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Press Articles 2018

'L.A. Law' Star Michael Tucker Brings World Premiere to NJ Repertory Company

www.manhattandigest.com


Italy. For centuries, this crown jewel of the Meditteranean has inspired great works of art that have reached celestial heights. For Da Vinci, it was–among other masterpieces–the Vitruvian Man. Michelangelo gave us David and the Sistine Chapel. Puccini filled our ears with lush scores of "La Boheme" and "Turandot." More recently, this scenic country encouraged actor-turned-playwright Michael Tucker to draft his latest work, Fern Hill. The world premiere drama-comedy opens this Thursday at NJ Rep in Long Branch, New Jersey.

A recent press release describes the show as follows:

Three couples in their golden years are gathered at Sunny and Jer's farmhouse to celebrate milestone birthdays that span three decades. The foundation of their long friendship is honesty and support – as well as a commitment to the enjoyment of food, wine, and laughter. They're so close that Sunny suggests they all move in together – to live and work and assist one another as they grow older. Their companionship is put to the test, however, when a marital betrayal is discovered. The bonds of loyalty and truth are explored in this mature comedy.

Tucker, best known for his long-running stint on television's L.A. Law recently spoke to Manhattan Digest at a press preview of the show. "The inspiration came on the occasion of my 70th birthday. Two other close friends of mine were turning 60 and 80 that year," he explained. "We all have houses in Umbria, Italy and one night, with each of our wives, we went to a village party and knocked back some shots of grappa. The thought of us all living together and taking care of each other in one villa occurred to me and provided the basis for the play." Tucker developed his play in 2017 at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center's National Playwrights Conference. "This cast is beyond my wildest dreams," Tucker said.

Of course, it helps that the woman of his dreams is in the cast. Jill Eikenberry, who shared the small screen with her husband in L.A. Law (earning five Emmy awards for her role as lawyer Ann Kelsey) was on hand to reflect her thoughts. "It's so smart of Michael to be writing work like this," she said. "As I get older, the parts become fewer and fewer." Tucker and Eikenberry are somewhat of a unicorn in Hollywood, having been happily together for 47 years and married for 45 of them. Their secret to longevity? "If you can find someone who is game for your desires, and you're game for theirs, you can have so much fun- and we do!" Tucker said. Eikenberry added, "We've allowed each other to change. That is too scary for some people because they want to hold on to that thing that brought them together, but we've allowed that change in one another."

Tom McGowan, a familiar face from television's Everybody Loves Raymond and Frasier, also stars. "The characters in Fern Hill are very well drawn, not just in their couples but each individual character. It really jumped off the page." Although he hit the jackpot in two of tv's most popular and enduring sitcoms, McGowan's first love is the theatre. "Getting to rehearse for three and a half weeks and getting better and better with each try? There's really nothing like it," he said. "Plus, I grew up 15 miles from Long Branch, so my family and high school friends are going to come."

Three-time Tony Award winner Dee Hoty is another starry name who will grace the NJ Rep Stage for Tucker's play. Coincidentally, Hoty and McGowan were both nominated for Tonys in 1991 and would see each other at all of the press events. "We just really hit it off," McGowan said. "She's such a great, funny lady and we've run into each other from time to time but have never worked together. When I learned she would be in it, I was so excited." Hoty was cast in the show in a roundabout way. At the press preview, she explained, "I auditioned for a play that Nadia Tass (director of Fern Hill) was directing and I didn't get it. But, she went home, called Michael, and said that she had found an actress for him for the show. I met him for a drink, and I got the job! So, you just never know." Hoty said that she, "cut her teeth on Regional theater," having received her Equity card at Cleveland Playhouse. The busy actress, last seen on Broadway in Bright Star, has some yet to be announced projects up her sleeve. For now though, is thrilled to be working among such a talented cast.

Other familiar faces of stage and screen including John Glover, Jodi Long, and David Rasche will round out this top-shelf cast.


www.NJ.com

How working together makes the hard stuff easier: Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker talk partnerships


Jill Eikenberry and David Rasche star in "Fern Hill," which explores long-term relationships. (SuzAnne Barabas photo)

By Natalie Pompilio

Michael Tucker's "Fern Hill," which had its world premiere Thursday at New Jersey Repertory Company, explores relationships between men and women, particularly those that are long term.

It's something Tucker knows a bit about: He and wife, Jill Eikenberry, one of the play's stars, celebrated their 45th wedding anniversary in June.

"There are certain behaviors a woman wouldn't accept from a boss or co-worker that she'll accept from her husband because the stakes are so high," Tucker said. "That's a big issue in this play."

Tucker and Eikenberry are perhaps best known for their roles as married lawyers in "L.A. Law," the legal drama that ran for eight seasons on NBC. Both were nominated for Emmy Awards for their work on the series, and Eikenberry won a Golden Globe for best performance by an actress in a television series in 1989.

"In many ways, it was easy to do the hard stuff on 'L.A. Law,' " Eikenberry said. "I likened (working with Tucker) to a trapeze act: I knew he was going to catch me, so I could try the triple."

The couple continue to act opposite each other on film and on the stage.

They've also found new roles: Tucker has written a novel, multiple autobiographies and other plays. In September, one of his 10-minute plays will be featured in NJ Rep's annual A Festival of the Arts event.

Eikenberry directed one of Tucker's plays -- "Pittsburgh" -- and is returning to Feinstein's/54 Below with her one-woman show "Here I Go Again!" in 2019. She's also starred in other Tucker plays.

"It was so smart of me as I got older and parts got fewer to have my husband write roles for me," Eikenberry joked.

"Fern Hill" centers on three married couples, longtime friends, who meet up to celebrate three significant birthdays among them: a 60th, a 70th and an 80th. When the idea of the three couples moving in together to help each other as they age, a secret that could change their relationships forever is revealed.

"With the #MeToo movement and all the talk now about equity between men and women, this play is very relevant and resonant," said Eikenberry, whose character, Sunny, is the one who sets the mature comedy in motion by suggesting the communal living arrangement. "It tackles an area that's not much talked about: equity in a long-term marriage."

Tucker said he got the idea for the play from real life -- he and Eikenberry have talked with friends about living in a shared compound, perhaps in Italy.

But the dramatic twist is fictional.

"It doesn't come from real life," Eikenberry said. "In this play, I love the character, but she's not me."


NJ REP WELCOMES (NOT YET OVER THE 'HILL') PROS IN A FRIENDLY EXPERIMENT

Upper WET Side - August 9, 2018 

LA LAW veterans Michael Tucker and Jill Eikenberry are the playwright and the co-star of FERN HILL, a world premiere play that brings a cast of familiar actors to New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. Photo courtesy of Alli Angelou/ NJ Rep.

Published in the Asbury Park Press, August 10, 2018

It's an idea that's so "out there," that it just might…actually, it's a perfectly horrendous idea, were any of us to try it in real life. But of such cockamamie notions are the stuff of great "mature comedies" often made — and in Fern Hill, the Michael Tucker play that makes its world premiere at New Jersey Repertory Company this weekend, a seemingly well-thought out and well-intentioned arrangement creates a situation that tests some long-established bonds of friendship, faithfulness, and fidelity to the truth.

As put forth by Sunny (Jill Eikenberry) — a painter, art history professor and, with her marital partner Jer, co-owner of the farmhouse property from which the play takes its title — the plan is a beautifully simple one at heart. Sunny and Jer invite four of their close friends — two couples with whom they share a love of food, wine, and laughter — to move in with them at Fern Hill; the idea being that this close-knit community of contemporaries would share their lives, work together, and be there for each other as they collectively enter their senior years.

It's "an alternative to being shipped off to live with strangers," as Eikenberry describes it — but the question of whether this plan functions as it was intended is one that promises to be addressed in the six-character script (rebranded from its originally announced title of Assisted Living), which was workshopped at the 2017 Eugene O'Neill Playwrights Conference. This is the second mainstage project at NJ Rep for Eikenberry and Tucker — together known far and wide as The Tuckerberrys — following their 2015 turn in The M Spot, and while it stands as only the second full-length play by actor-author-novelist Tucker, it's a continuation of a rich and multi-faceted collaboration for the partners in life and art.

Although the two have been married since 1973, it wasn't until they both landed regular roles in Steven Bochco's hit 1980s-90s TV series LA Law that they shared significant screen time, with Jill (as elegant legal eagle Ann Kelsey) and Michael (as somewhat nebbishy Stuart Markowitz) even connecting their characters as an unlikely twosome during the show's run (indeed, who could forget the seductive secrets of "the Venus Butterfly?").

Since then, the traveling Tuckerberrys have performed together in the occasional TV movie; lectured as motivational speakers; relocated back to the east coast; established a second home in the Italian countryside; started their own olive oil business; written songs; produced public TV documentaries; advocated for breast cancer awareness (via Jill's publicly shared experiences) and compassionate elder care (via Michael's 2009 book Family Meals); toured to promote Tucker's several volumes of witty family memoirs — and continued to nurture new projects, even as Michael has largely stepped away from acting altogether ("I'm not in this one…and I didn't even want to be in the last one!").

"This is one of the best parts I've ever had…and at this time in my life, there's not a whole lot for me out there," says the 71 year old Eikenberry, recipient of an Obie award, a Golden Globe, and five Emmy nominations. "I love Michael's writing, I love ensemble pieces…and I feel very smart to have gotten myself into this situation!"

