Press Articles 2016
REVIEW: NJ Rep's 'Mad Love' offers a ray of hope
TOM CHESEK, CORRESPONDENT October 24, 2016
It's a spectacle that boasts hopelessly immature frat-boy behavior and dredged-up memories of sexual assault. A possibly gold-digging "model" from an Eastern European locale, and an ambitious young woman moving up in her daddy's business. There are also issues of immigration, personal choice, sports memorabilia and celebrity branding.
Only this time, we're not watching coverage of the 2016 presidential campaign.
With the current production of the Marisa Smith's "Mad Love," the new-play specialists at New Jersey Repertory Company take a fresh look at a previously produced property: an off-kilter romance that manages to address the emotional and physical tolls of the college frathouse culture, and the unfulfilling disconnect of the dating scene in the new millennium.
It comes together in a way that leaves its struggling characters, and by extension the audience, with a much-needed ray of hope.
Embodied by a quartet of young actors who are newcomers to the NJ Rep stage, the characters in "Mad Love" are (not so) safely out of their college years — yet still scarred in various ways by the experience, even as they move toward what in most cases might be considered the prime of life.
An upwardly mobile professional from a well-to-do family, Sloane Hudson (Alex Trow, reprising her role from this play's premiere production at Vermont's Barrette Center for the Arts) is introduced in a celebratory mood, as she touts a major promotion and a big marketing coup during dinner with her more-or-less boyfriend of the moment, a middle school teacher named Brandon Fitzgerald (Graham Techler) with a not always welcome tendency toward impressions of Woody Allen and Jimmy Stewart.
As the occasion wears on, however, Sloane can't help but reveal what's foremost on her mind: a pressing desire to have a baby before her 30th birthday ("It's tragic when a woman exits the universe without popping one out") and a request for Brandon's compensated services as sperm donor, absent any more serious living arrangement or commitment.
While it's made clear before too long that the public schoolteacher could definitely use the money, his lack of enthusiasm regarding the proposal only serves to launch Sloane on a campaign to change his mind; a seemingly misguided endeavor that involves repeated and unwelcome visits to the classroom workplace of the increasingly standoffish "Mr. Fitz."
It's only when she invites herself into his home that the tenacious Ms. Hudson discovers a side of Brandon's life that he'd prefer to keep hidden: his brother and roommate Doug, an intermittently employed homebody who apparently sustained a degree of brain damage as a consequence of a foolish stunt — and whose life revolves more around "World of Warcraft," Bud Light and Cap'n Crunch.
As portrayed by Jared Michael Delaney, he's a pajama-bottomed fixture in a sorry man-cave equipped with beer-stocked mini fridge, duct-taped easy chair, pepper lights and plundered panties.
Although his dispensed wisdom regarding women tends to run along the lines of their being attracted to "shiny and sparkly" things like bubbles and glitter, "Doug the Defenestrator" (as the frathouse legend has come to be known) is neither a tic-ridden basket case nor an offensive lout. In fact, Sloane finds in him a sympathetic ear, and it's not long before the two utter opposites bond over details like a shared love of lizards.
Any thoughts as to where this might be headed are quickly derailed, however, with the arrival of Katerina "Tush" Tuschenko (Brittany Proia), a self-described "terrible Ukrainian bimbo" who's been retained as a birthday present of sorts for the homebody Doug. Throw in such further developments and details as a famous recipe for cabbage soup, plus a possibly purloined trading card featuring vintage ballplayer Nap Lajoie, and the audience is presented with the makings of what might, in other hands, have been the stuff of warmed-over sitcom or dessert-theater farce.
It's to the credit of playwright Smith (whose "Saving Kitty" was staged by NJ Rep a few seasons back) that she largely avoids those easy ways out. The laughs, while seldom approaching screamingly funny, are well earned, and the characters (even the more broadly presented "Tush") remain believable even when their motivations and actions tend toward the illogical side of the ledger.
The actors — particularly Delaney in his exchanges with the female cast members — work to break down all resistance in this short (presented without intermission) and generally good-natured play that gets better as it progresses. They're well served by the prolific director Evan Bergman, who's skippered so many of the company's memorable forays into ensemble comedy-dramas, and who finds a real warmth at the heart of this script.
The play offers that even if "true love" remains an elusive commodity in these tense times, things can perhaps work out with a little understanding and a lot less cynicism.
Returning as NJ Rep's go-to scenic designer, Jessica Parks has assembled an environment whose walls (glo-painted with phrases and themes from the script) conceal pop-out puzzle pieces of the bros' seedy den and other settings that include restaurant, classroom and Coney Island.
Poor Mr. Delaney, in a break with his performance as the somewhat sedentary Doug, is charged with enacting all of the story's numerous scene changes: a task that he takes on with gusto and more than a bit of bravado.
'Mad Love' at NJ Rep review: It's hard not to fall for this smart rom-com
By Patrick Maley
Marisa Smith's new play "Mad Love," now receiving its New Jersey premiere at Long Branch's New Jersey Repertory Company, is a romantic comedy full of interesting ideas, the seeds of compelling story lines, and a great deal of heart.
A confident, independent young businesswoman struggles to hide a college trauma she'd prefer to keep secret. A man struggles to recover from a brain injury while coming to grips with his own responsibility in the act that caused it. A middle school teacher tries to balance a love life with family obligations that pull him in many different directions.
None of these stories is as developed as it could be, as the play labors to cram all its ideas into ninety minutes. Still, even if "Mad Love" could have used more time in the development hopper, Smith succeeds in creating characters worth spending some time with, and NJ Rep's production is an accomplished one.
At the center of the play is Brandon (Graham Techler), who teaches middle school, dates women, looks after his sick brother, and handles the affairs of his elderly mother. None of this he does particularly well. His romantic opposite is Sloane (Alex Trow), who is twenty-six, successful, and determined to live life on her own terms. She has a very specific plan for the future that involves Brandon who, far less of a long-term thinker than Sloane, balks at any notion of commitment.
This battle between her determination and his reluctance provides the central conflict of the play. We also come to meet Doug (Jared Michael Delaney), Brandon's brother, who permanently altered his life trying to impress his frat brothers in college. In the midst of trying to get himself better, Doug finds himself the sounding board for the other characters.
Although the play is most interested in Brandon and Sloane's relationship, the spark between Techler and Trow never seems genuine. Happily, Doug is the play's most interesting character, as Delaney shows him to have found unexpected levity in his trauma. Brandon and Sloane worry about the hassles of the day-to-day within a larger context of their lives, but Doug simply puts one foot in front of the other as best he can. Brandon may insist that the recycling bin belongs in the kitchen, but in Doug's mind it should stay in the living room where they drink all their beers anyway.
It's this same sort of straightforward logic that guides his interaction with Katerina (a vibrant Brittany Proia), who may be a prostitute out to swindle him, but may also be a genuinely kind woman. As an emotional wanderer more or less at the whim of his emotions, Delaney's Doug reveals the essence of Smith's play.
Delaney is also responsible for the production's most entertaining moments: He is charged with orchestrating the scene changes of Jessica Parks's inventive, lighthearted, and impressively functional set. Repeatedly over the course of the play, Delaney must zoom around the NJ Rep's small stage to reveal or conceal hidden furniture or set pieces, as a wall slides in and out, or the panels on a door flip. The effect seems in concert with the play's notions that even the best laid plans of love and life remain irreparably manic.
BWW Review: MAD LOVE at NJ Rep-A Very Entertaining Modern Comedy
"People can surprise you. Their better nature can win out."
Metro area audiences will fall for the new contemporary comedy, Mad Love now on stage at New Jersey Repertory Company (NJ Rep) through November 20th. The play is written by Marisa Smith, the author of Saving Kitty. The show enjoys great direction by Evan Bergman and features a talented cast. Mad Love is a very appealing, yet thought provoking piece of theatre. This is the 115th production that has premiered at NJ Rep thanks to Artistic Director, Suzanne Barabas and Executive Producer Gabor Barabas.
In Mad Love, Sloane Hudson, a wealthy young professional woman, doesn't believe she will ever fall in love but wants a child. She decides that the man she has been casually dating, Brandon is a very suitable sperm donor. Brandon, a middle school teacher, is not at all interested in being a part of Sloane's plan. He also has family issues that include living with his brother Doug, who is dealing with a brain injury and has fallen in love with a hooker from the Ukraine, Katerina. And it is Doug and Sloane who find an unexpected connection having attended Cornell University where they experienced separate life-changing events at the same fraternity. Mad Love delves into relationships and commitment with just the right blend of humor and drama. It is a show about very real people that will surely resonate with a broad audience.
The cast includes Jared Michael Delaney as Doug; Alex Trow as Sloane; Graham Techler as Brandon and Brittany Proia as Katerina. They master the fast-paced dialogue and the mood of the show's interesting, wholly retable situations.
The Creative Team has brought Mad Love life with scenic design by Jessica Parks; lighting design by Jill Nagle; costume design by Patricia E. Doherty and technical direction by Brian P. Snyder. Merek Royce Press is the Sound Designer and Webmaster and Jennifer Tardibuono is the Stage Manager.
See Mad Love while it is on the Long Branch Stage. The intimate theatre space is the perfect place for you to enjoy this wonderful story with its clever twists and turns.
Lotsa' love for "Mad Love"
Scene on Stage, by Philip Dorian
Thinking about Mad Love, the word "lark" popped into my head. Where'd that come from? I thought, so I looked it up in my Oxford: Something mischievous…an amusing adventure or escapade.
Marisa Smith's play, running through November 20 at New Jersey Repertory Company, is a lark. The self-labeled "Romantic Comedy" may be "just" a RomCom, with the requisite hang-ups, but its additional descriptive "for Cynical Times" elevates it, if not out of that category, at least to its top-quality level.
Twenty-something singles Brandon (Graham Techler) and Sloane (Alex Trow) have been dating casually (sex at her place, but no sleep-overs) for a few months, after meeting at House of Brews. (He thinks he picked her up. She knows better.) At dinner, she blindsides him with a request to donate sperm that she can freeze for insemination later (but not past when she can still rock a post-maternity bikini). At first, Brandon's shocked refusal seems priggish, even for a middle-school teacher, but he – via playwright Smith – makes a sensible case for it later.
Brandon's brother Doug (Jared Michael Delaney), mildly impeded from a brain injury suffered in a fraternity prank, nonetheless contributes somehow-wise and often-witty commentary, frequently verbalized in a barrage of f-words (some gratuitously prefixed), an amateurish playwright choice that enhances neither the character nor the actor. Finally, there's Doug's birthday present, in the person of Katerina (Brittany Proia), a Ukranian "escort" who worms her way into Doug's affections and, more important, his confidence, before conning him (maybe) out of his prized possession.
We've seen these types before, but rarely as well depicted on the page and on their feet. Ms. Trow is a special treat as the delightfully animated (even when seated) Sloane, whose late-revealed dark secret, we realize retroactively, has swayed the character from the start. Brandon is a fellow of several qualities, not all admirable, but all secondary to the charm with which Techler imbues him. For a goodly portion of the play Sloane and Brandon are mutually antagonistic; nonetheless, there's considerable chemistry between them.
Delaney rises above the grating lingo to reveal Doug's child-like openness and vulnerability. That he also executes the intricate set changes (another triumph for designer Jessica Parks) seems somehow in character. The hooker with a heart of gold (or maybe not) may be a stereotype, but Ms. Proia fleshes this one out nicely. Evan Bergman's deft direction illuminates the situation and the relationships over a just-right span of ninety minutes.
The several story threads are introduced (and acted) naturally and, in one challenging example, tastefully. These are real people in compressed but believable situations. A couple of Mad Love plot developments are predictable half-way in, but one last-minute zinger is not; and it wins your heart. Factor in that you'll learn who Napolean Lajoie was (and how to pronounce his name) and you've got yourself a Major League lark.
If you're a person who knows that WoW stands for World of Warcraft (and not just the acronym for a local gym), you should book tickets for MAD LOVE, Marisa Smith's new romantic comedy now on stage at NJ Repertory Company. The video game generation, which first appeared on the cultural landscape during the 1980s, has finally found its way to the theatre world, having already influenced virtually every other form of media. Earlier this year the Netflix TV series "Stranger Things" also appealed to grown-up gamers. Stranger still, the series also found fans with those who have never picked up a joystick, something MAD LOVE magically manages to do as well.
The madness of MAD LOVE encompasses both the wrath of lovers scorned, as well as the craziness that love often brings out in us. Here wealthy Ivy Leaguer Sloane (Alex Trow) is dating middle-class middle school teacher Brandon (Graham Techler), until her insistence on buying his sperm to be artificially inseminated freaks him out to the point of "taking a break". But Sloane is undaunted by his rebuke and takes it upon herself to visit Brandon's "man cave" apartment, introducing herself to his brother Doug (Jared Michael Delaney) under a false name. Pretty mad, huh? Also in the mix is a Russian call girl named Katerina (Brittany Proia) who may or may not be the classic "hooker with the heart of gold". Cabbage soup, a rare baseball card, and a lizard named Pogo all play a part in the ever-maddening game of love that unfolds.
This is Smith's second show on the NJ Rep stage, having also written 2013's SAVING KITTY, which was also staged by MAD LOVE's talented director, Evan Bergman. In fact, the rest of KITTY's creative team (all NJ Rep regulars) are back, too: set designer Jessica Parks, lighting designer Jill Nagle, and costumer Pat Doherty - all at the top of their (video) games. Parks' set is where the show's video game themes are most obviously realized. Think THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME on a shoebox scale: a black light, pixilated cityscape that quickly alternates between a variety of Manhattan locations.
At first, none of the foursome in the story seems particularly likable. In fact, it is nearly an hour into the play's 90 intermission-less minutes before the audience starts to invest in the outcome. But MAD LOVE's terrific cast makes sure you stick with it. This is undoubtedly one of the best ensembles to ever trod the Long Branch boards.
The persnickety Sloane, who isn't interested in love, marriage, or other people's kids, is in the capable hands of Alex Trow, who is masterful in her portrayal. She should be; she played the role in the play's Vermont world premiere earlier this year.
Just as terrific is Brittany Proia as Katerina, a rent girl who is (as the British say) "on the game." Proia takes what might be a purely comical character and imbues her with a sensitive, endearing side as well.
Jared Michael Delaney's Doug is living with a TBI (traumatic brain injury) thanks to a "Jackass"-style stunt back in college. Delaney (photo above left) skillfully navigates the child-like wisdom of this grown up game boy.
Anchoring the madness is Graham Techler's Brandon. The trickiest feat of all is to be the audience's touchstone among mad-crazy characters, but Techler manages it with ease. Can four desperately different people find happiness playing the game of love? In Marisa Smith's romantic comedy, it somehow seems possible. After all, "Stranger Things" have happened.
Michael T. Mooney
The LINK News
Theater Review: Mad Love is crazy goodBy Madeline Schulman
Mad Love by Marisa Smith, now at NJ Rep, is an old fashioned romantic comedy brought up to the 21st century, a sweet, heartwarming audience pleaser touched with a modern attitude.
As soon as we meet the extremely attractive main couple, Sloane (Alex Trow) and Brandon (Graham Techler), it is clear that these two crazy kids are made for each other, even though she is a rich girl employed by her father and he is a struggling Middle School history teacher.
They are similar to a young Hepburn and Tracy whose relationship is like a Taylor Swift song. They break up, they quarrel over who initiated the breakup, they flirt, they make up, and they repeat.
As the play opens, their main quarrel is as to whether Brandon will act as Sloane's sperm donor (suitably compensated). She never wants to marry, and hates babies, but would like one of her own during her years of peak fertility, and in time to get her body back in shape for bikini season. He doesn't want a stranger coming to him years later saying, "I have long fingers and strange eyebrows. I must be yours!"
Brandon shares a shabby bachelor pad with his older brother Doug (Jared Michael Delaney), who suffered a traumatic brain injury jumping out of a window to impress his Cornell fraternity brothers, and earns very little money stocking a fruit stand. Doug calls Brandon "Buffer." That is probably a childhood nickname, but Brandon acts as a buffer between his sweet, naive brother and the world, concealing as long as possible that the insurance money for their mother's nursing home is running out.
Looking at their home, dominated by a huge recycling tub (the center of a running joke as to whether it should be in the kitchen or the living room) and a tiny refrigerator filled only with beer, we can see Brandon and Doug have little disposable income. Their only options are to take Sloane up on her proposal, or to find out if one of their baseball cards is insanely valuable.
Sloane drops by the apartment, where she and Doug bond over his pet lizard, Pogo. Sloane is posing as "Liz Novak," and Doug tells her about his brother's many girlfriends. Her furious reaction is priceless. Another visitor is the voluptuous Ukrainian escort, Katarina (Brittany Proia), who may or may not have a heart of gold, but certainly has an eye for Prada. Doug quickly falls for her physical charms and homemade soup.
The set (Jessica Parks) is superlatively clever. What appear to be plain black panels covered with words relevant to the plot can be moved many ways to reveal hidden locations. The manpower to move them is supplied by Delaney, perhaps because Doug is the only character who wears sweat pants.
I have nothing but praise for the writing, acting and direction, except for a tiny quibble. Although Brandon can use the word "peninsula" in conversation, he is stumped by "tumescence."
What is the relevance of tumescence? That is the name clever Sloane has chose for a perfume which her father's company is marketing for a big celebrity. I can't tell you which celebrity, but her signature song is "Like a Virgin."
'LOVE' IS A MANY-SPLINTERED THING, IN NJ REP COMEDYUpper WET Side - October 21, 2016
To cut to the chase, it covers ground that includes sexual violence, the emotional emptiness of 21st century hook-up culture, and the very real damage wrought by the college frat-house party scene. It's also worth noting that "Mad Love" is "a romantic comedy for cynical times" — one that further folds in talk of frozen sperm, cabbage soup, super-collectible baseball cards and "a lizard named Pogo."
Opening this weekend at New Jersey Repertory Company, the ensemble piece marks the second collaboration between the Vermont-based playwright Marisa Smith and the Long Branch professional troupe, following 2013's politically charged domestic squabble "Saving Kitty." Like that previous project, it teams Smith with frequent NJ Rep director Evan Bergman, himself a specialist in just this shade of dark comedy. It also reunites actress Alex Trow with the central role of Sloane Hudson, a twenty-something professional from a wealthy family, whose experiences in the fraternity basements of the Ivy League have apparently left her with some conflicted notions about love, commitment and potential parenthood.
"The hook-up culture in college has had repercussions for Sloane," says Smith, who with husband Eric Kraus is one-half of the Smith & Kraus publishing concern that's issued more than 600 full-length plays, one-acts, reference works and acting guides. "She was scared by a traumatic event back then, and has become emotionally detached."
Ms. Trow, who starred in the premiere production of "Mad Love" at Vermont's Barrette Center for the Arts, is joined here by a trio of fellow newcomers to the NJ Rep stage, including Graham Techler as Brandon, a good-looking young teacher whose status as a purely physical attraction is thrown into uncharted waters, when Sloane asks him to be the father of her future child (albeit not her husband or live-in lover) via artificial insemination.
Brandon, as it turns out, is struggling with his own rather complicated live-in arrangement — a bro-cave apartment shared with his brother "Doug the De-Fenestrator" (Jared Michael Delany), a frat-house legend whose personal journey through beer-pong party hell has left him literally brain damaged and evidently unemployable. Enter a Ukrainian hooker (Brittany Proia) hired as a birthday pick-me-up for Doug, and things get considerably more complicated still.
"I got the inspiration for these characters from interviewing Dartmouth sorority women…and getting a memorable tour of a frat basement" says Smith, a Princeton-born product of an upper-class college town milieu. "The character of 'The Defenestrator' is also based on a real guy, who actually jumped out the fraternity house window…although in his case he was so drunk, and so relaxed, that nothing bad happened to him."
Calling from a somewhat chilly "Buffalo Bill" House — the historic Long Branch cottage (once owned by the press agent of legendary Wild West showman William Cody) where guest artists often stay during their projects at NJ Rep — the playwright offers words of praise for her director; the set designer Jessica Parks ("it's like an advent calendar, with things that pop out and back in again"), and the cast, particularly Trow, who "is just amazing…she knows this part so well going into it."
"I've done some minor tweaking, some fine tuning on the script," says Smith on her recent stay in Long Branch, during which time the setting of the play's final scene morphed from a restaurant to the boardwalk at Coney Island. "Just the other day an actor inadvertently changed one word for another, and we all agreed that it worked far better than what was originally written."
"I steal from actors as much as possible," adds the experienced stage performer turned playwright and publisher. "They have good instincts!"
Professing that "I don't see how you can direct or produce a show without the playwright being present," Smith makes the observation that "to me the playwright and the director are mom and dad, and the actors are the grown up children who take what you've given them and make their way in the world."
"I'm harsh on my own work…I understand my pitfalls as a writer," states the mother of two sons, who tried her own hand at playwriting only after becoming a publisher of other people's work. "In a way, the best playwriting is sort of 'no' playwriting…sometimes the words are just the icing on the relationships and behaviors of the characters."
BWW Interview: Playwright Marisa Smith and MAD LOVE at NJ Rep
New Jersey Repertory Company (NJ Rep) will produce the new comedy, Mad Love written by Marisa Smith, the author of Saving Kitty, and directed by Evan Bergman. The show will be on the Long Branch Stage from October 20th to November 20th.
In the play, Sloane Hudson, a wealthy, beautiful, recent Ivy League graduate and product of the campus hook-up culture and frat basement pong tournaments, doesn't believe in love or marriage. She does, however, believe in babies and wants one soon so her tummy can bounce back and she can still wear a bikini. The problem is she needs a sperm donor who passes muster. Enter Brandon, who has all the right stats, but the wrong attitude. Brandon, meantime, has enough on his plate living with his brother Doug, who just fell in love with Katerina, the hooker from the Ukraine. Cabbage soup, a rare baseball card and a lizard named Pogo all play a part in this romantic comedy for cynical times.
Broadwayworld.com had the opportunity to interview playwright Marisa Smith about her career and Mad Love at NJ Rep.
When did you first realize your talent for writing?
I never really thought I had a talent for it although in school I knew I could write a million times better than I could do math ( and I had a sixth grade teacher with the tuneful name of Miss Humm who told me I should write) until my first play was produced about 10 years ago and I heard and saw the audience reaction. Then I thought maybe I could write for real.
Tell us a little about your education/training.
Like many playwrights I started out as an actor...acted all through high school and college (Wesleyan) and then came to NY, studied with the great Wynn Handman and slogged along teaching figure skating and acting for a few years...frequently getting cast as a hooker which always amused me. Clearly they were casting against type since I looked like a soccer Mom...I soon realized that the acting life wasn't for me and moved into publishing theater books where I could put my knowledge of theater into good use. My publishing company, Smith and Kraus (Kraus is my husband Eric) now has over 650 titles in print.
Tell us of a few playwrights/authors that you admire.
That's an impossible question: I admire so many and of course Shakespeare is in a class of his own....But if I had to name just a few, and the ones that had the most influence on me and I'd have to say Chekhov, Edward Albee, Moliere. There are too many contemporary playwrights that I admire to name!
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Write every day even if it's for 15 minutes. Focus. Write what excites you. Tell a story.
How do you like working with NJ Rep?
This is my second show here and I love it. I think it's so inspiring that the theater only produces new plays and I wish there were more theaters in the country that followed suit. It's a great company and I'm very excited about their plans for the future in terms of the theater complex they are planning.
Why do you think Mad Love will resonate with NJ audiences?
Mad Love is a comedy but the issues that inspired the play, and that underline it are definitely in the current consciousness, i.e, the issues of college culture, frat life and the ramifications of the so-called hookup culture.
For the future?
I have two new plays that I've just finished. Also, Jennifer Coolidge (BEST IN SHOW, LEGALLY BLONDE, TWO BROKE GIRLS) would like to do my play SAVING KITTY (she starred in it last summer at the Central Square theater in Cambridge) in NYC so we are working on trying to make that happen.
Anything else, absolutely anything that you want BWW readers to know!
Please come support New Jersey Rep!
