment of plastic sheeting and air filters. When a grad student comes to visit from the outside world, complications ensue in ways that bring to mind everything from The Glass Menagerie to You Can’t Take It With You.

Described by its author as “darkly funny, but not comic throughout,” and directed by Benjamin E. Klein, the play puts forth a cast that features four actors (Meredith Napolitano, Rusty Ross, Kevin Sebastian and Jim Shankman) who are being seen on the NJ Rep mainstage for the first time — along with a genuine Rep regular.

Featured as the matriarch of the Krebs clan, Liz Zazzi assumes her place as the dame of the unofficial stock company, adding to a winning streak of characters that include recent co-starring runs in Women Who Steal and (as the goddess Venus) the mythbusting musical Cupid and Psyche.

Praising the actress as a “truly amazing” performer who “grounds the play in a nice reality,” Dohrn explains that the script (which was composed in Beijing in the wake of Asia’s SARS epidemic) can be construed as a metaphor for the ways that people tend to “protect themselves from upsetting trends” and block out troublesome ideas from their lives.

Minutes after we spoke to Dohrn, Red Bank oRBit conducted a Q&A with Liz Zazzi on Sick and her many other projects on the NJ Rep stage. Continue Reading for the dirt.

Liz Zazzi, headshot at center, is pictured in her past NJ Rep productions (clockwise from top left) LOVE AND MURDER, WOMEN WHO STEAL, CUPID AND PSYCHE and THE ADJUSTMENT.

RED BANK ORBIT: It’s been quite a whirlwind for you lately; going from Venus in the one show while prepping for Sick

LIZ ZAZZI: I literally had one day off between the two shows. It was a bit of an overload for me, but every actor should be so lucky, right? As an actor it’s a great gift to be able to work in a place like this.

And have you been staying at the NJ Rep house in town while you’ve been working on these projects?

No, my husband, Gary Martins and I live in Montclair — he also acts, and he holds down a real job. But last year we bought a little house, just a beach bungalow really, down in what I understand is now called Lake Como. So I stay there for about half the week while I’m appearing in a show in Long Branch.

So did you realize these two shows would be running so close to each other when you went out for them?

Sick was the one that really jumped out at me, and then they added Cupid and Psyche late in the season. I hadn’t sung on stage in quite some time, but I had a great audition song and I thought I’d give it a shot. Plus, in high school I was quite a devotee of mythology.

What was your great audition song?

It’s called “The Jealous Aria,” and it’s something I co-wrote myself, when I was with a stage group called Bad Attitudes. It’s about a woman who can’t cope with her boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend still being in the picture.

Well, you were a standout in the show. You owned the part of Venus.

Thank you. I had so much interaction with the audience in that show — I deviated from the script here and there, and with the intimacy of New Jersey Rep you’re literally right on top of the audience; that fourth wall is completely broken.

What was your first show for NJ Rep? Was it The Adjustment, where I first saw you?

No, my first was The Girl with the High Rouge, from one of their first seasons. That was a strange, almost epic piece — they built a boat; a full-length boat that stretched from where the stage usually was right over to the tech booth. They arranged the audience on either side, and we had all kinds of hatches and doors so that we could go beneath the stage. If only they could do the show now — people didn’t know what to think of it at the time.

After that was Naked by the River, a wonderful romantic comedy by Mike Folie. Then The Adjustment, Love and Murder, Women Who Steal and Cupid and Psyche.

You did Tour De Farce, where you and Ames Adamson each played five different parts — only you didn’t do it here!

That was exhausting. But in a good way.

And now you’re cast in another unusual ensemble piece, in the role of the matriarch. It’s a play that Zayd Dohrn told me was darkly funny, and not comic throughout…

There’s plenty to laugh at here, but it’s also going to provoke you. It’s not slapstick, and it’s not high tragedy — I’d certainly call it dark comedy, black comedy. And at the heart of the comedy there’s food for thought; something that you could take away from it.

There seems to be kind of an Addams Family vibe here; a family that creates their own insular little world inside their home and has trouble dealing with the world at large. 

There’s a dynamic in this family — the things they say to each other seem almost hurtful, but that’s just how they relate to each other. I don’t think there’s a villain in this piece — at the heart of it are two parents who deeply care about their children. So there’s a sense that this is a loving home, with something ‘off’ about the way they live. There’s a certain paranoia to what my character perceives as being harmful to her children.

You could say that about Venus, also; trying to shield her son Cupid from those mortal temptations.

My maternal instincts absolutely kick in for Sick. Two of the actors in the show are young enough to be my kids, so I definitely ‘get my mother fix’ here.

Although you’re not a mom in real life?

You just need to tell the truth about who that person is that you’re playing. Comedy comes from truth — it comes from the richness of the character and their relationships. Our director, Benjamin Klein makes sure we have these rich relationships established for the characters we play.

It’s interesting to hear this kind of theory from you; you’re obviously a thinking person’s actor, and yet a lot of what you do seems to come so effortlessly, although I’m sure you work hard at it. But just tell me you’re having fun up there.

I feel so blessed. How many people do you know that love their job? I get to do something I love — and I get paid for it! How could I possibly complain?


'Sick' at home in Long Branch

To playwright Zayd Dohrn, it's all about the family

By TOM CHESEK • Corresponden, Asbury Park Presst • February 13, 2009


As Zayd Dohrn has explained it, he's always been "more about art than activism," having never been under any particular pressure from his parents to inject political themes into his writings.

photo

Meredith Napolitano, Liz Zazzi and Rusty Ross rehearse a scene from "Sick" at the New Jersey Repertory in Long Branch. BOB BIELK/Staff Photographer

All well and fine, and only anything of a surprise when you consider his parents, the academics Bernardine Dohrn and William Ayers.

Yeah — that Bill Ayers. The man who became a human talking point on a hundred thousand pundit-casts; an issue unto himself (as was the Reverend Wright) in the campaign against Barack Obama, and still likely a blood-boiler for those who can remember back as far as last Labor Day.

When the inevitable elephant-in-the-living-room topic is introduced to the conversation, Dohrn (whose first name was inspired by murdered Black Panther Zayd Shakur) offers that he and his dad "have different priorities, different outlooks."

"I don't know that I ever try to keep up with him," the younger Dohrn says of Ayers, who's just announced his first foray into the medium of the graphic novel. "It's hard enough to keep up with all the media craziness surrounding him."

Dohrn, who lived under assumed identities with his parents in the days when they were both wanted members of the Weather Underground organization, has staked out a more traditional family-man existence for himself, his wife and two young kids — or at least as traditional as can be when Mom's a tremendously popular TV star in China.

It was while residing in Beijing that Dohrn (who teaches these days at Columbia University and The Juilliard School) penned the first draft of his play "Sick," a dark comedy that opens this weekend at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, as part of a National New Play Network "rolling premiere" event.

The family unit figures prominently in "Sick" — specifically the Krebs family, an insular clan whose members are obsessed with germs and cleanliness, to the point of living in isolation within a plastic-sheeted, air-purified environment.

Naturally, the introduction of an outsider (a gentleman caller named Jim, in a nod to "The Glass Menagerie") initiates a set of complications both comic and otherwise.

Benjamin Klein directs a cast of NJ Rep newcomers that includes Meredith Napolitano, Rusty Ross, Kevin Sebastian and Jim Shankman — and, as the family matriarch, the stock company regular Liz Zazzi, star of such memorable Rep productions as "Women Who Steal" and "The Girl with the High Rouge."

"Liz is truly amazing," Dohrn says of the actress who very recently played Venus in the musical "Cupid and Psyche" at NJ Rep. "The play rises and falls on that role, and she grounds it in a nice reality."

While the play was written during the height of the SARS epidemic in Asia, the author allows that the feared germs and impurities could be seen as stand-ins for the introduction of troublesome and unwanted ideas into the household; "the explicit notion that you can protect yourself from upsetting trends in the popular culture."

The playwright, whose other full-length works include "Haymarket" (a historical piece on the 1886 Chicago bombing that invites parallels to the 1970 incident that sent his parents into hiding) and the hippie commune-revisited piece "Magic Forest Farm," sees these days as "scary times for the arts" — an interlude in which many established theaters, seldom on solid ground even in the best of times, are in danger of losing their traditional subscriber base.

"From the creative side, it's important to do shows for younger crowds, but you have to trust in your audience overall," he maintains.

"As long as there are those still making theater and making it well, taking those risks, people will respond to it."


MORE SICK DAYS AT NJ REP (Red Bank Orbit)

If you think there’s nothing doing on a Monday evening, New Jersey Repertory Company has some surprising stuff to send your way. And if you think the subject matter of Zayd Dohrn’s new play SICK is going to push some buttons with the local theatergoing audience, wait till you find out who his mom and dad are.

Honestly, the folks at New Jersey Repertory Company must thrive on danger. How else to explain their mission-statement policy of presenting only new, largely unknown and often controversial works for the stage, when they could have played it safe from the start and packed the house with variations on the Nunsense franchise all year round?

It was just a little more than a year ago that NJ Rep founders Gabe and SuzAnne Barabas found their Long Branch playhouse a lightning rod for a lot of ill will in the local community, courtesy of their production Minstrel Show, or the Lynching of William Brown. Max Sparber’s drama, inspired by an all-too-real horrific incident in 1919 Nebraska, was advertised with posters that featured imagery of blackface performers and lynching nooses, and, well, suffice to say that the promotional campaign was changed by the time opening night rolled around.

In the ten seasons that NJ Rep has been pushing the envelope of what was previously thought viable and permissible on suburban stages, they’ve presented a risque black comedy based upon an actual murder of missionary nuns in South America (Whores), a nostalgia piece set in the golden age of the Times Square porn district (Adult Fiction), and a surreal exercise that featured not just full-frontal male Monty, but an onstage proctological exam for the price of admission (Love and Murder).

It’s not all shock and awe for shock’s sake, of course. In fact, much of what the company has done is more along the lines of sweetness and light — witness the current offering Cupid and Psyche, a fun little musical that continues its run through January 18.

Many of the dozens of mainstage offerings at NJ Rep’s Lumia Theatre trace their origins back to the troupe’s intermittent series of Monday evening script-in-hand readings — a fascinating feature which, as detailed in a story on oRBit a couple of months back, has drawn the participation of some surprising talents.

It’s a series that continues tonight at 7pm with the drama Degage (Disengage), and on January 12 with a first look at a new musical called Stage and Screen. Then in February comes a “green comedy” by the name of Sick, from the pen of Zayd Dohrn — a young playwright whose name may not strike much of a chord with the general public, although a glance at his family tree may raise more than a few eyebrows.

As the son of 1960s Weather Underground members Bernardine Dohrn and William Ayers — yeah, that Bill Ayers — young Zayd spent the first few years of his life on the run from the feds with his famous folks. Now, depending upon whether your cable-news proclivities trend toward the Bill-O or the Keith-O, you may look upon the whole Ayers affair as either the great unaddressed issue of Campaign ‘08 or a complete non-starter. Either way, you’ve got to admit that the timing is tops for this play’s “rolling world premiere,” which rolls into Long Branch on Lincoln’s Birthday.

Both Ayers and Ms. Dohrn have since segued from bomb-tossing radicalism to elbow-patched academia, and in Sick, it’s the way-dysfunctional family of a college professor that hurls the laughs, as a student meets a brood of relatives who are obsessed with cleanliness and environmental disorders, real or imagined. More on Sick in this space as the sickness progresses; in the meantime tickets can be advance ordered right here.


Click for New York Times Theater Review: Buff Cupid, Meet Spunky Psyche

Cupid and Psyche: Sprightly Musical Comedy

Women Who Steal

Pheonix Vaughn and Ryan Reid

Cupid and Psyche, a vest pocket, new to New Jersey, full-out musical comedy has arrived in Long Branch just in time for holiday theatre going.  Yes, it is based on a classic tale of Roman mythology.  However, it speaks our language in terms of its attitude, characterizations, comedy and music.  Its ancient sting has been replaced by comedy tonight.

This is the one about the goddess Venus getting all out of sorts because the people of Illyria have ignored her and allowed her temples to fall into disrepair because of their love and fascination with the gorgeous and radiant mere mortal, Psyche.  The pouting Venus orders her son, the god Cupid, to go to Illyria and use his golden arrows to cause Psyche to fall in love with a dreaded Cyclops, and then to loose his arrows on the people of Illyria to cause them similar pains.  However, upon seeing Psyche in all her beauty, Cupid falls in love with her and brings her to his palace.  As a mortal, Psyche is not allowed to be with a god.  So, in the adaptation at hand, Cupid cloaks himself in invisibility, so that Psyche will not know who he is while he courts her.  Eventually, Venus will interfere, initially for ill and eventually for good.

Librettist Sean Hartley has designed Cupid and Psyche to be performed by four actors.  Gaining equal footing with the cross-species lovers is Venus herself, who is here a sarcastic, domineering mother trying to keep her son single and under her domination.  The quartet is rounded out by the god Mercury who is comic sidekick and gofer to Cupid.  As this role is smaller than the others, the occasionally self-referential script informs us, the actor playing Mercury plays each of the subsidiary roles.

Liz Zazzi as Venus with her arms intact is this production's delightful top banana.  Whether warning us in song that you "Don't Mess With a Goddess" or revealing her frustrated oedipal yearnings for Cupid, Zazzi is at her zany best.  Ryan Reid (Cupid) and Pheonix Vaughn (Psyche) are charming and likeable as the young lovers.  Their performances naturally capture the casual attitudes of modern youth while permitting us to accept them as variant versions of their mythological roles.  Especially delightful is their performance of the lilting musical highlight "Trust Me," which finds Cupid teaching Psyche how to dance. Ron De Jesus' choreography makes a solid contribution here. Michael Maricondi has a deft comic touch as Mercury, a god who allows himself to be treated more as a manservant because of both his immature boyishness and affection for Cupid.  A typical sample of the play's humor is when Cupid, hiding his identity while courting Psyche, passes off Mercury as his servant "Jeevicles."  The story, which hews very closely to the mythological original, also finds Maricondi playing Pan, Cerberus and several others to good comic effect.

Jihwan Kim's music is pleasantly melodious, and encompasses a wide range of styles including Larry Hart era Richard Rodgers, a ballad with a light rocking beat, calypso and several other stops along the way.  Sean Hartley's lyrics are literate and amusing, and sit well on the music.  Musical Director Nancy Lee's piano accompaniment is so full of verve, color and detail that it becomes one of the production's highlights.

Director Alan Souza directs with a light touch, maintaining a good pace throughout.  Jessica Parks' lovely and expansive unit set encompasses marble columns, a circular platform, stairways and an impressive electrical display.

This reviewer first encountered Cupid and Psyche in an hour long staged reading eight years ago.  It was pleasant then, and it is even more so now in a version which has been newly expanded for this production.  Still, it remains an intelligent, small scale entertainment whose essential appeal is to a specialized audience.  As such, it has now found a perfect home at the intimate and enterprising New Jersey Rep.


'Cupid and Psyche': Don't myth it

"Cupid and Psyche" makes holiday theater season bright

Review by TOM CHESEK • Correspondent • December 19, 2008

Women Who Steal

Ryan Reid is Cupid and Pheonix Vaughan is Psyche in "Cupid and Psyche." Photo by SHAWN HUBER/Staff Photographer

"That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard," says Pheonix Vaughan (as the lovestruck princess Psyche) to Michael Maricondi (as Mercury, messenger to the gods of ancient Greece), when informed that the way out of her dire predicament is to break out in song.

"I know," says the impish sidekick. "Aren't musicals great?"

Sometimes, a musical is precisely what the doctor ordered — and "Cupid and Psyche," the comic tunefest now on stage at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, could not have happened along at a better time, following two rather somber dramas and a set of real-world circumstances that have hardly made for the cheeriest of seasons out there.

Positioned as a "holiday" offering by NJ Rep, the show by Sean Hartley (book and lyrics) and Jihwan Kim (music) represents a definite detour from the standard seasonal fare that tends to commandeer local stages this time each year — a fact for which you can thank the gods of your preference.

Apart from its dispensing good will and cheer in its own merry way, the production under the direction of Alan Souza (who helmed the Dorothy Parker musical "The Little Hours" in Long Branch a few months back) is swift and bright as a famous reindeer — a quality that should keep it fresh right on through mid-January, long after the various Scrooges and Nutcrackers have been boxed away for another year.

If you frittered away your school years studying Greek mythology instead of Keynsian macroeconomics, you might recall the rather convoluted tale of Cupid and Psyche as the one in which the winged, arrow-shooting love god falls for a beautiful mortal — a royal daughter of Illyria, but a mortal from the wrong side of the clouds nonetheless.

There's a perilous trip to Hades in there, along with invisibility spells, obvious disguises and a forbidden "box of beauty," but the scuttlebutt of the story is that Cupid's mom, the scheming love goddess Venus, will do just about anything to break up the budding interspecies romance.

Liz Zazzi, a member in good standing of the unofficial NJ Rep stock company, plays the aging Venus with the right balance of highbrow hauteur and lowbrow laugh-mining; addressing the audience and throwing in the odd in-joke reference to local landmarks and businesses.

While her comedic gifts shouldn't come as a shock to anyone who saw her in last summer's popular "Women Who Steal," the fact that she can sell a showstopper song (her solo spots "Don't Mess with a Goddess" and "Improvise" are among the best moments of this fast-moving piece of work) is a welcome bonus feature.

Another pleasant surprise is the work done by Zazzi's co-stars, a trio of young players who are each being seen on the local stage for the first time. Ryan Reid portrays Cupid as an earnest young guy who's grown into a rebel with an Adonis physique (he spends the opening moments of the show striking godlike poses), even while holding onto the innocence of the familiar cherub from the Valentine's Day greeting cards. Looking a little like The Who's Roger Daltrey in his (long ago) "Tommy" prime, the actor plays well with others, sharing scenes and duets with his fellow cast members with a dexterity that brings out the best in all concerned.

Pheonix Vaughan — and yes, that's how she spells it — offers a Psyche who's smart and courageous and certainly celestial enough to attract the eye of a being who dwells in the palaces of Mount Olympus. That the two physically perfect specimens in the title roles can also act and sing is a boon for director Souza, who's evidently worked closely with his dream cast and Hartley (the author penned a couple of new songs specifically for this production) to retool this previously produced show into a pleasing fit for the oddball specs of the Rep mainstage.