"What happened with this play at the O'Neill was exciting, and Sunny has continued to evolve…Mike has really found the arc of her character; found her journey."

"The people in this play have been a gang of six for years…they're people who've had a splendid time together, and who wonder what life would be like if they really took care of each other," says Tucker of his characters, most of whose lives and careers are centered around an academic setting. "They're not wealthy people, but the idea is that if they pool what they have together…they're rich!"

"Tons of people talk about moving in together, and lots of people have done it…but it's different when you're younger, and almost nobody does it after a certain age."

How the various parties in the play's little social experiment react forms the crux of Fern Hill, with Eikenberry noting that "some are excited about the idea, while others need convincing" — and Tucker hinting that the occupants of the house are divided among "those who aren't willing to expose themselves, and those who are."

"Time…or how we view life as we get older…is one of the major themes of this play," adds the 73 year old playwright, who set each of the scenes inside a common area of the house. "When your time grows shorter, you have more of a desire to know, and to be, who you are."

Eikenberry also sees the play as addressing issues of "how to find equity in a long term marriage…how the things that a woman would not accept from a co-worker, she would accept from her husband."

An impressive cast of stage and screen veterans, some of them longtime friends of the Tuckerberrys, grace the production as newcomers to NJ Rep's intimate playhouse in downtown Long Branch — including John Glover, a Tony winner for Love! Valour! Compassion! (he reprised his celebrated double-role turn in the 1997 film version), whose numerous heavyweight Broadway credits include an additional nomination for Waiting for Godot (and whose screen work has included a regular gig as Lionel Luthor in Smallville). Fellow Tony nominees Dee Hoty (Will Rogers Follies, Footloose) and Tom McGowan (La Bete) are joined by Jodi Long, a Broadway regular since the age of seven — and David Rasche, whose vast body of work boasts his starring turn in the under-appreciated cop-show satire Sledge Hammer!

"These actors are giving me a lot…I'm inspired by them," says Tucker of his stellar cast. "I'm having the time of my life watching these people get into my play." They're all working under the direction of another celebrated newcomer to the NJ Rep fold, Australia-based Nadia Tass, whose many award winning and high-profile projects have included the made for TV film of The Miracle Worker — and who attached to the project when she was recommended by the agent she shares in common with Michael Tucker. As Eikenberry notes, "there are layered, intricate relationships between the characters of this play…and Nadia is just brilliant in the way that she delves into these relationships."


Photo Coverage: Meet the Cast of New Jersey Repertory Company's FERN HILL

www.broadwayworld.com

New Jersey Repertory Company, located at 179 Broadway in Long Branch, will soon present the premiere of Fern Hill by Michael Tucker (L.A. Law, Radio Days), from August 9 through September 9, 2018.

Fern Hill is helmed by Australian director, Nadia Tass, and stars Jill Eikenberry (L.A. Law, Moonchildren), John Glover (Smallville, Waiting for Godot), Dee Hoty (Bright Star, Mamma Mia!), Jodi Long (Sullivan and Son, The Hot Chick, Splash), Tom McGowan (Frasier, Wicked, Chicago), and David Rasche (Speed-the-Plow, Veep, Burn After Reading).

Three couples in their golden years are gathered at Sunny and Jer's farmhouse to celebrate milestone birthdays that span three decades. The foundation of their long friendship is honesty and support - as well as a commitment to the enjoyment of food, wine, and laughter. They're so close that Sunny suggests they all move in together - to live and work and assist one another as they grow older. Their companionship is put to the test, however, when a marital betrayal is discovered. The bonds of loyalty and truth are explored in this mature comedy.


Director Nadia Tass and playwright Michael Tucker


Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker


Michael Tucker


Jill Eikenberry


David Rasche


Dee Hoty


John Glover


Jodi Long


Dee Hoty


Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker


Michael Tucker


Jodi Long


John Glover


Dee Hoty


Tom McGowan


Tom McGowan


Jill Eikenberry


Jill Eikenberry


Michael Tucker


John Glover


David Rasche


Dee Hoty, John Glover, Jodi Long, Michael Tucker, Tom McGowan, Jill Eikenberry and David Rasche


NEW JERSEY REP TO PRESENT MICHAEL TUCKER'S 'FERN HILL'

Sandi Durell's THEATER PIZZAZZ

The press met with the cast and creator of the new comedy Fern Hill written by Michael Tucker – actor turned playwright – and directed by Australian Nadia Tass. The ensemble cast is made up of many sought after and well known actors including his wife, Jill Eikenberry, along with John Glover, Dee Hoty, Jodi Long, Tom McGowan and David Rasche. The play will be presented from August 9 thru September 9, with an opening night on August 11.


Director Nadia Tass and playwright Michael Tucker


Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker


Michael Tucker


Jill Eikenberry


David Rasche


Dee Hoty


John Glover


Jodi Long


Dee Hoty


Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker


Michael Tucker


Jodi Long


John Glover


Dee Hoty


Tom McGowan


Tom McGowan


Jill Eikenberry


Jill Eikenberry


Michael Tucker


John Glover


David Rasche


Dee Hoty, John Glover, Jodi Long, Michael Tucker, Tom McGowan, Jill Eikenberry and David Rasche

Fern Hill is a story about three couples (largely based on the experiences of the playwright and his wife) in their golden years where they have gathered at one of the couple's farmhouse to celebrate their milestone birthdays spanning three decades. Honesty and support have been the foundation of their friendship, along with a commitment to food, wine and laughter. What happens when one of them suggests they all move in together . . . live, work and assist one another as they grow older? Their relationships are put to a test, a marital betrayal discovered as the bonds of loyalty and truth are explored in this mature comedy.

Meet the cast and playwright here in video interviews and more.

Rehearsal Scenes From the Play:


Husband and Wife Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker, John Glover and More Head to New Jersey Rep

Times Square CHRONICLES
 

New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway in Long Branch, brings a starry cast for the premiere of Fern Hill by Michael Tucker (L.A. Law, Radio Days), from August 9 through September 9, 2018.


Michael Tucker

The play stars stars Jill Eikenberry (L.A. Law, Moonchildren)


Jill Eikenberry

John Glover (Smallville, Waiting for Godot)


John Glover

Dee Hoty (Bright Star, Mamma Mia!)


Dee Hoty

Jodi Long (Sullivan and Son, The Hot Chick, Splash)


Jodi Long

and David Rasche (Speed-the-Plow, Veep, Burn After Reading).


David Rasche

Fern Hill is helmed by Australian director, Nadia Tass.


Director Nadia Tass and playwright Michael Tucker

Three couples in their golden years are gathered at Sunny and Jer's farmhouse to celebrate milestone birthdays that span three decades. The foundation of their long friendship is honesty and support – as well as a commitment to the enjoyment of food, wine, and laughter. They're so close that Sunny suggests they all move in together – to live and work and assist one another as they grow older. Their companionship is put to the test, however, when a marital betrayal is discovered. The bonds of loyalty and truth are explored in this mature comedy.


David Rasche, Jill Eikenberry


Long Branch Theatrical Couple Uncovered Creative Potential of Artists with Disabilities


NJ Stage
 

In the early 1990s Gabor Barabas, MD, was medical director of the Matheny School and Hospital, a special hospital and school in Peapack, NJ, for children and adults with medically complex developmental disabilities. His wife, SuzAnne, who was director of the Peanut Butter Theatre for children, couldn't help wondering about the creative potential that might reside inside the minds of her husband's patients if they were given the opportunity to express themselves.

SuzAnne Barabas, now artistic director of the Long Branch-based New Jersey Repertory Company, suggested to Dr. Barabas that the Matheny residents be paired with professional artists, who would act as their facilitators. "I felt it was important to bring in artists to establish the program, not therapists," she says. "We wanted instructors without any clinical knowledge, who had no preconceived ideas about potential limitations or about what a student could or could not do. Anything was possible. We viewed the participants not merely as students but as apprentices."

To get the program started, the couple first presented the idea to Robert Schonhorn, then Matheny's president, who encouraged them to move forward. They then obtained a $35,000 seed grant from the Blanche and Irving Laurie Foundation. "The artist instructors," SuzAnne Barabas explains, "were asked to focus on how they could facilitate each student's vision -- whether it was in painting or sculpture or photography or writing -- and never to influence that vision. The focus was always on process and facilitation, and then the outcome would follow. A primary goal was to foster independence and build confidence and to create an environment away from the classroom. When the first room was designated for the program (in 1993), it became, she says, "a studio away from the school and hospital."

The first project was called "wheelsizing". "We would put a large canvas on the floor," Dr. Barabas recalls, "and the artists would create paintings with their wheelchairs. We would ask them, 'What color did they want on the canvas?' And they started to paint." Some of those early paintings were exhibited at the Newark Museum and at a local gallery called the Garage. How did that happen? "We showed them the work," SuzAnne Barabas says, "and the work spoke for itself. Accommodations were not made because an artist had a disability. We entered various works into art contests and won various awards, and we never mentioned beforehand that the submitting artists had a physical disability."

Dr. Barabas, now executive producer of the New Jersey Repertory Company, remembers that one of the Matheny artists won an award from the New Jersey Lawyers Association. "The entries were anonymous," he says, "and, all of a sudden, we wheel in a wheelchair with augmentative communication devices at the awards dinner."