Want to Own Your Theatre? Be Careful What You Wish For
For New Jersey Repertory Company, the transition wasn't the result of outside pressure. Nearly 20 years after founding this new-works-focused company, married couple SuzAnne and Gabor Barabas felt it was ready to grow. Since 1997, they'd operated out of the Lumia Theatre, a small, art deco-style space with 67 seats, donated by a young philanthropic couple. Over the years the company evolved into what Gabor describes as a "laboratory of theatre development" and drew a loyal following. This past June, they purchased a new property, a former school on the west side of town.
"We're able to produce only 6 to 7 new plays a year currently, and we get 500 scripts a year," says Gabor, who serves as executive producer. "We wanted an expansion of our theatre size, which would give us the capability to produce more new works."
The Lumia Theatre was in a less traversed area. The new space, which stretches a city block, is what a real estate agent would call geographically desirable: just two blocks from the ocean, surrounded by restaurants and clubs. The ambitious plans for the West End Performing Arts Center include two performance spaces, a cinema, a gallery space, and apartments for visiting artists. It will also allow for educational programs, which Gabor says was impossible in the smaller space.
The company purchased West End School outright; estimates for the entire capital campaign run to $10 million. In September, they were looking into hiring a consulting firm to launch the first phase, which would solely focus on renovating the performance spaces, including turning the school auditorium into a 150-seat proscenium theatre. Gabor says that none of this would be possible without a stalwart board and an airtight mission.
"One of our board members described the company as 'cautiously reckless,'" says Gabor. "But we have never been a pragmatic organization. We based our business model on new plays and put our theatre in an area with no foot traffic. We just really believe in keeping the American theatre alive onstage."
"Iago" premieres at New Jersey Rep
TOM CHESEK, CORRESPONDENT September 2, 2016
You don't have to be some sort of an expert in the public scandals and private lives of the 20th century's greatest theatrical talents to appreciate "Iago," the ensemble comedy-drama that's onstage now at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch — but it just might help in processing the many insider references, cagey generalizations and peculiar delights of James McLure's sharply witty script.
On the other hand, entering into this "backstage" play unencumbered by a thousand and one Googled fun facts might open you up to an illuminating little chamber piece about how life and art are intertwined; about how making a thing of beauty and magnificence can be every bit as grisly as making sausage; about how the long-dead William Shakespeare continues to bully and bedazzle the boldest, most storied knights of the lofty legitimate theater. About how the show is somehow never over, even decades after the final curtain rings down.
Set within the decade or so following the end of the Second World War, the script by the late playwright McLure concerns the preparations for (and repercussions from) a production of Shakespeare's "Othello," that dependable old chestnut of jealousy, betrayal, scheming and speechifying. It's a collaboration between a celebrated (yet oh so insecure) lord of the English stage named Anthony Roland (Ezra Barnes); his equally royal (yet even more damaged) actress-wife Vivacity Wilkes (Liza Vann); a writer-director-raconteur of international legend by name of Sir Basil Drill (Rep regular John FitzGibbon) — and Peter Finney (Todd Gearhart), an up-and-coming Australian leading man who both Tony and Viv have taken a shine to in their own way.
It's no spoiler to reveal that these characters are based very tightly on the respective real-life figures of Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Nöel Coward and Peter Finch — and that the rocky-rollercoaster relationships among the lot of them are pretty much ripped from the gossip column items of some 70 seasons back. Add the tragic triangle at the heart of "Othello" (then season to taste with the outsize egos of the principals, as jumbo yet fragile as ostrich eggs) and you've got a voyeur's view on the sorts of things that happen when extraordinary minds and talents crash against the basest behaviors of a flawed species.
Of course it's great fun to watch. The play, which was staged years ago by the Alabama Shakespeare Festival (making this the "New Jersey premiere" of a little-seen property) offers up the kind of top-shelf dialogue and situations that actors live to embrace (plus measured doses of the Bard to boot), and the cast under the knowing hand of NJ Rep artistic director SuzAnne Barabas really sinks their teeth into the material — beginning with Ezra Barnes, an actor who evokes the young Kevin Kline even as he treats us to his best Larry Olivier. Sensing foul conspiracies around every corner; in constant need of reassurance as to his greatness, his "Roland" is of course closer in spirit to the moody Moor than his r-rolling artifact of an "Othello." As the kind of a man who can't even have an honest confrontation without lapsing into character, hiding behind a mask or even settling things with a spot of swordplay, Tony Roland has apparently misplaced that which connects him to the rest of humanity — and the rest of humanity knows it.
Liza Vann, who merits a great deal of the credit for shepherding this overlooked play back into the spotlight, offers a "Viv" who needs "to be adored without question," even as she regards her similarly needy husband as nothing more than "an older brother." As the Desdemona at the apex of the triangle, she's equal parts dutiful spouse and dark-secrets depository; as flush with thoughts of escape from a stultifying marriage as she is wary of the uncertain journey ahead with "a very dangerous young man."
That would be Finney/Finch, and NJ Repertory newcomer Gearhart invests this upsetter of the status quo with a dark energy worthy of Shakespeare's villainous Iago himself. A devilish charmer and joker with a genuinely sinister edge, the man from Down Under delights in keeping the great Roland off balance, shaking up rehearsals with his own wild ideas about the character of Iago (he's a seducer who understands women; he's a homosexual who desires Othello). And yet, even the man who walks on the wild side finds himself unprepared for the reality of life with Viv. Holding this volatile mix together as best he can is Sir Basil, the self-proclaimed "genius" whose glib demeanor and witticisms barely conceal his own aching loneliness and fears of encroaching irrelevancy — a fine part for FitzGibbon, a specialist in urbane unhappy types and privately conflicted public figures.
It all unfolds over the course of some 29 separate scenes of varying lengths; on a stage that's largely devoid of furniture but equipped with enough curtains, backdrops and lighting effects to evoke the various theaters, taverns, country homes and whorehouses of the play's action. For this one production, designer Charles Corcoran has even graced NJ Rep's Lumia Theatre with a classic proscenium and curtain, something that the little shadowbox stage wears very well here. With its (fake) exposed brick walls and backstage ropes, the setting suggests that "it's all just a play" — albeit one in which the actors are never able to drop character, and where the greasepaint just doesn't wash off.
McLure — who may or may not have considered this play a finished piece of work — made some curious choices in his script, which is dotted with the occasional direct quote and references to events in the lives of the people who inspired it. But while some people like Marlon Brando and Kim Novak are name-checked in full, others are dealt with in more cryptic fashion — placing "Iago" in a sort of limbo between "our" universe and a vaguely familiar purgatory, in which these players are doomed to entertain us with their intimate private tragedy for all eternity — or at least Thursdays through Sundays until September 25. Full schedule details and ticket reservations ($45) are available by calling 732-229-3166 or visiting njrep.org.
BWW Review: IAGO at NJ Rep is an Extraordinary Play Wonderfully Presented
"We're really all here to serve our art, there are no egos in the theatre."
IAGO, a true theatrical masterpiece, is now onstage at New Jersey Repertory Company (NJ Rep) through September 25th. With a brilliant and insightful script by the late James McLure and the splendid direction of the theatre's Artistic Director, Suzanne Barabas, it is a must-see show. The four person cast shines bright in this exquisite production.
In IAGO, a romantic triangle causes turmoil in the lives of famed British actor, Anthony Roland, his protégé, Peter Finney and Tony's wife, Vivacity Wilkes. The show gives a backstage view as they prepare a production of Shakespeare's Othello. Even their renowned director, Sir Basil Drill fails to diffuse the actors' mounting tensions. As the scandalous events proceed, Tony becomes increasingly frustrated with Finney's aggressive behavior while Vivacity struggles with her mixed emotions. The complex situation mirrors themes found in Othello that include love, jealousy, betrayal, revenge and even repentance. This fascinating, humor-laced drama has a plot that draws inspiration from the intimate lives of theatrical legends, Sir Lawrence Olivier, Vivian Leigh, Noel Coward and Peter Finch.
The cast masters James McLure's wonderfully crafted dialogue with impeccable timing. Ezra Barnes captures the role of the celebrated British actor, Anthony Roland. Liza Vann is ideal as the beautiful and talented Vivacity. John FitzGibbon is compelling as the clever yet intense director, Sir Basil Drill and Todd Gearhart is magnetic as the charming, attractive rising star, Peter Finney.
The Production Team has done a fantastic job of creating the mood for IAGO with set design by Charlie Corcoran; technical direction by Brian Snyder; lighting design by Jill Nagle; sound design by Merek Royce Press; costume design by Patricia E. Doherty; properties by Lindy Regan and scenic painting by Donna Styles. The Stage Manager is Jennifer Tardibuono and the Fight Director is Brad Lemons.
Make IAGO part of your upcoming entertainment plans and get your tickets now. It is an entertaining and intriguing romantic story that you will long remember.
Let's Go To The Theater
'Iago' Looks at Play Behind the Play
People who enjoy live theater usually love to learn about what goes on behind the scenes of a show. Seeing behind the scenes is considered by many to be a play within a play. That concept is what forms the story-line for a play that is having its New Jersey Premiere at the New Jersey Repertory Theatre in Long Branch. Iago gives viewers a backstage look at a group of actors who are involved with a Shakespearean production and what goes on with them in their lives during the production.
Written by James McClure, Iago, was developed at the Playwright's Project in Healing Springs, North Carolina and premiered at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. This version in Long Branch is directed by NJ Rep's own Artistic Director SuzAnne Barabas.
Iago explores what takes place off stage during rehearsals with an acting company as they prepare the Shakespearean classic Othello. It centers on three extraordinary actors who are at the top of their game. But the creatives are also represented by the well-known director who also gets involved. There is intrigue, scandal, and of course romance as rehearsals take place. The romance involves the husband and wife actors along with another actor in the company. Are they acting or is it real life? You be the judge when you see this unique show.
Several of the actors from this show shared their thoughts on what audiences will enjoy about it. Todd Gearhart said:
"If you love what's theatrical about theatre you'll love IAGO. The brilliance of Shakespeare, the romance of the real life lived backstage, the enormous egos and the huge stakes involved in creating a theatrical production. IAGO deals with fame, friendship, love, betrayal, and success. It's a full-blown, theatrical evening of theatre."
Liza Vann said:
"Iago is about theatre royalty and Hollywood in its heyday, big people living big lives before the age of reality TV in the era of gossip columnists and newspapers. It's the theatre world wrapped in a 'Downton Abbey' package: gorgeous costumes, wonderful dialogue, and one of those rare pieces that can be just so funny one minute and then so poignant the next. Add a sword fight to the mix, and I think Cousin Violet might be tempted to repeat one of her best lines, 'I do hope I'm interrupting something.' I promise you, she would be…."
In addition to Todd Gearhart and Liza Vann, the cast also includes Ezra Barnes and John FitzGibbon; all veteran actors who give performances that make this a very enjoyable play to see.
September is a beautiful time to be down the shore and luckily there are two weeks left to see Iago at the New Jersey Repertory Company located at 179 Broadway, Long Branch, NJ. The show is currently running through Sunday, September 27, 2016. Performances are given on Thursdays and Fridays at 8:00 pm; Saturdays at 3:00 pm and 8:00 pm and Sundays at 2:00 pm.
Ezra Barnes and Liza Vann navigate a play within a play (within a play) in James McLure's "Iago," opening this weekend at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.
TOM CHESEK, CORRESPONDENT August 26, 2016
The very name speaks of treachery and cunning, and a single-minded determination to use every resource in the service of avenging any slight, whether real or imagined. But while the darkly comic play called "Iago" isn't exactly a "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern"-style riff on one of Shakespeare's most vivid villains, the tragedy called "Othello" still manages to leave more than a few traces of its DNA around the premises.
Opening this weekend at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, and directed by NJ Rep co-founder SuzAnne Barabas, "Iago" represents something of a rarity for those perennial promoters of contemporary dramatists and new plays, in that its author James McLure passed away some five years ago. It's a "posthumous premiere" of a previously workshopped property that owes a great deal to the hard work of New York actress Liza Vann — who, in addition to being the sole female cast member of a powerhouse ensemble, took an active role in shepherding this overlooked script to the stage.
"I loved this play when I first read it," says Vann of the work whose first draft dates back more than a dozen years. "The script is so good it almost stuns me, in its attention to character and detail."
Having "fallen in love" with McLure plays like"Laundry and Bourbon" (produced, among other places, at Princeton's McCarter stage), the Off Broadway veteran sought out the playwright whose best known works also included "Lone Star" and "Pvt. Wars." Enthusiastic about the script that would become "Iago," Vann met with McLure and brainstormed some ideas regarding a possible production, but "the timing just wasn't right...eight years passed, and I heard from a mutual friend that he had died of cancer."
Vann, however, was not done with "Iago." Learning that the play was now among some 70 unpublished properties in the care of McLure's surviving sister, the actress worked closely with her; coordinating with the late playwright's publishers and helping to select five scripts ("Iago" included) that were regarded as "ready" to "put out there" — at which point NJ Rep took special notice.
As Vann describes it, "Iago" is inspired by the collaborations, collisions and canoodlings of theatrical legends Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Noel Coward and Peter Finch — and, while they're not named as such in the script, it's "based on their experiences" as they worked together on different Shakespearean projects (although, curiously enough, not play-within-a-play "Othello" and its study of jealousy and betrayal). But while "they all had various liaisons, this is the one that broke up the marriage" of Olivier and Leigh.
"This is a clash of enormous egos and fragile people," says Vann, pointing out that the Olivier-Leigh costume drama film of illicit romance "That Hamilton Woman" also looms large in the proceedings. "The language is phenomenal...and who doesn't like a good swordfight?"
Making their Long Branch debuts alongside Liza Vann (and bringing their own equally formidable credits to the table) are Ezra Barnes and Todd Gearhart — with the cast rounded out by true NJ Rep stalwart John FitzGibbon, whose portrayals of pompous elites and self-destructive artistic types have illuminated such past productions as "Klonsky and Schwartz" and "Bakersfield Mist."
"It's a hysterically funny play about theater royalty, with a 'Downton Abbey' quality to it," says Vann. "You don't want it to end."
REVIEW: Iago at NJ Rep
NJ Stage, by Gary Wien
The affair takes place during the rehearsals for Shakespeare's Othello with the situation closely mirroring that of Othello's plot as well. Getting even deeper, the affair is based on the true life marriage of Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier, and the couple's own struggles with infidelity. In other words, Iago is a play about a play dealing with a situation that is not only seen on stage, but actually happened (more or less) in real life. Got it?
NJ Rep has assembled a wonderful cast led by director SuzAnne Barabas (co-founder of the company). The cast includes Liza Vann as Vivacity, a character inspired by Vivien Leigh; Ezra Barnes as Tony, a character inspired by Laurence Olivier; Todd Gearhart as Finney, who I believe is inspired by Peter Finch; and John FitzGibbon as Basil, the director and theatrical legend.
All but FitzGibbon are making their debut at NJ Rep, but, in his 12th production with the company, it's FitzGibbon who steals nearly every scene he is in. His character sort of acts like a snarky, modern day version of the classic theatrical narrator — passing on his wisdom towards acting, love, and life itself while offering a transition through set changes… and there are many set changes. The changes are all rather small - a lamp here, a table there - which help indicate whether the action is now on stage, backstage, in an apartment, or at the bar. The rapid changes do help show the passing of time during rehearsals and help the play cover a long stretch of the calendar (while mimicing the craziness of the affair), but they are a bit too much as well. I could easily imagine a future production of Iago utilizing multimedia to show the passing of time in a smoother fashion or toning down the zany switches a bit.
Throughout the play, Basil seems to relish his role as the not-so-innocent bystander. Members of the cast tell their secrets to him and he seems to enjoy the trust bestowed upon him, while secretly loving the added dimension reality is bringing to his production.
Gearhart stands out for his brilliant portrayal of the young, up-and-coming star. In many ways, he is the younger version of Tony. In fact, their relationship began with Tony acting as his mentor. As rehearsals go on, Tony watches his protege steal his wife, while introducing aspects of the play that are entirely unexpected. Finney's bold ideas for Othello began from the very first rehearsal. As soon as Basil offered his initial director's notes, Finney disagreed with him. He said he wanted to play Iago as a seducer rather than as pure evil - a move obviously done as a means to help him further seduce Vivacity in real life. But his take on the character continues to change and heads off into a completely different direction as the play goes on.
There are several aspects to Iago which showcase McLure's genius; one is the manner in which it is not simply a play about a play within a play — it is also about the mind games that are involved in real life and within the characters' minds in the play that they are staging. He shows the ultimate test and limits or love within a marriage and how an actor's career is sometimes more important to them than anything else.
It doesn't take long until Finney and Vivacity begin bringing their affair into public places. Tony, as to be expected, struggles with it. In denial, he tells Basil, "At least she's being discreet. Hardly anybody knows right?"
"No one," replies Basil.
"Everybody in London knows," says Tony.
Vivacity knows the affair is wrong, but she is in love with Finney's talent as much as with the man himself. He is truly a younger version of the man she married for whom she no longer holds the same feelings. At one point she confesses to Tony, "I no longer think of you as my husband."
"How do you think of me?" Tony meekly asks.
"As a brother… an older brother," she replies.
The first act ends with Tony still in denial asking her, "How long will it take for you to get him out of your system?"
Two of McLure's most popular plays are Lone Star and Laundry & Bourbon. They were both one-acts which, when combined, told a complete story. If Iago had only focused on the affair, it would have had more than enough material to work with and would have told a complete story. Unfortunately, it goes on even after Othello ends. This is where the lines between reality and the play truly blur. Iago is supposed to be about fictional characters inspired by the lives of Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier, but the play goes on to show how the real life couple winds up years later. The incongruity of reality and fiction winds up adding about 20 minutes to the play. The extra time is not bad, but is largely unnecessary. One wonders where Iago may have wound up if the playwright had been able to see a few more productions of it with the ability to tinker with the script. Personally, I think he would have edited it down to the single story of the affair and Othello, which would make for an excellent tale.
Sadly, the extra time steers the play away from what would have been a truly outstanding final line. Instead, we see several possible endings pass before the play finally concludes.
There is more than enough good in Iago to head down to Long Branch and see this rarely performed piece. It has all the ingredients of a great play — it's very funny, it's dramatic; it has a love story and a sword fight! The only question is whether or not anyone will ever attempt to make edits to the work or if they will treat the early stages of the play's development as the way McLure would have wanted it to be.
I think Vivacity said it best, "It's sort of like sex… the opening of a play; it's both exciting and disappointing at the same time."
PHOTOS BY SUZANNE BARABAS
'Iago' Brings Love and Intrigue to New Jersey Rep
Liza Vann has always been a fan of playwright James McLure. In 2003, the actress was reading McLure's Laundry and Bourbon and thought, "Why haven't I seen a new Jim McLure play recently?" She called up the playwright's agent and found that he was developing a new show called Iago at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. Vann went to see the developmental reading, spent a weekend talking with the playwright about the play, and together they put together plans to bring the play to New York City—a production that never came to fruition.
After McLure's death in 2011, Vann made it her mission to bring this under-produced play to the stage, and now, she is playing the role of Vivacity in New Jersey Repertory Company's production, which runs through Sept. 25.
The play takes place from 1940 to 1957 and follows of troupe of actors rehearsing for a production of Othello. The backstage story mirrors the intrigue, lust, and betrayal of Shakespeare's tragedy, and there is another layer: The dramatic offstage plot reflects the real-life marriage of Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh and Leigh's notorious love affair with Peter Finch.
In Iago, the strapping young character Peter Finney, who plays Iago, wins the heart of the actress, Vivacity, playing Desdemona. This spurs jealousy in Vivacity's husband, Tony, who is, of course, portraying Othello. To round it out, the director in the mise-en-abyme is strikingly similar to Noël Coward. However, for this production, the inspiration behind the characters is secondary, and the actors bring their own interpretations to the roles.
"It is kind of a neglected play," says artistic director SuzAnne Barabas, who is helming the production. "It was done once or twice many years ago, while [McLure] was still living, and after that it sort of died with him." For Barabas, hearing the play out loud helped solidify her decision to direct the play. The transitions and numerous subplots make it difficult to read, but once on its feet, Barabas says, "It flows, it is fun, it is sad, it is silly… It just has everything going for it."
Adding to the many layers of plot, Barabas chose to equip the stage management team—real crew members for Iago also play the onstage stage management team for Othello—with modern technology and contemporary clothes. These onstage hands help the scenes jump from rehearsal rooms to pubs to a country home. The set, designed by Charlie Corcoran, is a barebones Victorian theatre—and the actors and stagehands bring the set pieces into the space.
"This very energetic play never stops moving," says Barabas. Brick walls, boards, and a fly system give the set "the wonderful feeling of being in an old theatre," she adds.
And the play's costumes are literally layered. An onstage dressing screen allows Vann to shed one silk dress to reveal another, and then six lines later, she reappears again from behind the screen sporting a period gown as Desdemona. Vann says that this spectacle is a "special kind of theatricality" that required a lot of coordination. In addition to the numerous blocking rehearsals for zipping and buttoning, Vann credits McLure's writing with the ability to seamlessly transition between scenes and periods.
"I so wish Jim were here—I think he is," says Vann. "I think he is watching every move and I think he loves it. This is going to be the beginning of the next chapter of Jim McLure."
Discover Jersey Arts
JAMES MCLURE'S "IAGO" HAS ITS NEW JERSEY PREMIERE AT NJ REP
For almost 20 years, the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch has carved out a wonderful niche for producing World Premieres – plays that have never been seen before. Many have gone on to successful runs at regional theaters across the country; some, like "Butler," which just finished a run at 59E59 Theaters in New York City, find themselves on Off-Broadway stages. While most theaters make news when they present a World Premiere, NJ Rep does it so often that it makes news when it isn't presenting one.
The company is currently staging the New Jersey Premiere of "Iago" by the late James McLure, now through September 25. The play involves backstage intrigue, romance and scandal during and after rehearsals of "Othello" within a period comic-drama. McLure is well known for the plays "Lone Star," "Laundry and Bourbon," "The Day They Shot John Lennon" and "Pvt. Wars." "Iago" is rumored to be one of roughly 70 he wrote that were never staged during his lifetime.
NJ Rep's cast includes Ezra Barnes, John FitzGibbon, Todd Gearhart and Liza Vann, and the production is directed by SuzAnne Barabas. For Vann, this is a role she's waited a long time to play.
"I met Jim (McLure) in 2003," recalled Vann. "I literally was rereading one of my all-time favorite plays, 'Laundry and Bourbon,' one day, and wondered why I hadn't seen a new Jim McLure play in a while. I have loved his writing forever; he's just so good, so smart, so funny. So… long story short, I called his agent who told me that Jim actually had a new play called 'Iago' currently in development as a part of the Southern Writers' Project at ASF. I asked to read it; loved it; and flew down to meet Jim. We spent two fast and furious days talking, batting around possibilities; and when I left, we put a game plan into motion. But, as with so many projects, the timing was never quite right for one reason or another. And then, in 2011, I got the message from a mutual friend that Jim had died. Since then, I have become close friends with Jim's family, and together we picked up where Jim and I had left off — 'Iago' once again front and center. And that's how I've gotten to know Jim, through those who knew and loved him best."
"Iago" has only been presented a handful of times around the country, and the opportunity to be the first to stage it in New Jersey caught the company's eye.
"It's a little-known play by a prominent playwright," explained Barabas, NJ Rep's Artistic Director and Co-Founder. "It's a play that never made the rounds of regional theaters, and one that deserves another look-see. It is a New Jersey premiere, after all, so it's certainly new to our audiences."
"It's a play within a play," continued Barabas. "A backstage story of love and betrayal. A well-respected theatrical couple, along with an esteemed director, prepare to present an innovative production of 'Othello.' They've added a young up-and-coming Australian actor to the Othello/Desdemona/Iago triangle and their real life story mirrors, in some way, the play they are rehearsing."
McLure's story is generally thought to be loosely based on the real-life marriage of Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier. It deals with the difficulties the two faced over the years from infidelity to health issues. Barabas said the cast did research the famous actors, but treated the characters as people inspired by Leigh and Olivier rather than a retelling of their lives.