Short and stocky alongside his Olympian peers, Maricondi is the tireless energy source of this show, playing a somehow believable Mercury in addition to the gods Pan, Neptune, Athena and Proserpine — as well as the hellhound Cerberus, a gargoyle and sundry other comical cameos. The character man sets the pace for much of the onstage action and has some fine vocal contributions to offer, particularly in "One Little Arrow," a duet with Reid.

Onstage musical director Naomi Lee accompanies with solo piano arrangements of the breezy, pop-inspired score, keeping to the back of the pastel-colored "ruins" of the Jessica Parks set. NJ Rep's veteran costume designer Pat Doherty has risen to the occasion with a collection of vivid outfits that make a good fit with the various characters.


The gods must be crazy in N.J. Rep's 'Cupid & Psyche'

by Peter Filichia/The Star-Ledger
Monday December 15, 2008, 4:33 PM

From left, Ryan Reid, Liz Zazzi and Michael Maricondi in "Cupid & Psyche."

There's a hit and a myth at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

With "Cupid & Psyche," composer Jihwan Kim and wordsmith Sean Hartley take one of the world's oldest stories and give it a fun-filled twist. Their 2003 musical tells of Venus, the goddess of love, who's quickly becoming the goddess of jealousy. She can't understand why everyone's suddenly paying attention to Psyche, who may be pretty, but, after all, is only a mere mortal.

Venus sends her son Cupid to shoot one of his love-arrows into Psyche's heart, and to do it while she happens to be looking at a Cyclops. Of course, when Cupid goes to fulfill his task, just one look, that's all it takes, for him to fall in love.

"My son and that MAMMAL?," Venus shrieks in horror. Here, Hartley adds a new layer and complication to the myth by filling Venus with mother -- and smother -- love. His script also contains many anachronisms, and while that's usually a cheap way of mining humor, gods are eternal and immortal. So what's happening to them could be happening in the here and now.

As a lyricist, Hartley shines at wordplay. He deftly finds a way to fit four rhymes in one line. ("Dionysus is always in crisis, and Isis is twice's bad.") Admittedly, too, his "Spare the rod and spoil the god," winds up being more mellifluous than the original expression.

The lovers must be played with the utmost innocence, and able director Alan Souza found two delightful performers for his title characters. Ryan Reid, who stomps around half-naked all night, is deliciously guileless as Cupid. Many who attended Saturday night's opening went "awwww" after he said, longingly, "My mother and father don't talk to each other. I'm caught in the middle." Meanwhile, Pheonix Vaughn has the blond beauty and captivating charm of the traditional ingenue. Reid and Vaughn have pretty voices that do justice to Kim's excellent, post-modern show music.

Counterbalancing their naivete is Liz Zazzi as the calculating Venus. With a mass of hair that rather resembles Medusa's snake-filled 'do, Zazzi looks like the Wrath of Goddess, and wields an "It's not nice to fool Goddess Venus" fury. She has that Mother-knows-best confidence when confiding to the audience: "Sit up straight, darling," she chides Cupid, before flashing us a knowing, tired look that reads, "You understand; you have kids of your own."

Zazzi, who's masterful at adopting various accents, gets to do a few here, the best of which is her hilarious imitation of a world-weary Gypsy whose broken English is utterly beyond repair. Matching her imitative talents is Michael Maricondi, playing the myriad roles that new musicals always demand of one actor. He gives vocal life to a Valley Girl, a mobster and a Long Island resident.

Most musicals produced in December offer at least some sort of allusion to the holidays, but not "Cupid & Psyche." It is, however, a nice enough present in itself.


A CurtainUp New Jersey Review

Cupid and Psyche


The people of Illyria called you the "new Venus." — Cupid
I told them not to. — Psyche
Cupid & Psyche
Pheonix Vaughn (Pysche) and Ryan Reid (Cupid)
(Photo credit: Pat Doherty )
The Greco-Roman mythological legend of the romance of Cupid and Psyche first appeared in the second century A.D. in a novel by Lucius Apuleius. We have had to wait nineteen centuries for the musical version of the story by Sean Hartley (book & lyrics) and Jihwan Kim (music). Instead of asking either what was the hurry, or what took so long, let's just accept the fact that this sassy, sexy, satirical allegory has reached the stage with some of the key players from Mount Olympus in top form. Set designer Jessica Parks has provided a handsome faux alabaster columned playground for the gods. It has been lighted with the appropriate heavenly glow by Jill Nagle.

Hartley and Kim may have taken liberties with the original story, but the liberties, and there are plenty of them, add up to a zany and fun-filled time. The now seriously middle-aged but smartly accessorized goddess of love and beauty Venus (Liz Zazzi) is consumed with jealousy ("Don't Mess With a Goddess,") when she finds out that Psyche (Pheonix Vaughn), a lovely young mortal has not only been acclaimed as being as beautiful as she and but is being worshipped as a goddess by the people of Illyria . Venus hatches a revenge plan. She commands her son the curly haired and cute Cupid (Ryan Reid) (especially sporting white wings and a red skirt with gold fringe) to go down to earth and shoot an arrow at the even cuter Psyche so that she will fall in love with a Cyclops. That's doable.

Accompanied by his smart-alecky sidekick cum messenger of the gods Mercury (Michael Maricondi), Cupid reluctantly complies with his determined mother's wish. One glare from her and we understand that saying no is not on the table. But one look at Psyche is all that Cupid needs to fall in love. However, she's also studious ("Don't Talk About Love,") and wears glasses. Despite the warning of his pal Mercury that the gods are forbidden by law to love a mortal, Cupid, unable to reveal himself, makes himself invisible. He whisks Psyche off to a secret palace where things at first are blissful and then, of course, stressful when momma finds out.

One might think that the comely lovers or even the hoydenish Venus would be in charge of musical's most engaging action. But no, it's magical Mercury, as played with breathless brio by Maricondi who deserves the most accolades. It has been decreed by the gods that Maricondi play all the small roles. . . in a big way. He has also mastered the glib and witty lyrics so that they literally dance like quick steps off his tongue. With comedic aplomb, the tubby and terrific Maricondi breezes through all the nonsensical ado. And he carries a tune or two as well. The choreography by Ron De Jesus is most notable in an amusing number "Trust Me, ," in which Cupid teaches Psyche to dance. Otherwise the dancing borders on cavorting, but that's what it's all about.

Although she's got that formidable façade and the right attitude, the zaftig Zazzi has a way to go before she sounds at one with all the zings and zaps that punctuate her dialogue. The lovers are slim and blonde, sing well and look spiffy in Patricia E. Doherty's sheer out-of-this world costumes. On first hearing, the score is commendably tricky but easy on the ears and played admirably by Naomi Lee at the on-stage piano.

The direction by Alan Souza is geared toward the flighty. But this comparatively short, tightly wound and frenetically engineered show would also gain a lot without the intermission. This musical romp briefly played Off Broadway about five years ago and is a smart choice for the holiday season.

 


CUPID AND PSYCHE: DON’T MYTH IT (Red Bank Orbit)


The sky’s the limit for Ryan Reid, Liz Zazzi and Michael Maricondi in CUPID AND PSYCHE, now playing at New Jersey Repertory Company.

 

After a couple of rather downbeat, all too human dramas in a row, New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch threw fate to the gods for their year-end, holiday season offering — a fun little musical comedy of love, jealousy and loyalty among the immortal set, by the name of Cupid and Psyche. Directed by Alan Souza and featuring some brand new songs by creators Sean Hartley and Jihwan Kim, the regional premiere of this tuneful take on the ancient Greek myth keeps the basic story of the aging love goddess Venus (Liz Zazzi) scheming to break up the forbidden fling between her curly-haired son Cupid (Ryan Reid) and mortal princess Psyche (Pheonix Vaughan). It adds loads of laughs and attitude, much of it courtesy Michael Maricondi as speedy messenger Mercury and about eight other wacky characters.

 

While Maricondi sets much of the manic pace, Zazzi cuts a classically comedic figure as the divine diva — she chats with the audience, tosses in some sly in-joke references to local businesses, and her two solo songs are star-quality screams — and the title-role players are godlike gorgeous figures with the added bonus of actorly acumen and singing savvy. Really, this is one of the best cast shows in recent memory, and all involved look even better matched with Pat Doherty’s costumes and the clouds-’n-columns set by Jessica Parks.

 

Best of all, Cupid and Psyche has absolutely nothing to do with Christmas, an asset that should keep it fresh right up to the end of its run on January 18.


Theater notes: THEATER NOTES By Tom Chesek, Asbury Park Press

December 12, 2008

Women Who Steal

Ryan Reid and Phoenix Vaughn are featured in "Cupid and Psyche" at New Jersey Repertory in Long Branch. SHAWN HUBER/Staff Photographer
)

"Love is like milking a centaur — it's a dangerous game," says the god Mercury in "Cupid and Psyche," the musical comedy that initiates its New Jersey premiere this weekend at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

A whimsical retelling of the familiar tale of forbidden love from Greek mythology, the show by Sean Hartley (book and lyrics) and Jihwan Kim (music) is set in a "modernish" version of Mount Olympus in which the bored overseers of the universe busy themselves with such diversions as fawn tossing and wet toga contests.

It's a milieu in which an aging goddess of love, Venus, a diva who's accustomed to getting her way, rules the roost with an iron grip on the heartstrings of humanity. Into this scene comes Psyche (Phoenix Vaughn), a "mere mortal" enchantress with an uncanny power to turn heads — including the curly-haired noggin of the jealous Venus's son Cupid (Ryan Reid).

Liz Zazzi, whose numerous credits at NJ Rep include last summer's hit "Women Who Steal," promises to bring the full thunder and fury of her prodigious comic gifts to the role of Venus, topping the cast under the direction of Alan Souza (who helmed the previous NJ Rep musical, "The Little Hours"). Musical direction is by Naomi Lee, and choreography by Ron DeJesus.

Kicking off its run with a preview performance today, "Cupid and Psyche" opens on Saturday, continuing Thursdays through Sundays until Jan. 18. New Jersey Repertory is at 179 Broadway, Long Branch. For ticket information and complete performance schedule details call (732) 229-3166 or visit www.njrep.org.


THE GODS MUST BE CRAZY AT NJ REP (Red Bank Orbit)


Olympic meddles: From left, Liz Zazzi (as Venus) can’t help interfering with
the thing between Cupid (Ryan Reid) and Psyche (Pheonix Vaughan),
while Mercury (Michael Maricondi) laps up the attention.

 

By TOM CHESEK

Fawn tossing. Wet toga contests. The diminished sense of fabulousness and oppressive, all-encompassing ennui that define life for an ancient Greek god, here in 2008 New Jersey.

 

In Cupid and Psyche, the musical comedy that goes up this week at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, things just ain’t what they used to be — not the fading looks and allure of love goddess Venus, not even the need for such things as the all-powerful beings who dwell on what’s being described as a “modernish” version of Mount Olympus.

What’s remained constant is the age-old theme of young love, forbidden and denied and interfered with by the machinations of a meddlesome parent — in this case, a jealous Venus, whose grown-up, curly-haired love cherub Cupid has stooped to fall in love with a mere mortal. A rich, royal, gorgeous beyond words mortal, but a kid from the wrong side of the clouds nonetheless.

What happens next in the original myth of Cupid and Psyche is the stuff of highest tragedy, or would be if it weren’t adapted here (by playwright-lyricist Sean Hartley and composer Jihwan Kim) into a satirical song-and-dance fest that brings the lofty problems of the immortals entertainingly down to earth. Down to Broadway, in fact, for a show that factors in elements of West Side Story and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

 

Liz Zazzi, the NJ Rep regular who co-starred in last summer’s hit Women Who Steal, heads the cast as Venus, with Ryan Reid as Cupid, Pheonix Vaughan as Psyche and Michael Maricondi as the speedy messenger Mercury, and everybody else.

Red Bank oRBit talked to director Alan Souza (who helmed The Little Hours at NJ Rep just a couple of months back) for the scoop on these mythological figures — their innocence, their shoes, their choice of gym.


Click for New York Times Theater Review: A Worthy Sobfest That Pares Emotions to the Cellular Level

NJ Rep's 'Apple' is compelling to the core

By TOM CHESEK • ASBURY PARK PRESS Correspondent • October 28, 2008

Looking for a good Hallmark-channel sort of cry? Try catching "Nights in Rodanthe" at your local multiplex. But if you're wondering "what keeps us safe," it's the feeling we get knowing that the people at New Jersey Repertory Company are successfully producing some mature, honest stagework about real human emotions — work that doesn't need a beach full of wild horses to get its point across.

Women Who Steal

Deborah Rayne and Carol Todd are pictured in rehearsal for "Apple," now being staged by the New Jersey Repertory in Long Branch. (STAFF PHOTO: TOM SPADER
)

In "Apple" — the simple, somewhat stylized drama by Canadian playwright Vern Thiessen that's now making its East Coast debut at NJ Rep's playhouse in Long Branch — snapshots from a troubled marriage are delivered by an exceptional cast under the direction of company co-founder SuzAnne Barabas.

With carefully wrought, almost poetic language and an emotional payload that sits atop a trio of powerhouse performances, "Apple" lays bare the things that worm their way into the core of a marriage — the lack of communication, the dread of the routine, the buyer's remorse.

At the same time, the script addresses the outside forces that eat away at even the happiest of hermetically sealed relationships — unemployment, worldly temptation, catastrophic illness.

In this case, breast cancer. As in October being Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Sounds like a barrel of laughs, no? While there are a few early laugh lines — most delivered by Carol Todd as Evelyn, a foul-mouthed real estate agent who doesn't work well with others — this is a very serious piece of work that adds just enough distance to keep from surrendering to the syrupy and sentimental; neither a "disease of the week" TV weeper nor a falsely inspiring "message" play.

While Evelyn doesn't exactly choose to get cancer, this is to some extent a work about choices. Her newly unemployed and unfaithful husband Andy (Michael Pollard) faces down a tough choice between caring for his sick wife or pursuing happiness with Samantha (Deborah Rayne), a student who has apparently chosen him as her partner in a series of parkside afternoon delights.

When Samantha reappears in the very different context of oncologist's assistant, it's clear that some decisions need to be made all around.

Carol Todd ("Place Setting") and Deborah Rayne ("The Good Daughter") have each proven their dramatic credentials many times over on the NJ Rep stage, and they both excel here.

Todd in particular is scary-good as she segues from a woman whose every human encounter is a high-tension confrontation, to a woman who reaches a point where the best of times are measured in mere moments. It's a flawless performance — cutting yet vulnerable; off-putting yet chillingly familiar to anyone who's ever watched a loved one fade like the end of a favorite old record.

A revelation

Still, good as the women are, it's Michael Pollard — the slightly nebbishy comic character actor from "Big Boys" and "Ten Percent of Molly Snyder" — who's the revelation. Rising to the considerable demands of what we suspect is the best role he's ever gotten, Pollard takes no shortcuts in presenting a deeply conflicted man whose need for love has taken him places he never intended to go; revealing himself to be what we always suspected him to be — a dramatic player of depth and intelligence. It's our hope that this production marks the start of a new and exciting chapter in his career.

Director Barabas has drawn the best from her cast of Rep regulars, in a story that earns every one of its emotional highs and lows in full. It all takes place against a spare and stylish set design by Jessica Parks that works with Jill Nagle's lighting to convey both interior and exterior planes of existence. Merek Royce Press, the company's sound designer for nearly all of its shows, contributes an original score of incidental music.


'Apple' play gets to the core of an extramarital affair

By TOM CHESEK • ASBURY PARK PRESS Correspondent • October 24, 2008


What is this play called "Apple," this drama that makes its East Coast premiere at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch this weekend?

Women Who Steal

Michael Irvin Pollard and Deborah Rayne rehearse a scene from "Apple" at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. TOM SPADER/Staff Photographer

Our first guess was that it was a dramatic recreation of one of those product-intro presentations that Apple CEO Steve Jobs does at least once a year — some of the grandest pieces of theater we have these days — but no.

As it turns out, the core of Vern Thiessen's "Apple" is simplicity itself — an examination of an extramarital affair; how a bite of forbidden fruit has repercussions well beyond the original act, and how a triangle remains a triangle no matter which way it's skewed.

According to director SuzAnne Barabas, "it's really about ordinary people — this could happen to anybody, and does."

As if to reinforce the regular-guy aspect, the director (and NJ Rep co-founder) has cast as the male vertex of this triangle a familiar face from the unofficial NJ Rep stock company: actor Michael Pollard, whose bald, stocky good looks are closer to George Costanza than George Clooney.

It represents a chance for Pollard to show his considerable character talents in a more grounded role than the surreal desk jockeys he played in "Big Boys" and "Ten Percent of Molly Snyder." He's cast here alongside two other veterans of the Broadway (Long Branch) stage, Deborah Rayne ("Good Daughter," "Child's Guide to Innocence") and Carol Todd ("Whores," "Place Setting").

It was Todd — a cast member in a one-shot reading of this script at NJ Rep three years ago — who recommended that Barabas take a second look at the play, following several productions throughout Canada and an American premiere in Chicago.

"When I first read the play, I thought it was a piece of cake," says Barabas, the company artistic director. "When I read it again, I discovered that it was a layer cake."

As the director explains, one of the script's strengths is its apparent simplicity, in that "the seductions are simple; it's not like a glamorous love triangle from a Hollywood movie."

At the same time, however, the play "has a lot of challenges — it's almost like a memory play; the dialogue is very specific — it gives you a rhythm, like a song."

As playwright Thiessen reported back from his trips to see the play performed outside his native Canada, "Apple" has been open to all manner of interpretation by its directors — from a "very sexual" production in Chicago, to some stagings in Poland that were shockingly violent.

"(The husband character) actually beats up his wife onstage," Barabas says of the Polish production, speculating that the prevailing cultural landscape there is decidedly cool to the notion of a woman speaking to her spouse as the "Apple" character does.

While the NJ Rep version will be avoiding extremes of sex and violence, the director emphasizes that the actors will be performing a mature play of emotions laid bare in a compelling and provocative story.

"We wanted to keep the simplicity; keep a zenlike feel," says the director of the show, which is performed against an expressionistic set design by Jill Nagle. "All very suggestive."