In addition to painting, another early success was sculpture. "The sculpture students," SuzAnne says, "made machetes out of clay, and then it became important to find a way to get to foundries and make molds of the machetes and, ultimately, to create bronze pieces. It was felt that it was important for the students to go through the whole process, and, so, the funds to do this were allocated by Bob Schonhorn. We wanted to emphasize the value of each sculptor's work, and we made sure also to frame all the paintings professionally."

After SuzAnne Barabas helped launch the program, the next step was building an arts center. Aided by a major fundraising campaign, the Robert Schonhorn Arts Center was constructed in 2000. "As the idea expanded to create an arts center," SuzAnne says, "the goal was to put the building as far from the school and hospital as architecturally possible so that the student artists would have to 'travel' to get there." As a result, the arts center is not attached to Matheny's main building.

This year, Matheny (now known as the Matheny Medical and Educational Center) will be celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Arts Access Program at Full Circle 2018: Then and Now, to be held on November 3 in the Robert Schonhorn Arts Center. Although the program, in its early stages, focused mainly on the visual arts, it has grown to include other disciplines such as dance, drama, and writing. Full Circle will feature a visual art gallery exhibition of paintings and digital art created by Arts Access artists and a stage presentation showcasing performance pieces by Arts Access choreographers, dramatists, and writers.

Eileen Murray, who has been director of Arts Access since 2011, explains the program's philosophy this way: "We provide the creative freedom for the artists to express themselves, but it is the artists who bring this work to life. The art you will see at Full Circle represents 25 years of creativity by a remarkable group of artists."

"From the get-go," Dr. Barabas points out, "we were convinced that we could build a model program that could be replicated, that had potential to not only serve the population at Matheny but could also serve the larger population." That goal has been achieved, as the Arts Access method has been adapted by other organizations for the disabled such as the Arc of Mercer County in Ewing, NJ, and the WAE Center of Jewish Services for the Developmentally Disabled in West Orange, NJ.

Through the years, the Arts Access Program has won many awards, and the work of Arts Access artists has been exhibited at several venues. In addition to the Newark Museum, they have included the New Jersey State Museum, ABC World Headquarters, and the Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton, NJ. But the program's prestige was perhaps best described a few years ago by Nicholas Paleologos, executive director of the New Jersey State Council of the Arts, who, serving as honorary chair of Full Circle in 2015, said: "I am so very proud of the work being done here. No arts program is more unique than Matheny's."


BWW Review: MERCY at NJ Rep is a Poignant New Play Excellently Presented

www.broadwayworld.com




"We can't change the past, but we can work on the present."
By Walter in Mercy

New Jersey Repertory Company (NJ Rep) is now presenting the world premiere of Adam Szymkowicz's play, Mercy. With excellent direction by Gail Winar, the show features a cast that makes this dark comedy totally absorbing.

In Mercy, Orville's wife was a pedestrian killed by a drunk driver. Feeling lost and alone with his newborn daughter, Orville tries to get through his days at the office, while his father, Walter tends to the baby. Orville's workplace becomes uncomfortable when his boss, Brenda says she wants to comfort him, but certainly has something else in mind. The story takes an unexpected turn when Orville encounters Ian, the troubled man with addiction problems who is responsible for his wife's fatality. Orville becomes familiar with his wife's killer, while he considers a way to avenge her death. As Orville deals with grief, responsibility, and moving on with his life, he faces some serious, personal dilemmas.

The cast's compelling performances capture the drama, suspense, and humor in Szymkowicz's well-crafted play. Whether it's Walter patiently providing care to his adult son and granddaughter, Brenda subtly propositioning Orville, or Orville confronting Ian, the individual scenes are riveting. The troupe includes Christopher Daftsios as Ian Sanders; Dan Grimaldi as Walter Marks; Nandita Shenoy as Brenda James; and Jacob A. Ware as Orville Marks. Chris Price is the company's understudy.

The Production Staff has done a great job of bringing Mercy to the Long Branch stage with a flexible set that works well for each scene. They include scenic design by Jessica Parks; lighting design by Jill Nagle; sound design by Merek Royce Press; and costume design by Patricia E. Doherty. The Production Stage Manager is Kristin Pfeifer; Assistant Stage Manager is Adam von Pier; Technical Director is Brian P. Snyder; Master Electrician is James Lockhart; Assistant Director is Janey Huber.

Mercy has a significant story that brings to light important issues of our times that include the devastating problems caused by drunk drivers, the trials of single parenting, and the value of family support. Executive Producer, Gabor Barabas and Artistic Director, Suzanne Barabas are continuing to present the finest new theatre productions year-round to metro area audiences.


THE QUALITY OF 'MERCY' IS SORT OF STRANGE, AT NJ REP

Upper WET Side - June 22, 2018 

Nadita Shenoy and Jacob A. Ware share an uncomfortable moment at the workplace in MERCY, the play now in its world premiere engagement at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

Published in the Asbury Park Press, June 22 2018

Orville Marks (Jacob A. Ware) is a man with no small share of problems — not least of which is the fact that his pregnant wife was recently killed by a drunk driver, leaving him the entirely unprepared single father of a "miracle baby" who never cries, smiles, or otherwise makes a sound. His boss (Nandita Shenoy) is making unsolicited and un-subtle sexual advances at the workplace; his widowed father Walter (Dan Grimaldi) is urging him to go out and have as much sex as possible — and he's just seen a man on the street (Christopher Daftsios) who he's sure is the motorist that turned his world upside down.

It doesn't take long before the many tragedies, frustrations and stressful situations of Orville's life threaten to reach critical mass in Mercy, the play by Adam Szymkowicz that's currently in its world premiere engagement at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. The various ways in which the basically introverted and deeply unhappy office drone manages to deal with his problems — or fantasize about dealing with them — form the thrust of a script that looks at the titular concept of Mercy from some odd angles; ranging from forgiveness, redemptive love and plain old pity, to humiliation, power dynamics, and the cold gunmetal of revenge.

Presented without intermission, and directed by NJ Rep artistic associate Gail Winar — her first mainstage project for the company since the goofy musical Don't Hug Me in 2006 — Mercy offers its occasional glimpses of dark comedy; the kind that audiences aren't always so sure they should be laughing at. But while its dramatic flashpoints are tautly constructed, and explode with the jarring energy of a quiet man pushed to the brink, the real unsettling moments are those in which the slow simmer of the increasingly edgy Orville directs him toward some ever more regrettable choices — and directs the audience to the realization that neither we, nor he, quite know all that he is capable of.


SOPRANOS veteran Dan Grimaldi co-stars with Jacob A. Ware in the Adam Szymkowicz play MERCY.

On stage for nearly every second of the play's running time, Repertory returnee Ware (Nobody's Girl, & Juliet) runs an intense emotional marathon, and cuts a figure that brings to mind some of screen star Steve Carell's nerds with attitude; a broadly drawn Walter Mitty with a genuine dark side that's summoned into being by tragedy and travail. Whether enacting a potentially dangerous strategy in his dealings with the recovering addict Ian (fellow Rep regular Daftsios, here in his fourth project for the Long Branch stage), or sharing some uncomfortable exchanges with NJ Rep newcomer Shenoy, his Orville is a guy who's been too long out of the loop when it comes to human interaction. He's calmer and more confessional in the monologues delivered to his infant daughter — a silent little cipher whose father won't even grace her with a name — while the play finds its one personification of solid ground (and baby at least finds someone who knows the basics of child care) in the gruff-but-loveable widower played by character ace Grimaldi, last seen here co-starring with Daftsios in The Jag, and best known for his dual turn as the Parisi brothers on The Sopranos.

While the men in Szymkowicz's script are largely at the "mercy" of their own addictions, compulsive behaviors and delusions, the female characters — whether seen and heard, or otherwise — come off even weirder. They range from the sainted and eternally pregnant madonna of Orville's very much absent wife, to the office-whore machinations and puzzling motives of boss Brenda, a supervisor bent on rewriting the corporate guide to head games, even as she breaks every sub-paragraph in the employee handbook. Throw in the nameless girl in the cradle — a creature without a voice or a face; existing in a sort of limbo as she waits for dad to grant her some semblance of identity — and you've got a rather unsettling picture in which the women of Orville's world are little more than sexual predators, wispy ghosts, or literal non-entities who flourish only under the attentions of their flawed and semi-faithful father figures.

That said, the playwright and director show a good ear for dialogue, within a word-driven play (punctuated here and there by joy of sex and threat of violence) that moves briskly from blackout to blackout within the various corners of the stylized and versatile set by Jessica Parks. While, to paraphrase Shakespeare, the quality of Mercy is not strained like the bland peas and carrots of baby's Gerber-based diet, it sure is strange, here in a little world where even the virtuous quality of mercy can come off like a slightly sadistic strategy.


BWW Interview: Playwright Adam Szymkowicz and MERCY at NJ Rep 6/14 to 7/15

www.broadwayworld.com



New Jersey Repertory Company (NJ Rep) is proud to present the world premiere of Adam Szymkowicz's Mercy from June 14 through July 15. This surprisingly funny, dark comedy is directed by Gail Winar, and stars Christopher Daftsios, Dan Grimaldi, Nandita Shenoy, and Jacob A. Ware. After his wife is killed in a car accident, Orville attempts to move on with his life. His father takes on the responsibility of caring for his new granddaughter, while his boss at work, aggressively tries to comfort him. However, everything changes for Orville when he inadvertently meets Ian, the troubled man responsible for his wife's death. Will Orville choose redemption or revenge?