"I've had the honor of playing many historical figures, Mary Shelley, Marietta Corsini (the wife of Machiavelli) and Susan B. Anthony among them," said Vann. "And while 'Vivacity' is based on Vivien Leigh, the character is not meant to be a portrayal of her, rather more the essence of her. Indeed, I think it is extremely important to research historical figures, but I have always felt that research is there to inform, not to dictate. In this instance, there is clearly no shortage of information about Vivien Leigh, so films, documentaries, biographies, articles, etc. all became a part of the process."
For a playwright raised in the South, James McLure's work and New Jersey have a rather interesting history. In addition to presenting the World Premiere of "The Day They Shot John Lennon," McCarter Theatre in Princeton was the first to combine "Lone Star" with "Laundry and Bourbon" to form "1959 Pink Thunderbird" — a combination that has been presented ever since.
According to Barabas, this play is the closest NJ Rep has come to presenting Shakespeare on its stage. It offers the audience an interesting blend of modern language alongside the classical words of the Bard. The language is one of the aspects that Vann adores about the play.
"The weaving of the 'Othello' tale into the fabric of these lives is extraordinary by itself, but to manipulate this emotional crazy quit with humor and wit is sheer genius," explained Vann. "It is language at its best. These are big people leading big lives in the heyday of Hollywood; theatre royalty wrapped in a 'Downton Abbey' package. Add gorgeous costumes and a sword fight – what's not to love?"
BWW Interview: Liza Vann in IAGO at NJ Rep
New Jersey Repertory Company (NJ Rep) will be presenting the New Jersey premiere of IAGO by James McLure from August 25th to September 25th. In this comedic-drama, backstage intrigue, romance and scandal take place during the rehearsals of the William Shakespeare classic, Othello. Directed by the theatre's Artistic Director, Suzanne Barabas, the cast includes Ezra Barnes, Liza Vann, John FitzGibbon and Todd Gearhart. Broadwayworld.com had the opportunity to interview Liza Vann who plays Vivacity in IAGO.
From early days at La Mama, Vann's favorite Off-Broadway credits include Marietta Corsini in Machiavelli, the fabulous musical Good Ol' Girls, Diane Greer in Poetic License, and the indomitable Bree Benson in The Road To Damascus. Most recently, she joined Ralph Macchio and Mario Cantone as Jean Morelli in the sold out run of Abingdon Theatre Company's A Room Of My Own, a new comedy by Charles Messina. A recipient of the Clarence Ross Fellowship from the American Theatre Wing, she has performed extensively in regional theatre in roles as diverse as Chelsea in On Golden Pond, Hermia in Dead Man's Cell Phone, Nicky in The Smell of the Kill, Myrtle Brown in Morning's at Seven, and Miss Maudie in To Kill A Mockingbird. Iago marks her first appearance at New Jersey Rep, and she is most grateful to be a part of this extraordinary company, and this important play by the late James McLure.
When did you first realize your penchant for theatre?
My very first play; I was 4- in kindergarten! Playing one of the ugly stepsisters in Cinderella. I even remember the lines. And I will proudly add that the following year, I was cast as "Gretel" in Hansel and Gretel. I was cast, and the die was cast. (Pun intended.)
Who has been very influential in your theatrical career?
This one is easy. One of the luckiest days of my life was when I walked into that first class with my then college professor, now cherished friend, Dr. Charles Hadley. His palpable love of theatre combined with his extraordinary gift for teaching continues to guide me to this day, and I hear his voice whisper in my ear "break a leg" every time I go on stage.
What have been some of the roles you have played that have been most challenging or rewarding?
That's always a hard question. I've had the honor of playing, as well as creating, so many wonderful women including a number of historical figures, Mary Shelley, Marietta Corsini (the wife of Machiavelli) and Susan B. Anthony among them. And it's so exciting to sink your teeth into a new play, bringing a character to life for the first time. Tom Dulack's Bree Benson (The Road to Damascus), and Jack Canfora's Diane Greer (Poetic License) were two particularly fun fictional powerhouses But then, when you get your turn to play Miss Maudie in To Kill a Mockingbird or Myrtle Brown in Morning's At Seven, the sheer loveliness of those classic works can almost take your breath away.
Tell us a little about your relationship with the playwright, James McLure
Since his death in 2011, I have become close friends with his family. I met Jim when he was developing Iago as part of The Southern Writers' Project at ASF. I think every actor has that group of plays which you keep handy because you love them. I was rereading Laundry and Bourbon one day, one of my all-time favorites, and just thought," why haven't I seen any new Jim McLure plays, where is he, is he still writing; he's just so good...". So I picked up the phone and called his agent, who said that, in fact, one of Jim's plays was having a developmental production at ASF right then. Fast forward to: got the script, loved it, and headed down to meet Jim. So over one very intense weekend, I saw the play and met with Jim to discuss possibilities. He was passionate and funny; and when we said good bye, we agreed to forge next steps. But the timing was never right; and then, in 2011, I got the message that Jim had died.
Why do you feel IAGO is such a significant piece of theatre?
It is a simple answer, but there is nothing simple about it: the writing. It is language at its best; characters at their fullest; emotions at their truest. It doesn't get better than that.
Tell us about your experience working with NJ Rep.
I have known Gabe and SuzAnne for a few years now. I met them through Evan Bergman, the Associate Artistic Director for NJ Rep. I have known Evan for years, and was privileged to do Poetic License for them when it moved into New York; but this is the first time I will be performing with them on home ground. What I love about them is their all-out commitment to new plays and developing plays. And I do mean all-out. From the direction to the set design to the costumes, the attention to detail and the emphasis on excellence are unwavering. They understand how important this step is to the potential future of "this" playwright, "this" work. And every single playwright is "this playwright"; every single play is "this work". These "parents" have no favorite child; they are all the "favorite child".
Why do you think metro area audiences will love this play?
So many reasons; so little time! The play is funny, smart, and beautiful; poignant, maddening and unpredictable. It is the "Downton Abbey" of the theatre world. I think even Cousin Violet would approve.
We'd love to know some of your future plans.
I go directly from doing Iago to Seven Angels Theatre in CT, once again playing "Jean Morelli" in A Room Of My Own by Charles Messina. I did the show in NY earlier this year at the Abingdon Theater Company with Ralph Macchio and Mario Cantone, and look forward to rejoining my Italian family in September. So it will be "Cheers" to one, and "Ciao" to the next. It's a great life!
Anything else, absolutely anything you want our readers to know?
Jim McLure was an amazing playwright, and Iago is just one of approximately 70 plays Jim left behind. He is missed, but his legacy goes on. There is more Jim to come; stay tuned....
Off-Broadway Review: "Butler" Abolishes Stereotypes at 59E59 Theaters
"General Butler, you are fighting a war because some men saw things differently from some other men." – Shepard Mallory
Based on true events, Richard Strand's scintillating "Butler," currently playing at 59E59 Theaters as part of the successful 5A Series, addresses issues of systemic racism extant in the Civil War Era and in the present – racism that threatens the very moral integrity of our nation. The play also addresses how stereotypes divide and threaten relationships. In the first scene, newly appointed Major General Benjamin Butler (Ames Adamson) receives a "demand" from Shepard Mallory a runaway slave (John G. Williams) who has "illegally" entered Fort Monroe in Virginia. The demand, reports Lieutenant Kelly (Benjamin Sterling) is to speak to Butler and to receive asylum from the Major General. Complicating the challenge is the presence of an additional two runaways who accompanied Mallory to the fort.
These three fascinating characters are developed with precision and real depth. Playwright Strand delineates their conflicts carefully and – with the help of history – creates an admirable level of authenticity. These conflicts, and those of Confederate Major Cary (David Sitler) who arrives at the fort to retrieve his commanding officer's "property," drive a complicated and intriguing plot that is rich in imagery and figurative language and includes heartfelt drama as well as endearing comedy. This plot recounts how Benjamin Butler deals with Mallory's request for asylum and discloses skillfully just why Mallory knew he would win his case for asylum despite all of the legal and military odds against him. To say more would be unfair. It is enough to say Shepard Mallory is not the typical runaway slave and Major General Benjamin Butler is not the typical attorney turned general.
Mr. Strand utilizes the rhetorical devices of repetition and parallelism to his advantage in his well-written script. The first several minutes consist of a prolonged dialogue between Butler and Kelly that serves not only to introduce significant exposition but layers of tropes and bits of dialogue that will reappear throughout the script. Often words like 'protocol' and 'provocation' are tossed back and forth with the speed of a tennis ball at Wimbledon. "Butler" explores the motivations of individuals who make assumptions about others based on appearance and background and individuals who choose to use stereotypes rather than reason to judge others.
Mr. Adamson (Benjamin Butler) and Mr. Williams (Shepard Mallory) portray two remarkable characters neither of whom claims to be very "likable" and both of whom are "arrogant oddities." Yet their performances could not be more irresistible. Mr. Adamson portrays a giant of a man who knows what is right and knows he has to find the way to do what is right. Mr. Williams portrays a man in mortal danger who knows he has to use every rhetorical device in his arsenal to survive. Benjamin Sterling's Lieutenant Kelly is the perfect foil for General Butler's bluster and these two actors make magic together on stage. Mr. Sterling's timing is impeccable and he imbues his character with a deep authenticity that resonates with the richness of honesty.
This stage magic could not happen without Major Cary's visit to Fort Monroe. David Sitler's comedic performance as the intrusive Major is just what the playwright needs to stir up the developing plot and make it even more difficult for General Butler to simply send the runaway slaves on a journey to escape certain killing. Mr. Sitler gives his character a full range of emotion and believability. Shepard Mallory knows all about the Major and warns Butler that since the visitor is "an expert in artillery" he is coming to the fort to accomplish more than retrieving Mallory for his boss. With Major Cary's hilarious blindfolded entry and exit, the plot thickens.
Jessica L. Parks's set is exquisite and serves well for the action of the play. Especially welcomed is the outer room from Butler's office. Ms. Parks has also decorated the set appropriately with charming period touches. Patricia E. Doherty's costumes are perfect in every way, her uniform for Butler almost exactly matching those worn in his portraits. The contrast between the officers' crisp uniforms and Mallory's tattered slave clothing is laden with emotion. Jill Nagle's lighting design establishes appropriate time and mood changes. Joseph Discher directs with passion and sensitivity and brings out the best in his talented ensemble cast.
"Butler" challenges the audience to reexamine the role of presumption and stereotyping in making judgments about individuals and their worth and to revisit the urgent need to eradicate systemic racism from the fabric of the nation. One expects to see "Butler" beyond its run at 59E59 Theaters.
Butler - Terrific Theater!
The real Major General Benjamin Franklin Butler, a lawyer, had a checkered political career that included support of moderate southerners. "I was always a friend of southern rights but an enemy of southern wrongs." He chose, however, to serve in the Union Army. Butler was the first Eastern Union General to take the controversial stand on runaway slaves depicted in this play. Do not stop reading for fear of something military, hyper political, or turgid. Richard Strand's fine play takes a serious subject and illuminates it with insight, humanity, and humor. It's completely surprising.
We find ourselves at Fort Monroe in the state of an ostensibly seceding Virginia at the start of The Civil War. Just settling in to his new command, Major Butler (Ames Adamson) is informed by Lieutenant Kelly (Benjamin Sterling) that a runaway slave, three, in fact- though we never meet two, has appeared at the 'door' demanding to see the major general.
The pivotal word here is "demanding," a term evoking reflexive rage in a commander more insulted by audacity than discomfited at the appearance of unwanted visitors. Still, he's alert enough to question whether his adjutant has specifically used the word because he dislikes – i.e. is prejudiced against – the Negro. He is. In the single instance of overwriting, we listen to a seemingly pompous man who enjoys the sound of his own voice discuss intention and phraseology. It passes. From the moment the slave, Shepard Mallory (John G. Williams), is brought into the office, dialogue is dynamic and intriguing.
Torn by his disgust with slavery and commitment to uphold current law which dictates a return of this "property" to its owner, Butler treats Mallory with respect, immediately having him unshackled, dismissing the wary lieutenant, and offering a glass of sherry. The latter seems an odd gesture, but one that symbolizes Butler's learned signs of civility. This is the first Negro to whom he's actually spoken. Both men are nonplussed.
The major general is visibly startled when Mallory insists that as a lawyer, he can surely "twist the law, using convoluted reason to find a loophole." "Did you use the word convoluted?!" Not only is the slave articulate but, when he addresses the officer by his full name (stamped on surrounding boxes), Butler deduces he can read. Clearly ill informed about slavery, he can't fathom why this should be a secret. He learns – by demonstration. Informative tidbits weave their way subtly through narrative.
Mallory is quick, sharp, stubborn, and arrogant, much like Butler who, despite better judgment, allows discourse, finding his exotic visitor fascinating. Conversation reveals both men without straying from credibility. The two square off with animosity appropriate to their positions. Butler experiences a 'dark night of the soul' resolving to take illegal action, but is thwarted and provoked in that order.
When a Major Carey (David Sitler) of the Confederate Army arrives to claim the escaped men, the commander must decide what he thinks morally right, how to achieve it, and how to live with the consequences. That confrontation is immensely clever.
Ames Adamson is splendid as Butler. Evident pressures of his quandary reflect personal history that doesn't come up in dialogue. Surprise and curiosity are palpable. The actor's timing as his character executes a risky, shocking plan is immensely skillful. A big man, he circles his 'prey' like a deadly animal with the trapping of manners. To the end of the play, Adamson reflects conflict and complexity.
John G. Williams is a fine match to Adamson's strengths. His Shepard Mallory is necessarily deferential yet volatile, hyper-watchful, and, against all odds, believably proud. A slight southern accent is pitch perfect as is the difference between the slave's parodied "Yassa" and normal speech. The actor has natural stage presence we trust early on. He never disappoints.
Benjamin Sterling (Lieutenant Kelly) manages flickers of unspoken opinion as well as he does hair-trigger reaction. A sea change in the character is manifest with plausibility.
David Siter's Major Cary is vividly stiff, outraged, and gentlemanly. Exactly as he should be. His accent is impeccable. (Dialect Coach- Diego Daniel Pardo)
Director Joseph Discher creates stage pictures as effectively as the cast he helms inhabits their characters. Every player demonstrates physical personality attributes. Vocal rhythms differ. The temperature in the office seems to change. Violence arrives unexpectedly. (Fight Director Brad Lemons) The piece is unrushed so that the measure of each man may be observed by his fellows, yet adroitly moves along.
Jessica L. Parks Set would hold up on Broadway. A superb evocation of time and place. Patricia E. Doherty's Costume Design is first-rate. Understated (not theatrically over-torn) slave apparel indicates her realism. Steve Beckel's Sound Design utilizes military marching, period specific music and crowd sounds that add color.
There are moments in the latter part of Butler, the thoroughly engrossed audience vocally reacts to a character – something rare in serious theater. We rose as one at the finish. Not, as is usually the case, like lemmings, but in support of a wonderful production.
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The General Takes a Stand
Richard Strand's Butler leaps to the forefront of comedies set during the Civil War—although it may well be the only comedy set in the Civil War that comes to one's mind. Yet the setting is indubitable, and the laughs are plentiful, so if it stands alone in a genre of one, it doesn't matter. The only drawback will be if it spawns a spate of Civil War comedies that prove inferior.
The four-character play, directed by Joseph Discher, takes place in a small general's office at Fort Monroe, Va., at a crucial juncture—Virginia has seceded from the union the day before. The general, only recently been put in command, is Benjamin Franklin Butler, an irascible, sometimes pompous Union officer. He is attended by a Lt. Kelly, a strapping subordinate whose manner is by turns unyielding and abashed in the face of Butler.
As the play begins, Kelly has unwelcome news for Butler: "There is a Negro slave outside who is demanding to speak with you." A scene ensues in which Butler berates Kelly for a number of reasons, including choices of words: "demands" vs. "requests," "surprised" vs. "astonished." The scene is labored and makes one fear that the play isn't going anywhere soon, but bear with it: these language debates pay off richly in the second half.
In Ames Adamson's performance, Butler puts on a lot of bluster. He's chafing in his new post, because he knows he doesn't have the background of other generals—he was a lawyer in civilian life not so long ago—and because he suspects that Benjamin Sterling's Kelly, a graduate of the military academy at West Point, resents being under his command. Yet, as the plot unfolds, Adamson shows an unexpected tolerance in the character, and Butler's acceptance that he must stand up against the orders of President Lincoln, the Cabinet and all the generals superior to him. It is a precarious position, because the war has begun and the Army of the Confederacy is all around.
The Negro slave, Shepard Mallory (John G. Williams), seeks asylum at Fort Monroe, but Lincoln's policy requires all fugitive slaves to be returned to their owners in the South because they are escaped property. Strand touches briefly but vividly on the horrors of slavery, as Mallory shows the scars on his back, but the meat of the play is the debate between general and slave about asylum. As in many classic comedies, the servant is a shrewd cookie, and Williams charts Mallory's course of defiance and submission as he plays off Butler's expectations. The character is insufferable at times, sympathetic at others, and Williams's skillful performance keeps the right balance. (The production is from the New Jersey Repertory Company, and it's heartening to be reminded of the high quality of regional theater.)
Strand brings Act I to a strong climax, as Mallory warns Butler about the man who is coming to retrieve him and take him back to a certain death at the hands of his cruel master. In Act II, the emissary, Major Cary (David Sitler), enters blindfolded (Steve Beckel's sound design provides some delicious laughs in the moments leading to Cary's entrance). The scene that follows is worthy of Shakespeare, as Butler summons his lawyerly skill to find a loophole to deny Cary his repossession of Mallory—which the historical Butler did. The scene is reminiscent of Portia's springing the trap with "Tarry a little, Jew" in The Merchant of Venice.
Although the sparring between Butler and Mallory is the main event, the two supporting players are equally good. Sterling charts Kelly's course from a man who has no experience of Negroes, and no interest in them, to one who finds a conscience and joins Butler and Mallory for a brotherhood-of-man finale. As the representative of the South, Sitler's Cary is suitably arrogant and unlikable, and gets what he deserves.
A strong, satisfying comedy that worked no less well last summer with a different cast at Barrington Stage in the Berkshires, Butler makes one want to hear more from Richard Strand.
THE HUFFINGTON POST
First Nighter: Richard Strand's Funny "Butler"
If someone had told me one of my favorite plays of the almost one-quarter-completed 2016-17 theater season would be a raucous comedy placed in the early days of The Civil War, I'd have had a good laugh. Nevertheless, here it is, sent from its New Jersey Repertory Company premiere to 59E59 Theatres. It's Richard Strand's Butler, and I'm having many genuine laughs—with it, not at it.
Strand, new to me but apparently writing plays for some time, couldn't be more welcome with his tale of what happens in the early days of the war when runaway slave Shepard Mallory (John G. Williams) arrives at Virginia's Fort Monroe to make demands of Major General Benjamin Franklin Butler (Ames Adamson), a lawyer newly assigned as the fort's commanding officer.
Butler has only just dressed down Lieutenant Kelly (Benjamin Sterling) for repeating "demand"—a word he loathes and has ordered not be spoken with his earshot—when he invites Mallory into his well-appointed office (Jessica L. Parks designed it) after the word "request" has been substituted for "demand."
The ensuing conversation has its ups and downs (mostly downs) with Mallory frequently overstepping his bounds. The volatile Butler allows the liberty for the anything-but-liberated Mallory because despite everything indicated to the contrary, he's beginning to like the man.
In a following scene, Butler even offers Mallory, who's in the company of two other (unseen) slaves, a chance to escape north. The major general has predicated his decision on Mallory's exposing the latticework of scars on his back, all of them administered by his owner, also surnamed Mallory, to whom the fugitive slave must legally be returned.
Mallory refuses to accept the offer, however, and does so in the educated language he's exhibited ever since his now cocky, now deferential entrance. He begs Butler not to have him and his fellow slaves returned.
Every time Butler and Mallory clash, often with Lieutenant Kelly joining in or admonished by Butler not to, they're both at odds with each other and rib-ticklingly funny about it. Mallory repeatedly says he's a hated man by everyone who knows him. Butler is ready to join that club—so is Kelly—and through Butler's two acts their exchanges are a hoot.
In the second act, artillery expert Major Cary (David Sitler), the Confederate officer dispatched to retrieve Malory (and two friends) is ushered in to make his legal demands of Butler. His having to be admonished for that employment of "demands" is only the first of the circles Butler dances around him. To bamboozle Major Cary, the major general neatly works some legal tricks and more laughs ensue. He also elicits better tidings for quick-tongued Mallory.
Joseph Discher directed Adamson, Sterling, Williams and Sitler, and they respond with agile, amusing portrayals. They help light up (Jill Nagle is the lighting designer, Patricia E. Doherty the costume designer) a play that more than resonates with 2016, this benighted year when disturbing racist attitudes seem particularly persistent. Kudos to playwright Strand for a comedy that also slyly impresses as a timely drama.
Talkin' Broadway - Off Broadway Reviews
At the start of Richard Strand's glittering seriocomic play Butler, opening tonight at 59E59, you may think you are watching one of those comedies about the foibles of the upper class, the kind where servants talk to masters with thinly-disguised dry sarcasm. It's amusing stuff, but rather puzzling. Because we are not in some nineteenth century London drawing room awaiting the arrival of Lady Bracknell, but in a nineteenth century Union fort in Virginia in the very early days of the Civil War.
General Butler (Ames Adamson) is newly ensconced as the commanding officer at Fort Monroe. He is not a career military man but has obtained the appointment owing to his connections and President Lincoln's immediate need to quickly quash the rebellion by the Southern states. The "servant" here is his aide-de-camp, Lieutenant Kelly (Benjamin Sterling), a West Point graduate who takes his own military career most seriously and who can barely keep a civil tongue in his head when being lectured to by the newcomer, who until very recently was a civilian lawyer.
General Butler does come off as a bit of a windbag, going on and on about how "astonished" he is to find himself being interrupted with something he has no interest in. It seems a trio of runaway slaves has appeared at the fort, and one of them "demands" to speak with the general about being granted sanctuary. General Butler cannot believe what he is hearing; no one makes demands of him, he assures the lieutenant, other than the President, those above him in military rank, and his wife.
In the end, and against his better judgment, the general agrees to meet with the slave, Shepard Mallory (John G. Williams), with the intention of sending him back, per the requirements set out by the Fugitive Slave Act. He is sympathetic in principle, but, as he puts it, "I am sworn to uphold the law. I cannot break the law, even if I disagree with the law."
What he hasn't counted on, however, is Shepard Mallory, a man whose feisty demeanor, determination, and ability to hold his own in any argument fly in the face of anything the general ever imagined he would encounter from a slave. As the two spar, you might want to roll your eyes at Butler's query: "Are all Negroes like you?" But the question is genuine, rising from the general's isolated worldview. And although Mallory answers with sarcasm, it becomes the start of a surprising relationship that leads to Butler being forced to confront and be held accountable to his purported values. Talk may be cheap, but talk is the coin of the realm for lawyers, and we discover that General Butler is a very good one. How good, he proves in a meeting between him and a confederate major (David Sitler), who has come under a flag of truce to claim the slaves. It's probably not too much of a spoiler to report that the major leaves chastened and empty-handed.
Butler clearly is dealing with a very serious subject, one that resounds to this day. Black lives mattered in 1861 no less than they do now. In telling this story, the playwright has accomplished two fairly remarkable things. First, he has taken an actual historic event and characters and turned it into an engrossing, non-pedantic play. Both General Butler and Shepard Mallory were real people, and the actions taken on behalf of fugitive slaves at Fort Monroe became an important step in the road to emancipation. In the play, Mallory shows himself to be a hero ten times over, but as General Butler evolves, a new hero and leader emerges.
More surprising, the play is delightfully funny, packed with wit, farce, and slapstick that rarely seem out of place with the content. Comedy may be the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down, but it also humanizes things in ways that a straightforward history play would be unable to do. Each of the characters, including the Confederate officer, is splendidly realized, and the production by the New Jersey Repertory Company is first-rate all around, with great ensemble work by the four-man cast, under Joseph Discher's sprightly direction. All told, this is a terrific show for history buffs and for anyone who can appreciate the savvy mixture of a serious topic with a comic touch.