Pollard finds niche as character actor

by Peter Filichia/The Star-Ledger
Thursday October 23, 2008, 10:00 PM

Michael Irving Pollard and Deborah Rayne in a scene from "Apple" at NJ Rep in Long Branch.

The Apple. Where: New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch. When: Through Nov. 23. Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. Howmuch: $36.50. Call (732) 229-3166 or visit njrep.org.

 

He's heard the question hundreds upon hundreds of times.

"Are you the guy from 'Bonnie and Clyde'? The one from that famous 'Star Trek' episode?"

No, that's Michael J. Pollard. This is Michael Irvin Pollard, who's in "The Apple," Vern Thiessen's play that opens Friday at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. Pollard portrays Andy, a husband who's lost his government job.

Says Pollard over lunch near his Metuchen home, "He's a numbers guy, and the numbers don't add up enough to keep him on the payroll."

Exacerbating the problem is that Andy's wife, Lynn, is doing very well in real estate. She makes him feel unimportant, and he's soon in another woman's arms.

To a degree, Pollard understands Andy's frustration. For years, if he wasn't confused with Michael J. Pollard, he was known as "Wendy Liscow's husband." She was associate artistic director of the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick from 1987-98.

"I admit that when she was set to direct a play, I would plead, 'Is there anything in it for me?,'" he recalls.

Occasionally, there was. Liscow cast him in small parts in "All My Sons" in 1989 and "The Sunshine Boys" in 1997. The problem wasn't so much that Pollard worried that the other actors thought he got the parts by sleeping with the director.

"What was worse was that the cast always bands together and at some point talks about the director," he says. "When it was Wendy, I couldn't be a part of that. I also couldn't rag about the other actors to my wife, either, and some actors would suspect I was doing that.

"I wasn't concerned that people might think she wore the pants in the family. But it's a struggle to maintain your self-esteem as an actor, anyway, so to be marginalized in a professional situation was bothersome."

The sticky situation began to change in 2002, after Pollard went to the New Jersey Theatre Alliance's annual "combined auditions." There, an actor performs a monologue for the state's artistic directors. SuzAnne Barabas of New Jersey Repertory Company was impressed with Pollard and asked him to become a member of her company.

His first role was in the two-member comedy "Big Boys," which was co-produced with Playwrights Theatre in Madison.

"Because of appearing in both towns, more and more people got to see me, and the New Jersey community got to see what I could do on my own. You can say that 'Big Boys' was my big break," Pollard says.

He was calling himself Michael Irvin then. "Just like the Dallas Cowboys' wide receiver," he says. "When he started getting into trouble with sex and drugs, I thought I'd better use my full name."

Since "Big Boys," Pollard has been seen at the Women's Theater Company in Wayne and at the Bickford Theatre in Morris Township -- though he concedes that his two stints with the Bickford have been under Liscow's direction.

"What's really happened is that I've grown into my type," says the bald-headed Pollard, who is 47. "When I was 25, I thought I should get cast in certain roles, and now I see I was too young for them. I'm clearly a middle-aged character actor, and I'm enjoying seeing all these different roles open up to me."

Peter Filichia may be reached at pfilichia@starledger.com or (973) 392-5995.


A "License" renewed at NJ Rep

ASBURY PARK PRESS - September 16, 2008

It's one of the most basic casseroles in the playwright's recipe box. Take a situation that exists in a state of balance — a seemingly well-adjusted family unit, say — and throw in a wild card: an interloper at the dinner table who represents or even embodies some deep, dark aspect of a main character.

Place in an oven-safe vessel for about two hours on high heat, and watch the whole thing bubble and writhe. Then invite the neighbors over, charge them admission, and don't forget to baste the action with liberal splashes of cooking sherry.

With "Poetic License," in its world-premiere engagement at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, Jack Canfora follows the dysfunctional family recipe in faithful fashion, adding just enough spicy twists to satisfy the curiosity of the voyeurs at the fourth wall.

In Canfora's script, the home of acclaimed poet and academic John Greer (John Little, a last-minute substitute in the lead role) and his wife, Diane (Nancy Ringham), is rather comically invaded by their 19-year-old daughter Katherine (Anna O'Donoghue) and her new live-in boyfriend Edmund (Douglas Scott Sorenson) — an aspiring writer who seems very interested in meeting her dad.

Dad — and it's always successful, pillar-of-the-community Dad who's got the baggage, isn't it? — is a revered literary light who's just returned from a testimonial dinner thrown on his behalf. In fact, all signs seem to point to his being named Poet Laureate of the United States.

Over the course of a single evening — and with a documentary crew from cable's A&E channel due to arrive at any moment — the chitchat of a meet-the-parents dinner begins to take on some ominous shading; first with the realization that Mom tends to drink a bit too much. By the time Mr. Greer and young Edmund share a moment alone in the living room, the veil of propriety comes collapsing to the floor.

Edmund has an agenda and a secret that cuts to the core of Greer's very identity as an artist and a family man. He's even got a backup bombshell to lay on the Greers — and before too many minutes are up, it looks as though the poetic patriarch has been pushed into a hole from which he has no hope of extricating himself.

That's too bad in a way, because we're asked here to believe that this respected gentleman of letters has amassed prestige and privilege over the years by maintaining a carefully crafted wall of appearances. In other words, he's something of a con artist, and a master grifter would never let himself be bested so easily by an outsider who, for all anyone knows, could be a flim-flam man himself. Instead, Greer is reduced to sputtering lines like, "This is nonsense!" while his wife and daughter prove an attentive audience for Edmund's allegations.

There's the matter of that dread secret, too. While we're not about to divulge it, you'd probably be able to hash it out for yourself before the first finger of scotch is poured — and, while we've always been partial to the immediacy of the dead-hooker-in-the-trunk for dramatic effect, the figurative skeleton in the closet here takes the form of a series of stunners that simply don't let up. It's almost like a physical assault that renders the tall Greer a stooped and deflated figure by play's end; albeit one possessed of enough residual pride to never totally come clean with his loved ones.

Overcoming setbacks

Director Evan Bergman has done a tremendous job in getting this production up to speed following the sudden departure of the original leading man. The situation forced the postponement of the opening date to the next week, while John Little worked script-in-hand over an extended series of preview performances.

The strongest onstage work is delivered by Ringham as Diane, the long-term spouse who makes it abundantly and repeatedly clear that she has sacrificed much to prop up her husband's precious career as an "ethical" educator and much-lauded author. By the play's strange, sad final moments, she's not only come to the realization that she's been played for a fool by John — she's every bit as stripped of her identity and sense of purpose as he is.

Anna O'Donoghue portrays Katherine as a young woman who goes from take-charge confidence in the opening moments of the first act, to a sobbing wreck at the end — having been duped, disrespected and pretty much discarded by everyone she's close to. As Edmund, Sorenson is like an improvising musician calling a sudden chord change with the careful detonation of a strategically placed F-bomb — we see a shadow come across his face, and feel the smile retreat from ours, as he abruptly drops the good-guy persona of the opening sequence. We enter strange and alien territory, with the actor as our not-so-comforting guide.

"Poetic License" is a play of complex emotions, with no guarantee of closure. The cast, tight-lipped and far from exuberant at curtain call, seemed emotionally drained by the experience of wrestling with these deeply unhappy characters. It's their job for the next few weeks to illuminate these creatures of illusion; they are not here to show us a feel-good time.


Poetic License: Entertaining Variations On An Oft Told Tale

Women Who Steal

Douglas Scott Sorenson and Anna O'Donoghue

Everything old is new again in Poetic License which is receiving its world premiere in a spiffy production at the New Jersey Repertory Theatre

Anything there is to be told about Poetic License can only detract from the pleasure of discovering this play for oneself. Jack Canfora's new play is a light entertainment whose devices are most effective when they catch one by surprise. There is nothing profound here (although the clever author and production may well have you thinking differently until after the final curtain descends), and the author's literate and deftly comic set-up nicely disguises his intentions most entertainingly. Thus, if you are contemplating attending this production, I recommend that you do so without reading further.

The rest is for those still with me. Canfora has written his variation of an oft repeated plot which has oft times been employed effectively. This is the one in which a (usually young) person uses deception to gain access to the home of an elder of high reputation and accomplishment. He carries with him a shameful dark secret from the elder's past which, if true (and in time it almost always turns out that it is), exposes the dishonest hypocrisy on which his standing is based. The secret rips at the fabric of the elder's closest personal relationships and disgrace awaits him. Oh, and there is always an unexpected connection between the dreaded interloper and the elder which is torturing and driving on the interloper.

Katherine Greer and her roommate-lover Edmund (cutely) gain entrance to the home of her parents. The young lovers, both writers of poetry, have arrived for a birthday celebration for her father, Pulitzer Prize winning poet and university professor John Greer. Greer expects that in short order he will be named the nation's poet laureate. Katherine is most concerned about being able to endure the overbearing, embarrassing behavior of her self-aggrandizing mother Diane. The audience is comfortably ensconced in a family comedy. The lines are sharp and fit comfortably into the mouths of this erudite crew. Katherine opines that, "when it comes to their children, most parents consider hypocrisy wisdom." Diane asks Kath to cut vegetables because, "I don't want to hear from PETA next week saying I used excessive force in chopping the carrots." Notice the way that last quote is written. It is shorthanded in the manner that an educated person would speak, but never write. It displays author Jack Canfora's fine hand with dialogue.

The extended, disarming byplay heightens the shocking moment when the thus far charming Edmund turns to John, and says, "I've been fucking your daughter a couple of months now; and I've had to stop myself from telling her things about you."

For the rest (much of which I'm certain many of you have already discerned), it is skillfully written with a full measure of doubts, defenses, jolting revelations, angst and exploration of character.

Each actor fully rounds out his/her character as well as the melodrama. Douglas Scott Sorenson is particularly convincing as Edmund. It is the most difficult role because of conflicting strains in his behavior. Sorenson manages to strike notes of youthful impetuousness which feel real and electric. Anna O'Donoghue plays Katherine as a bruised but spunky young woman. As later events unfold, O'Donoghue is plaintive as she delineates Katherine's pain with small strokes. The convincing John Little effectively uses slight gradations in the stiffness of his speech and body movements to portray the unraveling of the poet-professor. Nancy Ringham as Diane is delightful, and properly not quite as exasperating as Kath's description of her. This interpretation feels right as, after all, she is not our mother. Ringham handles her dramatic scenes with a sense of hard earned dignity.

Director Evan Bergman has created a smooth, fluid production which captures all of the play's melodramatic twists and turns with maximum effectiveness. Bergman has done wonderful work with all of his actors, one of whom (John Little) had a very short time to assume his role after personal circumstances forced his predecessor to withdraw from the production.

New Jersey Repertory produced the world premiere of author Jack Canfora's rewarding comedy Place Setting (also directed by Evan Bergman) in the Spring of 2007. In providing a stage for the work of Jack Canfora and other developing, talented authors, the New Jersey Rep is performing an invaluable service for the American theatre.


Parental license

Busy mother manages to fit New Jersey Rep role into schedule
Friday, August 29, 2008
BY PETER FILICHIA
Star-Ledger Staff

A playing schedule that runs Thursdays through Sundays? Actress Nancy Ringham can do that.

As a wife and mother of two, Ringham turned her back on Broadway, which demanded eight performances a week. But New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch only asks for five performances in four days. So Ringham will be starring in the world premiere of Jack Canfora's "Poetic License," starting on Thursday. The show is directed by Evan Bergman.

Ringham plays the fictional Diane, who, as a college student 27 years prior, fell in love with John Greer, her poetry professor. After he reciprocated, she noticed that he didn't have much business sense -- which she had in abundance.

"So she became Diane Greer, the woman behind the man," says Ringham. "Her working hard to get her husband noticed got him a Pulitzer Prize. Now he's about to be named poet laureate of the United States. But our grown daughter is artistic like him, and thinks I'm crass. I keep telling her, 'Would you have an SUV if it weren't for me? Why are there so many starving poets?' And my daughter must admit that it's because all those poets aren't married to me."

In real life, Ringham more resembles John. She prefers a quiet life, raising daughters Caitlyn, 10, and Madeline, 7, in Englewood. Her husband, Christopher C. Smith, is a production supervisor on Broadway for "Legally Blonde," "August: Osage County" and "A Tale of Two Cities."

The two met in 1981, when Smith was a carpenter for the Broadway revival of "My Fair Lady" and Ringham was suddenly promoted from understudy to Eliza Dolittle herself, opposite Rex Harrison.

Says Ringham, who is 53, "And to think it was my first job in New York. I'd been acting ever since college in Minnesota, where I grew up, and just thought if I came to New York for a year and then returned home, I'd get more parts there because everyone would be impressed by my New York experience."

Actually, she and Smith didn't date for most of the run.

"I was engaged to a lawyer back home. We'd been together seven years, but with all that was happening to me, we broke up. So I went to Chris and said, 'Uh, I'm free now.'"

They've been a couple for 25 years. During the early part of the marriage, Ringham was Sally Bowles in the national company of "Cabaret" and Molly in the Broadway revival of "The Threepenny Opera." In the early '90s, she assumed the female lead in "The Will Rogers Follies."

"Then the girls came along, and because it took us so long to become parents, I wanted to stay home with them," she says. "Most people work all their lives to get a lead in a Broadway show. Mine hit early, and I knew what it entailed. If I could sing a big song in the second act and go home, that would have been ideal."

However, when she was offered the role of understudy in the 2001 production of "Follies," she decided to take it, figuring it wouldn't be too much of a commitment.

"I wound up going on in four different roles in the first two weeks," she says, moaning, "including the lead that Judith Ivey played."

Meeting Ivey, though, turned out to be life-changing.

"Judy was offered the lead in 'Secrets of a Soccer Mom,' but said she'd prefer to direct. When they agreed, she cast me in the role she turned down. I loved the play so much, I even co-produced it off-Broadway. After all, you can raise money from a phone at home while your daughters are in the next room."


from Red Bank Orbit

Readers of the lost art: Clockwise from top left, John “Gomez Addams” Astin, Stephen Colbert, the late Oscar winner Kim Hunter, Brian “Clerks” O’Halloran, Linda “Terminator” Hamilton, Betsy “Friday the 13th” Palmer — all veterans of New Jersey Repertory Company’s script-in-hand readings series.

There was that time that Stephen Colbert took a break from his breakout TV show — to perform a dramatic turn as a Nazi bureaucrat of obscure motives and opaque sympathies.

Another memorable evening occurred when veteran actress and broadcast personality Betsy Palmer — a woman who will always be pegged as Jason’s murderous momma in the first Friday the 13th movie — took a co-starring role in Dix Tableaux, a play that was as warmly funny as it was impossible to produce, seeing as to how they would have had to suspend an entire convertible from the ceiling to fulfill the playwright’s vision.

Things like props, scenery, costumes and even rehearsal schedules don’t matter too much when it comes to New Jersey Repertory Company’s long-running series of script-in-hand readings at its downtown Long Branch playhouse. All that’s needed are some copies of the script and maybe a narrator to read the stage directions and let the audience know that the characters are supposed to be sitting in a convertible suspended from the ceiling. 

It’s an offering that’s brought an ingeniously economical perspective to the whole process of putting on a show — and it’s a series that continues tonight on lower Broadway with a little something called The People’s Pimple.


Monday night playbook: The script-in-hand readings that have gone on to become full-fledged productions at NJ Rep include (clockwise from left) October 1962, Minstrel Show, Maggie Rose, North Fork and (center) The Speed Queen.

NJ Rep’s readings are a good deal for a whole lot of reasons. First off, they’re way cheaper than a fully-staged show — available for a suggested donation (generally $10), although reservations are required. Second, they start at 7pm and don’t keep you out late on a school night (post-show Q&A sessions are often intriguing but never mandatory). And third, you just never know what you’re going to see — it’s unpredictable enough for greatness to be in the cards, far more often than you may think.

A lot of fine actors have passed through these one-shot productions, including many from what’s become the stock company of players at the Long Branch stage. Such grand dames as Salome JensKatharine Houghton and the late Kim Hunter have used these nights as a springboard for a challenging new project. They’ve also drawn the participation of well-known performers who are itching to break out of their pigeonhole roles, be they John (Gomez Addams) Astin, Linda (Sarah Connor) Hamilton or Brian (Dante Hicks) O’Halloran, who’s displayed a range here that was just hinted at in his famous projects with Kevin Smith.

Most of all, it’s the fact that this feature has functioned as something like a “farm club” for new plays that makes it so much of a must. Out of nearly 250 readings that have been performed here over the past ten years, almost 40 of them have gone on to become fully finished mainstage shows at NJ Rep — from the company’s maiden show Ends, to the forthcoming production Apple, the seeds for which were first planted here with a reading back in 2003.

That sort of a gestation process isn’t all that unusual, as it turns out. As NJ Rep Artistic Director SuzAnne Barabas has explained, “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.

“It also gives us the chance to feel out the playwright and see how easy or difficult he or she is to work with, and how eager they are to further refine their play.”

With the Actors Equity stage union allowing up to 15 hours for rehearsals for these things, there are generally only two rehearsals of the material — one in New York, and one at NJ Rep the day of the performance.

That keeps things interesting and, shall we say, spontaneous in places — with the audience very much a part of the development process, to the extent that Barabas admits to having presented “plays that the audience did not especially like… the playwrights would do well to listen to their comments and to heed their suggestions.”

Tonight’s script, Sean Cunningham’s The People’s Pimple, is a commodity about which we know nothing save for its being described as a “comedy about Chairman Mao and his pimple.” Could it aspire to greatness? Who knows? If you’re curious, call NJ Rep at (732)229-3166 to reserve seating — and check back here for frequent updates on future examples of theater in the raw.


World Premiere Play In Long Branch "Poetic License" at New Jersey Rep

By Philip Dorian

John Little and Anna O'Donoghue play father and daughter in Poetic License.

Just when you think you have Jack Canfora's Poetic License figured out, another development plops into the mix. Well-acted by its four-member cast, the revealing of the story in trickles through most of the play keeps the audience involved with the mystery-drama. (I'd add comedy to the description, but that element, prominent in the first half, goes missing in act two.)