Broadwayworld.com had the pleasure of interviewing Adam Szymkowicz about his career and Mercy at NJ Rep.

Szymkowicz's plays have been produced throughout the U.S., and in Canada, England, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Australia, Germany, Greece, Mexico, Turkey, South Korea, Slovenia and Lithuania. Published plays include Deflowering Waldo, Pretty Theft, Food For Fish, Hearts Like Fists, Incendiary, Clown Bar, The Why Overhead, Adventures of Super Margaret, 7 Ways To Say I Love You, Rare Birds, Marian Or The True Tale of Robin Hood, and Nerve. Adam received a Playwright's Diploma from The Juilliard School's Lila Acheson Wallace American Playwrights Program and an MFA from Columbia University. He has interviewed 1000 playwrights on his blog.

When did you first realize your penchant for writing?

I was in plays starting in kindergarten through college and acting wasn't my thing exactly but I loved theater. My final year of college I wrote, directed and produced a play and when the audience responded to the play in real time, I was floored, and I've been chasing that feeling ever since.

What writers are you likely to read for relaxation or in your down time?

You know what I really loved recently? "The Night Circus." Have you read that? I read a lot of YA these days. I love anything by Rainbow Rowell. I just read a graphic novel called "Tricked" by Alex Robinson. I also just finished writing a play about a bookstore so I was reading a bunch of books about bookstores. I also just read a lot of plays.

Do you have any particular mentors?

Chris Durang and Marsha Norman were huge influences and later became my teachers and mentors.

You have interviewed an incredible number of playwrights for your blog. Are there any particular insights you'd like to share from the interview process?

I think my biggest takeaway is the scope of the American theater. People are coming from everywhere writing about everything and they are smart and dedicated and there are just a huge number of really talented people trying to do this weird thing. And I love that.

Tell us a little about the inspiration for Mercy.

I never know how to answer this question and it's the question I get the most. I'm not sure when plays come from. I guess I just get interested in telling a story and sometimes that's about a moment or a character or some words. I don't know where the jokes come from or why I have to write these things. And I'm not saying it's easy to write or anything. No muse dictates to me. But I can't usually point to a moment in my life or an article I read that explains why I wrote a play. So I guess that's my non-answer answer. It came from somewhere but I don't know where.

How do you like working with NJ Rep?

They're a great group of people. This is my first show and it's in process but I think I can say they are smart and supportive, take good care of the artists and are truly kind people. And it's very civilized to walk to the beach after rehearsal.

What are some of your plans for the future?

I have another premiere coming up from the NOLA Project in New Orleans early in the winter. It's about a TGIFridays type restaurant that gets taken hostage. It has a lot of songs. It might be a musical. Also probably a New York production that hasn't been announced yet. And I have a bunch of other productions of some of my other plays, including Marian Or The True Tale Of Robin Hood at Theater of Note in LA this summer.

Is there anything else you would like BWW NJ readers to know?

If you're interested in playwrights or writing, read some of the 1000 playwright interviews I posted on my blog. For more information about Adam Szymkowicz and to read his blog, please visit http://www.adamszymkowicz.com/.


www.NJ.com

Edna Ferber festival celebrates a little-known literary giant


N.J. Repertory Company celebrates writer Edna Ferber with "Five by Ferber" May 31 - June 3.

By Natalie Pompilio

While Edna Ferber may not be a household name, plays and movies based on he works certainly are. The author, who died in 1968 at age 82, penned the novel "Show Boat," which was adapted into the well-known musical by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein. Her take on the Texas oil business, "Giant," became the 1956 film starring James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson.

And the list of Ferber's successes goes on: She won a Pulitzer Prize for her 1924 novel "So Big"; "Dinner at Eight," her 1932 collaboration with playwright George S. Kaufman, was nominated for multiple Tony Awards when it was revived on Broadway in 2003; two other works - "Cimarron," published in 1929, and "Ice Palace," published in 1958 - were also silver screen successes.

"She was ahead of her time," said Julie Gilbert, Ferber's grand-niece, biographer and estate executor. "She was huge and most people don't know anything about her."

That may change after "Five by Ferber," May 31 to June 3 at West End Arts Center, a collaborative effort between Gilbert and New Jersey Repertory Company.

"She's a female pioneer in the arts and that's something we always want to celebrate," said Alli Angelou, N.J. Rep's box office manager, assistant to N.J. Rep artistic director SuzAnne Barabas and "festival wrangler." "She spent so much of her life and work giving voices to groups that didn't have them and I wouldn't have know that without this festival."

Ferber, a member of the Algonquin Round Table, was a prolific writer who began her career as a journalist. Scholars say she she was one of the most influential and widely read female authors of her time.

"Five by Ferber" refers to five new one-act plays based on Ferber short stories -- all will have salon readings during the festival. The five writers are female; Gilbert is one of them.

"I think people will be surprised at the breadth of her concerns and at the fact that she was not a one-trick pony," Gilbert said. "She not only wrote short stories, but novels -- and not only novels, but plays. Everything she touched had a Midas touch- feel to it, but that's because she was good."

The festival finale is a reading of a newly discovered Horton Foote play, "Selina Peake," based on Ferber's novel "So Big." Gilbert found the work, written on onion paper, in a box of her great-aunt's papers that she was sorting through before sending them to the University of Wisconsin, which maintains the Ferber archives.

"It was like, 'Oh my God. Look at this.' It was like finding a Degas or something," Gilbert said. "I never knew anything about this or how (Ferber and Foote) got together ... Nobody knows why this was never produced."

Gilbert, who was named after a "Show Boat" character, will open the four-day festival on May 31 with a talk centered on the differences between her great-aunt's novel and the Kern/Hammerstein musical.

"People know 'Ol Man River,' but that really wasn't her. The novel is much darker, much more harrowing, than the musical," Gilbert said. "I think her work is more relevant today than it ever was ... She spoke out against injustice like nobody's business."


www.NJ.com

'Issei, He Say' is a slow-burning drama with a huge payoff in Long Branch: review


Christina Liang, Stan Egi, Kathleen Kwan, Fenton Li in a scene from "Issei, He Say" at NJ Repertory Company in Long Branch. (SuzAnne Barabas)

By Patrick Maley

The characters in Chloe Hung's great new play, "Issei, He Say, or the Myth of the First," are doubly beset: on one hand by a painful history they cannot change, and on another by a frightful present condition that they struggle to control. In this tense terrain, Hung proves herself an exciting new playwriting voice by finding both explosive conflict and complex warmth.

Set in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough, "Issei, He Say" focuses on two houses of Asian immigrants. The Chus--Lucy (Christina Liang), her mother (Kathleen Kwan), and father (Fenton Li)--have recently moved from China, next door to Mr. Yamamoto (Stan Egi), originally from Japan and living conspicuously alone with his garden. Jessica Parks's efficient set on the small Long Branch stage emphasizes the inescapable intimacy between the two homes, but from the start we understand that Mr. Chu wants very little to do with Mr. Yamamoto, despite the latter's overtures of neighborly friendship. It does not take long for us to learn that Mr. Chu has fled China with his family seeking refuge from the violence invading Japanese forces imposed prior to World War II, and despite the fact that Mr. Yamamoto has been in Canada since well before the war, Mr. Chu considers him implicated in the horrors that ripped apart his family and country. "Howdy neighbor" calls Mr. Yamamoto every morning, only to receive in response a grunt that is bound up with myriad layers of personal and cultural pain.

But Hung adds more richness to this tension by offering the play as the memories of Lucy, who serves as narrator. Twelve-years-old, in a new country, and the victim of constant xenophobic bullying, Lucy takes great cheer in the warmth of Mr. Yamamoto, despite her father's chastising. As narrator, an elder Lucy makes clear that her younger self bore very little of the cultural pain of her parents; she just wanted the kind of friendly face offered by her kind neighbor. It is Mr. Yamamoto who reveals the meaning of the play's title, telling Lucy that issei is a Japanese term for first-generation immigrants like her, comforting the girl by contextualizing her struggle.

For much of the first act, "Issei" threatens to be a one-note play about how the obstinate Chinese family refuses to see past the heritage of the Japanese man despite Lucy's admiration and Mr. Yamamoto's friendliness. Egi does fine work as the kindly neighbor, but we don't see much beyond that type.

But after intermission, the sly work by Hung and Egi emerges: that which seemed flat in act one shows to have just been a resting powder keg awaiting the ignition that comes in act two. A variety of factors offer the necessary spark, but when tension rises to outright conflict, Hung dives deeply and eagerly into the fraught psyches of her characters. The playwright is not interested in adjudicating the conflict, but rather in wrestling with the pain that rebuffs solace in each character. The explosive act-two clash rewrites and recontextualizes everything that comes before and after it, especially for Mr. Yamamoto and Mrs. Chu. Egi reveals how difficult it was for his character to perform the constant warmth that seemed to emanate from him earlier, and Kwan shows a side of Mrs. Chu suppressed almost entirely to this point. Here and elsewhere throughout the show, director Lisa James shows a confident hand in modulating the levels of animosity and strained cordiality between the characters.

Filtered though Lucy's lens, "Issei, He Say" takes on added depth and warmth because it is not only about how cultural baggage can render personal connection intractable, but also about a young girl struggling to reconcile that bewildering condition. In this, Hung shows herself a playwright interested in the difficulty of gazing through competing lenses, and "Issei, He Say" proves itself an evocative, challenging play.