A Civil War comedy plays 59E59 for the summer
By Zachary Stewart
Three slaves walk into a fort in Virginia. If this sounds like the setup to a twisted joke, that's because it is: Richard Strand's Butler might just be the funniest play ever written about Civil War-era slavery. Following its 2014 world premiere in New Jersey, the New Jersey Repertory Company brings the show to the city for a run at 59E59. Loosely based on the real history surrounding Fort Monroe (a Union stronghold deep in the heart of Old Dominion), Butler tackles a serious subject in a way that is simultaneously thought-provoking and sidesplitting. This is surprising considering the opening moments of the play seem to promise a very different kind of drama.
Fiddle-heavy American folk music swells (sound designer Steve Beckel instantly conjures a Ken Burns documentary) as the lights fade up on a Civil War-era military office: General Benjamin Franklin Butler (Ames Adamson, looking shockingly similar to the actual man) reads a telegram at his desk. He refuses to look up when his assistant, Lieutenant Kelly (the dashing Benjamin Sterling), enters bearing news. Butler is an attorney who has only recently been made the model of a modern major general through his political connections. Finishing the telegram, he begins to interrogate Kelly as he would a hostile witness. We understand instantly that Butler is not a very pleasant man.
Yet he may have met his match in Shepard Mallory (the fascinating and inscrutable John G. Williams), an escaped slave seeking asylum in Fort Monroe. Mallory is brash and impulsive, skittish yet mouthy. Wishing to join the Union army, he believes his secret knowledge of Confederate defenses is his key to salvation. Butler is keen to help Mallory escape, but under the Fugitive Slave Act, he is obligated to return him to the South. Confederate Major Cary (David Sitler, very much the haughty Southern gentleman) is approaching to retrieve Mallory under a banner of truce. Until then, can this Yankee general and runaway slave share a fort without driving each other crazy?
While the physical style of performance that director Joseph Discher gives this production owes much to classic sitcoms like The Odd Couple and I Love Lucy, Strand's exploration of relationships seems to hark back to something much older: Adamson and Williams, in particular, play their scenes as if they were performing Beatrice and Benedick from Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing. Their antipathy is complicated by the recognition of a kindred spirit, a mutual fascination that seems to magnetically draw them back into dialogue long after a conversation should have organically ceased. "I think you will regret sending me back because I think you like me," Mallory says to an increasingly red-faced Butler. Both men like to have the last word, so we understand that we may be here a while, which is fine by us since their banter is so hilarious.
Set designer Jessica L. Parks has crafted a handsome surrounding of antique furniture. A map of Virginia and a portrait of President Lincoln hang on the walls to give us an immediate sense of time and place. Crates and trunks marked "B.F. Butler" litter the hardwood floor, suggesting just how recent the general's arrival at Fort Monroe is, and how tenuous the federal tenancy is there. Patricia E. Doherty's period costumes are spot-on, especially the flamboyant embellishments on Major Cary's coat which stealthily hint at a Southern propensity for cosplay. Everyone's facial hair is magnificent.
While Butler might seem like a summertime romp in an iconic historical setting, its story is central to one of the great developments in our nation's history: The reasoning Butler concocts to protect Mallory (that he is "contraband" that could be used to aid the Confederate war machine) is the same rationale behind President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, a document that only applied to states in active rebellion. It's a piecemeal approach based on slippery legal reasoning, but some progress is better than none, right? In his own humorous and very watchable way, Strand hits at a larger truth: specifically, that the arc of the moral universe is often bent toward justice by the sophistry of prickly, stubborn individuals.
Benjamin Franklin Butler (1818-1893) was a controversial historical figure who cut a wide swath in politics, business, the military and the legal profession. The military governor of New Orleans for part of the Civil War, he made many enemies in the South. After he left that post, he was commissioned to lead the Army of the James, a position in which he had scant success and from which Grant eventually recalled him.
In Richard Strand's superb play Butler, tightly directed by Joseph Discher, we see a heroic portrait of the Major General of Fort Monroe, Virginia, which was to become known amongst runaway slaves as "Freedom Fortress." Butler distinguished himself with his astute prescience at the outset of the Civil War. His approach toward the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 (throughout the US all escaped slaves/property had to be returned to owners), in making his final decision whether to pledge or deny asylum to fugitive slaves was non pareil. His weighty actions influenced Lincoln's decision to engage fugitive "slaves" in the Union war effort. His legal theory paved a finer road for Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.
Strand's recreation of the events beginning May twenty-third, 1861 at Fort Monroe was inspired by the true story of Major General Butler and three intrepid, uncanny fugitive slaves, Frank Baker, James Townsend and Shepard Mallory, who were building fortifications for the Confederacy in Virginia and were to be sent to assist the Confederacy in North Carolina. Audaciously refusing to be separated from their wives and children, Baker, Townsend and Mallory fled and presented themselves at Fort Monroe requesting asylum. Since asylum was never given by the Union Army at the time, they were in desperate danger. They would be sent back to their masters and receive severe punishment/whipping/limb amputation or death.
From the moment that Lieutenant Kelly (played with vigor and likeability by Benjamin Sterling), presses Benjamin Butler (Ames Adamson is a knockout as the commanding, quixotic, high-handed, feisty Butler), with the startling information that a fugitive slave demands to speak to Butler, and a comedic harangue ensues about "not making demands on Butler," we know that we are in for a dynamic, humorous adventure which the wily Butler will control from start to finish.
Strand's set-up in the extremely capable hands of the director and talented actors provides the foundation for the play's humor, characterizations, future thematic tropes and key issues. Immediately, we understand that this is not a "run-of-the-mill" general and this is a highly unusual situation which "demands" circumspection, brilliant thinking and manipulation of the law. However, Strand's plot development is neither pat nor obvious; we are led to believe that Butler, as a lawyer who knows the law, will not contravene it. He knows disobeying the law would be disastrous.
These are high stakes. Butler and fugitive slave Shepard Mallory (wonderfully portrayed by the proud, insightful and ingenious John G. Williams), are the tenuous gamblers. Mallory, a replica of Butler in innovative thinking, independence and haughtiness must cleverly argue his case for himself, Townsend, Frank and indeed for the countless other fugitive slaves who eventually could seek asylum in Union encampments based upon Butler's decision. Strand characterizes Mallory beautifully. His strong-willed vehemence in attempting to convince Butler of the justice of the cause that fugitive slaves should be building installations for the Union instead of the oppressive, tyrannical Confederacy is well configured. But Butler remains unconvinced.
The suspense intensifies when Confederate Major Cary (David Sitler is appropriately effete, confident and gentlemanly), the agent who has all the constitutional force of the Fugitive Slave Law behind him, arrives to demand the return of the escaped property. The play is full of explosive confrontations when Butler and Mallory go head to head. These subtly increase in power and jibes when Butler meets Cary.
Strand's brilliant writing configures the steps that show how Butler arrives at the logic to override the Fugitive Slave Law. Though we know the ultimate conclusion, it is how Strand takes us there that is surprising and magnificent. His intriguing plot arcs keep us questioning whether Butler can protect Mallory or whether Mallory is going to get himself killed because of his wily behavior. The production is just stunning! Butler is marvelous theater.
BWW Review: BUTLER at 59E59 is Entertaining and Compelling
"We build the best case we can given the law."
Butler, the poignant Civil War comedic-drama has received rave reviews with performances across the country. Now, metropolitan area audiences can find out why. The play is making its New York City Premiere at 59E59 Theatres through August 28th. With an extraordinary, artful script by Richard Strand, meticulous direction by Joseph Discher and four excellent actors, the show is a wonderfully staged, unforgettable story of humanity. It is based on actual historical events that influenced the lives of over 10,000 slaves.
Butler is being presented by New Jersey Repertory Company (NJ Rep) by Executive Producer, Gabor Barabas and Artistic Director, Suzanne Barabas. The show was first produced in 2014 at the Company's theatre in Long Branch New Jersey. NJ Rep is renowned for launching top-notch World Premieres.
In Butler, it is the beginning of the Civil War and Benjamin Butler, a lawyer, was just promoted to the rank of Major General at Fort Monroe, a Union hold-out in the state of Virginia. Assisting Butler in his official duties at the fort is the conscientious West-Point graduate, Lieutenant Kelly. Butler finds himself in a difficult situation when Shepard Mallory, an escaped slave, seeks sanctuary at the fort. But the law of the land has not yet changed and escaped slaves are regarded as property and must be turned over to their "rightful owners." When the Confederate official, Major Carey arrives at Fort Monroe to take Mallory into custody, Major General Butler has the choice to follow the letter of the law or make a move that could affect the course of U.S. history.
The cast of Butler captures the spirited, intense, often humorous dialogue that makes this show completely captivating. Ames Anderson masters the role of Butler, a bombastic type, yet thoughtful and intelligent. John G. Williams is ideal as the defiant, young runaway slave, Shepard Mallory who is steadfast in his efforts to remain at the fort. Benjamin Sterling captures role of Lieutenant Kelly, who strives to be professional and maintain order in the face of explosive events. And it is David Sitler, as Major Cary who brings the story full circle with a great portrayal of the testy Confederate officer.
The Creative Team has done a wonderful job of bringing Butler to the 59E59 Theater stage with set design and props design by Jessica L. Parks; costume design by Patricia E. Doherty; lighting design by Jill Nagle; sound design by Steve Beckel and wig design by Leah J. Loukas. The Fight Director is Brad Lemons; Production Stage Manager is Rose Riccardi; Assistant Stage Manager is Rebecca Christian; General Manager is Leah Michalos; Technical Director is Brian Snyder; Wardrobe Supervisor is Autumn Cohen; Assistant to Director is Alexandra Scordato and Diego Daniel Pardo is the Dialect Coach.
This is the time for people to flock to see Butler. More than an entertaining show, it is a significant piece of theater and a timeless exploration of social conscience and individual responsibility. In the current climate of political discord, it is a refreshing look at how men of very different backgrounds find a sense of commonality.
The "Butler" Did It (Really)
Scene on Stage, by Philip Dorian
Rarely has a slice of history been as entertainingly portrayed as in Butler. Richard Strand's play depicts an actual Civil War development with a creative imagining of how it might have unfolded. The circumstances and characters in Butler really existed. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that the dialogue was lifted from an actual recording.
There was, of course, no recording device in the office of the Commanding General of Fort Monroe, Virginia on May 23, 1861, six weeks after the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter precipitated the War Between the States. No, the dialogue between General Benjamin F. Butler and an escaped Negro slave, as he's called, is fabricated by Strand, who, fortuitously, molded it into Butler, running through August 28 at the 59E59 off-Broadway complex, after premiering at New Jersey Repertory in 2014.
General Butler and his adjutant, Lt. Kelly, are astonished by the audacity of Shepard Mallory who, seeking sanctuary, "demands" to speak with the General. Fort Monroe, a Union facility, was in Virginia, which had declared itself a Confederate state. The Articles of War mandated that fugitive slaves, deemed "property," be returned to their owners.
It appeared, under the circumstances, that Mallory could hardly be granted sanctuary, but the onerous Article was thwarted by General Butler through an intricate legal maneuver that revolutionized the disposition of slaves. In historical fact, when President Lincoln was informed of the maneuver, he directed other Union generals to do the same. Butler's device, not revealed here, is at the core of the play.
Strand's characters evolve from mutual hatred to grudging respect and even gestures of friendship and equality. (General Butler encouraging the slave to call him "Ben" seems a stretch, but who knows? Maybe he did.) Deftly directed by Joseph Discher, the tale unfolds over an engrossing two hours.
The four-man cast is held over from NJ Rep. (If it ain't broke…) Affecting the real General Butler's half billiard ball, half bushy hair style, Ames Adamson creates a martinet with heart. The portly General is firmly in command, but he's also a good listener, not above accepting an escaped slave's guidance. Adamson, a highly skilled character actor, huffs and puffs when appropriate, but his General knows that a calming glass of sherry can relieve tension…as well as disarm (figuratively) opponents.
Benjamin Sterling is indeed sterling as Lt. Kelly, whose rigid bearing thaws into comradeship; his timing of Kelly's amusing second-act interjections is spot-on. David Sitler plays a Confederate Major who arrives to take the slave back to his owner. The Major could be a caricatured buffoon, but Sitler, whose mutton-chop whiskers are perfection, does not over-act the pompous Major.
John G. Williams is a revelation, enacting Shepard Mallory's combination of arrogance and desperation to a tee. Fearing for his very life, dressed in rags and manacled, the slave maintains his dignity. It's a fine performance.
The wickedness of slavery is communicated without any lurid descriptions or use of language that must have been common in 1861. Who would imagine, for example, that the discovery of a slave's ability to read would be his greatest fear?
At the end of Butler, something mysterious occurs that could not have happened in the time frame presented. Well guess what: that's just what did happen. (File it under 'Good news travels fast'.) Richard Strand didn't invent his plot, but there aren't any new ones anyway. Making imaginary or real characters so sympathetic, so funny and so relevant, is damn good playwriting no matter the source.
The Two River Times: STRUCK
Scene on Stage, by Gretchen Van Benthuysen
July 7, 2016
(Long Branch, NJ) - If you believe everything happens for a reason, you'll feel right at home in the audience of "Struck", advertised as "a serious comedy about a possibly cosmic event" currently receiving its world premiere at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. Written by Sandy Rustin of Maplewood, who's also an actress and co-founder of Midtown Direct Rep (a professional, ensemble-based theater company in residence at the South Orange Performing Arts Center), the unpredictable, thought-provoking work is based on a series of real-life events she experienced.
"Struck" is about Vera (Susan Maris), a New York City actress, who is hit by a cyclist at First Avenue and 14th Street and seriously bruised. Really. The makeup solicits painful sounding "Oohs" from the audience when they see the bruises.
In real life, Rustin also was injured by a cyclist in the East Village which came soon after she was struck twice while driving - first by a garbage truck and second by a negligent driver.
The playwright and Vera both believe there's a reason these incidents happened - someone, something must be trying to tell them something. Right?
Also, both are Jewish and have been affected by news of restitution for art stolen by the Nazis, reunification of families separated during the Holocaust, and a new respect for cultural and religious traditions they kind of neglected as adults.
For any family scattered far from home due to war, politics, famine or flood, Rustin's story should resonate. And, true to the human spirit - particularly, the Jewish spirit - much humor will be found and used as a salve for the pain. "Struck" is like that - an upbeat work filled with laughter before and after a painful, scary, creepy incident.
Vera is married to Nate (Adam Bradley), a divorce lawyer and rational one in the marriage, and they live in an apartment building down the hall from Vicky (Jenny Bacon), a twice-divorced, dippy middle-aged woman from Texas with a foul mouth and hippy wardrobe. The play takes place in 2013.
Matthew Shepard is Bertrand, a long-lost French cousin of Vera's, and Ben Puvalowski plays James, the inattentive cyclist. (Puvalowski, a graduate of the Ranney School in Tinton Falls, is making his NJ Rep debut as he completes his education at New York University. Not a bad summer job.)
The 90-minute play with no intermission moves briskly under the able direction of Don Stephenson. So much so the audience is caught off guard - gasps all around - when everything suddenly goes very wrong. (Sorry to sound cryptic, but to reveal more would spoil the story.)
Before that, though, Vera feels sorry for the "kid" - an art history major at, of all places, New York University - that caused the accident and gives him her address so he can bring her a gift. Vicky thinks she's crazy to invite the (expletives deleted) "bike murderer" stranger into her home. Vera checks his Facebook page and decides it's OK, although he doesn't have a lot of friends. But when James arrives and gives Vera not only flowers but a year's subscription to Ancestry.com, Vicky is immediately won over. "That was strange and awesome," she exclaims.
Bacon is marvelous in her hippy-dippy role. She knows Vera is pregnant before Vera does. She prefers alternative medicine and falls in love with Bertrand before she meets him or hears his delightful French accent. Set by Jessica Park, lighting by Jill Nagle, costumes by Patricia E. Doherty and sound by Merek Royce Press serve the production well.
Front Row Center
Are there really any accidents? STRUCK, the newest world premiere running at the New Jersey Repertory Company, begins with a pedestrian accident – Vera Resnick is hit by a bicyclist while walking in Greenwich Village. But there is nothing pedestrian and nothing accidental about the success of this play, from the usual, meticulous NJ Rep set through the script and direction which give the characters clear, distinct voices – a whirlwind of viewpoints – that their excellent performances eagerly embrace.
There is intrigue. Do "accidental" events have some greater meaning? The quick-paced dialogue surrounds the question. Everyone is somewhat right and somewhat wrong, just like in real life, which we are reminded by events in the play, begins with a miraculous "accident" of sorts.
Vera (Susan Maris) is an actress living on the upper west side with her husband Nate (Adam Bradley), a sensible, divorce attorney who, in lawyerly fashion, has been trained to put evidence before belief. He continually provides evidence for us that he loves his wife. Vera, searching for a larger meaning, is unafraid to pursue it down questionable paths. Vicky (Jenny Bacon), the neighbor, is a Texas transplant, who seems to periodically transport to another dimension. She plays her part with remarkable verve, a wacky catalyst to the verbal action.
James (Ben Puvalowski) is the contrite bicyclist, bearing gifts that temper the unfortunate collision. "Aren't you the surprise of the day?" says an initially skeptical Vicky. And her intuition is right.
Range is the mark of great acting. We first saw Susan Maris at NJ Rep in The Substance of Bliss, where she played a troubled suburban housewife concerned about things that could not be fixed, unlike Vera, intent to find meaning and harmony across time. A perusal of the play notes shows that Jenny Bacon won the standby part of sadistic fan Annie Wilkes in Broadway's recent staging of Stephen King's Misery. I can't think of wider range than between that character and Vicky in STRUCK.
Matthew Shepherd plays Bertrand. But to explain who he is would take the intrigue out of Sandy Rustin's carefully constructed plot which is as expertly developed as her dialogue itself. After all what is a play except a meaningful drama that emerges from a collection of words? This set of words is contemporary, historical, and universal.
A CurtainUp New Jersey Review - Struck
Don't they say once every seven years in New York City something quintessentially New Yorky happens to you? — Vera
As presumably validated by the above quote, 30-something actress Vera Resnick (Susan Maris) has been hit by a young man on a bicycle at an intersection in New York's East Village. Although her legs are badly bruised, she has made it home to her Upper West Side Apartment (credibly designed with usable kitchen and sunken living room by Jessica Parks) where her husband Nate (Adam Bradley) aids and comforts her with hugs and icepacks while also listening to her detailed encounter. A divorce attorney, Nate rationally considers what Vera might do as Vera irrationally babbles on about chance encounters and fate as a viable contributor.
In Sandy Rustin's Struck fate, fortune, new age(y) philosophy, Jewish ancestry and the Holocaust collide with a mix of the hilarious and the horrifying. The appearance of the cyclist James (Benjamin Puvalowski) with a bouquet as an apparent gesture of concern is as surprising as are the unsurprisingly numerous visits to the Resnick's apartment by their kooky middle-aged neighbor Vicky (Jenny Bacon). She is a motor-mouthed woman with questionable psychic abilities and a range of interests that careen between the homeopathic to the metaphysical. On the lookout for a third husband is also on her agenda.
Totally off-the-wall, Vicky is the main source of the play's humor, in as much as a painting that literally is taken off the wall becomes its point of horror. More of the plot, which the playwright has said was inspired by her own being hit by a bike, would be a spoiler.
Those who have seen the recent film Woman in Gold with Helen Mirren, will be additionally intrigued by a plot device that does a double twist on the attempt by Jews to reclaim art stolen from them by the Nazis. At any rate, there are some lively and enlightening encounters between the above characters as well as with a middle-aged Frenchman Bertrand (nicely restrained performance by Matthew Shepard) who enters late during the eighty-minute run time. There's fine acting by Maris, as the hyper-anxious Vera and Bradley as the calming Nate, the play, under the precise direction of Don Stephenson. However, the play gets its most dramatic fuel, however, from Puvalowski as the young man with a mission and from Bacon whose un-moored chattering suggests she may also be unhinged.
Rustin's comedy should find a welcome in regional theaters following this world premiere.
BWW Review: STRUCK at NJ Rep is Engaging and Intriguing
"It feels like the universe is trying to tell me something."
The World Premiere of STRUCK by Sandy Rustin is now onstage at New Jersey Repertory Company (NJ Rep) through July 31st. With meticulous direction by Don Stephenson and featuring a stellar cast, this show is both entertaining and thought provoking. STRUCK strikes the delicate balance between a serious subject and the amusing moments in people's everyday lives.
In STRUCK, Vera Resnick, an aspiring young actress, is struck by James, a bicyclist and NYU student, as she was crossing a busy intersection in lower Manhattan. The accident has surprising consequences that bring Vera and her husband, Nate into an elaborate, clandestine plot. Unexpected revelations about Vera's Jewish family ties come to light at a time when the young couple is looking forward to starting their own family. STRUCK has twists and turns that keep you completely captivated.
The interesting, well-crafted characters are perfectly portrayed with Susan Maris as Vera, Adam Bradley as Nate and Ben Puvalowski as James. Rounding out the cast is Jenny Bacon as Vicky, the Resnick's colorful, new-age neighbor and Matthew Shepard as Bertrand, the French businessman. This remarkably talented troupe delivers a completely genuine portrayal of this intriguing sociopolitical story.
The production team has done a fantastic job of bringing STRUCK to the stage with set design and props by Jessica Parks; technical direction by Brian Snyder; lighting design by Jill Nagle; sound design by Merek Royce Press and costume design by Patricia E. Doherty. Jennifer Tardibuono is the Stage Manager.
Bravo to Executive Producer, Gabor Barabas and Artistic Director, Suzanne Barabas for bringing 20 successful seasons and 112 new works to the Long Branch Stage and making STRUCK available to metropolitan area audiences this summer.
NJ Rep strikes pay dirt with "Struck"
Scene on Stage, by Philip Dorian
The aphorism "There are no accidents" has been variously attributed to Sigmund Freud, Deepak Chopra and Pablo Picasso. Things that occur seemingly by chance are, accordingly then, intended (consciously or sub-), mystically directed, or creative opportunities. Playwright Sandy Rustin's own collision with a bicycle on a NYC street inspired her (a la Picasso) to write "Struck," a play that incorporates both Freud's and Chopra's options. Her play is now world-premiering at New Jersey Repertory Company.
As it begins, sometime-working actress Vera Resnick (Susan Maris) has just been hit by a bicycle at an East Village intersection. Now, having said that much, the question is how much more of the "serio-comedy" to reveal without including spoilers. A bare-bones plot summary is fair game: Visibly bruised, Vera makes it to her Upper West Side apartment where she's comforted by her divorce-attorney husband Nate (Adam Bradley) and fussed-over by her neighbor Vicky (Jenny Bacon), a self-styled mystic.
To assure the biker that she's okay, Vera calls him (they had exchanged info) and soon after, he shows up at the apartment (there'd be no play if he didn't) bearing flowers and a gift subscription to a genealogy-research website. Closing in on spoiler territory here, it turns out there might be a connection between pedaler and pedestrian based on ethnic, political and historical elements. Or maybe not.
Under Don Stephenson's fluid direction, relationships and unexpected occurrences co-exist in the several scenes (over a week or so) without getting in each other's way. What happens to and around Vera and Nate is extreme, but down-to-earth acting lends credulity. The actors Maris and Bradley seem as comfortable together as do their characters. Vera and Nate react to the accident and to other disturbing revelations in realistic terms. Their mutual affection is ingratiating; it's not gooey-written or over-acted. Their patience with their neighbor is saintly; Vicky is an over-the-top, new-agey, 1970s throwback. Ms. Bacon's outré performance conforms to that description.
Benjamin Puvalowski, a New Jersey local, now Drama student at NYU, makes a fine NJ Rep debut as the biker, James, who 'ran into' Vera. (Commenting on James's Facebook pic, Nate says he needs to lose 40 pounds, in which event Puvalowski would disappear.) A fifth character, a French hedge-fund manager, is played by Matthew Shepard (his real name, one must assume). As suave and perfectly accented as he is, I was certain he'd come from France to play the important role. But no; Shepard is a Yank; it's just good acting.
Played out on Jessica Park's finely designed and detailed cozy-apartment set, "Struck" does resort to some heavily-detailed exposition, but overall, the play's activities and motivations make for an engrossing 90 minutes.