The fact that key points in the play bear a close resemblance to the 2001 Pulitzer and Tony-winning Proof diminishes somewhat but does not entirely negate the respectability of Poetic License. The play straddles the line between "Reminds me of..." and "You've got to be kidding," but creative authenticity has been debated since before Shakespeare borrowed from Plautus. (Those thoughts and the reference to Proof are clues to the plot-particulars of Poetic License.)

Literature professor and writer John Greer (John Little) is to be appointed Poet Laureate of the United States. His career has been managed by his wife Diane who, sharply etched by Canfora and played to perfection by Nancy Ringham, gets my vote for Sarcasm Laureate.

On the eve of John's announcement, their 19-year old daughter Katherine (Anna O'Donoghue) shows up with her soon-to-be-live-in boyfriend Edmund (Douglas Scott Sorenson). Katherine is an aspiring poet and, as we learn, Edmund is a writer too.

The ensuing family squabbles, jealousies and revelations lead to an all-out Tension Convention, sparked by exposure of sins past and present and fueled by alcohol-spiked Diane.

The play unfolds in real-time two hours, and we learn a great deal as wounds are opened and old scores settled. Under director Evan Bergman, it's not crammed-in or rushed - at least not in the smartly-constructed first act.

Mr. Little, who replaced another actor on short notice, offers an adept portrayal of false bravado in the face of humiliation. His growing discomfort is clearly the character's, not the actor's. Ms. Ringham delivers Diane's acid-tongued put-downs with an edgy flair. ("You're the poet," she says to her husband. "You're the one who's paid to be vague.")

Ms. O'Donoghue and Mr. Sorenson work well together. They create a believable Gen Y couple, nervous over facing Katherine's parents. Their relationship breaks down in the melodramatic second act, culminating in an unsavory subtext. Edmund had deceived Katherine big time, and she ends up understandably distraught.

That abrupt second-act change of tone is a significant flaw. New developments are telegraphed, and bright dialogue is replaced by matter-of-fact exposition. That doesn't make Poetic License. a bad play - far from it. First-time stagings, New Jersey Rep's raison d'etre, allow playwrights to see their work "on its feet" and, hopefully, improve it. Tinker away with Poetic License, Mr. Canfora, but please keep this cautionary line: "Being an admirer of Shakespeare," says the Professor, "hardly puts me in the forefront of literary criticism."

 


A belated premiere about a poet with problems

By TOM CHESEK • CORRESPONDENT • September 11, 2008

John Little and Anna O'Donoghue are featured in "Poetic License," the play by Jack Canfora that
makes its world premiere this week in Long Branch. (NJREP)

In summing up "Poetic License," the new show that makes its world premiere at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch this weekend, playwright Jack Canfora can't resist citing Mark Twain.

"When I was 19, I thought my parents were the stupidest people in the world," the playwright quotes Twain as saying. "When I was 21, I was amazed at how much they had learned in such a short time."

For the 19-year-old daughter in Canfora's "family drama-comedy," the revelation occurs within a single evening — an evening in which her "very fixed ideas about both of her parents are challenged."

Dad in this case is a renowned poet, one who's on the short list for being named to the exalted position of United States Poet Laureate — an honor that in real life has been bestowed in the past upon a native son of Long Branch, Robert Pinsky (who served from 1997 to 2000).

"The family in this story seems basically sound," says the actor-author from Huntington, Long Island. "But there are one or two things that are perhaps not what we think they are — it's about chickens coming home to roost."

If a scenario of family conflict and rattling skeletons sounds too heavy to digest in these late days of summer, there's another great thinker that Canfora likes to reference — Mel Brooks, whose famous quote he paraphrases as, "Tragedy is me getting a paper cut; comedy is you falling down a manhole."

While the playwright allows that "Poetic License" is "fundamentally a drama," he's quick to suggest that "hopefully, it's funny along the way, as people's lives become unraveled — really, who doesn't want to see that?"

Frequent visitors to NJ Rep might recall Canfora as both creator and co-star of last year's ensemble piece "Place Setting," in which he worked with director Evan Bergman. The new show — only his second completed play, and the second one he's had produced — reunites him with Bergman, and boasts a cast featuring Anna O'Donoghue, Nancy Ringham, Douglas Scott Sorenson, and, as the poetic patriarch, John Little — who stepped in at the 11th hour when original lead Davis Hall had to bow out of the production for personal reasons.

While he's not sharing the stage this time out, Canfora was present at most of the rehearsals in Long Branch, and praises his director as one who "gives me a lot of latitude — he wants the choices that work best, and he's the least afflicted-with-ego director I've worked with."

The playwright describes his role in rehearsal as one in which he's cut a line here or tweaked a word there, owing to the fact that "the actors do so much of the heavy lifting, and some of the words become unnecessary."

As to his dalliances with the poetic form, Canfora dismisses himself as "one of North America's five worst poets — it's difficult to write poetry that matches what the audience anticipates hearing; the poet's work in the play is just the MacGuffin, to use Alfred Hitchcock's word."

"I'm trying to make a living as a playwright here in America," adds the writer, who recently finished a new work based on the professional relationship of Elia Kazan and Arthur Miller. "Ultimately, it's less expensive than therapy."


POETRY IN FRICTION

from red bank orbit

Life of the party: Davis Hall and Nancy Ringham co-star in the world premiere of Poetic License, the dramedy by Jack Canfora that starts previews tomorrow at New Jersey Repertory Company. (Photos by SuzAnne Barabas)


Poetic License, the play by Jack Canfora that begins its world premiere run tomorrow afternoon in Long Branch, might be described as a play about the sheer suckiness of being chosen as Poet Laureate.

Ever heard the phrase? In olden times, a Poet Laureate was an official author of proclamations and composer of odes to the glories of the monarch who appointed him. Things that are done today by presidential speechwriters and spinmeisters.

Although the post is basically a sort of roving ambassador for poetry appreciation, the United States has an official Poet Laureate too — and between the years 1997 and 2000, those duties were carried out by Robert Pinsky, a man who, like Dorothy Parker and Norman Mailer before him, was born in Long Branch.

Pinsky, who’s reportedly going to be in the local area this Saturday for his 50th high school reunion, declined an invite to attend a dedication of some newly reclaimed public space on lower Broadway — a “Pinsky Park” to be named in his honor.

Had the esteemed gentleman of letters opted to hang around the largely boarded-up blocks of downtown LB’s future Arts District, he would have been welcomed at the opening night of Poetic License — a play that was originally titled A World With Snow, under which name it was performed in a reading by Austin Pendleton. 

Presented by New Jersey Repertory Company, the production reunites the Long Island-based Canfora with director Evan Bergman. The two collaborated at NJ Rep last year with Place Setting — a bitter, vodka-fueled study of partner-swapping, paranoia and self-pity at a swingin’ suburban dinner party. Good stuff, it was.

An accomplished actor in his own right, Canfora also did duty as a cast member in that production. Although that’s not the case this time, he’s been present at nearly all of the rehearsals — changing a word here, cutting a line there, and just generally enjoying the process of seeing the work get pulled kicking and wailing into the living world. Red Bank oRBit found the proud poppa at the Rep’s playhouse on Broadway.

RED BANK ORBIT: I told you about Pinsky not doing the little thing in the park, right?

JACK CANFORA: Well, I’m sure he has his reasons. We should just be thankful for Pinsky’s books; everything else is gravy.

Well played sir. Anyway, your new play, which is — how many have you written?

This is my second completed play. And it’s my second one produced here.

Batting a thousand. The play is about a poet, and beyond that I don’t really know much about it.

In a nutshell, it’s a family drama-comedy, about chickens coming home to roost. There’s a revelation that’s crucial to it. The father’s a renowned writer on the verge of being named Poet Laureate, and there’s something in his past — the family seems to be fundamentally sound, but one or two things are not what we think they are.

And, like a lot of the great dramas both onstage and off, it takes place at a family gathering? Place Setting had a similar vibe, I think; the night where it all comes down, and then the morning after.

Here it all transpires in one evening. There’s the character of the daughter; a young daughter of nineteen who starts off with very fixed ideas about both of her parents. And within a very short time her, and our, perceptions are challenged.

You mentioned that it’s partly a comedy, but I get the impression that it’s skewed more toward the heavy side.

Fundamentally, it’s a drama, but hopefully it becomes very funny along the way as people’s lives become unraveled. Who doesn’t want to see that?

You’ve made Dad an artist, as you are yourself, rather than a salesman or something else. Do you find the play ringing truer somehow, when it centers around a creative pursuit? Is there something of yourself in there?

I think in an odd way I’m sort of not qualified to answer how much of me is in each play. I wanted to examine the connective tissue between the art and the artist — how do you make great art? Is the artist even aware of it? Should you view poetry the same way?

Why a poet, ultimately? Why not a potter, or a guy who makes metal dinosaur sculptures out of car parts?

(laughs) We might not have had the time or the budget for that! It’s just that I’ve always esteemed poetry — just the idea of being able to condense all that thought into such a combustible form.

Do we get to hear some of the poetry that Dad’s written, within the play?

I’m one of North America’s five worst poets — it’s been documented! So, no, I don’t need that kind of competition. It’s difficult to write poetry that matches what the audience anticipates hearing.

How’s it been working out, having you, the very much alive playwright, on the set every day?

Evan gives me a lot of latitude. He’s not jealous of any of my contributions. He’s secure and open to the process, and the cast has made me feel welcome, too. The actors wind up doing so much of the heavy lifting in these things; they give you a reaction, or a facial expression, and you realize that you didn’t even need that line they were supposed to say. So I’ve been tweaking and cutting; I cut a few lines just today.

So what’s next for you as a writer or actor, or both?

Well, I just finished two plays, including my first play that’s based on actual historical figures — Elia Kazan and Arthur Miller. I’m trying to make a living as a playwright in America, which is like — well, it’s ultimately less expensive than therapy.


Hearing the music in Parker's wit

by Peter Filichia/the Star-Ledger
Tuesday July 15, 2008, 5:32 PM

photo: SuzAnne Barabas
From left, Maria Couch, Brooke Davis, Warren Kelley, Kim Carson and Ashley Puckett Gonzales in a scene from "The Little Hours" at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

Was it Dorothy Parker who wrote "Most men lead lives of quiet desperation"? No, it was Thoreau. On the basis of "The Little Hours" at New Jersey Repertory Company, Parker could have written "Most men and women lead lives of quiet desperation."

In Parker's hometown of Long Branch, five of her short stories have been set to music by playwright-adapter David Bucknam and able director Alan Souza. For his first act, Bucknam chose four stories about women, jump-cutting from one story to another. Because these are Everywoman's tales of woe, each character doesn't have a name, but rather a noun that describes what she's enduring.

"Waltz" is drolly played by a world-weary Ashley Puckett Gonzales. She's at a ball, but isn't having one. She takes us through the journey of dancing with a man when she's not engaged, literally and figuratively. "Telephone" is frenetically enacted by Kim Carson, anguished from counting the seconds until the man who promised to call comes through.

Brooke Davis excels as "Diary": She realizes that an aging, heavy-set woman had best become a turbaned grande dame. She spends her time wondering which dress will make her look best -- all the while knowing there's only so much even the hautest of couture can accomplish.

"Hours" prefers to stay in bed rather than place herself in the rat race -- and man race. Maria Couch excels in showing a woman who's trying to rationalize wasting her time, all the while aware that she's avoiding human contact because she's simply scared.

All these stories take place within Charles Corcoran's dull, black-draped set. But when the curtain rises on the second act, the drapes are gone to reveal a splendid suburban backyard. There George Wheelock trims his hedges and wonders about the road -- and the women -- he didn't take. Warren Kelley's grin has enough manic energy to suggest that George is working very hard not to lose his mind.

Bucknam writes a few traditional songs, but instead offers a type of musical wallpaper with long, languorous melody lines. Many are stirring and beautiful. Still, this isn't a musical for those who like to exit the theater humming tunes.

The quips that made Parker famous, from "Brevity is the soul of lingerie" to "If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to," are unexpectedly absent from the show. Yet, "The Little Hours" gives new meaning to that sarcastic Parker zinger, "Life is a glorious cycle of song."


The Little Hours
Written by David Bucknam
Based on the works of Dorothy Parker
Directed by Alan Souza
New Jersey Repertory Company
732-229-3166

Review by Amy Krivohlavek, ShowBusinessWeekly.com

If you’re a fan of the witty wordsmith Dorothy Parker — or just love an intelligent musical — get out to Long Branch, New Jersey, to see The Little Hours. Parker, an avowed New Yorker, was born there, and although she would probably prefer that you forget her suburban roots, the New Jersey Repertory Company has produced an enticing — and superbly performed — production that not only draws from, but also celebrates, her humor, charm and singular style.

In this ambitious work, David Bucknam has woven five of Parker’s most striking stories into a lovely pair of one-act musicals. In the first, set in 1936, he weaves together four stories that depict four very different women at moments of panic: a wide-eyed young woman (Kim Carson) waiting anxiously by the phone for a man to call; an affluent dame (Brooke Davis) dripping with feathery finery but lonely and isolated in a wealthy abyss; a young divorcee (Maria Couch) fighting insomnia and her churning mind; and a pert young woman (Ashley Puckett Gonzales) waltzing with a frighteningly clumsy man.

In the second act, the women are joined by the excellent Warren Kelley in a modern-day adaptation of Such A Pretty Little Picture. In Parker’s dissection of an “ideal” family’s life in suburban Connecticut, the frustrated patriarch drifts into a fantasy in which his wife, daughter and nosy neighbors come to life in unexpected ways.

Bucknam’s adaptation provides a strong vehicle for each of these actresses, all of whom give richly textured performances. His lyrical songs overlap each other with just a dash of dialogue, and director Alan Souza provides crisp, fluid staging to match. The music is appealing, if rarely transporting, but all the better — Bucknam wisely made room for Parker’s words to pop to the surface.

The situations might seem commonplace (hence the coy understatement of the title), but through Parker’s writing — and especially in this production — the women’s lives appear anything but small. In particular, Gonzales is a comic knockout as the dancing woman—perhaps the most like Parker herself, the character’s fierce independence is undercut by the perceived need to be on a man’s arm, whatever the cost. By turns, she icily criticizes the man’s faults but then spins around to apologize when he steps on her foot. But we know, knowing Parker, that she’ll eventually get the last word in.


'Hours' well spent with a great wit at NJ Rep

By TOM CHESEK • CORRESPONDENT, ASBURY PARK PRESS • July 17, 2008

photo

Warren Kelly and Maria Couch are among the cast of "The Little Hours." (PRESS STAFF PHOTO: BOB BIELK)

Long Branch has been bending over backward to do right by Dorothy Parker in recent years, even if the famous author and wit (1893-1967) never had an encouraging word to say about the seaside city of her birth.

With "The Little Hours," New Jersey Repertory Company offers up a work that's every bit the landmark as the writer's commemorative plaque in West End. It's a living theatrical experience that removes Parker from the realm of stony memorials and deposits her back where she more or less belongs - hovering just over our shoulder, as a bitterly funny and always trenchant observer of our modern American lives.

Even though the author never evidenced much of a musical streak, this world-premiere tunefest makes perfect sense somehow — as a crash course in the timeless themes of Parker's most enduring work, and as a collaboration between Parker and composer David Bucknam, who adapted five of her short stories and essays in ways that seem born to the musical stage.

Performed by a cast of four women and one man under the direction of Alan Souza — and accompanied on piano by onstage musical director Helen Gregory — "The Little Hours" isn't a standard sort of book-and-score musical. It's more like a pair of irreverent mini-operettas, in which Bucknam's song cycles are punctuated with spoken excerpts from Parker's cuttingly concise prose. One of the production's two distinctly different parts can be said to advance a rather bizarre sort of storyline, while the other is a kind of "revue" of some of the author's literary greatest-hits.

The show opens with this hit parade — a juxtaposition of four Parker pieces played against a darkened stage and set, according to the program, in 1936 New York City. In "The Waltz," a dance-club reveler (Ashley Puckett Gonzales) muses about the twists of fate that have paired her with her down-market "Cro-Magnon" of a dance partner, rather than the slicker specimens that have gravitated to the other girls on the floor.

"From the Diary of a New York Woman" details several days in the life of an aging social butterfly (Brooke Davis) whose options for dinner-and-show companionship are dwindling away.

The titular bit "The Little Hours" is a portrait in frustration, as an insomniac (Maria Couch) attempts to read herself through a sleepless night, only to lapse into a diatribe on lambs, literature and the overrated virtues of antique male writers.

In "A Telephone Call," a young woman (Kim Carson) runs an emotional gamut as she awaits that follow-up call from last night's date — proving some things never change.

In fact, if it weren't for the breathtaking 1930s costumes by Pat Doherty and a handful of period references, we could just as easily be viewing some scenes from the 21st century urban landscape here. Such are the universal qualities of Parker's pen.

With the four interlocking pieces played to the hilt by the four actresses, this is a show that discourages playing favorites — yet we can't help but single out Ashley Puckett Gonzales for her turn as the disappointed dancer of "The Waltz." Blessed with some of the sharpest lines of the script, she shines brightly during the interlude known as "The Loveliest Waltz"; a genuine standout in the first-act score. She's also dynamite as Midge, the nosy neighbor turned seductive spy, in the show's second act.

An adaptation of Parker's first published story, the 1922 "Such a Pretty Little Picture," the second half of "The Little Hours" opens up the stage to a sunny slice of stylized suburbia by designer Charles Corcoran, in which Connecticut homeowner George Wheelock (Warren Kelley, joining the four actresses here) goes about obsessively trimming his front yard hedges. Kelley, pitch-perfect as the milquetoast man of the house, gets top-notch support from the women here.

There's a lot of Parker's trademark sense of humor throughout "The Little Hours" — but hanging over it all is the same tremendous melancholy that forms the flip-side of the Parker style. The lies that these characters tell themselves — that they're happy and secure in their relationships; that their lives are fraught with glamour and drama; that there's anybody out there who really loves them — represent the uninvited guest that casts a pall over the party. The point being that, enjoyable as it is, this isn't exactly a light summer-stock musical in the barn.


The Little Hours

By ROBERT L. DANIELS, VARIETY

A New Jersey Repertory Company presentation of a musical in two acts with book, music and lyrics by David Bucknam, based on the works of Dorothy Parker. Directed by Alan Souza. Musical director, Helen Gregory.
 