BWW Review: ISSEI, HE SAY at NJ Rep is an Important Play Wonderfully Performed

www.broadwayworld.com




"We have more in common than you think."

By Mr. Yamamoto in Issei, He Say (Or the Myth of the First)

The New Jersey Repertory Company (NJ Rep) is now presenting the world premiere of Issei, He Say (Or the Myth of the First) through May 20. Written by Chloé Hung and directed by Lisa James, the play is the winner of an Edgerton New Play Award. With superb staging and an excellent cast, this compelling production reveals many of the challenges faced by first generation immigrants. This is a show that should be seen. Important and timely, it portrays themes that transcend ethnic and geographic boundaries.

Issei, He Say is set in a working class neighborhood in the community of Scarborough, Toronto. In the play, Lucy Chu is a 12 year-old girl who is torn between a valued friendship and the feelings of her parents. The Chu family has emigrated from Hong Kong to Ontario, where they have a Japanese neighbor, Mr. Yamamoto who has lived in Canada for a long time. Lucy is bullied at school and she feels like an outsider. Mr. Yamamoto offers her kindness and some very good advice. But Mr. and Mrs. Chu resent Mr. Yamamoto and the Japanese people because of the atrocities that occurred in China during the siege of Nanking. There is a constant tension between the adult neighbors and Lucy is caught in the middle. While the issues in the show are of a serious nature, there are plenty of light and funny moments.

The show stars accomplished actors who bring Issei, He Say to life on the Long Branch stage. The cast includes Stan Egi as Mr. Yamamoto; Kathleen Kwan as Mrs. Chu; Fenton Li as Mr. Chu; and Christina Liang as Lucy Chu. Memorable scenes are wonderfully portrayed including Mrs. Chu's impromptu dancing, thoughtful chats between Mr. Yamamoto and Lucy, Mr. Chu's television obsession, and clashes between the adults.

The Production Staff has done a top job of bringing Issei, He Say to the Long Branch stage. They include scenic design by Jessica Parks; lighting design by Jill Nagle; sound design by Merek Royce Press; costume design by Patricia Doherty; properties design by Marisa Procopio. The Stage Manager is Rebecca Kestel; Assistant Stage Managers are Adam von Pier and Heather Welsh; the Technical Director is Brian P. Snyder; Master Electrician is James Lockhart; and the Lighting Intern is Janey Huber.

We predict that Issei, He Say (Or the Myth of the First) is a show that will have a long life in the theatre. It is a revealing portrait of humankind at a time when immigration and the plight of refugees is a significant issue in our country and beyond. The show is the 124th play that NJ Rep has presented in their 24 seasons. We congratulate Executive Producer, Gabor Barabas and Artistic Director, SuzAnne Barabas for continuing to bring groundbreaking shows to the metro area.


A CurtainUp New Jersey Review - Issei, He Say, or The Myth of the First

  By Simon Saltzman

Stan Egi and Kathleen Swan (photo credit: SuzAnne Barabas)

Mr. Yamamoto was the first Japanese man I had ever met. Well...that's not saying much because everyone in Canada was the first of whatever they were that I had ever met. Down on College Street were all the Italians, my cousins told me on the Danforth was where all the Greek people lived, and the Jewish people lived up Bathurst. — Lucy

Living the American dream in Scarborough (Toronto) Canada can be a challenge if not a nightmare, as it becomes for a Chinese family newly arrived from Hong Kong with the hopes of settling down comfortably in a working class neighborhood in 1969. As confidently directed by Lisa James, this heart-felt, if also problematic, fictional memory play by Chloeá Hung chronicles the unhappy experiences of the Chu family in an unwelcoming community. As if it isn't enough for Mr. Chu (Fenton Li) and his wife (Kathleen Kwan) to feel alienated when the small convenience store they run is vandalized, their 12 year-old daughter Lucy (Christina Liang) is made miserable every day at the public school she attends by racial taunts and bullying from the other girls.

An even more unexpected issue involves their next door neighbor Mr. Yamamoto (Stan Egi) who is Japanese and unwittingly brings back horrific memories of World War II to Mr. and Mrs. Chu. Mr. Chu is reluctant to let the past go and makes no attempt to be neighborly. On the other hand, Mr. Yamamoto, who earns his living as a gardener, is a first generation Japanese. He lived and worked as a fisherman in Vancouver until his wife and child chose to be repatriated and return to Japan. Alone, but willing to be a good neighbor ("Good day, neighbor") gets only a chilly nod from Mr. Chu on his way to work. He makes it clear that he holds Mr. Yamamoto personally responsible for the atrocities committed to members of his family by the Japanese.

Only Lucy, who likes to visit Mr. Yamamoto in his garden and Mrs. Chu who is willing to consider a truce create a bridge toward reconciliation. He empathizes with Lucy by small gestures while also trying to make her understand the difficulties of being Issei or first generation. He understands Mrs. Chu's difficulty being excluded by the Canadian ladies she meets who mock her attempts to pronounce certain words. In a lovely/funny scene Mrs. Chu practices Elvis Presley's "Hound Dog" moving in rhythm.

It isn't often that we get a play about Asian immigration and especially with Canada as a locale and playwright Hung makes no concessions on how difficult it is for people to start fresh and leave their emotional baggage. An up and coming playwright to watch, Chinese-American Hung lets us see how the lingering and bitter memories harbored by Lucy's parents and those of Mr. Yamamoto who has been sadly estranged from his family for an entire generation, contribute to their testy relationship.

A tumultuous confrontation between Mr. and Mrs. Chu and Mr. Yamamoto raises the play's emotional bar even above the anger that mostly propels the play. Stan Egi is excellent as the good-intentioned Japanese gardener who hopes to break down the wall of hostility that his neighbor has built. Although patriarchal in the extreme, Fenton Li nicely shades Mr. Chu's resistance to peaceful co-existence. Kathleen Kwan brings a disarming quality to Mrs. Chu, a talented woman ready and willing to start a new career.

Christina Lang is lovely as the young Lucy and also keeps a warmly intoned narrative flowing between 1969 and 1990 as her older self. Designer Jessica Park's setting that conjoins the two homes and features Yamamoto's beautiful, if small, flower garden, serves a play that makes a credible argument for racial empathy over societal apathy.


The LINK News

Theater Review: Warm, human and marvelous: we say see 'Issei, He Say'

By Madeline Schulman

 


Stan Egi and Fenton Li in a scene from the world premiere of Issei, He Say or the Myth of the First by Chloé Hung. (SuzAnne Barabas Photo)

Long Branch — The world premiere of Issei, He Say (Or the Myth of the First), by Chloe Hung, is playing at NJ Rep. Here is a spontaneous three word review by my husband, Joel Schulman. "That was marvelous!" Joel felt this very strongly. I would go with "warm and human," but "marvelous" works.

Two houses sit side by side in a working class neighborhood in Scarborough (Toronto), Canada. The year is 1969. The Chu family lives at number 29. Mr. Chu (Fenton Li), has brought his wife (Kathleen Kwan) and 12-year-old daughter Lucy (Christina Liang) from Hong Kong to pursue the North American dream.

Mr. Yamamoto (Stan Egi) lives at number 28. He is first generation Japanese American (Issei), a former fisherman from Vancouver now working as a gardener. Jessica Parks has designed a lovely little garden for him, contrasting with the neighbors' barren yard.

Mr. Yamamoto calls out a friendly, "Good day, neighbor!" every morning as Mr. Chu goes grumpily off to work, but never gets a friendly response. Mr. Chu hates all Japanese because of atrocities committed by the Japanese against the Chinese during World War II, and holds Mr. Yamamoto guilty by association, even though Mr. Yamamoto was in Canada during the war, shamefully incarcerated in an internment camp. (I did not know that the Canadians were also guilty of imprisoning their Japanese citizens.)

Lucy loves her neighbor, who gives her orange cream soda and listens to her tales of the terrible way the white girls at school treat her. Poor Lucy! Canadian culture is so foreign to her that the only Canadian parties she can name are "Birthday, Christmas, Easter." He can sympathize as one Issei to another with a newcomer trying to fit in.

Mrs. Chu has to endure patronizing white ladies laughing at her accent. Kathleen Kwan is charming when Mrs. Chu, practicing her "th" sound (since the ladies have mocked her for saying "Sank you") is inspired by the word "nothing" to burst out in an inspired version of Elvis Presley's Hound Dog.

She and Lucy are very funny about a casserole one lady has given them, exclaiming "They put cheese on everything!"

Mr. Chu has fewer chances to amuse, but Fenton Li makes the most of those, especially when sympathizing with Darren on Bewitched. "Those women make him do everything!"

Unexpected news brings a confrontation in which Mr. and Mrs. Chu express what the Japanese invasion did to their families, and Mr. Yamamoto tells how internment wrecked his life and family. Even though decades have passed, the wounds are still painful. It seems that it is up to Lucy, a generation removed from the horror, to make a fresh start, and her love for Mr. Yamamoto points to hope.

The actors are wonderful. The characters are well drawn, and their story is moving and relevant. As a bonus, there are some neat special effects with snow. You can't have a play set in Canada during the winter without snow!