Let's Go To The Theater
New Play 'Struck' Explores Questions about Life and Issues from the Past
The New Jersey Repertory Company introduced the play, Struck, on June 30th. Written by Sandy Rustin, Struck is enjoying its World Premiere at the Long Branch theater which continues to produce new, high quality works, providing an entertaining visit to the theater. The play, which is directed by Don Stephenson, has a plot based on actual events that happened to the playwright. It also brings in a topic that was publicized recently in the media about returning artifacts stolen from Jews by the Nazis during World War II.
The events experienced by the playwright took place over a period of several months. Ms. Rustin was struck while in a car several times. It got her thinking about whether the universe wanted her to "wake up and pay attention to something" (quote from an interview in NJJN). The question became does the universe have forces at work or is it just random cells bumping into each other? This question becomes the basis of the action that takes place in Struck when Vera Resnick gets hit by a bicycle on the streets of New York City. She has some bad bruises on her legs and her back is out of alignment, but other than that, she survives very well. So well that she decides to call the man who was riding the bike that hit her. The young man, James, is relieved to hear that she is doing fairly well. He pays her a visit and through several discussions, Vera and James discover they are related. Or so it seems.
The focus of the play then moves from the accident to the topic of artifacts stolen from the Jews by the Nazis. However, to tell how and why that occurs would be exposing too much before seeing the play. Suffice it say that the unfolding of that part of the plot is very well written, very well performed, and a bit startling as it unfolds.
The storyline alone is a good reason to go to see Struck. Add to that a cast that is marvelous playing their roles and you have the makings of a show that is destined to make a name for itself. Susan Maris portrays Vera as a very open minded soul who is willing to get to know people and add them to her life. Maris does a fine job showing how the injuries from the accident have affected her body but not her zest for life which is the key to her happiness. Adam Bradley plays Vera's husband, Nate. He is centered, balanced, and more than willing to do whatever he needs to do to make his wife feel comfortable and safe in their world. He is a devoted husband and his portrayal shows an inner strength of the character that probably helps Vera to be able to do some of the things she does.
The role of Vicky, the neighbor from down the hall, is played by Jenny Bacon. Ms. Bacon has a wonderful sense of comedy and good timing that allows the Vicky character to inject some much needed humor at times. Her work with metaphysics fits in well with the concept of why accidents occur and then she shifts her psychic leanings to focus more on Vera. Special applause go out to Ben Puvalowski whose portrayal of the bicyclist, James, is very convincing. He moves his portrayal of James, a quiet, concerned young man who feels badly about hitting Vera into an entirely different character right before your eyes. This character is not pretty or nice. But he pulls it off well. There is also another character, Bertrand, played by Matthew Shepard, who doesn't come into the action until towards the end of the play. His role provides a marvelous way to tie up loose ends and show the hope for the future for Vera and Nate.
The LINK News
Review: Struck is strikingly goodBy Madeline Schulman
The heroic Holocaust survivor Elie Weisel passed away Saturday, the day on which I attended the premiere of Sandy Ruskin's new serious comedy, Struck. Anti-Semitic memes are easy to find on the internet. These facts are not irrelevant to Struck, which shows that the evils which Elie Weisel devoted his life to battling have not been eradicated, and the effects of the Holocaust are still felt.
Nate (Adam Bradley), and Vera (Susan Maris) Resnick, are charming and good looking. He is a divorce attorney, and she is an actress. Vera is established as being in her mid to late thirties (though Maris doesn't look it), and the Resnicks are thinking of starting a family. They have a warm, loving, functional marriage, which is a pleasure to see on stage.
We meet them entering their Upper West Side apartment in the fall of 2013. Nate is supporting his limping wife, who has been struck by a bike ridden by James (Benjamin Puvalowski), and is sporting some spectacular leg bruises (very effective make-up!). Vera asks Nate to fish her phone out of her purse ("Don't make me go in there!," he jokes) so she can call James and reassure him that she is not going to sue.
Vera looks James up on Facebook, and sees he is an NYU student born in 1993 ("I was already having sex in 1993!", is her reaction, which is how I computed her age).
Nate thinks this is a bad idea, but while he is absorbed in watching Mad Men, Vera makes the call, and soon Vera and her neighbor Vicky are welcoming James into the apartment. Vicky (Jenny Bacon) is a twice-divorced Texan, now into New Age and Buddha ("He's fat, but he doesn't drink.").
The women are happy to meet this mild young man, who comes bearing flowers, a free month's subscription to Ancestry.com, and a wonderful story about tracing a great grandmother thought lost in the Holocaust. Struck once more, this time by James's tale, Vera invites him for Sabbath dinner, an invitation which leads to more striking surprises and events.
Adam Bradley and Susan Maris are great as Nate and Vera, whether he is praising her "no pants" look after the accident or she is trying in exasperation to end a phone call with her mother. Jenny Bacon puts a delightful spin on the trope of the wacky neighbor, and Benjamin Puvalowski successfully portrays the turns of a character we do not immediately know fully. Matthew Shephard, charmingly Gallic, rounds out the cast as a guest.
Struck shows how we can be physically struck in an accident or mentally struck by coincidence. We can be struck by unexpected terror and calamity, but equally by unexpected hope and happiness. People can be lost, but people can be found. We can suffer accidents and loss, but we can be comforted by each other. Struck is funny and thought provoking and (you saw this coming!) strikingly good.
REVIEW: Struck at NJ Rep
NJ Stage, by Gary Wien
Vera (played by Susan Maris) and Nate (played by Adam Bradley) evaluate the situation as she lies on the couch. Her legs are badly cut and Nate gets her ice to help reduce the swelling. As a lawyer, one of his first thoughts involves taking a picture in case they need to sue the bicyclist. Vera not only is against taking the kid to court, she sort of feels sorry for him. In fact, she decides to learn more about the bicyclist on Facebook and finds a rather limiting profile. His lack of friends seems to make her feel even more sorry for him.
"He was born in 1993," said Vera. "I was already having sex in 1993."
"Is that how you measure time?" replied her husband.
Falling somewhere between mystical and flighty, Vera wonders if this might be the universe's way of waking her up. She's an actress, although judging by her upcoming auditions it doesn't seem like she's going places. In her mind, there's some sort of a connection between her and the bicyclist. She decides to call him and invite him to the apartment — something her husband recommended NOT doing and a decision her quirky Texan neighbor, Vicky, could not believe. "You gave the bike murderer your address?" Vicky exclaimed.
Vicky, played by Jenny Bacon, steals nearly every scene she is in. An incredibly quirky, spiritual/mystic type person, she believes Vera is pregnant. This is news to Vera even though her and Nate have been trying. Vicky says she is never wrong about these things and rattles off a few examples. She seems protective of her neighbor and wants to be there when he arrives.
"Do you think he rode his bike here?" asked Vera. "I hope he didn't stop riding his bike because of me. It's so good for the environment!"
"You don't even recycle," said Vicky.
James, the bicyclist arrives, in full bike gear. He is glad that Vicky is doing better and gives her a small gift. It's a free pass to ancestry.com where she can look up and learn about her family's history. Vicky asks if he's ever looked up his own family history, which he had, and she persuades him to tell his story to the two of them.
It's a story that seems very familiar to Vera. In fact, it sounds like her own family's story — one that changed dramatically during the Holocaust. Could James be a missing link in her family's history? You'll have to see the play for yourself. It contains a myriad of twists and turns — many that are completely unexpected — and, with the help of comedy, manages to touch on some very sensitive issues.
NJ Rep has another winner with Struck, a very funny comedy that features an excellent cast behind fine direction by Don Stephenson. Susan Maris and Adam Bradley are wonderful as Vera and Nate, while Benjamin Puvalowski does a terrific job as James. Mathew Shepard is very good playing the straight man in a limited role. And Jenny Bacon's performance is worth the price of admission alone. This is one of those plays in which a supporting actor gets the best material to work with and shines the whole way through.
Highly recommended! Struck runs until July 31 at NJ Rep (179 Broadway in Long Branch, NJ).
PHOTOS BY SUZANNE BARABAS
TRI CITY NEWS JULY 7, 2016
STRUCK AT NJ REP IN LONG BRANCH
By Julie Markoff
LONG BRANCH, NJ - An under-employed Upper Westside theater actress sees (or wants to see) a deeper meaning when she is randomly hit by an NYU student on his bike as he crosses a city intersection. Questions of luck, fate, family and interconnection are brought to the surface by the world premiere of STRUCK, written by Sandy Rustin and currently playing at the NJ Repertory Company in Long Branch.
The feeling that something meaningful and even lucky has happened compels Vera, played by Susan Maris with a lovely mix of innocence and determination, to reach out to the student who accidently hit her. Her neighbor (the hilarious Jenny Bacon) questions the quality of that luck, noting it certainly doesn't compare to when she found an opossum floating in her family pool as a girl. This neighbor drops in to take care of and gossip with Vera. She is quick to pass karmic judgment (good and bad) and assess energy levels of all who cross her path.
Much of the goings on here are successfully played for laughs and a cozy charm. The dialogue is pointed and often witty. But if you see STRUCK, you will certainly be struck by some more surprising moments that want to get at deeper themes around questions of family, shared histories and fate. I found the play less successful at exploring these deeper themes – but it holds the audience's attention and serves up some powerful moments. These twists and turns are well played and have a strong dramatic effect on the course of events – I won't spoil them for you here.
The cast, headed by Susan Maris as Vera and Adam Bradley as her husband Nate, a divorce attorney, are very capable and extremely likeable at playing both the dramatic and comedic moments in the play. Their relationship is persuasive, complete with the casual intimacy, irritation, humor, affection and support that exists between this relatively young married couple. Benjamin Puvalowski, in his NJ Rep debut, strikes the right notes of mystery in his role as James.
The aforementioned Jenny Bacon has a strong presence and natural comedic timing as the well-meaning, "energy reading", but nosy neighbor Vicky. I sometimes wished for more dynamic range in the direction- the quiet moments to play a little quieter, and some more light and space for the humor to breathe- but these are questions of fine-tuning and degrees.
Although the play touches on deeper issues, it isn't fully ready to explore, ultimately, you may be "struck" by this diverting, often witty production playing through July 31 in Long Branch.
Comedy 'Struck' strikes some serious notes at NJ Rep
"It feels like the universe is trying to tell me something," says the central character, Vera, in "Struck," a new play that is currently at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. Vera is a New Yorker who has just been struck by a bicycle on the street; she's bruised, and shaken, but her injuries are not life-threatening.
Vera has a feeling, though, that the incident may be life-changing in some way, particularly since she feels a strong connection to the young student who hit her, and stops by her apartment later to offer his sympathy.
The "accident" does turn out to be more than just an accident, but not in the way that Susan (play by Susan Maris) expects. And that's the best thing about this world premiere play.
This "serious comedy about a (possibly) cosmic event," as it's described in its program, explores a topic — fate — that doesn't figure into many modern plays. Does Vera's feeling that the universe is trying to tell her something result from some kind of boredom, or wishful thinking? When things turn bad for her, does that mean she is just a fool? And when things, later on, work out — almost magically — for the best, does this mean that she was right all along? Or just lucky?
And doesn't all of it reinforce the notion that even if fate exists, it's kind of silly for mere humans to try to figure it out, as it's happening?
Playwright Sandy Rustin and director Don Stephenson wisely leave enough room for audience members to come to their own conclusions, while also touching on other themes involving the subjects of family and religion, and building to an effective, life-affirming ending. Susan's husband Nate (Adam Bradley) provides some much needed grounding, through his skepticism, but I thought the character of the neighbor, Vicky (Jenny Bacon), was excessively wacky to really fit in, in a play that is essentially realistic.
Ben Puvalowski is fine as the student, James, who dominates the play's pivotal scene, as is Matthew Shepard as a character whom I can't say anything about without revealing the second of the play's two major twists — twists that don't just provide a jolt of excitement, as most twists to, but that also ultimately give the play much of its meaning.
BWW Interview: Playwright Sandy Rustin and STRUCK at NJ Rep
STRUCK written by Sandy Rustin will have its World Premiere at New Jersey Repertory Company (NJ Rep) this summer. Directed by Don Stephenson, previews begin on June 30th and the show runs through July 31st. The cast includes Jenny Bacon, Adam Bradley, Susan Maris, Ben Puvalowski and Matthew Shepard.
In STRUCK, Vera Resnick was struck by a bicycle in the East Village. Now she feels a strange and out-of-character connection to the college-aged biker who hit her. Was the collision just coincidence, or did larger forces bring them together? Vera, her husband, and their hippy-chic Texan neighbor, seek truth in the face of deception in this surprising and soulful serio-comedy that explores fate, family and identity. Broadwayworld.com had the opportunity to interview Sandy Rustin about her career and the upcoming show.
Rustin is an actress, playwright, and mom. Her sketch comedy musical about parenthood, Rated P (for parenthood), opened to critical acclaim Off-Broadway and is in development for television. Her full-length comedy, The Cottage, a Reva Shiner Comedy Award Finalist, has been enjoying rave reviews regionally and is currently under option for an upcoming commercial production in New York. Her newest play, HOUSTON, is also in development. Sandy recently guest starred on Comedy Central's, Inside Amy Schumer and regularly appears at New York's The Upright Citizen's Brigade in Gravid Water. She is the Founding Co-Artistic Director of Midtown Direct Rep, an advocate the cowdenfoundation.org and makes a delicious gluten free/dairy free lasagna that her children will actually eat. Rustin is a graduate of Northwestern University. She is represented by Max Grossman at Abrams Artists and Matthew Lefferts at FWR&V.
When did you first realize you had a penchant for comedy?
When I was seven years old, my dad taught me the entire Abbott & Costello Who's on First routine. We memorized it and performed it for my Brownies troupe. I thought it was the greatest thing in the whole world. That was it for me; I was hooked.
Tell us a little about your education/training.
I grew up in Chicago, and took advantage of the Chicago improv comedy scene as a kid, studying at Piven Theatre Workshop and attending shows at Second City. After high school, I attended Northwestern University in Evanston, where I studied acting. During my junior year, I took a semester to study with the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London; that's where I had my first formal playwriting course. The second half of my senior year at Northwestern I spent doing an internship at the incredible Goodman Theatre in Chicago. By the time I graduated college, I was ready to give it a go in the big apple! I moved to NYC a week after graduation, and landed my first job (Sandy in the National Tour of Grease) a few weeks later. (That year on the road was the best grad school I could have asked for!). Since living in NYC, I've continued to learn and train with a variety of amazing teachers, including the amazing improv training and writing program at Upright Citizen's Brigade.
What performers have inspired your career?
Carol Burnett said that "Comedy = Tragedy + Time." I love math and that equation in particular seems like a true stand out. The theatre I am attracted to, the theatre I create, offers a reflection of that equation. When I was a kid, the babysitter was told I could stay up late to watch The Carol Burnett show. Thank goodness. Without Carol, perhaps I never would have learned the equation I spend my life trying to solve. I have always loved Carol Burnett, and continue to admire her and feel inspired by her today. In addition, Nora Ephron has been, and continues to be, a huge source of inspiration for me. She said: "The tragedies of your life one day have the potential to be the comic stories the next." I LOVE THIS SENTIMENT. It's the ultimate in making lemonade outta lemons. I think of this quote every time I sit down to write.
What encouraged you to write STRUCK.
I wrote STRUCK about a month after I was struck by a bicycle on the corner of 14th Street and 1st Ave. At that time, the bike accident was the 3rd intense event in my life, in quick succession, and I found myself wondering about possible deeper, cosmic meaning. At the same time, in the news, there was a lot of talk about the recent return of Nazi looted art work. Jewish families were being reunited with long forgotten, long ago stolen, pieces of art, and I was fascinated by it. Somehow these two subjects got all mixed up in my imagination, and the result was the first draft of STRUCK.
How do you like working with NJ Rep?
Suzanne & Gabe are a gift to the theatre community. They've devoted their lives to developing new works and nurturing new playwrights. It's a total honor to have my new play produced at a theatre that has launched so many wonderful plays.
A little about the cast/creative team of STRUCK.
What a team! I am thrilled to be working with such an incredible, celebrated group of people. Don Stephenson, director, is a force to be reckoned with! I love working with Don, and am thrilled to be collaborating on another new play of mine with him. (We last worked on my play, The Cottage, at Theatre Aspen). The cast is comprised of five amazing performers, two of whom (Jenny Bacon and Matthew Shepard Smith) I know from their involvement in Midtown Direct Rep, the theatre company I co-founded with Jeremy Dobrish in South Orange, NJ five years ago. And actually, I know Jenny from a much much longer time ago, when we were both involved in a summer theatre program at Northwestern when we were students!
For the future?
It's my goal, always, to try to stay in the moment and enjoy the process of whatever I'm working on right now - so for now, I'm just thrilled to have the opportunity to work on and continue to develop STRUCK. But yes ... of course ... it's fun to look towards the future, and there's a lot right now to look forward to! Firstly, a musical I wrote (along with composer/lyricist team Dan Lipton & David Rossmer) called RATED P for PARENTHOOD (which ran Off-Broadway at The Westside Theatre and was subsequently optioned for TV development by ABC Studios and Kelly Ripa & Mark Conseulos) has just been licensed by Miracle or Two Productions, Inc. and is now available for licensing! (And we just released the cast album too!) So that's been exciting! Also, my play The Cottage, has recently been optioned for a commercial production in NYC ~ stay tuned for upcoming news! And my newest play, HOUSTON (a play with music) is in development as well, with some exciting news that will be ready to announce soon.
Anything else, absolutely anything you would like NJ audiences to know.
I'd love NJ audiences to learn more about Midtown Direct Rep - a theatre company comprised of the local Broadway professionals that make Maplewood/South Orange their home. This organization is an incubator of new, innovative works and shares NJ REP's passion for developing new writers and plays. It's exciting to me that the developmental work that MDR provided for STRUCK has resulted in NJ REP's decision to produce the play's world premiere. I love watching the efforts of the NJ theatre community intertwining and supporting each other. It's wonderful!
Jerseyan's play with echoes of the Shoa premieres in Long Branch
New Jersey Jewish News
A month before actress/playwright Sandy Rustin began writing her play STRUCK, she was struck with inspiration — literally. STRUCK will have its world premiere June 30-July 31 at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.
Like Vera Resnick, the lead character in her play, Rustin was hit by a bicycle while walking in Manhattan. The incident left her injured and unnerved, especially since it was the third time she had been struck in recent months, once by a garbage truck that slammed into her rental car, and the other by a negligent driver whose car hit hers.
"I was just doing my own thing when outside force intervened. I felt like the universe wanted me to wake up and pay attention to something," Rustin told NJJN. "Are there greater forces in this universe or just random cells bumping into each other? This play is an exploration of that question."
Around the same time as her accidents, a hot topic in the media was the restitution movement to return artifacts stolen from Jews by the Nazis in World War II. "Both of those things were floating around in my universe, and somehow the two themes came together when I sat down to write," said Rustin, who lives in Maplewood, where she and her husband, Evan Fleischer, a TV and web-content producer, are raising their two young "mensches." The family is affiliated with Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange.
STRUCK is a serious comedy that deals with the search for truth in the face of deception, and the lingering echoes of the darkest moments in history, linking strangers to a Holocaust survivor. "This play definitely has Jewish themes that will resonate with a Jewish audience, but it also has broad appeal for audiences of all backgrounds," the playwright said.
Months after completing the play, Rustin had a chance meeting with a lost relative, similar to the story line in STRUCK. "I was walking down the street when I met a man in his 80s who lives in my neighborhood. It turned out that his grandmother and my great-grandmother were sisters. He and my mother put together a family tree, we shared some Shabbat dinners, and now I have this really wonderful distant cousin I never knew I had," she said.
Rustin grew up in a Reform Jewish home in Glenview, Ill., and spent at least 11 summers at a Jewish summer camp in Oconomowoc, Wis. She moved to New York City after earning a theater degree from Northwestern University and, within a week, landed the role of Sandy in a national tour of Grease. In the 15 years since, she has enjoyed a successful stage career. The descendant of German immigrant great-grandparents, Rustin changed her family name from Kraut to her mother's maiden name after a theater professor suggested that Sandy Kraut might not have marquee appeal.
After her first son was born, Rustin began to focus more on writing than acting. The first show she cowrote, the "sketch comedy musical" Rated P for Parenthood, was produced by Westside Theater in New York, where she had performed for three years in the musical comedy I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change. Rated P for Parenthood is in development for TV with ABC Studios.
Her next play, The Cottage, a British bedroom farce set in 1923, has been playing regionally for a couple of years and was recently optioned to be produced in New York. Rustin is also working on a new play, Houston, about a Jewish girl who falls in love with a Jordanian boy she meets in the bone marrow transplant unit of a hospital in the Texas city.
Last April, Rustin appeared as a guest star on the sketch comedy television series Inside Amy Schumer. She is artistic adviser of Midtown Direct Rep, a professional theater company in residence at the South Orange Performing Arts Center. It includes more than 100 working Broadway actors from South Orange and Maplewood, an area described by The New York Times as "where Broadway comes home to sleep."
Rustin says she is delighted to present STRUCK at New Jersey Rep in Long Branch. "I have done a couple of readings there as an actress," she said. "I think it is an extraordinary theater. Its founders, Gabor and SuzAnne Barabas, devote their entire mission to developing new plays and new playwrights, which is a very brave thing to do in today's theatrical climate."
Local actor in STRUCK
New Jersey Jewish News
BEN PUVALOWSKI, who plays James, the bicyclist who gets the action going in STRUCK, is a local who grew up in Old Bridge and attended Temple Shalom in Aberdeen, where he became bar mitzva and studied through Hebrew High School.
A performing arts student at NYU Tisch School of the Arts, Puvalowski went to Ranney High School in Tinton Falls. He performed in all his school plays since second grade and won a Count Basie Theatre Award for Best Actor his senior year.
"Acting at NJ Rep feels as if I've finally started my life," said Puvalowski. "It is so very important for the culture of Long Branch and New Jersey as a whole, and being a part of that culture feels incredible."
Ranney Grad Ben Puvalowski Makes NJ Rep Debut In STRUCK
New Jersey Repertory Company presents the World Premiere of STRUCK by Sandy Rustin, starring Ranney High School graduate Ben Puvalowski. Ben is currently completing his junior year at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts and is making his debut on NJ Rep stage as "James Bertrand Kuvine".
Ben performed in all his school plays since the 2nd grade and won a Count Basie award in his senior year for "Best Actor". Ben is the lead singer for his band "Little Bear" (formerly "The Idjits") and has performed in New Jersey at The Saint, Brighton Bar, The Stone Pony, Wonderbar and other venues, as well as several in New York City including the iconic, Bitter End.
Most recently Ben appeared in the NYU studio production of The Motherf*cker With The Hat, and was featured in Sissy Man, a short film directed by Joshua Atesh Litle, currently in post-production headed for the Toronto Film Festival.
After being hit by a bicycle while crossing an East Village intersection, Vera Resnick's simple predictable life is about to take an unexpected turn. Is it coincidence that brought Vera and the bicyclist together, or are greater forces at play? STRUCK is a serious comedy about a possibly cosmic event that deals with the search for truth in the face of deception.
The full cast includes: Jenny Bacon, Adam Bradley, Susan Maris, Ben Puvalowski and Matthew Shepard and is directed by Don Stephenson.
Corey Tazmania and Pheonix Vaughn are up to something sneaky in "Villainous Company," the play by Victor L. Cahn now on stage at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. (Photo: Photo by SUZANNE BARABAS)
TOM CHESEK, CORRESPONDENT May 13, 2016
It begins innocently enough, with an awkward encounter between a shopper who apparently left a package behind at the store — and a concerned (perhaps a bit too concerned) shop clerk who volunteers to deliver the blue box to the woman's home on a stormy afternoon. Cherish those opening moments, because they represent the last glimmer of innocence on display in "Villainous Company," the subdued suspenser now onstage at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.
Written as a "a caper for three women" by the actor-playwright and Shakespearean scholar Victor L. Cahn, and presented in a single act at NJ Rep's downtown Long Branch playhouse, the chamber-piece crime drama is not so much a classic caper — its three characters are never exactly working together toward the same nefarious goal — but as a showcase for a trio of capable female players, its opportunities outweigh the generally malnourished (and intentionally vague) script whose central criminal enterprise might have been branded a "MacGuffin" by Alfred Hitchcock.