With: Kim Carson, Maria Couch, Brooke Davis, Ashley Puckett Gonzales, Warren Kelley.
 
The worldly humor and cynical observations that marked the trademark pen of Dorothy Parker were harnessed into a chamber musical, "The Little Hours," by the late David Bucknam. Coincidentally, the tuner is having its world premiere by the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, where the scribe was born when her Manhattan family was vacationing there in summer 1893.

The first half of the play consists of four short stories. The frantic desperation of an impatient lover in "A Telephone Call," is deftly realized by a pert Kim Carson, who waits anxiously for the call that never comes from a philandering boyfriend.

In "The Waltz," Ashley Puckett Gonzales defines despair and bewilderment in a dancing soliloquy. Brooke Davis as a wonderfully sophisticated grand dame in "From the Diary of a New York Lady" is at a loss over whether to wear the "green crepe, red wool, sapphire earrings, the diamond pendant or the mink with the sable collar."

The title piece, "The Little Hours," finds Maria Couch as a divorced chronic insomniac, galloping into a state of melancholia, both manic and tragically funny.

The four players offer finely tuned contrasting performances in the four short scenes, and the elegance of Parker's archly pointed wit was set to a zesty and richly flavorful score by Bucknam. But, although the music has a consistently appealing sense of grace and flow, no single piece leaves its own boldly melodic identity.

"A Pretty Little Picture," the second half of the program, is an elusive domestic satire concerning a meekly complaisant husband (Warren Kelley), who is dominated by a chatty wife (Davis) and an ungrateful daughter (Carson), but who fantasizes a seductive proposal from his wife's best friend (Gonzales).

Kelley offers a keenly focused performance as the hapless husband consumed by a repetitious lifestyle and the futile dream of new horizons.

Director Alan Souza moves his players comfortably on the small stage, designed with modest efficiency by Charles Corcoran. The costume design for act one smartly reflects the flirty '30s with fashionable turbans, rope pearls, stylish hair styles and white gloves.

Despite her brilliant career as a short story writer, the dream of theatrical success always eluded Dorothy Parker. She would be pleased that her birthplace cradledthe preem of "The Little Hours."


A JERSEYCENTRIC POINT OF VIEW

BY KATHY DZIELAK • ENTERTAINMENT EDITOR, ASBURY PARK PRESS • July 11, 2008

Wasn't the Yale prom wonderful? If all the girls in attendance were laid end to end, I wouldn't be at all surprised.

— Dorothy Parker

The New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch this weekend is presenting a world-premiere musical based on the works of Dorothy Parker.

Most people might assume such a musical belongs on the Broadway stage, given Parker's lifelong love affair with New York City, where she worked and lived for much of her life.

Time to freshen up one of our favorite anecdotes, from author Marion Meade's "Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell Is This." (Penguin):

"She was supposed to have been born in New York City, but instead she showed up prematurely at the seashore on Aug. 22, 1893. That summer, as always, her family was living at West End, New Jersey . . . They prided themselves on renting a house at West End, which was next door to Long Branch, a seaside resort that had been the favorite spa of presidents from Grant to Arthur and that presumed to call itself "the Monte Carlo of America.' "

The author goes on to describe how Henry Rothschild left his pregnant wife and family at their Cedar Avenue vacation home one Monday morning to go to his job in New York, where summertime was the busiest season for the garment industry.

"Shortly thereafter, Eliza Rothschild went into labor. The evening after the baby came, the shore was pounded by a West Indian cyclone that knocked the chimney off their roof . . . After a terrible night, the children ventured forth to discover that not a bathhouse was left standing on the beach, and the old iron pier had been washed out to sea like a sand castle.

When Henry Rothschild returned to Cedar Avenue, he found a baby and a house that needed a new chimney."

So there you have it. Here at Jersey Alive, we celebrate Parker for her scintillating wit and outrageous humor. She was the queen of the Algonquin Round Table, the quintessential New Yorker, and although she might have been the last one to admit it . . .

. . . she was a Jersey Girl.


The wicked wit of Dorothy Parker

Long Branch musical salutes native daughter
Friday, July 04, 2008
BY PETER FILICHIA
Star-Ledger Staff

NEW JERSEY STAGE

Alan Souza is getting a head start on celebrating Dorothy Parker's birthday.

He's in Long Branch, where the noted wit was born on August 22, 1893. "I'm not here to party, though," he says, "though I do hope that Dorothy would like what I'm doing."

For the New Jersey Repertory Company, Souza is directing the world premiere of "The Little Hours," David Bucknam's musical based on five of Parker's short stories.

"It's called that," says Souza, "because it tells of the little patterns we repeat hour after hour of every day -- and the little lies we tell ourselves to get through the day."

Parker was well-known for her cynical quips, from "Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses" to "This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force."

"And yet," says Souza, "Dorothy was a real champion for the underdog, especially women. She was trying to find her voice in a system that was dominated by men, so in her short stories, she had empathy for those who were trying to cope with a man's world."

Bucknam took four of Parker's stories that deal with that theme and combined them. As a result, audiences will see four stories simultaneously, on how women dealt with these issues in the '30s, when Parker wrote them.

To make a point on how much -- and how little -- has changed in the last 70-plus years, the second act is set in 2008. Those four actresses return as different characters in an adaptation of "Such a Pretty Picture," the first short story Parker ever published (in 1922).

Says Souza, "Now we meet George Wheelock, who's a good father and husband, crazy about his family, but he's stuck wondering about what he missed. Some call it a mid-life crisis. I call it hitting the wall. I know how it feels, because I hit one, too."

The Springfield native fell in love with theater at an early age, thanks to his parents Aida and Leo Souza, who often took him to shows at the nearby Paper Mill Playhouse, and on Broadway. After he was graduated from Syracuse University, Alan became an actor.

"And I worked," he says staunchly. "I wasn't rich, I wasn't famous, but many people would have liked to have had my acting career, for I never had to take a survival job."

It included ensemble work for all 501 performances of "Saturday Night Fever" on Broadway. "But," Souza says, "I did double that number -- at least 1,000 performances -- as one of the lads in 'Forever Plaid' and Freddy in 'My Fair Lady' all across the country."

Two years ago, at 39, Souza decided to back away from that metaphorical wall and begin directing. He staged "Fiddler on the Roof" in Oklahoma, "I Do! I Do!" in Kansas City, and "Side by Side by Sondheim" in Philadelphia, where he resides. Then his friend, musical director Helen Gregory, suggested that he read "The Little Hours." He did, liked it, and submitted it to SuzAnne and Gabor Barabas, who head New Jersey Repertory. "They read it in a day and immediately committed to it," he says.

Souza has a number of questions he'd like to ask Bucknam, but he cannot. "There is a sad irony that Dorothy Parker had three unsuccessful suicide attempts, and that David was successful 10 years ago," he says.


Surrender to Dorothy

by Tom Chesek, Asbury Park Press

Long Branch-born author is celebrated in song

There's a plaque outside a garden apartment complex in the West End section of Long Branch — a memorial unlike any other in the state of New Jersey. It confers historic landmark status upon the plot of land that once hosted a modest summer cottage, and it marks the birthplace of a woman who was one of the most celebrated American writers of her day.

Dorothy Parker (1893-1967) was a legendary purveyor of prose, verse, criticism, journalism and some of the most irresistible soundbites ever uttered in public. But if you asked the young Dorothy Rothschild what she thought of her family's summer home along Ocean Avenue, you'd get a stream of invective that could even raise eyebrows among her worldly peers at the fabled Algonquin Round Table.

If it makes you feel any better, the self-professed true New Yorker hated Hollywood every bit as much (even though her screenplays for "Smash-Up" and "A Star is Born" earned her Oscar nominations). Undaunted, the Manhattan-based Dorothy Parker Society, working closely with their friends in Long Branch, have gone to great lengths to connect the 20th century wit to the seaside city of her birth — an effort that's resulted in an annual Dorothy Parker Day observance, the 2008 edition of which happens at points around town on Aug. 16.

There's much more in store for fans of the remarkable woman who's remembered as both a keen observer of modern mores and a passionate proponent for social causes. Beginning this weekend and wrapping up around Dorothy Day, New Jersey Repertory Company presents the world premiere of "The Little Hours," an original musical adapted from the writings of an author who was as respected (for her quotably clever poems and acclaimed stories) as she was reviled (for her take-no-prisoners reviews of books and plays).

Director-actor Alan Souza, who appeared onstage at NJ Rep last year in Katharine Houghton's original musical "Bookends" (a show in which he was directed by her husband, Ken Jenkins of TV's "Scrubs"), brought the unproduced work by the late composer and teacher David Bucknam to the attention of Gabe and SuzAnne Barabas — and the Rep founders so believed in the show that they applied for and received a grant from the prestigious Edgerton Foundation's New American Plays program.

"This is purely up New Jersey Rep's alley," says Souza. "It's a play of ideas, that just happens to be a musical."

It's also an "uncategorizable" show that "doesn't act like a traditional musical," in the words of its director, a scholar of (and specialist in) the canon of stage tunefests. Not only that, but it's a show in which nobody among the four-woman, one-man cast actually appears onstage as Dorothy Parker.

Summarized by Souza as a "musing" on some of the recurrent themes of Parker's body of work, "The Little Hours" is a two-part presentation in which the first act (set in 1936) is an amalgam of four of the author's stories — "A Telephone Call," "The Waltz," "From the Diary of a New York Lady," and the title piece; an insomniac's lament that morphs into an enthusiastic essay on quotable literature. Kim Carson, Maria Couch, Brooke Davis and Ashley Puckett Gonzales perform in this section of the show.

The quartet of actresses is joined by Warren Kelley for the second half; an act-length adaptation of Parker's first published story, the 1922 "Such a Pretty Little Picture," in which a henpecked husband — his only apparent pleasure being the trimming of the family hedges — concocts some outlandish scenarios involving his wife, his daughter and other people in their smallish middle-class world.

"It's arguably about her first marriage, and how she tried to make it work within the rules of American society at the time," explains Souza, who notes that the action here has been updated to the present day. "It's a bit more linear than the first act, and it incorporates characters from that part of the show."

Bucknam's score of songs is performed to the piano accompaniment of musical director Helen Gregory, who previously collaborated with Souza on a revival of "The Full Monty" in Florida — the sort of satisfying large-scale project that, the director maintains, can be instrumental in allowing him to take on just the sort of smaller, edgier assignment that NJ Rep has made their stock in trade.

"I'm figuring out the puzzle," says Souza. "The problem is, you want to make money, but you also want to do something thrilling, precarious.

"You either ride the carousel or the rollercoaster in life," Souza sums up. "I'd rather ride the rollercoaster."


Comedy at N.J. Rep is worth stealing a look

by Peter Filichia/Star-Ledger Staff
Tuesday May 13, 2008, 11:00 PM

Stephanie Dorian, left, and Liz Zazzi in "Women Who Steal."

Early in "Women Who Steal," the refreshingly crazy comedy at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, Karen admits that she "has it all."

So why would such a woman steal?

"When you have it all," she explains, "it's natural to want something else."

There's truth in that, and in plenty of other observations made by Carter W. Lewis in his offbeat new play. "I don't even know what my regrets are," Karen says staunchly, "but I know I have them."

Karen doesn't turn to shoplifting or embezzlement. She'll pick off Peggy's husband, Jack, for a one-night stand.

"But it was Christmas Eve!," says Peggy, moaning. "He said he was going downstairs to wrap the children's gifts!"

Actually, these two would be good friends if Karen hadn't stooped to swooping up Jack. As she and Peggy show for the next two hours, they have a great deal in common: a wild sense of humor, a thirst for tequila and a love of driving many miles per hour over the speed limit.

Just as speedy, though, is SuzAnne Barabas' direction. She navigates three performers well enough to make the play resemble a 30-minute joy-ride.

Stephanie Dorian is beautifully brittle as Karen. (Describing a skin peel, she squints her left eye with let's-face-it realism: "They rev up the Black & Decker and sand your face down.") Virtually everything Dorian says is in a matter-of-fact, seen-it-all voice that's perfect for the character.

As Peggy, Liz Zazzi -- the New Jersey actress always most likely to deliver a knockout performance -- does another bravura turn. When Karen gives her roundabout rationalization of adultery, Zazzi looks up to the ceiling, eyes and mouth dully open, as if she were preparing for the dentist's drill.

When Peggy becomes a sloppy drunk, Zazzi leans like the Tower of Pisa, then weaves around convincingly, never overdoing it. Peggy sobers up fast, though, when she considers why her husband strayed. Zazzi makes an audience understand the character's pain when she worries that she was simply too plain for Jack.

Lest matters become too serious, Lewis segues to a hilarious monologue on the agonies of being pre-menopausal. Zazzi does it full justice. Though she often suggests she's a post-modern Lucy Ricardo -- red hair and all -- when Zazzi cries and wails, she sounds real.

Bill Timoney, another frequent (and stellar) Jersey actor, is on hand to play five roles. He's the men in each of these women's lives, as well as a waiter, a ruddy redneck who loves to laugh at his own jokes and a German doctor. Timoney makes each of these characters a distinct individual.

All three deliver Lewis' messages quite well: Boredom is greatly responsible for much of today's criminal behavior. People who think justice isn't well-dispensed feel free to provide their own. Lewis believes if there's nothing much constructive that we can do about it, we might as well laugh.


A Grand Theft In Long Branch
"Women Who Steal" at New Jersey Repertory Company

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Stephanie Dorian (left), Bill Timoney and Liz Zazzi sort things out in "Women Who Steal."

One of the two female characters in Women Who Steal, the inventive comedy at New Jersey Repertory Company, refers to herself as being plain; the other claims to be unnervingly alluring. The actresses, Liz Zazzi and Stephanie Dorian (no relation), are contrasting physical types, and as well as they perform in the play, they could probably switch roles and still make the plain/ alluring ratio unnervingly believable. Both actresses have appeared at NJ Rep before, but not together and never better.

The play is a sort of 'road' adventure, a la Thelma and Louise, but less violent and not tragic. An exploration of feminist determinism, it suffers from some hazy and repetitious speechifying, but playwright Carter E. Lewis compensates nicely with a generous sprinkling of priceless quips and battle-of-the-sexes riffs. One such, an extended rant on pre-menopausal symptoms that stops the show, makes you marvel that Lewis is male. He's aware of women's insights and reveals them with uncommon wit. Consider this: A man with an earring would make a good husband because "he's experienced pain and he buys jewelry." Tell me those words aren't worth a thousand pictures.

Karen (Ms. Dorian) slept with Peggy's (Ms. Zazzi) husband Jack (one of several roles played by Bill Timoney) on Christmas Eve. While Peggy thought he was wrapping presents. Jack had fetishized Karen, going so far as to duplicate her style in gifts to his wife, including matching bras. (Visual confirmation is provided, if you must know.)

The women meet to compare notes, putting down the male sex in general and sharing pop-philosophy to the tune of "life is death" and other profundities. A dissection of the common reply "yes, but...," which they label "the cancelled affirmative," is a trenchant characterization for which we all should thank Mr. Lewis. And "Crying is faking an orgasm with your face" may not hold up under scrutiny, but it has a ring to it, don't you think?

The women bond, an aggressive event occurs and they go on the lam, taking all the necessary equipment: a car, a gun and a bottle of tequila. Various locations materialize on the nearly-bare stage, including a rustic tavern, a lakeside knoll and a hospital corridor. (Auto-travel pantomime is less successful, but it rarely works anyway.)

Zazzi's Peggy is the more bitter of the two; Dorian's Karen the more practical. The actors complement each other perfectly. Both toss off the comedy with pinpoint timing and hit home with the wickedly clever digs at us guys. It's a contest between equals with two winners. The tequila bottle also gets a workout, and the gals both play drunk with the necessary restraint - slurry but not sloppy. That Peggy and Karen both end up in acceptable situations isn't giving anything away; it's the journey through their angst that counts.

In more than capable support, Timoney brings variety to the roles of Karen's husband, whose wound goes deeper than his vanity; her first lover, whose plaid shirt inspires a beaut of a put-down; Peggy's admirer, who's largely confined to the car trunk; and an Emergency Room doctor, who wisely backs down before long-stem roses.

Notwithstanding actor Timoney and playwright Lewis's Y chromosomes, Women Who Steal is a distaff triumph. Director SuzAnne Barabas completes the circuit. She has honed the balance between the actresses to a fine edge. Dorian and Zazzi are indeed women who steal. They steal scenes from each other. But it's reciprocal and without felonious intent. And it's a treat to watch.


Peggy and Karen Shoot for the Funny Bone in Women Who Steal

Women Who Steal

The fast-paced direction of SuzAnne Barabas and the uninhibited performances of her top flight cast make the best possible case for Women Who Steal, an ambitious, raucous feminist comedy by Carter W. Lewis. His satiric screwball farce is a hit and miss affair with a great deal of clever writing which, for most of its length, keeps the humor coming at a fast, nonstop pace.

In two acts and fifteen scenes, Women Who Steal takes us on a more or less six hour lawless joy ride with Karen and Peggy and, in satirical fashion examines the long running battle of the sexes, middle aged female psyches (and to a lesser extent, those of the male) while very loosely poking fun at the format of such female buddy films as Thelma and Louise.

The fifty-year-old Peggy (Liz Zazzi) has concluded that Jack, her husband of twenty-three years, has been having an affair with the prettier and ten years younger Karen (Stephanie Dorian). Peggy has asked Karen to meet her for dinner. At the restaurant, Karen casually acknowledges that she has slept with Jack (just once, a few weeks earlier). The single Karen runs a successful real estate business. Fearful that she is getting old and losing her attractiveness, Karen is more concerned about another man in her life than she is about her one-nighter. Only when she sees Peggy's young daughter, Milly, at the end of the first act, will she realize the hurt that she has caused.

Peggy and Karen leave the restaurant in Peggy's car and embark on a spree. It begins with drinks at a bar where they meet Herb (all of the men in the play are played by Bill Timoney) with whom Peggy has shared a long simmering, unfulfilled passion. Their wending journey will take them to Peggy's house where the inebriated Peggy will grab a BB gun and shoot her husband Jack six times, unintentionally blinding him in one eye. Then they are off to the bedroom of Karen's not quite boyfriend Stanley, whom they kidnap. After more scenes and contretemps, there is a happy ending. Although those who remember Karen's monologue that begins Women Who Steal will know that happy endings are only delusional.