Out IN Jersey

"Issei, He Say" depicts the tragedy of losses kept alive

By Allen Neuner


"Issei, He Say" is being presented by the New Jersey Repertory Company

 

World premiere at New Jersey Repertory Company

Hatred can be passed down from generation to generation until its origin becomes lost in the mists of time. Hatred can be born as quickly as a sprouting weed from the pain of personal tragedy. Both of these forms of hatred are examined in Issei, He Say (or the Myth of the First), making its world premiere at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

"Issei, He Say" is being presented by the New Jersey Repertory Company "Issei, He Say" is being presented by the New Jersey Repertory Company Issei, He Say takes place in 1969 and follows 12-year-old Lucy Chu, a recent arrival in Canada from Hong Kong with her parents. The Chus struggle during this first year, running a failing store bought with their life savings and trying to assimilate into their Toronto neighborhood. Lucy, out of place and friendless, is bullied at school and can find no sympathy from her preoccupied parents. Their next-door neighbor, Mr. Yamamoto, is an issei, a first-generation Japanese-Canadian. Despite Mr. Yamamoto's unfailing kindness toward the Chus, Mr. Chu responds with abrasive condescension. The Chu women begin to respond to Yamamoto's advice and encouragement, but have to fend off Mr. Chu's disapproval. The arrival of a letter from Japan triggers revelations of past personal hurts on all sides, leading to a stunning conclusion.

The quartet of actors in Issei, He Say is outstanding

Playwright Chloé Hung, herself Chinese-Canadian, skillfully captures the pain of being the first in a new situation and the sympathy one newcomer can feel toward another. She and director Lisa James are well served by the outstanding cast. The remarkable Stan Egi is a benevolent Mr. Yamamoto, wanting to ease the transition for his new neighbors yet repressing his own emotional turmoil. Christina Liang captures in Lucy Chu the emotional mix of a young girl beginning to make the at-times difficult transition from child to adolescent, loving yet beginning to question her parents' ways. Kathleen Kwan and Fenton Li excel in illuminating such adult problems as dealing with a new language, a new culture, and a new country, struggling with hardships they never bargained on, and needing to blame someone — anyone — for their feelings of pain and loss.

The only quibble I found came in the play's final scene. An older Lucy addresses the audience, summing up the effects of that first year in Canada. A gesture made by one of the characters, its meaning left for the audience to decide, adds an unsettling final note to the story.

As usual, NJ Rep's scenic design is amazing and Jessica Parks' work, given the small playing space and budget restrictions, is wonderful. While the side-by-side houses of Yamamoto and the Chus mirror each other, their front yards have a visual impact capturing the differences between the neighbors. Parks' set is complimented by the lighting design of Jill Nagle.

This is a strong work, dealing with its characters honestly yet with a certain affection. Chloé Hung is a playwright worth following, and it will be interesting to see works by her in the future. As well, this show provides us with the pleasure of seeing an outstanding quartet of actors perform, both individually and as an ensemble. For these reasons, I suggest you visit the New Jersey Repertory Company's production of Issei, He Say.


NEW FACES IN TOWN HAVE A STORY TO TELL, AT NJ REP

Upper WET Side - April 26, 2018 

Bringing ISSEI, HE SAY to the stage at New Jersey Rep are (standing, left to right) Stan Egi, playwright Chloe Hung, Kathleen Kwan, director Lisa James, Fenton LI and (seated) Christina Liang.

While it doesn't boast any sort of official stock company, New Jersey Repertory has, over the course of its twenty seasons in Long Branch, cultivated some long-standing relationships with a core crop of actors, directors and playwrights — repeat collaborators whose appearances have served as a reassuring hallmark of quality, and a mutually beneficial thing for all concerned.

With the current world premiere production of Chloe Hung's Issei, He Say, some new faces have arrived in town — and those newcomers have a compelling story to tell; one of blinding prejudice, national tragedies, home-front secrets, and the things people use to forge alliances in the darkness, whether shared struggles or silly sitcoms.

It's an American story for sure, albeit one that plays out on a quiet block of a suburban Toronto street during the late 1960s — onetime home turf of the (now LA-based) Chinese-Canadian playwright and TV writer, who drew from some of her own family members' experiences in crafting this script. It's to the Scarborough district that the Chu family has emigrated from Hong Kong, having traded their life there for a "sad" and poorly stocked little store run by the rather disagreeable Mr. Chu (Fenton Li) and his wife Vivian, a former factory worker who struggles with her command of English, and who harbors dreams of returning to school to learn textile design. Completing the household is daughter Lucy (Christina Liang), an insecure 12 year old whose tense relationship with her parents is compounded by the bullying and embarrassment she experiences regularly at school.

Having bypassed the city's Chinatown community in favor of their lily-white neighborhood, the recent arrivals just happen to have set up house within inches of Mr. Yamamoto (Stan Egi), a gardener of Japanese birth, and a good-humored graybeard whose cheerful daily greetings go unacknowledged by the grumbling Chu. Rather than finding common ground with his sole Asian neighbor, the storekeeper makes it clear that he holds Yamamoto — a longtime resident whose time in Canada has included a forced relocation to a wartime internment camp — personally responsible for atrocities visited upon Chinese nationals by the Japanese military.

The female members of the Chu household establish an altogether different dynamic with the aging gardener, whose own wife and daughter were long ago repatriated back to Japan. Vivian, uncomfortable among the casserole-bearing housewives of the new neighborhood, finds in the proximity to Yamamoto a newfound license to let loose in song and dance and the pursuit of dreams — while young Lucy finds in the old man her only real friend and confidante; a sympathetic presence whose wisdom has been shaped by his own experiences as an "issei" (first generation) immigrant. When Mr. Chu is forced by circumstance into taking time off work (and retreating into a TV-land existence of "Gilligan's Island" and "General Hospital"), it's implicit that Yamamoto is there to take up much of the slack, from shoveling snow to dispensing valuable life advice — a state of affairs as fragile as that Japanese maple planted far too late in the season.

Things come to a head, as they inevitably must, out there on the snowy sidewalks of that prolonged Canadian winter; the adults dropping all remaining pretense of civility and revealing the invisible scar tissue of wartime grief, loss, and estrangement. It's a powerful second-act climax, for which the actors — particularly Egi and Kwan — step up and take their characters to some unexpected places (of course Li's Mr. Chu, in his stubborn consistency, can be said to be the most honest of the grownups in the room). It's also the start of a late-stage journey that takes us momentarily far afield of that suburban Scarborough street — only to wind up back at the doorstep, in a perfect little ending.

Lisa James, herself a fellow newcomer to the NJ Rep fold, directs this study of sprawling issues and compact cast with a facility that stresses the universality of its greater themes. While the play's Asian characters carry the specific weights of their families' tragedies and dogged demons — and the Canadian setting is reinforced by multiple references to former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and the national anthem — it's an instantly recognizable immigrant's tale in its details of citizenship tests, confounding new languages, and old-country concoctions that would never pass muster in the judgmental environment of the school bake sale. In the central role of Lucy, the adult actress Liang does a remarkable job of channeling a lonely pre-teen beset by crises at home, school, and neighborhood streets.

Precisely structured and wonderfully executed, Issei, He Say serves as a helpful reminder that the folks next door, whoever they may seem to be, have their own stories to tell — whether they choose to share them or not. The production continues Thursdays through Sundays until May 20, with full schedule details and ticket info available by calling (732)229-3166 or visiting njrep.org —and watch this space for news on an exciting project at NJ Rep's new West End Arts Center; a festival salute to novelist/playwright Edna Ferber that features new adaptations of the author's stories, and a first-ever performance of a "lost" Ferber script.


www.NJ.com

At NJ Rep, a world premiere set in the past with relevance to the present


Chloe Hung's "Issei, He Say" has its world premiere run at NJ Repertory Company April 19 - May 20. In this scene, Christina Liang watches the interactions between her new neighbor played by Stan Egi, and her parents played by Kathleen Kwan and Fenton Li (SuzAnne Barabas)

By Natalie Pompilio

Playwright Chloe Hung's "Issei, He Say (or The Myth of the First)" explores how past events affect current day, the challenges of fitting in and how moving forward doesn't mean history is forgotten.

The drama, which will have its world premiere at New Jersey Repertory Theatre April 21, centers on two immigrant families -- "Issei" is a Japanese term meaning "first generation" -- and was inspired by Hung's grandparents' story.

"The myth of the first is that you go to a new country and it's the American dream: you're going to be working hard but it'll be glorious," Hung said. "The reality is it's a lot of really hard work, it'll be really tough and you can't anticipate it until you're there."

Hung has set her play in Canada, where she grew up. It's 1969 and the Chu family -- mother, father and 13-year-old Lucy (the central character) - has moved from China to a mostly white Toronto suburb. Their neighbor is elderly Mr. Yamamoto, who immigrated to Canada as a young man before the war. Their relationship is complicated by their pasts: Mr and Mrs. Chu, and their families, suffered greatly during the Japanese occupation of China during World War II. During the same conflict, Mr. Yamamoto and his family were sent to a Canadian internment camp.

"Plays are all about secrets and when they are revealed. For this play, the historical aspect is part of it," Hung said. "You're learning the history as the characters are learning it."

This is the writer's second play. It was developed at the National New Play Network MFA Playwrights Workshop and presented in a workshop at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. It won a 2017 Edgerton Foundation New Play Award.

Hung realizes that some in the audience won't be familiar with the history she's presenting, but the play will fill in the blanks. She also believes they'll feel a kinship with the characters. "We can all relate to the struggles the Chu family (goes) through. Everyone can relate to isolation and finding parental figures in unlikely places," she said. "There's also something about the immigrant experience that's very universal. With America being the land of immigrants, that's very important."