Taking the reins for the first time here in 2016, company co-founder SuzAnne Barabas directs a small cast highlighted by Rep regular Pheonix Vaughn (so memorable and very visible in last year's "The M Spot") as Claire, a woman whose unspecified journey has evidently taken her from an office-drone existence to a lifestyle of unhurried lunches and upscale shopping; a curiously early "retirement" signified by a sleek and spotless living room that seems more of a gallery or retail establishment than any sort of lived-in space (another super set design by Jessica Parks). A naturally glamorous actor of demonstrated depth, Vaughn imbues her character with a small-town sensibility that pushes against the suburban-sophisticate veneer, and keeps the audience guessing as the play's balance of power shifts and shifts again.
Practically forcing her way into that sterile environment is Tracy (Melissa Macleod Herion), the helpful cashier who very quickly becomes The Thing That Would Not Leave — and whose insistent line of questioning (and alarming degree of familiarity with Claire's shopping habits) makes it abundantly clear that there's much more to this loyal employee than meets the eye. Jamming a rude wrench into her customer's efficient existence, Tracy — if that's even her real name — jackhammers away at the carefully constructed facades of the other characters, even as she bunkers down within her own vault of unreliable claims and inscrutable motives.
When the inquisitive Tracy speaks of the devil — in this case, a Claire acquaintance and "dealer in art and antiquities" named Joanna — the devil appears in the person of Corey Tazmania, here pulling a switch after having portrayed Claire in the 2015 Off Broadway production of "Villainous Company." Possessing her own key to Claire's home — and a relationship with the other woman that can be serviceably summarized as complicated — the coolly take-charge, subtly sinister Joanna is a fine fit for the strengths of this frequent Rep player, whose previous work alongside Vaughn in "The Housewives of Mannheim" helped make that 2009 premiere one of the company's biggest success stories to date (another fine fit: Pat Doherty's stylish costumes, keyed to an ecru-and-black color scheme that gives nothing away).
To detail any more of the plot would require more spoiler than a 1960s muscle car, but ultimately it's best not to dwell on the quicksand foundations of the non-mystery here. Legitimate questions of dramatic logic — such as why Claire doesn't simply shove annoying interloper Tracy back out into the storm after two minutes — are rendered moot by the realization that these characters all have their own (often mind boggling) reasons for doing what they do. Besides, "all is explained" in an arguably unnecessary wrap-up that contributes to the overall "retro" feel of this three-hander thriller.
There's a real sense that Cahn's paper-thin play — based as it is in a seemingly featureless contemporary landscape untouched by current events — might have benefitted tremendously from a relocation to a period "noir" setting, with 1940s fashions, lots of smoking, and our three co-stars channeling that indescribable dark energy dispensed by the most fatale of Hollywood femmes. As it stands, "Villainous Company" offers a teasing glimpse into a brightly lit shadow-world, where three smart, strong bad girls perform — without a cop, a man, or a righteous authority figure in sight — a slowdance of deceit, betrayal, and glossy illusion.
REVIEW: Villainous Company at NJ Rep
NJ Stage, by Gary Wien
The play revolves around Claire (Pheonix Vaughn) - a young, retired single woman who loves to shop and has a collection of fine items in her house. In fact, the living room that forms the setting resembles something out of a retail store with beautiful pieces stored elegantly on shelves. Claire returns home from her latest shopping trip as the plan begins, but as she goes through her packages she realizes one is missing. She instantly phones the store to see if a clerk can locate it for her.
While on the phone, there's a knock on the door. Out of a pouring rainstorm comes the clerk from the store who sold Claire the items. She basically lets herself in from out of the rain and makes herself comfortable. The woman (Joanna) first appears as someone rather obsessed with Claire and her apparent wealth. She thanks her for being so kind to people and compliments her on her wonderful taste in fashion. As she goes on and on, Joanna reveals that she has been keeping a close eye on Claire and her friends that she often meets for lunch. As the conversation progresses, it becomes clear that Joanna is not a crazed clerk after all. She works in security, but for whom?
Joanna presses Claire on the items she purchases, how she manages to acquire the items, and her former employment status.
"Buying and selling is what makes America great," said Claire.
"Do you feel you deserve everything you have?" replied Joanna.
"I don't know if I deserve it, but I'm keeping it," Claire answers.
Apparently, the mall area that Claire often frequents has been the site of many stolen items and Joanna is positive she knows who is behind the thefts - Claire and a particular friend of hers. She goes through Claire's purse, finding nothing. She taunts Claire to open the package she brought from the store, believing it has a connection with the rumors of something big about to go down. Everything from drugs to jewelry to smuggled goods is thrown about.
"Should I have asked you for identification when you came in?" asked Claire.
"Should I ask now?"
"Would you recognize a badge?"
"Then, why bother?"
The two go back and forth, switching from positions of power to weakness. Claire can tell that her guest knows something, but is missing the final pieces of the puzzle. Joanna mentions that they have had their eye on her friend Tracy as well. The two have been followed for quite some time. Joanna rattles off stores they've been too, purchases made, and even what they've ordered for lunch.
Eventually, Claire demands to go through Joanna's purse and checks her identification. She then checks to see if she's wearing a wire. As Joanna stands with her shirt off, Tracy enters the room. With the third member of the cast on board, the mayhem steps up a notch. At this point it is obvious that someone in the room is a thief, but who?
As with the best whodunit type stories, the clues are present the whole way through. The genre works so well because generally the most obvious clues are the ones we're most likely to overlook…
NJ Rep's production stars Pheonix Vaughn (Claire), Corey Tazmania (Joanna), and Melissa Macleod Herion (Tracy). All three actresses are wonderful and the direction by SuzAnne Barbas is perfect. Villainous Company is highly recommended.
In addition to the new production, NJ Rep was celebrating the official closing of their new property (the former West End School) located in Long Branch. The theatre may eventually be leaving its Broadway location, but the plays keep getting better and better.
VILLAINOUS COMPANY by Victor L. Cahn
Reviewed by Michael T. Mooney
New Jersey Repertory Company, Long Branch, NJ
"O most pernicious woman! O villain, villain, smiling, damnèd villain!" ~ HAMLET, Act I Scene 5
Of course, Shakespeare was writing about devious Queen Gertrude, but the description might well apply to all three characters in Victor L. Cahn's new play, VILLAINOUS COMPANY: A CAPER FOR THREE WOMEN now playing at NJ Rep.
While the venerable Long Branch theatre generally births brand new works, Cahn's play is only new to the Garden State, having been seen early last year on New York's Theatre Row. There's even a cast member held over from the off-Broadway outing, albeit in a different role.
The story begins with a happy, smiling Claire (Pheonix Vaughn) returning to her sleek suburban home after a day of shopping when she suddenly realizes one of her packages is missing. Before she can get off the phone with the store, Tracy (Melissa Macleod Herion), a staff member from the shop, appears at her doorstep with the item in tow. Much to Claire's chagrin, Tracy quickly insinuates herself into her home, at first under the pretense of getting in out of the rain, then admiring Claire's meticulously displayed object d'art. It soon becomes increasingly clear that Tracy's mission was not simply to return Claire's package.
Accusations of theft, smuggling, and larceny ensue, even dragging Claire's close friend Joanna into the allegations. It isn't long before Joanna (Corey Tazmania) shows up on Claire's doorstep, completing the villainous company. All three women's painted smiles fade as the plot takes several twists and turns before the ultimate reversal. One of the women ends up smiling again by the final (metaphorical) curtain, but to say too much would spoil the fun of Cahn's 85-minute caper.
Thanks to director SuzAnne Barabas things move along swiftly enough, although not always as convincingly. Cahn's play is built on some pretty implausible logic. You can sense the playwright trying to make his criminal toboggan ride conclude the way he outlined it on paper, despite the characters' lapse in common sense behavior. The cast certainly does amazing work toward making the incredible seem credible. Attractive and impressively talented, each is perfectly suited to their roles in the treacherous trio. Once or twice a moment of overplayed subtext threatens to tip the author's hand about the next hairpin turn, but patrons paying close attention will feel rewarded when the twist finally arrives.
As usual, NJ Rep outfits Cahn's play with exquisite production values; for my money the best on either side of the Hudson. At first, Claire's pristine white living room lined with shelves of glittering collectibles made me think the play might be set in a gallery. The vault-like front door (complete with keypad security system) makes the room resemble the lair of one of Batman's arch villains [tilt your head and squint]. A spotlit wall clock implies that the characters might somehow be racing against time to complete their caper, but this, like the set itself, proves more style than substance. A suitably symbolic thunderstorm with flashes of lightning gives Jill Nagle's lighting design something to do and Patricia E. Doherty's spot-on costumes nicely contribute to the characters' financial status. Joanna's stylish black cowl-collared raincoat made this reviewer smile with envy. As Shakespeare reminds us "one may smile, and smile, and be a villain." Well, at least I'm in good (villainous) company.
The LINK News
Review: Villainous Company at NJ Rep wickedly entertainingBy Madeline Schulman
Two's company and three's a crowd, but three clever women equal Villainous Company in Victor L. Kahn's twisty, amusing play, the latest production at New Jersey Rep.
Jessica Parks's set this time is a sleek suburban living room. The main feature is glass shelving displaying so many objets d'art that the house looks more like a museum. After a nice special effects lightning and rain storm, beautiful, chic Claire (Pheonix Vaughn) enters. She hangs up her rain coat, sets her burglar alarm, and starts to look through her packages. Catastrophe! The most important item is missing!
While Claire is phoning to the store, being shunted from one unhelpful employee to another, her doorbell rings, and there stands Tracy (Melissa Macleod Herion), who has braved the rain to deliver the missing parcel personally. Problem solved – but a bigger problem is beginning.
Tracy makes herself at home without waiting for an invitation. She won't take any suggestions about leaving, and her conversation makes it clear that she has encyclopedic knowledge of Claire's every movement. It appears that Claire has a very dedicated stalker.
To reveal anything that happens after that would spoil the suspense and surprise of the clever plot, except to say that Claire and Tracy are joined by the final member of the trio, Joanna (Corey Tazmania), at a very interesting point in the conversation. Tracy has already name-checked Joanna, who has her own key to Claire's house, so obviously the ladies are important to each other. But is their connection business, social, or some of each?
Long-time New Jersey Rep attendees will recognize the meeting of Pheonix Vaughn and Corey Tazmania as a mini Housewives of Mannheim reunion and will be glad that the chemistry between the two is as strong as before. The three play cat and mouse, but the roles of cat and mouse keep shifting.
All three performers are excellent under SuzAnne Barabas's direction, as Claire changes her demeanor as she reacts to revelations, Tracy goes from helpful to creepy and worse, and Joanna demonstrates that though she is outwardly very cool and composed, you do not want to get her angry. Surprises await till the very end. The company is villainous, but fun.
TRI CITY NEWS May 12, 2016
VILLAINOUS COMPANY: A CAPER FOR THREE WOMEN IN LONG BRANCH
By Julie Markoff
Unexpected twists, surprising character revelations, and an all-women cast of three is part of fun watching Villainous Company, a new play by Victor L. Cahn, currently running (through June 5) at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. This is a diverting and mysterious tale where everything and everyone is not quite what they seem to be, which is part of the point and definitely most of the fun.
I don't want to give away too much of the plot (or any spoilers, natch), but we start the show with the lovely and well-turned out Claire, expertly played by Pheonix Vaughn, as she has returned from a day of shopping, only to discover one of her packages is missing. Just as she is calling the store to inquire after the lost item, her doorbell rings, and Tracy, a sales clerk, played with excellent comic timing and a strong physical presence by Melissa Macleod Herion, has shown up with that forgotten item. Or so it seems. What follows with this female cast of three is a fun twist on a classic drawing room mystery. A Noir, but comic caper.
At first we're not sure if any crime has been committed, then we begin to wonder what crime has been committed, and who if anyone in the room is actually guilty of it. Finally, we're left to wonder who committed which crime, against which character, and whether any of the characters are innocent.
At the end of the first act, we are introduced to a third character, Joanna, played with sexy confidence by Corey Tazmania, and then the complicated dynamics really begin to unfold. As we try to figure out the relationship between all three characters, those relationships keep seeming to shift before our eyes.
The three actresses each hold their own and have a strong grasp of the complicated characters that they are playing-always more than meets the eye. I suspect the playwright is having some fun here with our traditional ideas and expectations about class and power, sex and gender roles. The subtext of the play's often witty dialogue seems to be determining who is the more and less powerful player in any given exchange. Characters take a hold of, enjoy, and give away that power as more of the mystery, and more and more of the twists are revealed to us. Because thsi is an all-female cast, those power dynamics are less obvious, and a lot more interesting than we might usually imagine or expect. And that provides a fresher take on a classic theater trope.
The mod, living room set and class-conscious costuming by Jessica Parks and Patricia E. Doherty, respectively, are fun and on point. The dialogue can be oblique at times, but mostly it is witty and almost arch, delivered by all the actresses with a kind of playful, knowing tone. Under the sure direction of SuzAnne Barabas, and with the help of lush lighting by Jill Nagle, you can imagine a 1940s film Noir set in a modern suburban living room with a cast of women in all the major roles.
At the end of the experience, when all is revealed, you might be tempted to follow the twisted strands backward and see if they add up. I suspect that they do, but in any case, if you choose to spend time with Villainous Company, you'll surely be in interesting company.
Let's Go to the Theater
Corey Tazmania and Melissa Macleod Herion with Pheonix Vaughn looking from behind. Photo courtesy: SuzAnne Barabas
by Karen Nowosad Posted on May 17, 2016
A new play by Victor L.Cahn has opened at Long Branch's New Jersey Repertory Company theater. The title, Villainous Company: A Caper for Three Women, gives some clues to what the play is about but it also can be interpreted in several different ways. The interesting thoughts created by the words used in the title are only a part of what is in store for audiences who see this show because just when you think you've got it figured out, it takes a turn and throws you into an entirely new direction. This ingenious writing style helps make Villainous Company an interesting piece of theater to see.
The story centers on a young woman, Claire, who returns to her home only to realize she left one of her packages back at the store. The room she enters has shelves decorated with beautiful pieces of art, statues, and other precious items. She makes a phone call to a store where she shopped that very day. Claire is certain she left a package with a purchase she made at the cash register and she asks if they have found it. However, they can't seem to find the package and are confused about her purchase. While still on the phone, there is someone at the door named Tracy who works for the very store Claire was calling. She tells Claire she has found the missing item and is there to return it to her.
The story takes on an uncomfortable feeling as Tracy makes her way uninvited into Claire's home. Their discussion is interrupted by Joanna who comes in by using her own key indicating she has some sort of ownership to Claire's home. The three engage in a discussion where eventually Tracy reveals who she really is and by doing so, the other two begin to explain more about themselves. But to say anymore than this would ruin the opportunity to see the plot unfold and to be able to enjoy the twists and turns and surprises it holds.
Corey Tazmania and Pheonix Vaughn Photo courtesy: SuzAnne Barabas Corey Tazmania and Pheonix Vaughn – Photo courtesy: SuzAnne Barabas
The three women are played by Melissa Macleod Herion (Tracy), Corey Tazmania (Joanna), and Pheonix Vaughn (Claire). High praise goes to them for fine acting and to Director Suzanne Barabas for working with Mr. Cahn's well written work to make these characters not only come to life, but to present each one of them as unscrupulous and saving the biggest character surprise until the end. An all woman cast as villains is not something usually seen. This show breaks that tradition quite well.
Corey Tazmania, Pheonix Vaughn and Melissa Macleod Herion Photo courtesy: SuzAnne Barabas
The production team for this show includes Jessica Parks (Set Design & Props), Brian Snyder (Technical Director), Jill Nagle (Lighting Design), Merek Royce Press (Sound Design), Patricia E. Doherty (Costume Design), and Jennifer Tardibuono (Stage Manager).
A CurtainUp New Jersey Review - Villainous Company
And even though I'm not guilty of anything, I don't want some casual remark of mine to end up as part of a criminal investigation. — Claire
As a self-ascribed caper ("a suspenseful game of cat and mouse") Victor L. Cahn's Villainous Company is predictable, obvious, and almost nonsensical but also lots of fun. With its cast of three attractive women, it plays out like a low-budget, bottom-of-a-double-bill B movie from the 1940s. If you overlook the implausibility of each twist of the plot, there is a good time to be had watching three deceptive entrepreneurial schemers outsmart each other and even themselves. Its limited run a year ago on Theatre Row and some positive reviews, including one from Curtainup, has made it attractive to regional theaters such as the New Jersey Repertory Company where it is getting a very fine production.
The audience knows from the get-go that something fishy is going on. Claire's (Pheonix Vaughn) posh living room looks suspiciously less like a home than a high-end boutique with its (too) many shelves displaying expensive looking objects d'art (Craftily designed by Jessica Parks). A former bookkeeper, Claire is presumably now a dealer in art with international connections. Returning home from a shopping excursion to a nearby mall, she realizes she has left her purchase in the store. Soon enough, Tracey (Melissa Macleod Herion), who says she is an employee of the store arrives at the door and hands Claire the package, but also fast-talks her way into the room where it is soon revealed that she is not only an undercover detective but also a smart cookie with her own agenda.
Just as things begin to get a little dicey for Claire, her business associate Joanna (Corey Tazmania) arrives in time to make the situation even more dangerous and potentially explosive. It isn't so much the careful exposure and unraveling by Tracey of a criminal enterprise that entertains but rather the interplay and the relationships between the women that fascinate.
The excellent acting, under the snappy direction of Suzanne Barabas, makes the eighty minutes fly by. Vaughn has a juicy transition to make as Claire, who slowly evolves from the innocent if not-quite-dumb blonde into a defensive, nerve-wracked victim. Herion is terrific as the slippery-to-a-fault undercover detective who firmly believes she is outmaneuvering her target. Tazmania brings a tough edge to the guarded Joanna who is not above resorting to a little roughhouse. An element of terror is introduced as is also a little sex among partners.
So while we watch the twists with a raised eyebrow and don't necessary buy into all the business, be it art or monkey, Villainous Company is certainly an enjoyable diversion from possibly other kinds of company.
Front Row Center
Who are you and why are you here? This question forms by turns in each character's mind as the dialogue advances through VILLAINOUS COMPANY. This is a play made up of words. Isn't every play? Yes, but more so this one, because not only are the actors playing roles, so are the characters who conceal and reveal themselves through words.
It all begins with a seemingly helpful gesture — a concerned store clerk returns a package mistakenly left behind. That she overstays her welcome is the first of many clues that what we are about to experience is a series of undoings. Characters present themselves and then through conversation undo the presentation. Is the package really something that was left behind? Is the elegant apartment into which the "clerk" brought the "missing" package really a place to live, or is it something else?
So the play proceeds, or better said, unfolds. It's like a brand new shirt. The words remove the tissue paper in which it's wrapped. The words pull out the pins at the top and bottom of its rectangular shape. The words remove the cardboard backing and the support beneath the collar. The words unfold the sleeves. And when it's all undone, you hold it up, and it's not a shirt at all.
I don't think it's a reviewer's job to retell the story, especially when the plot is full of intrigue. Rather, it's to serve as a guide, like the cautionary label on the inside of the shirt: "Handle with care. Pay attention to every word. Watch the body language and how it modulates as the characters morph into themselves and the surprise ending unfolds."
Melissa Macleod Herion plays Tracy the store clerk with deductive gifts and an ambitious idea. Corey Tazmania, who starred in The Realization Emily Linder on this same stage, gives us the single-minded no-nonsense Joanna. Pheonix Vaughn, who we first saw at NJ Rep in The M Spot is Claire, the sophisticated shopper who has misplaced a package. Together they remind us how unstable the number three is at any stage or walk of life, how it teeters on the edge of betrayal and makes sparks fly.
BWW Review: VILLAINOUS COMPANY is an Intriguing New Show at NJ Rep
New Jersey Repertory Company (NJ Rep) continues its successful season with VILLAINOUS COMPANY through June 5th. Written by Victor L. Cahn, this clever new play enjoys the inspired direction of the theater's Artistic Director, SuzAnne Barabas. The show is an absorbing depiction of a mysterious caper and the women behind it.
In VILLAINOUS COMPANY, Claire, a chic young woman, frequently visits The Center mall to make extravagant purchases. After a shopping trip, she discovers that one of her parcels is missing and phones the store. Unexpectedly, a shop employee and security person, Tracy arrives at her home to return the item and stays an uncomfortably long time to interrogate Claire. The plot thickens when Claire's friend Joanna, who deals in expensive art and artifacts, stops by. The story takes interesting twists and turns as clandestine maneuvering leads to shocking consequences.
The talented cast masters the intrigue of VILLAINOUS COMPANY and the play's fast-paced dialogue. The show stars Phoenix Vaughn as Claire; Melissa Macleod Herion as Tracy and Corey Tazmania as Joanna. Each of them captures the distinctive personalities of their characters.
The NJ Rep Production Team brings VILLAINOUS COMPANY to life with set design and props by Jessica Parks; technical direction by Brian Snyder; lighting design by Jill Nagle; sound design by Merek Royce Press and costume design by Patricia E. Doherty. Jennifer Trardibuono is the Stage Manager.
VILLAINOUS COMPANY is a suspenseful and captivating show. Mystery lovers and many more will enjoy visiting NJ Rep during their spring season to see this well staged escapade come to life on the Long Branch Stage.
Corey Tazmania, Pheonix Vaughn (rear) and Melissa Macleod Herion have the key to a larcenous scheme in "Villainous Company," the play by Victor L. Cahn opening May 7 at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. Photo by SUZANNE BARABAS
TOM CHESEK, CORRESPONDENT May 6, 2016
It's subtitled "A Caper for Three Women;" a "suspenseful game of cat and mouse" that substitutes an upscale suburban living room for a crime gang's basement lair — and that concerns itself more with chipping away at carefully constructed public facades, than crashing through walls with thermal lances and jackhammers.
As Victor L. Cahn explains it, "Villainous Company" is very much "a chamber play" — the kind of affair that places a small group of characters within a confined space, and that has them "discover things about each other as they get to talking among themselves." In an age when an epic break-in can be perpetrated from a laptop hack, it's the playwright's intent to show that an intimate gathering of not-necessarily-friends can have all the potential for oily alliances, duplicitous double-crosses and cagey cunning that you'd find in the most grandly executed Hollywood "heist" scenario.
And, while it might not boast the Oscar-party starpower of one of Danny Ocean's outlandish capers, the play that opens this weekend at New Jersey Repertory Company carries on a recurring theme put forth by the Long Branch theater in such previous offerings as "Nobody's Girl," "Admit One" and "Closure" — the sense that nothing or no one is quite what it seems, and that as innocent a gesture as returning a forgotten package can serve as a springboard for the kind of twisted tale that explores our collective capacity for subterfuge, chicanery, and outright evil.
It's just such a device that kicks off "Villainous Company," a rainy-day encounter in which a curiously comfortable former bookkeeper has an extended conversation with an unnaturally helpful employee of the department store where she'd been shopping earlier that afternoon. Add the arrival of a purported friend from the always above-board world of art dealers, and you've got a three-hander thriller of which Cahn explains, "I started with a premise; I kind of knew where it was leading...and the characters, once they got to talking, helped me to find the play in the middle of it all."
A Professor Emeritus at Skidmore College in upstate New York, and the author of five books on William Shakespeare, Cahn was present for many of the rehearsals at NJ Rep, finding the environment "a very sympathetic place for a playwright to work in...I try not to intrude; I'm here if someone has a question about a line, but I'm always impressed when an actor and director can take those words on a page and find something there that I didn't see."
Artistic director SuzAnne Barabas helms a cast that includes two veterans of many an acclaimed NJ Rep production — Corey Tazmania and Pheonix Vaughn, who previously shared the stage in one of the company's biggest successes, "The Housewives of Mannheim" — along with Rep newcomer Melissa Macleod Herion. As Claire, Tazmania returns to the role that she originated when "Villainous Company" played an Off Broadway engagement in early 2015.