Women Who Steal is overstuffed with material, and fails to separate the wheat from the chaff. There is both wisdom and pseudo-wisdom present. And, even when the writing is strong, Carter W. Lewis often continues on well after his point has been made. The opening words spoken by the unhappy Karen (to which I just referred), depending on one's points of view, may well embody all these qualities. In part, Karen says:

... (it is) the indisputable truth, the unavoidable truth, that truth being, life is death. Germs and worms nibbling at our toes. And people who are alive are merely duping themselves into believing that they’ve survived. Come now, really, I’m alive so I’ve survived? - how sophomoric is that? How could they think that, when the very act of living is dying. Argue, if you will, that life precludes death, or life is just death in the early stages, but life by either definition is still, unequivocally, death. Of course the red herring, the great lie, the universal deception is hope. Hope is the Moby Dick of red herrings.  Hope was invented by smart people for the maintenance of stupid people. Hope is something to feed the sub-standard among us. Hope is a cheeseburger and fries for people who are too stupid to realize they’re already dead ...

The overall effect is like watching a series of "Saturday Night Live" sketches built around Peggy and Karen. In fact, some of these scenes (i.e., Herb goes to a park by a lake with Peggy and Karen) are unessential to the narrative. Still, the writing is well above that of much sketch comedy.

The following is one of the exchanges intended to show us that Peggy is from a lower class background. It's a solid example of Lewis' fine comic playwriting:

Peggy: "The Road Not Open." I always hated that poem. Fuck Carl Sandburg.
Karen: Robert Frost. All Carl Sandburg ever did was have fog come in on little cat’s feet. You can’t fuck Carl Sandburg for that
Peggy: I guess not.
Karen: And it’s "The Road Not Taken."  That’s crucial. "Not taken" is a choice. "Not open" is more...fate.  You can’t regret fate. You can be fucking pissed off about it, but you can’t regret it.
Peggy: Sorry, I didn’t know the rules.

There are many more such examples. However, your response to the following abbreviated example of feminist humor, neither the best nor the worst provided by Carter W. Lewis, should give you a good feel as to whether Women Who Steal is to your taste. The words are spoken to Herb in tag team rotation by Karen and Peggy:

No, Herb, you don’t understand, unless you’ve been reading up on estrogen levels and vasomotor symptoms.  Changes in brain chemistry that can spin the hypothalamus on its heels causing piercing flashes of heat in the lower abdomen, waves of scalding hot needles that make you feel as though you’ve been attacked by a thousand irate acupuncturists! Have you ever had to change your pajamas three times in one night to avoid chilling from the buckets of sweat you soaked them with?  Ever come home in a tennis skirt only to discover you’ve bled a big red stop sign on your butt?  Ever woken up with cramps and a one-hundred-percent cotton floral patterned nightshirt ripped at the seams from the violence of your own clenching and twisting?

Ever had your tits hurt, Herb?  Has your heart ever performed the drum solo from "Inna Godda Dovida"?  How about a collagen implant, ever had one of those?  Ever had a chemical peel?  Or a derma abrasion?  That’s the way to go. It’s far less painful, Herb. They just hook up the old Black and Decker and sand your face down like an old piece of furniture.  Then there’s fibroids, cervicitis, cervical dysplasia, osteoporosis, endometriosis, vaginitis, urethritis, honeymoon’s disease, lumps, bumps and chumps whose empathetic response is "bitch, bitch, bitch, just drink a beer and shut up."

Not that you couldn't care, Herb, but you definitely don't understand. Yes, yes, you've got your own problems, or should I say problem. You've got a prostate. I am so sick of hearing about men's prostates! (Whining) "My prostate's enlarged, it's cramping my urethra." If I've heard it once, I've heard it a thousand times! No Herb, you don't have a clue. At this age, Herb, the only similarities that exist between us is that we both have mustaches! ..."

Inexplicably, the last ten minutes of the play are virtually devoid of laughter. Suddenly the tone of Women Who Steal shifts totally, and we are given very heartfelt speeches mostly by Peggy and Jack about love, devotion and commitment. There is a disconnect here that pulls the rug out from under the viewer without any discernible reason.

Stephanie Dorian and Liz Zazzi bring dimension to their roles without sacrificing any of the humor. Without softening the thoughtless cruelty of the thoughtless other woman, Dorian makes us see and understand Karen's own desperation. Zazzi provides comic fireworks as the BB gun toting Peggy whom you betray at your own risk. Bill Timoney provides solid support as Herb, Stanley and Jack, and in two additional roles.

The set by Charles Corcoran features about a dozen locations (including several car trips), and is both spare and handsome. It features a large screen at the rear onto which well chosen, evocative digital images are projected. The transforming lighting is by Jill Nagle.


At NJ Rep, "Women" on the verge of something

By TOM CHESEK • Correspondent, Asbury Park Press • May 13, 2008

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Liz Zazzi (right) and Stephanie Dorian star in the New Jersey Repertory Company production of "Women Who Steal." (PRESS STAFF PHOTO: BOB BIELK)

They drink and drive, and drink and drive some more. They break and enter, fish without a permit, get rude with waiters. They kill (possibly) and maim (definitely) with a BB rifle, then kidnap someone at the point of that same very authentic-looking toy gun. Mostly, they wreak havoc on the relationships that form the core of their boring, frustrating existences, on a memorably manic January night.

But do they steal?

Anyone who expects Karen and Peggy — lead characters of "Women Who Steal," the show now onstage at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch — to be little more than Bonnie-and-Connie bankrobbers (or smarter cousins to "Thelma and Louise") is bound to be taken aback by the complexity of the themes and ideas in the dense and dialogue-heavy comedy by Carter W. Lewis. But even if these women ultimately steal little more than the hours necessary to sort through the tangle of their unsatisfying lives, they're going to do it in a way that'll make you laugh.

Newly 40-year-old single Karen (Stephanie Dorian) and 45-year-old mom Peggy (Liz Zazzi) have just a single thing in common at the outset of the play; namely, a relationship with Peggy's husband, Jack. Over the course of a long tequila-soaked night, these uneasy friends will attempt to bond over such factors as a need to shoot things, a fear of physical deterioration, and the pompous glory that is Meat Loaf's music.

They'll also do a whole lot of speeding, with a pair of wooden chairs representing a $90,000 car" (there's "a mink in the trunk") that carries them to the various scenes which play out against Charles Corcoran's monochromatic memory-box of a set. Peggy looks up an ex-boyfriend, the garrulous and decidedly downmarket Herb (Bill Timoney) for a moonlit fling by a lake, while Karen confronts her apparently amorous co-worker Stanley (Bill Timoney again) over his true feelings for her.

But the real vehicle that gets them from one place in their lives to another is the power of words; thousands upon thousands of them, blasted like BBs from the mouths of the characters and strafing the landscape in a series of sharply worded monologues and pointed exchanges. Dorian even kicks off the play with a challenging staccato rant against the inherent hopelessness of the concept of Hope (the local Obama campaign should steer clear of this show); a risky opening gambit for any play, but a move that quickly establishes the tone as one in which the laughs are abundant and entirely well-earned.

As the evening progresses and the tequila flows along with the vomit, Peggy delivers a devastating diatribe on the onset of menopause — and Karen and Stanley share a cackling and conspiratorial vision of a utopian society in which 40 year olds rule supreme. The script by playwright Lewis — and yes, Lewis is a guy — is loaded with one-liners; maybe even 21 one-liners in some instances. Thus do we learn that "Hope is the Moby Dick of red herrings," and that "Crying is faking an orgasm with your face."

By the time that wayward husband Jack makes an appearance (in the person of, you guessed it, Bill Timoney), things are not so easily resolved with a simple punchline. Jack is hardly presented as the sort of cartoon ogre you might have expected to see; his second-act scene with wife Peggy offers up some food for thought, and takes some surprising turns. As we all know in real life but seldom see in our entertainments, people can be mighty complicated creatures.

NJ Rep artistic director and co-founder SuzAnne Barabas directs this very capable cast of comic character players, all of whom have racked up considerable credits at the Rep and other New Jersey professional playhouses. Together they make what must surely be a difficult play to master into a fast-moving ride that — like a thigh full of BB shot — stings for a spell, gets under the surface, and leaves you with an entertaining story.


THELMA & TEQUILA

Unlikely team of "Women" steals spotlight at NJ Rep

By TOM CHESEK • Correspondent, Asbury Park Press • May 9, 2008

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Thelma & Louise," this ain't: "Woman Who Steal" features (from left) Liz Zazzi and Stephanie Dorian. BOB BIELK/Staff Photographer

 

There's Karen, a woman on the brink of her 40th birthday. She's sacrificed any chance at a have-it-all, "mommy track" existence in favor of a lifestyle based on careering and carousing.

Then there's Peggy, a 45-year-old housewife and mother of three whose tidily packaged present is complicated by the nagging regrets she harbors about a certain somebody in her past.

"Women Who Steal," the edgy comedy by St. Louis-based Carter W. Lewis, makes its New Jersey debut in Long Branch this weekend. In it, what starts out as a confrontation between these two women — one of whom has slept with the husband of the other — very quickly becomes something that actress Stephanie Dorian describes as "an unlikely 12-hour friendship, based on tequila (and) guns."

The advertising materials for the production by New Jersey Repertory Company evokes "Thelma & Louise" in its image of two beaming women, sporting shades and brandishing bottles as they speed into the wind in a pink convertible. Although the play's protagonists also do a lot of drunken driving and a little fishing, things tend to run a bit deeper here than in the 1991 film that had audiences of all stripes cheering its righteous outlaw heroines (and wounded male egos crying, "Foul!').

"It's a surprisingly layered play — a really fun, hilarious, broad physical comedy," Dorian says. "At the same time, there's so much insight, such depth pertaining to marriage, and to things like truth, accountability, dealing with regret, coping with bad choices."

SuzAnne Barabas, the show's director and artistic director at NJ Rep, agrees, noting that "When we all read the play we were laughing, and when we began performing it we were surprised with how dense it was."

Barabas has assembled a dream cast of familiar faces and voices for this production, bookended by Dorian (who appeared at NJ Rep in "Lemonade" and as the exasperated title character in "Ten Percent of Molly Snyder") as Karen, and Liz Zazzi (star of "The Adjustment" and "The Girl with the High Rouge") as Peggy. The roles were originally written and named for Midwest stage actresses Karen Radcliffe and Peggy Cosgrove.

To play the men in their lives — indeed, every man in the show — Barabas called upon Belmar's own Bill Timoney, a veteran voice artist and character specialist who, while new to NJ Rep's stage, has amassed TV, film and stage credits that range from "Pokemon" to the Pollak Theatre (where he co-starred last summer alongside his big scary friend Bryan Cranston in "Chapter Two").

It's Timoney who, as the philandering husband, trailer-park boyfriend, pretentious waiter and nerdy co-worker, takes the brunt of the male playwright's jokes and jibes on his own gender.

"There's some men-bashing — and rightly so — but you do see the man's side of things, too," Barabas maintains. "You see all sides of the triangle."

"This play isn't sitcom-y; it's edgy, and unfolds in an organic way," Dorian explains. "I don't think any questions are answered here, but everyone can relate to some aspect of it."

"It's a very amoral play; definitely not for kids," Barabas says. "It's empowering to women, and very smart."

"Definitely," Dorian sums up. "More Showtime than Lifetime."


SEX, FOOD, BASEBALL

Short play fest features all-American pursuits

So what comes to mind when you think of the phrase "The Great American Pastime?" Baseball, natch. Possibly sex. Definitely gluttony, then greed, sloth, envy . . .

Wait a minute; those are the Seven Deadly Sins — and they've already done those.

According to New Jersey Repertory Company, our Pastime is all of the above and more — at least when you seek the input of an all-star lineup of regional playwrights, actors and directors for what's become one of the most eagerly anticipated quasi-yearly stage events in the Garden State.

As they've done four times since 2004, NJ Rep co-founders Gabor and SuzAnne Barabas have sifted through literally hundreds of monologues, sketches and playlets to assemble the 2008 edition of their intermittently annual short play festival.

Presented under the umbrella title of Theatre Brut — inspired by the "outsider art" movement identified by Dr. Hans Prinzhorn in his 1923 study "Artistry of the Mentally Ill" — and organized within an ever-changing set of themes, the festival comes to the Long Branch playhouse Tuesday and Wednesday with its budget set to low, and the bar of expectations set high.

Like their previous exercises in theatrical Brut-ality ("My Rifle, My Pony and Me," "Sacrifice" and those "Seven Deadly Sins"), next week's "Great American Pastime" brings together many of the most valuable creative players on the NJ Rep roster, many of whom go out of their way to participate in a newly minted tradition that's become a genuine showcase for the talents and teamwork of this fantastic stock company. Rep regulars can enjoy taking in some of the newest and shortest works by such familiar playwrights as Mike Folie ("Naked by the River") and Gino Dilorio ("Apostasy"), featuring such familiar faces as Natalie Wilder ("Spain") and Dana Benningfield ("Lemonade"). There's even a new work penned by actor Ian August ("Tilt Angel"), and a piece directed by the consummate company character man John FitzGibbon.

For their first shorts showcase since 2006, the producers have scaled the event back to two nights from its original three, and have selected a baker's dozen works that are being presented more like bare-stage readings than fully furnished playlets; a nod to the exhausting effort invested in this endeavor by all concerned.

While a couple of the featured pieces (such as August's "Rookie of the Year") acknowledge the sport of summers and steroids, the "Pastime" can just as easily revolve around sex, food and (George) Bush. It's a concept the Barabases credit to their longtime stage manager Rose Riccardi, and it's a framework in which titles like "Deja vu All Over Again" and "The Purgatory of Charlie Hustle" reference the wit and wisdom of Yogi Berra, and the disgrace of hitting champ Pete Rose.

With six to seven never-before-seen works presented each of the two evenings — and a newly instituted "suggestion donation" door charge — "The Great American Pastime" is a bargain unlike any other; a real slice of Shore stage history and a possible chance to catch tomorrow's dramatic fare in its larval stage (as witness Dilorio's "The Hard Way," being expanded into the full length "Dead Ringer" for a Fall 2009 debut).


Irish wit prevails in Shavian romance

by Peter Filichia/Star-Ledger Staff
Sunday March 16, 2008, 9:47 PM

Engaging Shaw
Where:
New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch
When: Through April 13. Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 4 and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m.
How much: $35. Call (732) 229-3166 or visit njrep.org.

We've had "Shakespeare in Love," so why not "Shaw in Love"? Actually, the great George Bernard Shaw wouldn't have been happy that his love-life became the subject of a play long after the Bard got his Oscar-winning movie. The Irishman never much cared for Shakespeare.

Theatergoers, though, can be quite happy that John Morogiello got around to spilling the beans in "Engaging Shaw," the engaging comedy at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

Actually, a theatergoer's heart sinks as the lights come up. There's a pompous-looking man with a full beard, pince-nez glasses in place, with a ribbon hanging from them. As he orates about the values of socialism, everyone will fear a long night of Shaw's stuffiness.

Pshaw! Morogiello is playing with his playgoers. That man on-stage isn't Shaw, but his pretentious friend, Sidney Webb. How Webb's wife, the elegant and accomplished Beatrice, can stand him is never explained.

But their mutual friend Charlotte suggests that Beatrice is romantically interested in Shaw. Beatrice staunchly denies it, but neither Charlotte nor theatergoers will believe her. Charlotte brings up the subject for another reason: She herself wants to romance Shaw, and must have a clear playing field.

Enter the great author, much as an audience would expect him to be: witty to a fault. Because this is Shaw in 1896, just before he turned 40 (and thus, more than 55 years before his death), Ames Adamson is able to play him as young and zestful. Adamson conveys that the moment Shaw comes in a room, he will always make A Big Entrance. Then he displays an I'm-a-genius assurance as he strolls around Charles Corcoran's modest set with a power that Gulliver must have felt with those little Lilliputians.

What's fortunate is that Morogiello and Adamson don't limit themselves to showing an insufferable egomaniac. He'll succumb, by way of a sterling performance by Katrina Ferguson, to the attractive Charlotte, who radiates confidence -- at least until she offers a maidenly blush and confesses that she's a 40-year-old virgin.

Contrast that to Shaw, who, like his most famous character Henry Higgins, is "a confirmed old bachelor and likely to remain so." However, Morogiello wisely makes Shaw far more passionate about the subject. Adamson isn't shy about saying in no-nonsense terms that if he were to marry, "it would be the biggest defeat of my life."

Just before the first act ends, Adamson drops Shaw's superior sophistication and finds a marvelous way of humanizing him. Ferguson, meanwhile, beautifully demonstrates Charlotte's valiant struggle to not act as a woman intent on trapping her man into marriage. Morogiello keeps matters lofty, and the result is a wonderfully urbane high comedy.

Patricia E. Doherty's glorious period dresses help both Ferguson and Helen Mutch, who makes a refined and appealing Beatrice. Marc Geller, though, reduces Sidney to a cliched twit-Brit, though that may have been just what director Langdon Brown wanted.

Though Morogiello has included genuine quotations from the master, he can write his own epigrams that sound convincingly Shavian, such as "The truth is always terrible."

The truth is hardly that here, for "Engaging Shaw" is so much in the author's voice that it seems to be a play that George Bernard Shaw himself might have written.


'Shaw' proves to be engaging

Tom Chesek • Correspondent, Asbury Park Press • March 19, 2008

As Ames Adamson sees it, the title "Engaging Shaw" can be regarded several different ways.

You might find in it a promise for some time well-spent with the always-engaging George Bernard Shaw. Or it might suggest the act of engaging the legendary Irish playwright, critic, essayist and social activist in conversation — something that probably was best left to professionals.

Take it at face value, and "Engaging Shaw," the comedy by John Morogiello now being staged at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, becomes the story of the famous-but-forever-struggling Shaw, the well-born Charlotte Payne-Townsend — and the frustrating, heartbreaking, downright maddening process by which the two became engaged to be married in 1897.