The nation's current immigration debate also weighed on Hung while she was writing. She found many uncomfortable similarities between modern day and the treatment of immigrants during World War II: There was a fear of a "foreign terror" and multiple instances during which anger over events that happened overseas led to violence domestically. She pointed to the January 2017 shooting at a mosque in Quebec City, during which a Canadian man, who'd professed anti-Muslim views online, killed six men and injured almost 20 more.

"Among the men who died were a shopkeeper, a college professor, people who fed the poor -- who were not remotely related to any ISIS movement," she said.

The play, she said, could lead to "conversations that have an unfortunate relevancy."

Hung's grandmother -- whose life inspired the play, particularly the character of Mrs. Chu -- will be attending the Long Branch premiere. In the production, Mrs. Chu needs to go out into the world to support the family. After Hung's grandfather had a heart attack, her grandmother went to college and learned a trade.

"I think there's a thread in his play about women finding their voices. Mrs. Chu is finding her ambition. Lucy is finding herself as an adolescent in Canada," Hung said. "She is the hope for the future, that there can be a reconciliation, that you can honor the past but not have it loom so heavily over you ... Lucy is asking, 'How do you move forward?' She is discovering the new world and all the possibilities."


A 1ST-GENERATION EXPERIENCE, A 1ST LOOK AT NJ REP PREMIERE

Upper WET Side - April 20, 2018 

Christina Liang, Stan Egi, Kathleen Kwan and Fenton Li are featured in ISSEI, HE SAY, the play by Chloe Hung that makes its world premiere this weekend at New Jersey Repertory Company. (Photo by SuzAnne Barabas)

"It's what we think of as the American Dream…work hard, and all your dreams will come true," says playwright Chloe Hung of Issei, He Say, the four-character drama that makes its world premiere this weekend at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. "But it's not like that at all."

Subtitled "The Myth of the First," the play that was workshopped before audiences at DC's John F. Kennedy Center 'breaks the myth" of immigrant families inspiring their first-generation offspring toward easy assimilation and success, by "exploring how you don't really know what it's like until you get there."

The American Dream — or, more to the point, the North American Dream — is examined here through the experiences of 13 year old Lucy Chu (Christina Liang), a recent arrival whose parents (Kathleen Kwan, Fenton Li) have recently emigrated from Hong Kong to a suburban community in Canada. Set in the late 1960s — a time when the wounds of the Second World War were far from healed — the script is "semi-based" on the playwright's own grandparents, mother and other relatives, and their experiences as residents of Toronto's Scarborough district.

Speaking from New Orleans, where she was observing the filming of her first produced script for the Ava DuVernay series Queen Sugar (the episode is due to air in late June on Oprah Winfrey's OWN network), the Chinese-Canadian writer and current resident of Los Angeles describes her play as a story of "four people, of different ages and different stages of life, struggling with what it means to be from somewhere else, and to move to a new place."

The fourth person in this equation is the Chu family's next door neighbor, Mr. Yamamoto (Stan Egi) — a Japanese immigrant (or "issei") who has lived in Canada for many years; several of them as a resident of a wartime internment camp (and yes, they had such things north of the border as well). Having seen his wife and daughter repatriated back to Japan, Yamamoto is a lonely soul in his mostly-white neighborhood — but his attempts to recapture a sense of "family" through the family next door are met with the blind hostility of Mr. Chu, who holds his innocent neighbor single-handedly responsible for the Japanese army's atrocities during the siege of Nanking.

Reaching out through the barrier of prejudice and tension is young Lucy, whose unhappy experiences at school find a sympathetic ear in the middle-aged man who "has a perspective that her parents don't have…he's the most understanding of what she's going through."

As the playwright explains it, Issei does carry its share of lighter moments —much of which springs from her grandmother, a woman she's described as "tough, strong, with a wicked sense of humor." As for young Lucy — an amalgam of her mother plus four additional aunts and uncles — "for the purposes of this play I needed one voice…and her personality is probably my own creation!"

"It's been really great to see this play come to life," Hung says of the production under the direction of another west coast-based newcomer to the NJ Repertory fold, Lisa James. "Gabe (Barabas, co-founder and executive producer at NJ Rep) really connected with it, because of his own experiences as an immigrant from Hungary…and I've gotten similar feedback from people of all different backgrounds."


Friday, March 2, 2018

THEATER

Hold your 'Horses' – and take in the story at NJ Rep

TOM CHESEK
Special to the Asbury Park Press
USA Today Network – New Jersey

Technically it's a "one-woman show" – albeit one whose stage is populated by a full house of humans. But if "Wild Horses" is the rare solo showcase that seeks to capture what it's like to be "alone in the crowd," it's also a reminder that the most confessional, revelatory, soul-searching monologues require an audience to happen.

The latest in a series of National New Play Network "rolling world premiere" productions at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, the script by Allison Gregory takes its title form the epic 1971 ballad by the Rolling Stones – and its peculiar rhythm from the novel setting of a little karaoke bar in 1990s "Anytown USA:" one whose jukebox is decidedly heavy on the sounds of the 1960s and '70s. Most of us have surely been there – or someplace very much like it – before, and the Jessica Parks set design presents a cozy comfort zone amid trappings that are alternately period-correct and partly crazy.

Into this dimly lit oasis walks "Woman" (Estelle Bajou) a mom who's apparently slipped away from the kids this evening under pretense of attending a book club. At first a bit wide-eyed, as if it had been a lifetime since she last set foot in such a place, the stranger quickly acclimates herself to her surroundings; chatting up the regulars and finding the liquid courage to take the tiny stage. It doesn't take many sips of her drink before she lapses into a long and winding soliloquy; a tale of lost innocence, freed spirits and pent-up desires that transforms the nameless bar into a place at the crossroads of confessional booth and spoken-word slam.

Equipped with her own special song to share (the folk-rock-drug anthem "Horse With No Name" by America), the newcomer is inspired to embark upon an epic recollection of an awkward youth; a saga of hard-fought freedoms, daring escapes and adolescent adventures with a circle of acquaintances that include Skinny Lynney and Mean Dean. NJ Rep returnee Bajou runs a storyteller's gamut in her animated recollections of underage drinking, underage driving, entirely un-romantic early sexual experiences, and a deep undercurrent of sadness that courses through a family life that's both suffocatingly oppressive and coming apart at the seams.

Working under the direction of company co-founder SuzAnne Barabas, the actress occupies all corners of the stage with a disarming energy; offering up a variety of voice characterizations, while maintaining a sense that this breakneck ramble through suburban bedrooms and dusty fields is going someplace fast. And you can bet that the last jukebox quarter that those wild horses of the title figure into the action.

Attendees at all performances of "Wild Horses" are strongly advised to arrive at the theater some 30 minutes before showtime – at which point they'll find the show already in progress, as a company of "bar patrons" takes turns at the mic, under the watchful eye of onstage "bartender" Carl Hoffman. The mostly-young mix of student players, community theater veterans and moonlighting NJ Rep staffers sets the scene courtesy of a shuffle-mix of classics that run from Elvis, The Beatles and Shirelles to Tom Petty, Eagles and Carole King. It's an entertaining interlude that lends a hind of backstory to those nameless ships-in-the-night who happen to share the same space.

As Bajou's Woman continues to spin her yarn, the patrons dwindle away to a hardy few souls who sit silently like ghosts while they take in the scene; the company drifting back in occasionally to act as a sort of solemn chorus, in the play that quickly transitions to a more mystical plan than that commonly occupied by one's neighborhood watering hole. Before long, it becomes clear that the visitor has not randomly chosen this place out of all the gin joints in the world – and that there remains a purpose, and a highly personal payoff, beyond the shared story and song.


BWW Review: See WILD HORSES at NJ Rep for a Charming and Compelling Show

www.broadwayworld.com




"We weren't freedom fighters, we were freedom takers."

by Woman in Wild Horses

New Jersey Repertory Company is now presenting the National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere of Allison Gregory's Wild Horses through March 25. This stunning, original one-woman show stars Estelle Bajou and is directed by NJ Rep's Artistic Director, Suzanne Barabas. There are so many reasons why theatergoers, young and old alike, will enjoy this production. Wonderfully performed and cleverly staged, it is a spirited coming of age story that is relatable, entertaining, yet very touching.

Wild Horses is set in a Tastee-Freeze turned karaoke bar that could be anywhere in the United States. The preshow is not to be missed. It sets the mood with an authentic bar scene as patrons step up to the mike and perform popular songs like "Desperado," "Yesterday" and "I Can't Help Falling in Love With You." Into this setting steps Woman, ready to share her memories of being thirteen years old. To portray numerous vignettes, she brings to life her friends Skinny Linny and Gabby, her sister, Carrie Ann dubbed "the favorite," along with locals that include Gabby's brothers Dono and Mean Dean. These characters and many more make the stories about adolescent adventures and misadventures stirring. Woman recounts with humor and verve her first big crush, family conflicts, and a daring feat to save horses on a ranch.

Estelle Bajou is outstanding in her role as Woman. She is the ideal actor to star in Allison Gregory's insightful, keenly crafted play. Bajou displays her diverse talents as she transitions to portray different parts seamlessly and captures the personality of each character.

Wild Horses also features the fine talents of local actors that include Alli Angelou, Jim Benner, Debbie Bernstein, Jessica Freeland, Danielle Grosso, Velda Harris, Carl Hoffman, A.J. Melnick, Chris Price, Amelia Vitale, and Heather Welsh who appear as patrons of the bar.