"When you send a play out into the world, you trust that it will be in good hands...and this is a very talented group," observes Cahn, an essayist, educator and occasional novelist who tried his hand at being a stage actor in his mid-forties — and who, when not appearing in one of his own works ("Roses in December," "Embraceable Me," and the one-man show "Sherlock Solo"), has enjoyed performing as everything from Felix in "The Odd Couple" to the sinister spouse of "Dial M for Murder."
"Despite my gentle demeanor, I make a good stage villain...maybe because of the arrogance that comes from running a classroom," he says with a laugh. "For what I do, I think I've been successful...I'm having much more fun than an old man should have."
BWW Interview: Playwright Victor L. Cahn and VILLAINOUS COMPANY at NJ Rep
New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch will presents the new play, VILLAINOUS COMPANY by Victor L. Cahn. The cast includes Melissa Herion, Corey Tazmania and Pheonix Vaughn. The show is directed by the company's Artistic Director, SuzAnne Barabas. Performances will begin Thursday, May 5th and continue through Sunday, June 5th. Broadwayworld.com had the opportunity to interview playwright and actor, Victor L. Cahn about his fascinating career and the upcoming show.
In VILLAINOUS COMPANY, When Claire returns home from an afternoon of shopping, she discovers one of her packages is missing. Just as she is calling the store, an employee stops by to return the item, then manages to invite herself inside. Before long, larceny and trickery abound as the two women, soon joined by a third, compete in a suspenseful game of cat-and-mouse.
What was your earliest interest in writing and theatre?
For as long as I can recall, I've enjoyed dramatic presentations, whether on stage, on television, or in film. I began writing scripts when I was an undergraduate at Columbia, and after one of my plays was produced there, I was hooked, and have been turning out material ever since.
Where have you taught, and what works have you written beside plays?
I've spent my professional life teaching English: first at prep school (Mercersburg, Pomfret, Phillips Exeter), then at college (Bowdoin and thirty-two years at Skidmore, from where I recently retired). While completing my doctorate (at NYU) and thereafter as an instructor, I specialized in dramatic literature, and among my fifteen books are five on Shakespeare and one each on modern British playwrights Tom Stoppard and Harold Pinter. My output also includes Walking Distance: Remembering Classic Episodes from Classic Television, the memoir Classroom Virtuoso, and two novels, as well as articles and reviews in such varied publications as Modern Drama, The Literary Review, The New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education, andVariety.
Tell us about your other plays and about your experience as an actor.
My writing for the stage encompasses more than a dozen plays that have been either produced, published, or both.The most frequently presented are ROSES IN DECEMBER (a mystery-romance in letters), FIT TO KILL (a thriller), and EMBRACEABLE ME (a romance), all published by Samuel French. I've also written two plays about academia, A DISH FOR THE GODS and SHEEPSKIN, which may be found in a single volume from Steele Spring Stage Rights. About twenty years ago I began appearing onstage, and since then I've taken dozens of parts with theater companies throughout the Capital Region of New York. Despite being a gentle soul in real life, I'm often cast as a villain, but I've also served on the right side of the law, and my résumé includes roles in works by Shakespeare, Pinter, Coward, Christie, Ayckbourn, Simon, Gurney, and Knott. I like to think that acting has complemented my playwriting as well as my teaching by deepening my understanding of how a script may be developed and refined, and how actors, directors, and technical artists all can contribute to the creative process.
Do you have a play of yours of which you're especially fond?
Were I to choose a single play that embodies my career, I'd select SHERLOCK SOLO, subtitled "An Original Presentation by the Master Detective." I created this one-man show about my favorite character in fiction with the intention of performing it myself, and eventually I had the good fortune to do so Off-Broadway. This production also allowed me to play the violin, Holmes's instrument in the original Conan Doyle stories, and the one I've studied all my life.
What writers or genres have inspired you?
The playwright who has influenced me most is no doubt the aforementioned Harold Pinter, about whose works the term "comedy of menace" was coined. Many of his plays feature minimal plot and only a few characters in a sparsely furnished room, but amid taut dialogue and judicious silences he evokes extraordinary tension. I'm also an aficionado of stage thrillers, that singular form in which the audience understands from the start that they are engaged in a battle of wits with the playwright, whose challenge is to fool them without benefit of camera tricks or other gimmicks.
Tell NJ Audiences a little about Villainous Company at NJ Rep.
VILLAINOUS COMPANY is virtually unique to the thriller/mystery genre in that the cast is comprised solely of women, and the story involves neither romance nor violence. I've labeled the piece "a caper" to suggest that although the plot concerns criminal activity, the tone is generally light, so that audiences will, I hope, find the show enjoyable as well as intriguing.
How do you like working with NJ Rep?
I'm honored that New Jersey Rep has chosen my play for its 2016-17 season. Even in the early days of rehearsal, I appreciate the care and dedication with which the group works, and I look forward to seeing the final product.
BWW Review: FOR WORSE at NJ Rep is an Enthralling Must-See Play
"Affairs don't just happen, you make them happen." --For Worse
New Jersey Repertory Company (NJ Rep) is presenting the World Premiere comedy For Worse by Deborah Rennard, directed by Evan Bergman. The show is on a limited engagement through April 10th. It is a must-see show, totally enthralling and very authentic. This wonderfully crafted play is perfectly staged and will remind you of why you love to go to the theatre. It's an opportunity to experience a story about the human experience that is witty, thoughtful and and smart.
In For Worse, Peter and Karen have been married for nearly thirty years, are the parents of three adult daughters and also business partners in a renowned art gallery. When Peter breaks the news to Karen that he is having an affair with a much younger woman, he thinks she will end their marriage. But she vows to forgive him. Peter's problems are compounded by the fact that his mistress, Lucia demands that he leaves Karen immediately. Peter and Karen take time to explore the motives for Peter's infidelity. Could it have been Karen's devotion to her daughters, their lifestyle choices or a waning sex life? As the plot unfolds, we learn that Peter's philandering was not uncommon and Karen has some confessions of her own.
NJ Rep has assembled a stellar cast for the show. They include Kristin Griffith as Karen; Ed Kershen as Peter; Daniela Mastropietro as Lucia and Angie Tennant as Ashley. They are all so convincing in their roles, the scenes come to life before your eyes and keep you engrossed in the intense, often comical situations.
The NJ Rep Design team has once again done a fantastic job of bringing For Worse to the Long Branch stage with set design and props by Jessica Parks; technical direction by Brian Snyder; lighting design by Jill Nagle; sound design by Merek Royce Press and costume design by Michael Bevins. Jennifer Tardibuono is the Stage Manager.
For Worse is a wholly relatable, remarkably entertaining piece of theatre about a marriage that is hanging in the balance. It talks about love, duplicity and the complexity of the choices people make. Married couples and many more should see it while it is on the Long Branch Stage. This play is sure to go far.
The LINK News
Theater Review: Say I do to a chance to see 'For Worse'By Madeline Schulman
For Worse, the extremely funny play by Deborah Rennard having its world premiere at New Jersey Rep, starts just after Peter Richards (Ed Kershen) has informed his wife Karen (Kristin Griffith) that for the last two (or is it three?) years he has been having an affair. Daniela Mastropietro and Ed Kershen in 'For Worse' (SuzAnne Barabas photo) Peter's rationale for confessing is that he doesn't want to hurt Karen any further, because he loves her. And well he should, because not only do they have 30 years of marriage, three grown daughters, and a successful art gallery between them, but Karen is a lovely, elegant, intelligent, age-appropriate partner. Moreover, she is magnanimously forgiving, willing to pardon Peter and work things out.
This does not suit Peter at all! His plan was to get Karen to throw him out because his hot, beautiful, 26-year-old Italian-French girlfriend Lucia (Daniela Mastropietro) is impatiently waiting for him to leave Karen and fall permanently into Lucia's arms. However, his increasingly hilarious efforts keep failing.
At last, Karen is driven to rage after realizing Peter is in touch with Lucia even as he is talking with his wife. She intercepts his phone and incredulously reads one of Lucia's messages: "I want to duck you to death." "Auto-correct," Peter sheepishly explains. The ensuing fight leads to some surprising and entertaining consequences, including a three way confrontation during which Peter worries that behind her veneer of civilization Karen is putting arsenic in his tea.
The fourth member of the excellent ensemble is Angie Tennant as Ashley, Peter's intern at the gallery. Ashley is a pretty 22-year-old (no surprise, considering she works with Peter) and I wish she had more to do.
Mixed with the farcical arguments, overheard conversations and other surefire stuff of comedy are serious, tender scenes. Peter lies to every woman in his life (Lucia learns under the worst circumstances that he has shaved seven years off his alleged age), but he has a sweet side, as Karen recalls when reminiscing about the care he took of their premature daughter. The characters are complex. Wronged Karen has secrets and regrets of her own, and Lucia has more depth than just a home-wrecker. Under Evan Bergman's direction, the actors bring out the nuances amid the laughter.
The set by Jessica Parks nicely invokes the living room and kitchen of a West Village brownstone, plus a scenic bonus in the second act. The costumes (Michael Bevins) clearly delineate the three female character's ages and statuses.
Peter and Karen find that marriage is for worse as well as for better, but the audience to their story is in for an unequivocally better time.
Front Row Center
The funny thing about love is the funny turns it takes. That's the unavoidable truth at the heart of FOR WORSE – the current world premiere to come out of The New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.
FOR WORSE could hardly be better at what it does best – fleshing out both meanings of that word "funny" — capturing the curious twists of life while making us laugh at our own predicament, man or woman.
Peter (Ed Kershen) and Karen (Kristin Griffith) have been married for 30 years. They are the parents of three grown daughters. The play opens with Peter confessing to a prolonged indiscretion that escalates as the action unfolds. Karen takes his revelation the wrong way, or at least a way that Peter finds completely unexpected. In the next 90 minutes the characters repeatedly create and defeat expectations for each other through the playwright's careful, comedic dialog that will have you laughing out loud and smiling quietly at the familiarity of it all. The plot brings Lucia (Daniela Mastropietro), Peter's sexy art student mistress, into the home he shares with his wife. That home is expertly rendered in the usual NJ Rep fashion, with works of art appropriately on the walls. Peter and Karen are the owners of a successful art gallery.
Lucia is impatient with Peter for his inability to separate from his wife. "What kind of man are you?" she asks in her irresistible Italian accent. The same thought is in Karen's mind as she tries to process the very real appearance of the 26-year old woman, "younger than our oldest daughter."
From there, the plot is a string of clashes between pairs of points of view driven by differences in gender, age, and station just like what we encounter repeatedly in our own lives. But here it's almost always funny.
The direction cleverly shows us Lucia and a fourth character, gallery assistant Ashley (Angie Tennant) off-stage during cell phone calls before they actually materialize for Karen and Peter. We're reminded of the dramatic possibilities our hand-held devices offer every day.
FOR WORSE is not all laughs, though. If betrayal is the unfortunate side of any relationship, it can also have its fortunate outcomes when it leads the participants to reflect on their own lives, to speak the unspoken, to realize themselves. So we have Karen articulating something that Peter and many of us of either sex may have never heard in quite this way, about how the appearance of children can alter the relationship between husband and wife. Or Peter's insightful explanation of why men may do what they do because they too crave the feeling of desirability that the world naturally offers an attractive woman by her mere presence. These observations rise to the level of wisdom.
Kristin Griffith is perceptive as the stalwart wife with secrets of her own. She is exceptionally good at letting us see realizations transform her from one moment to the next. Ed Kershen, as Peter, confesses that men are adolescents, and he plays the part well, but he also wins our sympathy. Daniela Mastropietro as Lucia is in the lucky position of being dealt a show-stealing hand, and she plays every card. Angie Tennant as Ashley is innocent and sweet as she is described, yet she, too, has her moment.
FOR WORSE runs through April 10. See it.
Ed Kershen and Kristin Griffith star in "For Worse" (Photo: COURTESY OF SuzAnne Barabas)
The framework of a long-running (and fast-fading) heterosexual marriage in crisis is a well from which New Jersey Repertory Company has drank for nearly all of its most recent premiere productions. Two of those offerings — January's "The Substance of Bliss" and the Michael Tucker-Jill Eikenberry vehicle "The M Spot" — were ably realized by Evan Bergman, who returns to the director's chair for his second project (and his 10th overall) at the Long Branch playhouse, with the world premiere engagement of Deborah Rennard's "For Worse."
Just when you might reasonably expect that the well had run dry, Bergman and a company of four actors — all of them newcomers to the NJ Rep stage — reinforce the notion that there are as many different ways to screw up a matrimonial partnership as there are lies to be told. The production that opened on March 12 marks the first fully staged script from Rennard, the actress, producer and singer tagged for all time as J.R. Ewing's faithful secretary "Sly" on the Nielsen-ruling TV series "Dallas."
Set in a Woody Allen-esque New York of well-to-dopeople, "For Worse" hits the ground running. It begins in the immediate aftermath of Peter Richards (Ed Kershen) having revealed to Karen, the mother of his three daughters and his spouse of some 29 years (Broadway veteran Kristin Griffith), that he's been cheating on her for the past four years with Lucia (Daniela Mastropietro), a 26-year-old French-Italian art student who's waiting on the other end of a cell phone for Richard to make good on the promise of a quick breakup and European getaway.
Daniela Mastropietro and Ed Kershen in a scene from Daniela Mastropietro and Ed Kershen in a scene from "For Worse." (Photo: COURTESY OF SuzAnne Barabas)
That intended dash out the door quickly bogs down in some unexpected quicksand, however, when Karen throws him a curveball — saying, in effect, that she won't let him walk out of her life so easily; that "we can work on this." Further complicating things are the attempts of the young and somewhat overwhelmed gallery assistant Ashley (Angie Tennant) to deal with some workplace problems in the boss' absence — and the fact that Richard and Karen's emotional confrontation somehow leads to what is likely the greatest sex of their married life.
The complications don't end there either, as Karen demonstrates that Richard doesn't hold a monopoly on secrets and late-innings confessions. An understandably impatient Lucia shows signs of ulterior motives, even as she's blindsided by the suspicion that she's being played in turn. Firm vows and promises devolve into sheepish fibs, cover-ups, backtracks and panicky cell-phone calls made during fake cigarette breaks. Deeply held beliefs are shaken to their core, and somebody, it seems inevitable, is going to wind up in the hospital.
Lies — the ones we spin on ourselves, our closest soulmates, our passing acquaintances — are imprinted on the DNA of a script that, curiously enough, could be viewed as a meditation on conscience and honesty. After all, this is a study of two people in a confessional mood; people who are ultimately very forthcoming (if, granted, a little off in the timing) with each other. But while it draws from the tried-and-true playbook of sneaking spouses and double-life duplicity, the difference between "For Worse" and a classic door-slamming farce is that here the doors remain ajar (even taken off their hinges), and every last little secret thing is ultimately laid out in the open.
It's all presented with a largely light touch by Rennard, a playwright just beginning to establish her voice, even as it works to avoid becoming a collection of Neil Simon one-liners. There are moments in the play that could probably benefit from a punched-up comic approach — and while the production remains well-acted and handsomely designed (Michael Bevins, a costumer new to NJ Rep, turns in some super work here), there's even a sense that it would work equally well as a two-hander.
This highly competitive game is ultimately Karen's and Richard's to win or lose — and Kershen and (especially) Griffith step up in a way suggesting that they will somehow never be far from each other's thoughts and hearts, for better or ... well, you get the drift.
As secretary to the infamous J.R. Ewing, Sly Lovegren (played by Deborah Rennard) watched her boss's marriage to Sue Ellen end in divorce – not once, but twice. During her tenure at Dallas's Ewing Oil, Sly's own marriage came to an end. In 2012, Rennard's union to Oscar-winning screen writer Paul Haggis was also dissolved. Safe to say that Deborah Rennard knows a thing or two about marital strife. Now, Rennard the actor has made the sly transformation to Rennard the playwright with her first fully staged script FOR WORSE, now playing at NJ Rep in Long Branch.
Ed Kershen and Kristin Griffith
The title alone should give ticket buyers a clue as to the sort of play Rennard has written. As the lights go up, Karen Richards (Kristin Griffith) is hearing from her husband Peter (Ed Kershen) that he's been having an affair. The 50-something couple are successful gallery owners and art collectors with adult children. Peter soon discloses that he's been having an affair with 26 year-old Italian artist Lucia (Daniela Mastropietro). Almost inexplicably, and much to Peter's chagrin, Karen is in a forgiving mood and is ready to work through this blip on their matrimonial radar. Karen is not the sort to fail at anything – let alone marriage. Peter, however, has other plans; plans which may or may not also include Ashley (Angie Tennant), his obviously incapable young gallery assistant.
Rennard has taken to heart the sage advice often given to new writers to "write what you know." Her characters and dialogue have a nice mix of comic and dramatic moments. While the play rarely sheds any new light on the "for worse" part of the marriage vows, it certainly presents the situations convincingly and with plenty of entertainment value. Rennard is massively helped by the exquisite production supplied by NJ Rep.
The show's greatest asset is Kristin Griffith as Karen. While the play occasionally drifts, Griffith is continually engaging and watchable. As Rennard's surrogate, she had better be. As talented as he is, Ed Kershan's Peter can do little to avoid becoming the evening's hapless schmuck. Rennard's feelings about cheating husbands are all too clear. Lucia and Ashley, the other women in Peter's life (and Rennard's narrative), are capably played by fiery Daniela Mastropietro and quirky Angie Tennant, although there's the nagging feeling that these women might be best relegated to off-stage characters – especially the fumbling Ashley. Director Evan Bergman nicely keeps things as balanced and as brisk as possible.
NJ Rep's production values only get better and better – which bodes well for their eventual move to their new (larger) home at the nearby West End Arts Center. Set designer Jessica Parks' West Village Brownstone is picture perfect, with lots of art pieces on hand to remind you of the characters' professional lives.
If you are one who drools over fashionable handbags and shoes, FOR WORSE showcases some really noteworthy accessories smartly selected by costume designer Michael Bevins. With each new world premiere NJ Rep enters into a sort of marriage with its playwrights, creating a partnership that can end for better, or for worse. In this case, the result is clearly the former.
Michael T. Mooney
'For Worse' develops its story through strong dialog
Plays that contain funny, clever dialog are a pleasure to go to see. In many ways, good dialog is an art form in itself. If that is something that you enjoy, then make sure to get down to Long Branch to see "For Worse." This play, written by Deborah Rennard has some very good dialog. Some of it is funny and some of it provides strong insights into lifestyles and the characters. "For Worse" is a smooth, easy to watch offering from the New Jersey Repertory Company. It will run through April 10, 2016, so there is still time to get to see it.
Directed by Evan Bergman, "For Worse" is the story of a husband/wife team who have been married for 30 some years. They are together a lot because they co-own an art gallery. The wife, Karen, gave up her career as an artist/painter when she married Peter. It seems like all is running fine with their lives at first until the dialog really begins to work its magic.
The many laugh out loud moments begin when Peter has trouble with his mistress/girlfriend texting and calling him on his cellphone. He has promised her he is going to end his marriage to Karen that very night and be with her by the end of the night. What he does not anticipate is that his wife is willing to forgive him and work on the marriage. He then has a distressed girlfriend to deal with and a wife who is a bit puzzled that she didn't know this affair had been going on for almost three years. But she will stick with him even though she suspects that the young lady he has hired to work in their gallery might have been hired for reasons other than her work. But the girlfriend doesn't know about that.
There are so many humorous exchanges that keep this play moving at a good pace, but there are a few moments that stand out. One takes place in a hospital after a very critical moment in Peter's life. With him is his devoted wife of 30 years, Karen, helping to take of him. He seems to have come to a revelation about his life as he professes his love for her. However, the follow up to that has him declaring he has decided how he wants to live the rest of his life. Wait for it, ah, it will surprise you.
But the most revealing line of the show is spoken by the wife at the very end. It isn't humorous and this writer won't reveal what it is. It brings every aspect of the marriage of Peter and Karen together in a final neat bow. That's how important what she says is. And chances are good that women who were raised in the same age as wife Karen was will be able to relate to the thought process that was behind it and will find themselves nodding their head in silent recognition. Note the word recognition rather than agreement is used here.
And so it goes. And it goes in a very funny format with a lot of action that comes in to shift the plot around and make it go into new directions filled with insights from a playwright who has a lot to give to the theater community. "For Worse" provides its audience with good action and dialog but also some very fine acting from a group that has been well cast for their roles.
A CurtainUp New Jersey Review - For Worse
It's my fault. — Karen
Deborah Rennard has had, a fully engaged career in show-business, films and is probably most noteworthy for her decade-long run as "Sly" Lovegren on the hit TV series Dallas. She is bringing a sharply funny tone and a bittersweet edge to her marriage-gone-awry comedy For Worse having its world premiere at the New Jersey Repertory Company.
It is apparently no secret that her play is loosely inspired by her former marriage to high profile Hollywood producer/screenwriter/director Paul Haggis, who was visible at the premiere. Rennard has been able to look back and take considerable liberties in order to see the humor behind the humiliation and devastation of a marriage that crumbled despite her best efforts.
Like many fierce but just as often futile battles between the sexes, there is an element of perverse pleasure that comes with watching this tragi-comical play with its rounds of shouting (mostly from her) and the outrageous excuses and explanations (mostly from him), as they process the possible end of their 30-year marriage, their partnership in an art gallery, and raising three now adult daughters.
The action begins in their West Village brownstone whose walls are filled with priceless paintings. Set Designer Jessica Parks cleverly evokes this and other locations.
The play uses a formula that is more European than American in style as it recalls a genre of Italian film comedies popular in the 1960s and 1970s — often directed by Vittorio De Sica and usually starring Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni. In them, the devoted and forgiving wife has to make a stand against her charming but philandering husband and his long-time mistress. What passes for acceptable and amusing in Italy and France has always been far less so in America. But Rennard has made it funny for Americans. Go figure.
Yes, there is a mistress to be considered and who makes an appearance with plenty to shout about. She is Lucia (Daniela Mastropietro), a leggy twenty-six year old art student who has been having an affair with Peter for three years. He has evidently promised Lucia that he will tell Karen of their affair with the hopes that he will we thrown out. But, there is also Ashley (Angie Tennant) one of Peter's also devoted and pretty employees to consider since she has assumes that she is Peter's secret lover. What makes it all funny is how Peter gets away with his philandering being a short, rather plain-looking schlemiel (think Woody Allen) who hopes that admitting his affair is all he has to do to end the marriage and who's not above having a little sex with his wife during the course of their bruising discourse.
Karen loves Peter and is fixated on keeping him. She uses "We're going to get through this" like a mantra and it becomes funnier with each round. We know we are in farce-land when an unexpected incident becomes an excuse for a hilarious meeting of all the injured parties.
Rennard uses quick, snappy, unpretentious dialogue and the absurdity of an increasingly convoluted situation to frame the age old survival of the fittest theme. Under Evan Bergman's firm direction, Griffith gives as much as she gets as the scorned but resilient Karen. As Peter, Kershen is an unassumingly funny cross between Casanova and Casper Milquetoast. He certainly deserves the blowback he gets from the women in his life. I suspect that For Worse has a future that could conceivably be For Better.
Photo Flash: Inside Opening Night of FOR WORSE at NJ Rep
It was a star-studded opening night for the cast and crew of FOR WORSE by Deborah Rennard at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.
The new comedy about love and marriage stars Kristin Griffith, Ed Kershen, Daniela Mastropietro and Angie Tennant and is Directed by Evan Bergman, now playing through April 10th.
Actress-turned Playwright Deborah Rennard starred alongside Larry Hagman in the 1980's hit TV drama, "Dallas", as his trusty secretary 'Sly Lovegren'. Lending support to his former wife, Paul Haggis was in attendance for the show's open Saturday.
Paul Haggis is the award-winning filmmaker who, in 2006, became the first screenwriter to write two Best Film Oscar winners back-to-back - "Million Dollar Baby" (2004) directed by Clint Eastwood, and "Crash" (2004), which he directed and won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. The film also received an additional four nominations including one for Haggis' direction.