What it's not is "Shakespeare In Love," that fanciful filmed frolic that sprang pretty
much from the imaginations of its makers. Shaw, Charlotte and their friends Sidney and Beatrice Webb were real people — and as such their words and actions are pretty well documented through journals, speeches and a ton of correspondence. (Shaw was said to write a letter a day just to the actress Ellen Terry.) Playwright Morogiello has done his homework here, to the point of crediting G.B. Shaw as his collaborator; thanks to the many pithy quips, comments and observations taken directly from the master's oratory, articles and letters.

Not to suggest that this is some dry and musty relic — how could it be, when the subject is the self-acknowledged "most brilliant mind in England"? While Shaw is best recalled now as the author of such timelessly potent plays as "Pygmalion" and "Caesar and Cleopatra," when we first meet him in the summer of 1896, he's an already famous — and famously full of himself — commentator on the arts, crusading socialist, advocate for women's rights and vocal vegetarian; a celebrated figure who still has the toughest time getting his bitingly satirical plays produced.

Holed up at the country house of his friends the Webbs (whose Fabian Society championed nonviolent social revolution), Shaw is a blustering man who often comes on like one of the pompous authority figures he skewers in his plays. Appearing here in his seventh major production in Long Branch, the chameleonic Adamson paints a vigorous firebrand who's just entering the middle-age phase of what will be a remarkably long life.

With reams of erudite dialogue to deliver and a staging that largely downplays his gifts for physical business, this indispensable member of the NJ Rep stock company shows us a Shaw who commands center stage in every context, yet seems to be missing a certain something in his life.

That certain something arrives with the crash of a bicycle in the person of Charlotte — and Katrina Ferguson, who originated the role in this play's Vermont premiere, makes a convincing case for Payne-Townsend as a woman who could stand as an equal with this dynamic (and often difficult) man of letters. Under the direction of Langdon Brown, her Charlotte is a person who, although emotionally vulnerable and sexually inexperienced, refuses to accept the peculiarly Shavian head-games she's dealt — and who finds herself taking the initiative in some interesting ways; offering "conventional ideas expressed in unconventional ways."

Performing a crucial Fred-and-Ethel turn to the two leads, Helen Mutch (as the determined socialist and amateur matchmaker Beatrice) and Marc Geller (as the tweedy, lisping Sidney) provide necessary context — and depart the main action all too soon. Geller is an especially welcome comic presence here, with a couple of very funny bits in the play's first act. Special shout-outs are in order also for costumer Pat Doherty, whose intriguing period get-ups add to a portfolio that encompasses more than thirty shows at NJ Rep.

Morogiello has written a script set in "a time when even the average person's verbal
dexterity exceeded the brightest public discourse of today," and his "unromantic romantic comedy" is a warm and funny show that's never meant to condescend in any egghead fashion.


VARIETY
Engaging Shaw

'Engaging Shaw'

Ames Adamson as George Bernard Shaw does battle with Katrina Ferguson, as the woman who tries to woo him, in 'Engaging Shaw.'

"Engaging Shaw" is exactly that. John Morogiello's romantic comedy, presented by the New Jersey Rep, finds a determined Charlotte Payne-Townshend, acted with stately reserve by Katrina Ferguson, in hot pursuit of 39-year-old confirmed bachelor George Bernard Shaw. The result is a spirited and intelligent combat of words and sparkling banter.

Shaw, superbly played by Ames Adamson, is as entertaining as he is infuriating, and a dreadful philanderer to boot. He has avoided romantic relationships, steadfastly maintaining he has a genius for hurting women. He also treasures the liberty and happiness of his bachelorhood.

Payne-Townshend, who is described as a "large, graceful woman," and who at moments appears to be plain, "approaches beauty in evening dress." Independently wealthy, she offers to be Shaw's secretary, sans salary, but secretly harbors a methodical plan to woo and wed him, despite the playwright's fixation with many lady friends, including his all-consuming daily correspondence with celebrated actress Ellen Terry.

There is a brief but beautifully structured moment at the end of the first act as Payne-Townshend subtly seduces the feisty Shaw. The second half serves as an intellectual cat-and-mouse courtship.

The rusty bearded Adamson, a frequent player on the Long Branch stage, provides an expansive, feisty account of the Irish dramatist and witty socialist that is both blustery and warmly accessible. His cheeks hurt when he smiles, and he explodes with fury at the thought of marriage, but Adamson keenly invests Shaw with a deep-harbored affection for the woman who has become his intellectual equal.

Ferguson, who originated the role of Charlotte in Vermont's 2006 Oldcastle Theater production, offers a cool, well-modulated performance in nice contrast to Shaw's often explosive temper.

Helen Mutch lends stable support as Beatrice Webb, whom Payne-Townshend sees as a questionable romantic rival, but Marc Geller as Webb's encyclopedic ninny of a husband is a tad too arch, with his clipped cockney accent and pince-nez spectacles.

Shaw finds his associate "the greatest mind in all England, though lacking in vinegar," but Langdon Brown has directed Geller as an annoying, foolish twit.

However, Brown has paced the piece effectively on the small stage. Peppered with accessible excerpts from Shaw's works and letters, the play is set in a small English cottage at Stratford, functionally void of clutter. Patricia E. Doherty's costumes comfortably reflect the smart fashions of the late 19th century.


Engaging Shaw: The Courtship of Bernard Shaw
and Charlotte Payne-Townsend

A Christmas Carol
Ames Adamson and
Katrina Ferguson

Engaging Shaw, a charming and literate comedy about the courtship of George (he did not like or ever use his first name, so I'll not mention it again) Bernard Shaw and his wife, Charlotte Payne-Townsend, provides pleasant, light entertainment, with more than a soupçon of painless enlightenment about the life of Shaw and the society in which he lived.

When Shaw and Charlotte meet in 1896, Shaw is a 42-year-old professed bachelor, and Charlotte is a 39-year-old sophisticated Irish heiress. They are brought together by their mutual friends, the recently married Sidney Webb and Beatrice (Potter) Webb. The Webbs (aided by Shaw) are the progenitors of the Fabian Society which advocated the democratic emergence of socialism, and founders of the London School of Economics which promoted Fabian theory. The Webbs complete the quartet of characters on stage.

Shaw, who has yet to taste success and recognition as a playwright, is full of pride and boastfulness about his romantic conquests. Charlotte, whose means are well beyond those of the struggling Shaw, is an unconventional, independent woman who has had more than her share of attention and conquests. The Webbs bring them together at their summer cottage in Stratford (U.K.), and they are almost immediately drawn to one another. However, their two-year courtship is hard and rocky, largely because Shaw fiercely and stubbornly clings to his determination never to have his wings clipped by the expectations of a spouse. He also has the less forcefully invoked worry of people seeing Shaw as marrying Charlotte to obtain the benefits of her wealth. Charlotte, totally devoted to Shaw, makes herself indispensable to him. It is not a ploy. She wants to devote her life to being his aide and secretary, and his caregiver. This is not enough. After all, a ploy will be necessary to break Shaw's resistance. Although they do have sex, it is important to neither. There is a comic centerpiece in the second act when Shaw alone in London, the Webbs in America, and Charlotte traveling about Europe, correspond by letter in a three-way roundelay that is both fast and funny, if a bit too broad.

Author John Morogiello's literate comedy is not Shavian in the sense that it is not concerned with the political, economic, social justice and class issues, which are at the heart of Bernard Shaw's plays. However, Engaging Shaw includes "excerpts from Bernard Shaw," and, as they are, they blend in seamlessly with Morogiello's writing. Also of great importance is that he created a fully believable Shaw. Credit for this must be shared by the performance of the reliable Ames Adamson. The brilliantly witty, crankily iconoclastic Shaw, whom we think we know, is combined with a touch of the less public, not for display, tenderly sincere Shaw in Adamson's performance. Katrina Ferguson's Charlotte has an air of easy assurance. The performance is nicely calibrated so as to never suggest arrogance. Despite her determination to capture Shaw, Ferguson embodies author Morogiello's picture of a woman who will be fine if Shaw does not capitulate.

Marc Geller is a bit too cartoonish and overly emphatic as the formidable Sidney Webb. In fairness to the accomplished Geller, he is following the template which the author has laid down. Helen Mutch brings dimension to the role of Beatrice in subtly conveying her commitment to be loyal to her husband despite her own attraction to Shaw.

Director Langdon Brown has elicited fine performances and, for the most part, has shown a smooth, well-paced stylish touch. The cottage set by Charles Corcoran, which has to double as Shaw's office in the second act, is airy and playable. The excellent period costumes by Patricia E. Doherty, and the effective, unobtrusive lighting by Jill Nagle are further assets.

Getting a little heavy here given the lightness of this play, great humanity is inherent in Shaw's writing, as well as in his 5 year marriage to Charlotte Payne-Townsend. At the time that she passed away, Shaw reportedly completely broke down. Biographers have attributed all kinds of conjectured and conflicting psychological explanations for the fact that their marriage was celibate. In actuality, Shaw's psychology in these personal areas is something of a mystery. However, sexual proclivities not withstanding, Shaw and his Charlotte would seem to have had a long, close and happy marriage.

Engaging Shaw would likely benefit from a bit more weight. Still, as it now stands, it is a well crafted and intelligent romantic comedy. Though New Jersey Rep describes Engaging Shaw in their advertising as an anti-romantic, romantic comedy, I found nothing anti-romantic about it.


A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
Engaging Shaw


I would propose that marriage become a series of renewable one year contracts —  Shaw

Don't mock me —  Charlotte

Tell someone he will be condemned to something forever, and he will exert all of his will to escape. Tell that same someone he will only be permitted a certain pleasure for a short period, and he will exert all of his will to prolong it. The fear of losing the loved one on the anniversary of the contract would keep everyone together and on their best behavior. —  Shaw

Ames Adamson as Shaw
and Katrina Ferguson in Engaging Shaw
(Photo: SuzAnne Barabas)
George Bernard Shaw had sex. Believe it. The genius playwright presumably, and by his own admission however, never consummated his marriage to Charlotte Payne-Townshend. That aspect of his relationship with the wealthy independent woman, who also served as his long-time secretary, nursemaid, friend, and benefactor, seems to have not dissuaded playwright John Morogiello of the possibility. If no physical intimacy between them can be historically and biographically validated, neither can it be dismissed as inconceivable.
Morogiello also has every right to consider them as physically attractive, intellectually compatible, and emotionally susceptible to each others idiosyncratic charms. Hooey, or not, Ames Adamson is a decidedly dashing Shaw, his red hair and trimmed beard a startling match in color to the wool suit he wears in Act I.

Here is a Shaw in 1896 virtually aglow with self-assuredness, vanity and ego. This, despite that fact that he has yet to have one of his plays produced. As Engaging Shaw would have us believe, GBS proves to be no match for the equally inscrutable, conspicuously determined, and very attractive Charlotte, as played with winning aplomb by Katrina Ferguson.

The play (it eceived its world premiere in 2006 at the Oldcastle Theater Company in Bennington, Vermont) begins at the cottage home (modestly evoked by designer Charles Corcoran) of their mutual friends and activist socialists Sidney and Beatrice Webb. You may be startled by a brief opening oration (presumably to a large public gathering) as Sidney pontificates on socialist reforms. Surprisingly Sidney (as played with a comical countenance and an abrasively styled rhetoric by the small framed and bearded Marc Geller) might easily be mistaken at first for the Shaw we are more accustomed to seeing. Beatrice (Helen Mutch) quickly puts an end to his speechifying ("Oh, Sidney, stop - - - I didn't understand a single word you were saying.") Although Beatrice and Sidney are aligned in their social-political beliefs, they seemed an odd pair physically. She is a rather pretty woman and knows how to hold the opinionated Sidney in check.

The Webb's fledgling, financially strapped Fabian Society (to evolve as the London School of Economics) needs an infusion of money. With that purpose in mind, the wealthy unwed Charlotte has been invited to their home where Shaw is currently a guest. But this occasion also affords Beatrice a chance to play matchmaker for Charlotte who claims to want "no sex just exclusivity" from the brilliantly evasive Shaw. Charlotte makes a deal with Beatrice, "Tell me I have an ally and you shall have a school."

Morogiello postulates with a resourceful (using quotations from the works and letters of GBS) and an amusing imagining of the unlikely long-term relationship between reticent and suspicious George Bernard and Charlotte, who uses her secretarial skills to infiltrate his world. Shaw's wit, his devious and devilish devotion to his own persona is exactingly and poignantly challenged by a smart woman of undeniable forbearance. Charlotte ultimately proved to be a formidable companion, a forgiving and willing caregiver for the frequently ailing and disagreeable Shaw who, nevertheless, concedes "You're my best friend."

Director Langdon Brown affects a brisk pace through the alternately turbulent and tender scenes over two acts, the constant chatter and the clash of four opposing temperaments. The four actors are splendid and have a firm grip on the essentially talky text, which blends Morogiello's cheeky inventions with what is Shavian in origin. Although the play consists of the mostly romantic dueling between Shaw and Charlotte, it also posits Beatrice's discreet infatuation with Shaw.

Bernard Shaw was indeed known to have had flirtations with celebrated women such as Ellen Terry and Mrs. Patrick Campbell. Yet, Morogiello cleverly sees the one with Charlotte as the most provocative and compelling. "The green-eyed one," as Shaw called her, gives a persuasive speech near the end of the play in which she makes the most convincing case for marrying you are ever likely to hear. It even out-wits and out-smarts the resistant Shaw, that superman of letters.

There is never a doubt that Shaw's often insensitive and occasionally cruel words regarding marriage and his perversely observant opinions on other topics emanate from the genius writer of Pygmalion, Major Barbara, Arms and the Man, among many more masterworks of dramatic literature. The pleasure of the play is how it manages to make us see an aspect of Shaw through the sheer magnetic/charismatic force of Adamson's performance. How lucky we are that Shaw's life, celibate or not under the covers, never compromised all the life he created between the acts.

A WEE BIT OF "JERSEY SHAW"

Actor portrays Irish author in an "Engaging" premiere at NJ Rep

By TOM CHESEK • Correspondent • March 14, 2008

photo

 

Ames Adamson and Katrina Ferguson star in "Engaging Shaw," opening this weekend at the New Jersey Repertoy Company in Long Branch.
KEITH WOODS/Staff Photographer

 

 

 

Long Branch long has enjoyed its own special literary pedigree. Such icons of American letters as Norman Mailer, Dorothy Parker and Robert Pinsky were born there. Robert Louis Stevenson and Bret Harte were summertime visitors in the days when the city was a playground for presidents, socialites and captains of industry. So it should come as no surprise that when George Bernard Shaw himself strolls into Amy's Omelette House on a rainy Tuesday night, there's hardly a raised eyebrow.

Perhaps it can be chalked up to the fact that Shaw seems scarcely to have left the stage — that at any moment, the celebrated Irish playwright, critic, activist and advocate for healthy living could very plausibly appear, Elvis-like, and place an order for a western omelette. Indeed, Shaw, who died in 1950 at the age of 94 - and only then after he fell off a ladder — lived a life that straddled America's Civil War and the Korean conflict; the Industrial Revolution and the Atom Age; the era of Oscar Wilde and the Oscar he won for the movie version of "Pygmalion" in 1938.

These days, the immortal George Bernard Shaw is embodied by actor Ames Adamson, here in town to perform the title role in "Engaging Shaw," the comic play by John Morogiello that kicks off a month-long engagement this weekend at New Jersey Repertory Company on downtown Broadway. In fact, he and his fellow actors are the first cast to take up residence in NJ Rep's new guest house for performers — a place colloquially referred to as the "Buffalo Bill House," since it was originally built by Buffalo Bill Cody's business partner in those famous Wild West shows (both Cody and Sitting Bull reportedly stayed in the house and its adjacent guest cottage).The Philly-based Adamson is no stranger to Long Branch, having starred or co-starred in a slew of offerings at NJ Rep - from the one-man "Circumference of a Squirrel" (a play he's performed for four different theaters) to the bizarre ensemble pieces "Tilt Angel" and "Maggie Rose." For "Panama," he crafted five extremely nutty characters, and in the choreographed quick-change "Tour de Farce" he zipped back and forth between another quintet of crazies.

"Jersey has just been better to me than any place else, and the audiences in this state are spectacular," says the former resident of Jersey City, who posits that "if you drink the water in Jersey City for enough years, you can't help but become a Jerseyan."

Enjoying the luxury of a single characterization this time, the red-haired actor (a former photo department manager for Time magazine) has cultivated a Shavian beard for the occasion. The endeavor fills Adamson with some trepidation, harkening back to the end of his run in "Old Clown Wanted," when his facial thicket was so caked with makeup that his attempt at sawing it off found "the whole thing peeling off in one piece — I handed it to the stage manager."

Billed as an "unromantic romantic comedy," the play offers snapshots of the long-term relationship between Shaw and his wife Charlotte Payne-Townshend (Katrina Ferguson), whom the confirmed bachelor met at the country home of their mutual friends, socialist theorists Sidney and Beatrice Webb. Marc Geller and Helen Mutch co-star under the direction of Langdon Brown.According to Adamson, Charlotte was "transformed" by a lecture Shaw had given on the women of Henrik Ibsen's plays, and was impressed by Shaw's own progressive views on women's rights and contributions."Shaw's women speak of what they would do if they were a man — and why," observes the actor, who prepped for his role by immersing himself in such classic Shaw works as "The Devil's Disciple" and "Arms and the Man.""Shaw's just utterly amazing," Adamson says of the author who engendered controversy and remained an ardent fan of Joseph Stalin for much of his life. "A lot of people think he's antiquated, but he took on all these tremendous issues in a way that still makes a lot of people uncomfortable.""Shaw was a "celibate womanizer' who had never allowed himself close personal relationships," Adamson explains. "He was a vegetarian, a teetotaler and non-smoker who almost never got sick, and who claimed that he would have to be sick, incapacitated and immobilized to marry."

"The ironic thing is that when (Charlotte) left him at one point he got ill; catching colds, getting abscesses in his mouth and on his foot, and cracking his head on a cabinet."

As Adamson tells it, the script remains a "work in progress" for which Morogiello has been taking comments from the cast and director.

"Every day we get new pages — I asked him about one line in particular, and a day later he changed the line and added eight more."

"The play's not dark at all; I find it very funny," the actor sums up. "And the name has so many potential meanings."


  Two chairs, no waiting at New Jersey Rep

Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 1/23/08
By TOM CHESEK • CORRESPONDENT • January 23, 2008


MaConnia Chesser (left) and Zina Camblin star in "And Her Hair Went With Her." (STAFF PHOTO: BOB BIELK)

"You're not my psychologist," a testy customer says to the young hairdresser Angie (Zina Camblin) in "And Her Hair Went With Her," the comedy-drama now onstage at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

Nothing could be farther from the truth, of course. Not only are Angie and salon owner Jasmine (MaConnia Chesser) a pair of de facto professional therapists for the loyal (and often freakish) clientele who depend upon their ears and shears, but the two women share a bond that goes beyond their appreciation for the singer Nina Simone.

Directed by Kamilah Forbes and presented without intermission, the modestly scaled play is being touted as a "rolling world premiere," one of several stagings that have been (or will be) produced at theaters across the country. For this engagement, audiences at the Jersey Shore have the added advantage of seeing this material performed by Camblin, the person who wrote it.

As hairdresser Angie also a single mom, struggling student and aspiring author Camblin plays the opinionated, ambitious foil to boss "Jas," a woman of boundless wisdom (even if her tastes often run to "American Idol" and McDonald's) and way more life experience than her intellectually curious, but not always so smart, employee.

In a series of blackout encounters effected with the help of the wigs that line the walls of Charles Corcoran's set, Camblin also takes on the personas of several comically neurotic customers. Among them is Debbie, the actress whose dreams outstrip her dramatic chops, and a very funny turn in the role of Keisha, the BOC (black obsessive-compulsive) who sees a genocidal plot in bus-borne bacteria.

Chesser stands out

Co-star Chesser gets into the multitasking act herself, portraying the white-girl wannabe Chrystal and the "broke-down acting teacher" Miss Bernadette to fine comic effect. It's in her several scenes as Felicia a hardened convict whom Angie interviews as part of a proposed book project that Chesser goes beyond wig-play dressup and into some uncharted territory. Her Felicia is so different from the broad sitcom strokes of her Jasmine that it's like watching two distinctly talented specialists at work. Camblin the playwright may have willed these people into being, and director Forbes may have contributed some crucial insights, but for as long as she's onstage, it's MaConnia Chesser who owns these characters outright.

The best thing that author Camblin has done is to take what could very well have been presented as a series of unrelated sketches or monologues and make a real play out of them. More than just a framing device, the Angie-Jasmine scenes are the true heart of the show, with roots that ultimately run much deeper than the TV-style one-liners.

While the comedy takes more than its share of serious excursions, Camblin is too talented a writer to fall into the Tyler Perry thing sitcom-gag mugging with a little sermonizing medicine shoved down your throat although she's not entirely immune to the didactic know-it-all thing. Her script drops the names you'd expect to hear, from Angela Davis, Ntozake Shange and Lorraine Hansberry, to Bell Hooks, Medgar Evers and Tupac Shakur. Like Angie, Camblin knows all about these people, and so we get to know all that she knows.

And Camblin knows all about Simone, for sure. The music, words and life story of the late great jazz singer play a tremendous part in this play informing all the key relationships, illuminating past histories and just being heard and enjoyed in between the numerous scene changes.


'And Her Hair Went With Her' opens in Long Branch

by Peter Filichia/Star-Ledger Staff
Wednesday January 23, 2008, 5:00 PM
(photo SUZANNE BARABAS) Playwright-actress Zina Camblin, right, and MaConnia Chesser co-star in
"And Her Hair Went with Her" at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

A few times a year, theatergoers discover an exciting new performer. A bit less frequently, they happen upon a promising playwright.

At New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, they're getting both in one person: Zina Camblin, author and star of "And Her Hair Goes with Her."

Camblin portrays Angie, a 2002 college grad who's also a single mother. In the months after graduation, she tries to get a grant so she can write about issues facing black women. To make ends meet, she finds a job as a hair stylist, courtesy of Jasmine (MaConnia Chesser), a big, beautiful woman who owns an urban beauty shop.

The more the two talk, the less they have in common. While Angie ponders her vote for the 2004 election, Jasmine is more concerned about who'll get her vote after the next episode of "American Idol."

Both are rabid fans of Nina Simone, but that doesn't mean much, for each likes the legendary singer for a different reason. Angie appreciates that Simone was an early advocate for social change though her songs "Four Women" and "Young, Gifted, and Black." Jasmine simply likes the sound of her voice.

Camblin excels in making their fights fair. The best moment comes when Angie accuses Jasmine of being "too 1950s" -- which spurs Jasmine to accuse Angie of being "too 1960s." Each decade has its assets and liabilities.

They can't argue all day, though, because customers keep arriving. Theatrical economics demand that Camblin and Chesser keep switching wigs to portray the shop's clients. This allows for a parade of different opinions.

Camblin portrays an obsessive-compulsive who got that way partly in reaction to the racist beliefs that blacks aren't hygienic. Chesser plays a customer who despises a relative who says "chitterlings" instead of "chitlins."

There's more controversy over the hairstyles requested by the clients. Straightened hair, cornrows or braids -- each leads to a discussion about whether the hairdos represent a "confident or uptight, free or enslaved" woman.

Camblin's open-faced curiosity makes her an astonishingly appealing performer. Her Angie is a lovely woman who's strong but never strident. Thanks to Kamilah Forbes' careful direction, she easily morphs into the other characters, and is especially amusing when playing a wannabe actress who courts Jasmine's opinion on her acting ability -- at least until Jasmine gives it.

Chesser is a warm but no-nonsense Jasmine, though her two scenes as a doomed death row prisoner make an equally strong impression. Here the actress becomes a defeated woman who nevertheless won't allow her dignity to be taken away.

The play isn't entirely successful. Camblin creates a gulf between the women that's so wide only an all-too-easy plot device can reconcile them. Many will guess what will happen long before it's revealed.

Still, "And Her Hair Went with Her" makes us want to go with Zina Camblin. Here's hoping she'll soon return to New Jersey with an even better play -- and that she writes a big part for herself.


VARIETY
And Her Hair Went With Her
By ROBERT L. DANIELS


Zina Camblin's two-hander 'And Her Hair Went With Her' explores experiences of African-American women in a beauty shop setting.

A New Jersey Repertory Company presentation of a play in one act by Zina Camblin. Directed by Kamilah Forbes.
 

New Jersey Rep's 10th season opener is Zina Camblin's two-hander "And Her Hair Went With Her," which finds a pair of chatty hairdressers engaging in a rambling survey of wigs, weaves, pop culture and some oddly eccentric clients. Playwright Camblin joins MaConnia Chesser as a stylist and shop owner, respectively, who take turns masquerading as salon patrons in a series of thematic sketches. The humor emanates from some rather broad characterizations, unified by the wigs worn and the therapeutic values to be found in a beauty parlor chair.

Angie (Camblin) takes on Debbie, a fledgling actress under a long straight wig, preparing an audition for Ntozake Shange's "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf"; obsessive-compulsive Keisha, armed with sanitizing wipes while bemoaning the threat of fast-food restaurants that are routinely killing off members of the black community; and defiantly manic Denise, apparently unable to hold down a new job for a single day.

Jasmine (Chesser) doubles as Chrystal, a lusty black woman under a blond weave who insists she is really white. And in one of the darker episodes, she plays Phylicia, an imprisoned murderess on death row. A linking narrative finds Jasmine boasting over a pair of tickets to a Nina Simone concert, which is ultimately canceled by the singer's sudden passing, prompting snippets of the late diva's songs.

Camblin's witty writing is incisive and expansive. She speaks knowingly of her subjects, celebrating the joy, pride and humor of the black experience. The humor gains in comic intensity in the person of misfit Denise, while the only cry of pain is found in the brief confessional of the jailed Phylicia, played with somber resignation by Chesser. The character cries out for further development.

Working on Charles Corcoran's set of a functionally mirrored two-chair salon with a black-and-white checkerboard floor, director Kamilah Forbes has given the piece pace and thrust.


An Entertaining Lesson in African-American Sisterhood

A Christmas Carol
Zina Camblin (front) and MaConnia Chesser
New playwright Zina Camblin's And Her Hair Went With Her is providing New Jersey Repertory audiences with delightful entertainment underpinned with thought-provoking ideas.  Although the characters and subject matter will have particularly strong resonance with African-American women,  And Hair Went With Her is high level popular entertainment that will appeal to all audiences.

The setting is an urban beauty parlor in 2003.  There are two hairdressers:  One is the owner, Jasmine, a middle aged black woman with mainstream attitudes who seems content with her place in the societal scheme; working for and with her is Angie, a young black woman who majors in women's studies and is raising a five year old daughter by herself.  Angie, inspired by her studies (particularly those of Angela Davis), expresses radical fervor and regards the seemingly apolitical Jasmine as ignorant.  She and we should know better.

This deft two-hander features MaConnia Chesser as Jasmine and author-actor Zina Camblin as Angie.  Additionally, each of the two limns three additional black women.  Five are customers of the beauty shop, and the sixth is a convict on death row whom Angie visits and interviews for a book project.  The persona and music of jazz singer and civil rights activist Nina Simone plays a major role in the discussions and events depicted by the author (a scheduled Nina Simone concert central to the plot is an authorial invention).

MaConnia Chesser is a joy as the sassy and happy to be alive Jasmine.    Her other portrayals are Miss Bernadette, an acting teacher whose once promising stage and screen career has gone south apparently along with her sanity; Chrystal, the blonde who has considered herself white since a sadly believable behavior by her third grade teacher; and, most tellingly, Phylicia, a dominant, mannish lesbian on death row, who has much to teach Angie about racial sisterhood both on the inside and outside.

Camblin delights and charms us by portraying Angie with the bouncy enthusiasm and surety of youth.  There is much humor and truth in her portrayals of Debbie, an aspiring actress, who lacks any depth or insight; Keisha, a germ phobic crazy lady; and, most cuttingly, Denise, a lazy, uncommitted worker who does not see the link between her poor work ethic and her inability to keep a job.  Very funny stuff (particularly the latter) redeemed from caricature by the realization that these ladies are really out and about in the world.

While there is much here that we have seen portrayed in plays, movies and stand up comedy venues, Camblin has arranged her materials in such a coherent and entertaining fashion as to give the material new life.  Additionally, you may well find yourself wanting to find out more about Nina Simone and her music, and the plays of Lorraine Hansberry and Ntozake Shange.

Kamilah Forbes has directed with energy and insight.  Some climactic moments are overemphatic for the intimate space, but this is a mere quibble.  An excellent touch is having Jasmine and Angie performing various salon chores between scenes.  Credit Charles Corcoran with the excellent, evocative black and white set with professional beauty salon chairs, large, artfully designed lightbulb-surrounded mirrors, a tiled black and white floor, and white side walls into which are built display cases in which wigs have been placed.  Corcoran (with the assistance of lighting designer Jill Nagle) has artfully designed the display cases to appear to be closed in by glass.  When Chesser and Camblin begin to don the wigs that they wear for their multiple roles, they reach directly into the display case delightfully breaking the illusion.

Notably, And Her Hair Came With Her kicks off New Jersey Repertory's 10th season.  It is its 60 production, and 55th new play.  It is also an initiative of the National New Play Network, a consortium of theatres in which member theatres produce their own productions of new work in "rolling world premiere" productions.

And Her Hair Went With Her deftly combines light entertainment with heart warming lessons in African-American sisterhood.


A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
And Her Hair Went With Her

By Simon Saltzman

We have to be friendly all the time. — Angie
Says who? — Jasmine We do. It's not like we really disagree with our customers. We're supposed to make them feel good about themselves. That's why they come here. We transform them into their ideal personas. — Angie

and her hair went with her
Zina Camblin (front) as Debbie, and MaConnia Chesser as Jasmine in And Her Hair Went With Her
(Photo credit: SuzAnne Barabas)
The scene is a beauty salon in an unspecified locale that caters to an African-American clientele. Based on information later disclosed in the play but not in the program, the time is 2003. Although there are two work stations filled with product, it is the two shelves of wigs of various styles that immediately catch our attention in designer Charles Corcoran's carefully detailed set.

The salon is where the play's author Zina Camblin is about to have herself a grand time as she shares the stage with co-performer MaConnia Chesser playing hairdressers to a steady stream of eccentric and needy clients, all of whom are played by Camblin and Chesser. The message, and there is one ("Self hatred is the black woman's poison") doesn't stand in the way of the more light-hearted approach of these two ingratiating and talented character assassinators. Their purpose appears to be to good-naturedly express and reveal their clients' best, worst and most neurotic natures.

It goes without saying that the client and the hairdresser relationship is as valued and important as that of a patient and a therapist. Essential background: According to the author in an interview, "for a long time in the black community, going to a psychologist, a therapist, was something that black people didn't do."

The petite Camblin, who has recently completed a year-long residency at The Juilliard School as part of a Playwriting Fellowship, shows great promise as a playwright. Immediately evident is her gift for dramatizing the distinguishing quirks and characteristics of a specific ethnic and cultural type, although their subtleties are not the essentials of this play. Her performance while not quite in the same league with that of Chesser, who fuels the play with her dynamic presence and comedic timing, is a hoot as well as a fashion parade of wigs.

Chesser plays Jasmine, the 40-something owner of the salon and the proud holder of a pair of tickets to a concert featuring the high priestess of soul Nina Simone. The salon hasn't yet opened for business and Jasmine is dancing to a Simone recording and teasing Angie (Camblin) to answer trivia questions about Simone's life. Angie,Jasmine's 20-something apprentice, single mom and college graduate with a desire to be a professional writer, has to answer correctly if she expects to get the other ticket.

Under Kamilah Forbes' zippy direction, there is no time lost getting into motivation, relationships, conflict or anything that might typically engine a play with a plot. Instead, and in full view, the actors divvy up who sits in the chair and who fiddles with the hair below. Basically this is a series of skits in which the clients unload bits about their lives and their struggle with racial identity crisis, mostly conceptualized in high comedic relief. "I will never forget the day I became white," recalls a black woman in a state of total denial. An untalented actress named Debbie comes in to get a trim before an audition and makes the mistake of demonstrating her audition piece only to be coached by the more instinctively expressive Jasmine. (But why does the director have Debbie face the audience and not Jasmine?) Other clients include an obsessive compulsive and a delusional woman who yells at invisible people.

The most interesting part of the play finds Angie leaving the salon on two occasions to go to the women's prison to interview a Lesbian sentenced to die for murdering the boyfriend of her former lover. Those scenes are beautifully written and Chesser shows us a different and more candid and insightful portrait of an incarcerated black woman.

Camblin tends to over-use Angie as a preacher and as a purveyor of feminist and social ideals ("Ebonics is the result of a failed educational system,") and her tirades get a bit wearying. Cleverly, however, Camblin allows the character of Jasmine to stand up to Angie's preaching. The big question is whether Angie answers the Nina Simone trivia questions and goes to the concert. Don't be surprised if you guess wrong.

This play will probably be most entertaining for those who will recognize themselves as well as others. But there will also be many more who will just sit back and howl at the way black women relate to hair and to the confidantes holding the hot comb. On a track sponsored by the National New Play Network and involving rolling premieres, And Her Hair Went With Her has been previously produced at the Phoenix Theater in Indianapolis and will be at the Fountain Theater in LA, Horizon Theater in Atlanta and the Bailiwick Theater in Chicago.

LETTING HER "HAIR" DOWN

Actress/playwright wears many wigs at NJ Rep

Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 1/18/08

BY TOM CHESEK
CORRESPONDENT

"Only her hairdresser knows for sure."

It's a bit of common folk wisdom that's been handed down — as folk wisdom often is — from the golden age of Madison Avenue. Still, to playwright Zina Camblin, that vaguely remembered ad slogan might go a long way toward describing the bond between a neighborhood hair stylist and her loyal clientele.

"Our stylist sees us for who we are — without wigs and makeup; without the face we show to the rest of the world," the actor and author says after a busy wig-fitting session in Long Branch. She adds that for many women in the black community, the local beauty shop is "a powerful place — a place where we can let our hair down, so to speak."

The Cincinnati native is wigging out in Long Branch as part of the preparation for "And Her Hair Went With Her," a new production of her two-actress play that inaugurates a monthlong engagement at New Jersey Repertory Company. As one of the "rolling world premiere" productions arranged by NJ Rep through the National New Play Network, the 2003 comedy arrives on the Shore stage after having been seen by Indianapolis audiences. From here, it moves on to future "world premiere" productions in Atlanta, Los Angeles and Chicago.

Ah, but the Long Branch run is the one to watch, due in large part to the fact that the playwright also is appearing in the show, playing no less than four roles. Camblin is joined here by co-star MaConnia Chesser under the direction of Kamilah Forbes — a situation that marks the first time the three women have met, let alone worked together. It's also, as the playwright notes, the first time that this material has been directed by a black woman.

When quizzed about the experience of embodying one's own scripted characters, and of entrusting those characters to another person's control, Camblin stresses that "(Kamilah) is great for this show — it's refreshing to give it over to someone with a new vision, a fresh pair of eyes, and I think it's helped me as a writer in the process."

Appearing as Angie, the young assistant to shop owner Jasmine (Chesser), Camblin trades observations on life, relationships and politics. Chesser also multitasks as blond-haired Chrystal as well as several other quirky clients.

Getting into character largely via an array of distinctive wigs, the actors endeavor to bring this insular little world — out of sight and off limits to all but a select few — to vivid life over the course of some 90 intermission-free minutes. It's a world peopled by a parade of personalities who are described variously by their creator as "based on someone I've met," "containing a piece of me" and "coming from some weird recesses of my brain."

"Being a hairdresser is kind of like being a psychologist," says Camblin. In her production notes, she adds that "for a long time in the black community, going to a psychologist, a therapist, was something that black people didn't do. That's for white people."

"But the hair salon is where black people could talk about their lives, and kind of lay their hurtings down."

While the playwright is quick to note that "And Her Hair Went With Her" is "not just about hairstyles," she's equally quick to point out that "it's about the culture, black women and our hair. You can't really separate those two things."

Camblin, who has lobbied to interest Whoopi Goldberg in this script, has found it interesting in her writings that many black women are "going back to straight and blond hair."

"Queen Latifah has straight, long hair," she says of the celebrity who maintains a home in Monmouth County. "I don't see a lot of sistahs with natural hair in the movies and on television."