Also, lending support to his wife Kristin Griffith, Actor Peter Maloney, known for his roles in the television series, "The Knick", and "Gotham", and films such as "Greetings" (1968), "Capone" (1975), "A Little Romance"" (1979), "Hide in Plain Sight" (1980), "The Children" (1980), "The Thing" (1982), "Desperately Seeking Susan" (1985), "Manhunter" (1986), "Tune in Tomorrow" (1990), "JFK" (1991), "Private Parts" (1997),"Boiler Room" (2000), "Requiem for a Dream" (2000), and "K-PAX" (2001).
Actor Al Sapienza, best known for his work as 'Mikey Palmice' on the HBO series, "The Sopranos", and ''Marty Spinella', a lobbyist for the teachers' union in the Netflix series, "House of Cards". He also played the role of 'Dr. Jake Housman' in the North American premiere of the stage version of "Dirty Dancing".
Michael Tucker and his wife Jill Eikenberry, both of "L.A. Law" fame were also in attendance. Tucker's new play, "The M Spot", premiered last year at New Jersey Repertory Company and was also directed by Evan Bergman.
PHOTOS BY: ADELE SAMMARCO
Ed Kershen and Kristin Griffith deal with the meaning of marriage in millennial America in " For Worse" at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.(Photo: Photo by SUZANNE BARABAS)
TOM CHESEK, CORRESPONDENT March 11, 2016
To address those questions that are on everyone's mind: bringing Bobby back with that infamous shower scene was the right thing to do. The trademark backstabbing of the extended Ewing clan did not extend to the happy family that bonded off camera. And as to how J.R. Ewing might have fared as a presidential candidate, well, "he'd certainly be no more outrageous than Trump."
Beginning at the age of 20, and continuing for a decade at the top of the TV food chain, Deborah Rennard appeared regularly as "Sly" Lovegren, the intensely loyal (to an almost felonious fault) personal secretary to Larry Hagman's J.R. Ewing on "Dallas." While the LA native would go on to a stint with "Days of Our Lives" and a handful of showcase feature film roles (as the crossbow-wielding warrior heroine of the sci-fi "Land of Doom," and Jean-Claude Van Damme's adversary in "Lionheart"), her acting career would continue to be defined for all time by her association with Southfork— and the attentions of the (also intensely loyal) "Dallas" fans who "would ask me about the most intricate plot details from each episode."
When Deborah Rennard drops in at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch this weekend, it won't be in the role of performer, but as the author of "For Worse," an ensemble comedy that represents the recently minted playwright's first fully staged script. Directed by frequent NJ Rep collaborator Evan Bergman (back for a second project after the recent "Substance of Bliss"), the world premiere play stars Ed Kershen, Kristin Griffith, Daniela Mastropietro and Angie Tennant in a story that poses the question, "is old-fashioned, monogamous, committed marriage even possible anymore in today's world?"
Rennard's road from on-screen to behind-the-scenes is one that ran through her own marriage to Paul Haggis, the prolific screenwriter, director, producer and show runner whose numerous credits range from TV's "Facts of Life" and "Walker: Texas Ranger," to the back-to-back Best Picture winners "Million Dollar Baby" and "Crash." Realizing that the only way to enjoy any time with her "workaholic" boyfriend-turned-spouse was to sit in with him in conference and editing rooms, Rennard found that "he respected my opinion...he'd ask me which take I liked best, and became my mentor." It's an interlude that saw the developing writer-producer earn script credits on the Haggis-created series "Due South," and producer status alongside her husband on his 2007 feature "In the Valley of Elah."
It's also an interlude among the Hollywood A-list crowd during which "I saw so many of my friends go through this phenomenon in which one partner...usually the man...wants to be with someone younger. And then it happened to me."
Now divorced from Haggis (following a headline-making split with the Scientology organization they were both closely involved with) and relocated to New York, Rennard has crafted a different twist on the trophy-girlfriend scenario; one in which the cheating husband is "hoping that his wife will just tell him to get out of here...instead, she tells him we'll work it out! He has to spend the rest of the play trying to convince her what a sh*t he is."
"It's rooted in a painful experience, but I took it to a comic extreme," says the playwright whose script was first read at her dining room table by TV veterans Dana Delaney and Tim Daly. "I'm hoping that people will see things there that they can relate to and understand."
Even as she explores a parallel pursuit as a songbook-pop singer, having teamed with vocalist Al Sapienza for numerous appearances on the tri-state area benefit circuit, Rennard continues working on new stage projects like "More," a drama about broken relationships, end-of-life issues, and unfinished family business. It's a course of action that satisfies "the itch to be a writer .. .thank God I went ahead and did it, before knowing how hard it is to get a new play produced!"
2015 BroadwayWorld New Jersey Awards Winners Announced
Votes are cast; polls are closed; and results have been tabulated! This was our biggest year yet! After a record number of voters in more than 70 regions worldwide, BroadwayWorld is very excited to announce the 2015 New Jersey Awards winners. Highlights include Kelly Briggs who won "Best Cabaret or Musical Performance", Laura Osnes who won "Best Actress", David Van Pelt as "Best Actor" and more! Thanks to all who voted, and huge congratulations to all the winners!
Check back in October when the public nomination period will once again open.
And the winners are....
Best Actor in a Drama (Professional)
Best Actor in a Musical Theater Production (Professional)
Best Actress in a Drama (Professional)
Best Actress in a Musical Theater Production (Professional)
Best Cabaret or Musical Performance (Professional)
Best Costume Design
Best Director in a Drama (Professional)
Best Director in a Musical Theater Production (Professional)
Best Drama (Professional)
Best Lighting Design
Best Musical Theater Production (Professional)
Best New Works (Professional)
Best Production by a Local Theater (Non-Equity)
Best Set Design
Best Sound Design
Best Theater Company (Ensemble)
The 'Substance' of suburban living, in NJ Rep's premiere
TOM CHESEK, CORRESPONDENT 10:28 p.m. EST January 20, 2016
Not even Samuel Beckett's much-discussed "Godot" kept 'em waiting like Jesse, the 15-year-old son of the concerned (albeit somewhat distracted) parents in the two-hander play "The Substance of Bliss." The inaugural offering in a new season's slate from New Jersey Repertory Company (and the latest in a long line of world premieres at the Long Branch playhouse), the Tony Glazer script looks in on a late-night, backyard vigil kept by Paul and Donna, a couple of people who have apparently lost control of their only child — and whose entire world seems in danger of becoming no bigger than their own house and garden.
It's not hard to encapsulate the basic thrust of "Bliss" in a few words — and, after a few minutes spent with our ever-vigilant suburbanites, it's not hard to fathom why the wayward teen would rather be anywhere but there with his still-young Old Folks at Home.
During the course of Glazer's short, single-act duet, Paul (Christopher Daftios, last seen locally as the faithful concierge of "Swimming at the Ritz") and Donna (Susan Maris, the destructive Eva of NJ Rep's "Happy") reveal themselves as two not-happy people whose closed-circuit, insular little society has no room even for their troubled son — a couple whose shallow materialism and mutual (if sometimes conflicting) obsession with details mask a need to make sense and order of something, anything, in the messy and chaotic world beyond their property line.
The missing Jesse — a once joyful child who has apparently become a violent drug addict — is only intermittently the topic du jour during his parents' patio night-watch, as the conversation streams from debates over home improvements (paving stones and paint hues, nail guns and door knobs, fairy statues and fountains) to complaints about the encroaching outside world (feral cats, nosy neighbors, election-time lawn signs) and fears of aging (the disappearance of sex, the arrival of irritable bowel syndrome), to the respite of reminiscences over childless vacations ("I don't want my every waking moment to be about him").
We get that all of it — the possessions, the projected anger, the yearning for simpler pre-teen times — is a necessary bulwark against their own failures, as impenetrable as the high fence around their backyard barricade. We also get, painfully and very early in the proceedings, that these woefully unprepared parents were very likely responsible for extinguishing every spark of inspiration and aspiration in the lost boy who gets compared to "the car in the shop" and every other "problem we have to fix."
Returning to NJ Rep for his ninth project as director, Evan Bergman reunites here with Glazer, whose trailer-park ensemble "American Stare" was a darkly intense highlight of the company's 2012 season. The versatile Bergman (whose previous project was the Michael Tucker-Jill Eikenberry meditation on sex and aging, "The M Spot") has an impossible mission in eliciting much sympathy for Paul and Donna, two "good" and "caring" citizens who would like nothing more than to curse out their neighbor on the other side of the fence, and to quit their seats on the local planning committee. The follow-through on that impulse rings hollow as a cathartic moment, however, as it's all too clear that no amount of shouting (or epic home make-over) could ever address this couple's soul-numbing anguish.
The LINK News
Theater Review: Couple may have Substance, but it doesn't bring them BlissBy Madeline Schulman
The new production at New Jersey Rep is titled The Substance of Bliss. The substance is easy to see. The scenic designer, Jessica Parks, might have worked from a blueprint supplied by playwright Tony Glazer to create the beautiful set, as the dialogue lovingly details the pavers in Paul and Donna's back yard, the New Age style statue of a fairy in their little grotto, and even the Mayan sun decoration on their fence ("Too 2012," Paul complains.)
Susan Maris and Christopher Daftsios in The Substance of Bliss (Photo by SuzAnne Barabas) We hear about this seemingly comfortable suburban couple's constant renovation of their house, their plans to paint the living room (Genteel Pearl) and to affix tiles to their ceilings (but not gold tiles: "Too pimpy," says Paul).
Paul (Christopher Daftsios) and Donna (Susan Maris) may have material substance, but bliss is absent from their lives.
Some of their problems are small to middling. Susan is never satisfied with her renovations. The couple has gone through five front doors, and she is considering putting in a swimming pool. They feel they are growing old and losing their sex drive (although the excellent actors seem youthful and attractive). The neighborhood outdoor cats use their elegant backyard as a feline lavatory.
All these are nothing next to their 15-year-old son's drug addiction, which has wrecked his health and their lives. During the course of the play, which takes place in real time with no intermission, Donna and Paul wait for Jess to come home so they can whisk him off to rehab. They have filled the time with chores, including washing windows (the play was inspired in part by an incident from Glazer's adolescence, when he came home from an illicit night out to find his parents had staved off anxiety by washing all the window screens).
Jess never comes home. This is not a spoiler, since the program does not lie when it lists only two actors. While his parents wait and wait for him, their interaction spirals into recriminations, arguments, and finally violently thrown furniture. I was terrified that the nail gun Paul had brandished while talking about ceiling tiles would make a Chekhovian reappearance, but a timely outside adversary gives Paul and Donna a chance to reunite and work together.
My takeaway is when you see The Substance of Bliss you will feel that bliss is harder to achieve than acquiring substance. Paul and Donna waiting for Jess in their nice home are no more blissful than Vladimir and Estragon waiting for Godot in Samuel Beckett's wasteland.
Direction (Evan Bergman), lighting (Jill Nagle) and sound design (Merek Royce Press) all enhance the play.
"On the eve of the opening of THE SUBSTANCE OF BLISS, Executive Producer Gabor Barabas (right) had a sudden realization: that same night, BUTLER, a play that received its world premiere at NJ Rep, was simultaneously enjoying productions at respected regional theaters in Sarasota, Indianapolis, and Detroit. Last summer Richard Strand's Civil War drama was a hit at Barrington Stage and this June is headed for a much-anticipated off-Broadway production.
For the past 18 years Barabas' New Jersey Repertory Company has dedicated itself solely to the production of new plays – the state's only professional theater with this unique mission. In that time, more than 100 new works have first seen the light of day on Broadway – Broadway in Long Branch, that is.
David Sitler and Ames Adamson
BUTLER's remarkable success story is not the only one Barabas has to reflect upon. The intimate shoebox theater by the sea has lately been the recipient of numerous awards and accolades.
Last season's ANGELS AND MINISTERS OF GRACE by Elaine Smith scored a record nine Broadway World Awards. Judith Hawking was honored by New Jersey Footlights for her outstanding performance in 2014's SWIMMING AT THE RITZ by Charles Leipart. Most recently the group was nominated as one of the 'Best Theaters To See A Play' by Discover Jersey Arts' People's Choice Awards.
Barabas and his wife, SuzAnne (right), the group's Artistic Director, are not only presenting world-class premieres, but also world-class talent. Michael Tucker and his real life wife Jill Eikenberry (both of TV's L.A. LAW) played husband and wife onstage in THE M SPOT, a play Tucker himself wrote. Emmy-nominated stars Gary Cole (VEEP) and Wendie Malick (JUST SHOOT ME!) were featured in CLOSURE, a noir-style thriller by Richard Dresser. Dan Lauria (THE WONDER YEARS) wrote and starred in the sold-out hit DINNER WITH THE BOYS, in which he shared the stage with SOPRANOS stars Richard Zavaglia (Salvatore 'Big Pussy' Bonpensiero) and Ray Abruzzi (Carmine Lupertazzi Jr.). The comedy about a pair of retired wise guys holed up in the Garden State was such a huge success it later moved to New York's Theater Row.
Not only do the Barabas' have good reason to celebrate the Rep's past and present, but its future, too. The non-profit arts organization recently took possession of a nearby school with plans to convert it into the West End Arts Center. The new venue will feature a 150-seat proscenium theater, a 75-seat black box theater, a rehearsal room, an art cinema, classrooms, and an art museum. They also plan to retain their current performance space. Despite the added square footage, there are no plans to stray from the group's original mission. They still plan to produce new plays, "Just more of them," says Barabas.
Susan Maris and Chris Daftsios in The Substance of Bliss
Meanwhile, the immediate future looks bright at their current location. They've just opened their 19th season with THE SUBSTANCE OF BLISS by Tony Glazer, recipient of the 2009 Weissberger Award. The play finds two tense parents anxiously waiting up for their troubled teenage son.
August will see another first for the troupe, the posthumous premiere of IAGO, by the late James McClure, author of LONE STAR AND PVT. WARS, which was seen on Broadway in 1979. Described as "Shakespeare with a sharp comedic twist," IAGO takes a backstage look at three actors and a well-known director piecing together a production of OTHELLO.
As hard is it is to believe, NJ Rep also finds time on its calendar to host a Monday night reading series. On January 25th the group welcomes back Michael Tucker for ASSISTED LIVING, a comedy about three couples in their golden years who decide to move in together....($10 charge to non-members/free for members).
Once the curtain goes up, you'd think Gabe Barabas would try to find a quiet corner to curl up and nap, but instead, he greets and personally seats audience members, both newcomers and loyal subscribers alike. Before the lights go down, he makes a short but warm curtain speech to let you know how far the troupe has come, what's going on currently, and what you can look forward to in the future. He even manages a quick fund raising and subscription pitch – all with the ease and charm of an old friend. He traditionally ends his welcome with the sincere wish that you will "Enjoy, enjoy the show." If the group's amazing past is any indication, you certainly will."
Michael T. Mooney
Compassionate, powerful family drama 'Substance of Bliss' at N.J. Repertory
By Patrick Maley | For NJ Advance Media
Wash the windows. Vacuum the carpets. Discuss remodeling the bathroom. Anything to keep your mind off the relentless problems at hand. Why face life's painful challenges when there is landscaping design to be considered?
This is the tenuous and fraught existence that young married couple Donna (Susan Maris) and Paul (Christopher Daftsios) have carved out for themselves in Tony Glazer's delicate and poignant new play "The Substance of Bliss," now receiving an excellent world premiere at Long Branch's New Jersey Repertory Company.
We discover the couple sitting in their meticulously appointed suburban backyard, resting after a long cleaning session and turning their attention wistfully to what they might do next to improve their home. Maybe they'll paint the living room or install tin ceiling tiles in the bathroom, but Donna's frequent nervous checks of her watch betray an anxiety lying not far below the surface.
Soon we learn that the couple is busying themselves cleaning in the wee hours of the morning in order to pass the time of nervous hope that their drug-addicted, 15-year-old son will turn up at home. This is not the first time he has disappeared, and they have already called the police and checked out his frequent haunts, so now all they can do is wait. And clean. And try their absolute best not to engage their problems head on.
Eventually those problems — which turn out to be more than just worry for their son — force themselves to the surface, but the strength of this play is how playwright, cast, and director Evan Bergman combine to show us Donna and Paul's utter desperation to forestall that inevitability. It seems as clear to the couple as it is to the audience that their compulsion with improving their physical surroundings grows out of an utter incapacity to address their emotional condition, but they are for the most part resigned to that shared failing, and hope against hope that they can avoid discussing it.
Maris and Daftsios both rise to the daunting task of expressing their characters' deepest fears and worries as they mutually avoid the subject. Glazer does not deny his characters emotional outbursts, but the play and its cast are at their collective best when they are exploring the vast chasm between the couple's speciously pleasant outward life and their terrified inward existence.
Their backyard (designed with a keen eye for suburban fastidiousness by Jessica Parks) is constructed and curated with as much care as they have built their lives, but even that serene space rings clearly hollow with the constant absence of the third member of their family.
With the support of strong performances and direction, Glazer's play achieves an impressive feat of examining the lives of its characters at once deeply and subtly. This is a play about how the façade of happiness can belie a cracked and crumbling foundation that demands repair. Donna and Paul are not fools: They are well aware that their foundation requires some challenging work. But it is far less difficult to apply another coat of paint to the façade.
"The Substance of Bliss" therefore shows us with great insight and unromantic compassion the daunting task of these characters girding themselves to face the challenges they know lie in their future. But hey: What about putting in a pool?!
BWW Review: SUBSTANCE OF BLISS at NJ Rep is Riveting
New Jersey Repertory Company (NJ Rep) is presenting the World Premiere of Substance of Bliss through February 14th. This intriguing family saga is written by producer, director and playwright, Tony Glazer. Glazer captures the trials of parenting a troubled teen and the toll it can take on a couple's relationship. The two-hander has meticulous, creative direction by Evan Bergman.
In the play, Paul (Christopher Daftsios) and Donna (Susan Maris) are nervous as they anticipate the return of their fifteen year-old son, Jess. As they wait for him in their garden and patio area, they attempt to diffuse the tension by discussing topics like the aesthetics of home design and the neighborhood feral cats. But their angst mounts as they realize that the drug-addicted teen may not come home that night at all. The conversation between the two parents is riveting as they discuss their relationship and the future of their teenage son. And while much the subject matter is serious, there are real doses of humor in the show including their disagreement over a fairy statue in the garden and some late night banter with an irate neighbor lady.
Christopher Daftsios and Susan Maris deliver outstanding performances. They are completely authentic in their roles as husband and wife as they converse about day-to-day realities, the complexity of marriage and the insecurities that they feel. There are relatable moments in Substance of Bliss that will keep you captivated.
The production team brings Substance of Bliss to life with set design and props by Jessica Parks, technical direction by Brian Snyder, lighting design by Jill Nagle, sound design by Merek Royce Press and costume design by Patricia Doherty. Jennifer Tardibuono is the Stage Manager.
Substance of Bliss is an engaging, thoughtful play that you will long remember after the curtain call. See it while you can. This show should have a long life in the theater.
BWW Interview: Playwright Tony Glazer and SUBSTANCE OF BLISS at NJ Rep
New Jersey Repertory Company (NJ Rep) will present the World Premiere of Substance of Bliss written by Tony Glazer from January 14th to February 14th. In the play, Paul and Donna nervously await the return on their troubled teen late one night. The couple finds themselves questioning their renovation choices, the political and religious persuasions of their neighbors, the feral cats running amok in their yard and even their decision to marry and have the child that causes them so much angst. Directed by Evan Bergman, Substance of Bliss stars Christopher Daftsios and Susan Maris. Broadwayworld.com interviewed writer, director and producer, Tony Glazer about his career and the show.
What were some of your earliest interests in film/theatre?
One of my earliest memories - something that got me very interested - was when my Mom took me to see a musical revue when I was around six. One of the actors onstage got violently sick and eventually they had to stop the show right in the middle of a song. When they did, and they turned on the house lights, there was this initial moment of chaos in the room - shouting, people in the aisles, exit doors swinging open - and I remember turning around in my seat, on my knees, and just looking around - at the other audience members, ushers - swept up in it all. I remembered immediately connecting the show on stage with the community of the audience - feeling that exchange, sometimes heated and fraught, between the two. I didn't have the sophistication to understand it fully (certainly not articulate it the way I am now) but I was enthralled. It was this exciting, confusing, scary feeling and I knew I wanted be a part of it - a part of that alchemy.
Tell us about some of your mentors.
There are so many - I can probably only name a few here. First and foremost it was my parents - all the good qualities I have are rooted in their guidance in my developing stages as a person. I had great teachers when I went to school at Boston University. (I was an Acting Major at the time). Their influence, their guidance still echoes through my process now. I still draw on my experiences from that period - both personal and academic. But during my time there I also became quite restless - about being an actor, about the idea that there may be something else for me as a vocation. I knew I wanted a life in the arts but I became increasingly uncertain about my place in it. When I graduated, I came to New York (as many actors do) and studied acting with Maggie Flanigan. That's when the lights really came on for me. My entire life opened up as an artist (not just an actor). Maggie opened the pathways of thinking in me that ultimately led me to writing, directing and producing. My producing partner, Summer Crockett Moore, has been someone I look up to greatly. While ours is a partnership, I've learned quite a lot from her over the last fifteen years. Lastly, New York City is its own mentor. For me, it was love at first sight but it was always a tough love, an unforgiving one. If New York taught me one thing it was that: You can do anything you want and, by the way everything is here, but you're going to have to toughen up and work for it.
What are a few of your favorite shows or performances?
I watch (and love) quite a lot of movies and television. It's a little torturous for me to name just a few. I just watched ROOM and SICARIO loved them both. Personal favorites are WITHNAIL AND I, FIGHT CLUB and EMPIRE OF THE SUN. On the television front, I'm a fan of THE KNICK and BETTER CALL SAUL.
How does your work in film compliment your work in live theater?
They are both fundamentally different but I find when I toggle back and forth between the two, I am very aware of structure - how a story unfolds, which character drives it, the cause and effect along the way - so the compliment comes in the form of a reminder about stories, how each one is different. It has also helped me pinpoint what I love so much about both. What I love about theatre is the same thing that I love about the challenge of film: intimacy and the volatility of a moment. Theatre can be so wonderfully intimate because we're all in the same room, breathing the same air and we feel, when it's done right, that it can all change in a flash. In film it's, of course, not the same set-up but I love the challenge of communicating something intimate, something immediate and alive while being separated from your audience by a screen.
Tell us a little about your inspiration for "Substance of Bliss."
Years ago (I don't think I've ever told this story) when I was about 14, I snuck out of the house at night with a friend and just ran around the neighborhood, met up with some other friends, met a girl (ultimately got in an argument with her) - nothing illicit: just an unsanctioned night out. I was not very sophisticated about the whole ruse, though. I made a "person" out of pillows in my bed just in case, in the middle of the night, my Mom popped her head in to check on me (which looked amazingly convincing in the dark of night.) Of course, in the light of day it looked absolutely ridiculous and my Mom figured it out pretty quickly. When I finally wandered in, late morning, I found out that my parents had spent the entire morning cleaning all the window screens in our house while they were waiting for me to return. They did it just to get their minds off where I might have been, to occupy their time instead of panicking. That one act of theirs always stayed with me. In some ways, it's not only the inspiration for Substance of Bliss but also an apology of sorts.
How do you like working at NJ Rep?
This is my second time working at NJ Rep and I love it. Both Gabor and Suzanne are wonderful to work with and have such a great passion and love for new plays. I can't say enough about how honored I am to be back and how important it is for playwrights to have a theatre like this. This is a very special place. What advice do you have for people wishing to enter the profession? There are the basics that you will hear again and again - on the artistic side you'll hear: "once you've learned your craft, say something personal, say something true." On the professional side you'll hear: "it's a business but it's a social business so get out there and network, learn how to get out there and keep yourself out there." All this is true and valuable (which is why you'll hear it from different sources) but if I could say one thing that doesn't diminish those pieces of advice but something that meant the most to me, certainly got me through (continues to get me through) tough times when I find myself in them and that is to enjoy the work. In the end that is what you have control of - so make sure the work (not just what you want to gain from it but the act of creating something itself) makes you happy, feeds you as a person and an artist. If you do that, you'll be successful regardless of the outcome.
For the future?
I'm finishing rewrites on a new play and am currently in prep for my next feature film that I co-wrote and am set to direct. For more information on Tony Glazer, visit his web site at www.tonyglazer.com.