NJ Rep's Production Staff has excelled by creating the ideal setting for Wild Horses. They include scenic design by Jessica Parks; lighting design by Jill Nagle; sound design by Merek Royce Press; costume design by Patricia E. Doherty; properties design by Marisa Procopio. The Technical Director is Brian P. Snyder; Stage Manager is Kristin Pfeifer; Assistant Stage Manager is Adam von Pier; Assistant Director is Janey Huber.

Experience a charming, compelling story of youth with its pain and promise and see Wild Horses. It is a show that is sure to please. We applaud Executor Producer, Gabor Barabas and Artistic Director, Suzanne Barabas for continuing to bring new, relevant, and entertaining theatre to metro area audiences.


Two plays, two women, one each. "In the Body of the World" and "Wild Horses"

Scene on Stage, by Philip Dorian

March 6, 2018

It takes more than memorization to put across a solo play (although that element should not be minimized). Those sometimes deceptively crowded affairs require the establishing of unique personal connections to the audience and, in most, the enacting of multiple characters through variations of voice and demeanor in such a way that leaves no doubt as to who is whom when. High profile Broadway outings this season have included John Lithgow's "Stories By Heart" and John Leguizamo's "Latin History for Morons." (Solo Performance is a category at both Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards.)

No one has achieved more solo-show recognition than Eve Ensler, primarily for "The Vagina Monologues," which she wrote and performed solo. (It has morphed into a women's ensemble piece, not to its detriment.) Ensler's "In the Body of the World" is now running off-Broadway, while on the Broadway in Long Branch, New Jersey, the resourceful NJ Repertory Company is featuring "Wild Horses," written by Allison Gregory and performed by Estelle Bajou. Both pieces are also directed by women: "World" by Diane Paulus ("Waitress," etc. on B'way) and "Horses" by NJ Rep artistic director SuzAnne Barabas. Both actors deserve that memorization shout-out, but it is their rapport with the audience and their evocations of diverse persons (of both sexes) that most impress.

Ms. Ensler's play is a highly personal rumination on women's issues, centered on her own battle with uterine cancer. It is neither self-pitying nor an appeal for received pity, although a sad confessional it is in part, and it surely triggers the sympathy gene.

Ensler has long been passionate about the oppression of women – everywhere, but particularly in Africa's Congo region, where many suffer "unspeakable violence." (She does speak of it here, in arresting detail.) Spurred by the success of "The Vagina Monologues," Ensler founded V-Day and also One Billion Rising, a global effort to end violence against women in more than 200 countries. "World" centers on her personal diagnosis and treatment, but she expands the exploration of her affected body parts, her body of the world, into coverage of wider – and instructive – women's issues.

Some of "World" is not easy to take. If, like me, you are averse to hearing details of someone's medical symptoms, their surgical procedures and after-effects, there will be some trepidation going in. But Ensler's factual and brisk recitation jolts the senses, not the stomach. In a Why not? manner, she's also pretty funny about it, and winningly self-deprecating. (Upon learning that her vagina would be undergoing radiation: "Do you know who I am?") Backed by gorgeous environmentally themed projections, Eve Ensler commands the stage. "In the Body of the World" is alternately wrenching, lyrical, angry, funny and, throughout, highly personal and literate.

There are no similarly weighty issues in "Wild Horses," which is more a reminiscence than a memoir. In NJ Rep's "rolling world premier" (several simultaneous openings nationwide), Woman (Girl in flashbacks) recounts an episode from the twenty-year ago summer when she was thirteen. Unsurprisingly, there are examples of rebellion – against parental (and outside) authority and against the pressures of adolescent insecurity, set to a background of 1960s and 70s juke box favorites.


Estelle Bajou in the National New Play Network World Premiere of "Wild Horses" by Allison Gregory. (SuzAnne Barabas photo)

 

The plot thread about freeing penned-up horses from captivity is no less effective for being an obvious metaphor for the pent-up young characters, and Estelle Bajou is particularly effective at evoking the voices and attitudes of Girl's angsty cohort. Remember the sense of indestructibility that lingered until sometime between middle school and real life? That universal passage of youth permeates "Wild Horses."

As she has exhibited before, director Barabas has a knowing way with female actors and characters. Gregory's play is fragile. In at least this rolling premiere, it is handled with care.

While no one other than Woman/Girl has any lines, the playwright-decreed set is "a room where people are gathered…a bar or a food court" with an "ambient buzz" of conversation, illustrating the passage of twenty years since it was a Tastee Freeze. The point is well made, but NJ Rep doubles down, turning it into a Karaoke bar…on an amateur performance night no less. It's harmless enough, but you really have to be a fan. (Unfortunately, it's not a real bar.) Early-arrival is optional, however, and Ms. Bajou's sensitive performance in the reflective "Wild Horses" begins when the sing-in is over.


Out IN Jersey

"Wild Horses" is a different and powerful view of the start of growing up

By Allen Neuner


Estelle Bajou stars in "Wild Horses" at NJ Repertory

 

I have long said that the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch consistently brings to its audiences outstanding new plays staged by directors of skill and performed by actors of consummate talent. Its latest production, Wild Horses, is no exception, and its playwright/director/actor team – all powerfully talented women – have created a play of such deep emotional impact that my opening-night companion was crying tears of joy at its conclusion.

Wild Horses is a one-woman show with a cast of twelve. That's no error: Director SuzAnne Barabas, artistic director of NJ Rep, has devised a prologue set in a Tastee-Freeze- turned-karaoke- bar, populated by a bartender and probably the most naturalistic group of habitués seen on stage in a long time. The diverse group sings, drinks, and mingles, forming and re-forming into small groups and couples, setting a perfect atmosphere for actress Estelle Bajou to begin the seventy minute monologue created by playwright Allison Gregory. Ms. Bajou, playing a middle-aged woman, relates the tale of the thirteen-year- old version of herself as she starts the transition from childhood to adulthood. During her performance she changes into not only her younger self but her two closest friends, her mother, and all the others who play a part in the beginning of her coming-of- age.

Texas-based playwright Gregory has created a work of such power and beauty, shining with its own inner truths, that you wonder why you haven't heard of her before now, and how you can see more of her work. Her creative artistry is matched by the deep understanding of the play shown in Barabas' skillful direction and the sheer talent of actress Bajou in her interpretation of the many characters she portrays. Together they make a strong theatrical triumvirate, one that make you want to see their work both separately and together in years to come. They are well served by NJ Rep's technical staff: scenic designer Jessica Parks' just-right local hangout; the light and sound designs of Jill Nagle and Merek Royce Press; and Patricia E. Doherty's costumes.

This is the kind of show you hope would go on to productions in larger venues in the region. It is touching and honest and presented with love and understanding affection. For an outstanding evening in the theatre, from the first karaoke song to the last call at the bar, I can't think of a better production than Wild Horses at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. Go. See it.

Note: In addition to Wild Horses and last month's The Calling, the upcoming season at New Jersey Repertory Company includes: Chloe Hung's Issei, He Say, from April 19 thru May 20; Mercy by Adam Szymkowicz, June 14 thru July 15; Michael Tucker's Assisted Living, from August 9 thru September 9; and Wolf at the Door by Marisela Orta, October 18 thru November 18. I have never yet been disappointed at any play put on by New Jersey Repertory Company. It's simply the most consistently outstanding company in the state today. You owe it to yourself to be part of their audience.


The LINK News

Theater Review: We're wild about Wild Horses

By Madeline Schulman

 


Estelle Bajou in the National New Play Network World Premiere of "Wild Horses" by Allison Gregory. (SuzAnne Barabas photo)

Estelle Bajou is phenomenal. In Wild Horses, a one woman play (with a twist) by Allison Gregory, now at NJ Rep, she plays an entire town full of characters, sometimes enacting scenes between three and four people, differentiating them by her voice, her face, and her body. Changing Bajou to Bijou yields a gem, and Estelle Bajou is a multifaceted gem.

The above mentioned twist is that although Wild Horses has one main speaking part, the stage is populated by several people. Please forget the usual 8 o'clock curtain time and be sure to be in your seat by 7:30, admiring Jessica Parks's set, a bar that was once a Tastee Freeze in Anytown USA, 1996.

Several local performers, led by Carl Hoffman as a genial bartender, drift in to drink and sing karaoke. Eventually Ms. Bajou joins them, and after mingling for a while, starts speaking. Whether she is addressing her fellow patrons, the audience or herself doesn't matter, because her tale is fascinating.

The unnamed woman reminisces about the summer she was thirteen. Her first preoccupation was sending 90 entries to a radio contest to name the band America's "Horse With No Name." She and her friends, wild leader Zabby and accident prone follower Skinny Linny (spellings not guaranteed), spend their days with such diversions as drinking their parents' alcohol, trying to score weed from an obnoxious boy, and egging cars.

Zabby has two brothers, mean Dean and dreamboat Donno. One night the girls borrow Dean's car, with our underage heroine at the wheel, to go to the liquor store. On their journey the three girls come across a terrible injustice which they try, fervently and foolhardily, to redress.

Meanwhile, Dean lusts after the narrator, while she daydreams about Donno, and teenagers and adults both indulge in unwise affairs.

Ms. Bajou portrays all three girls, Dean, Donno, the narrator's older sister Carrie Ann (the "favorite"), her cataleptic mother and her authoritarian father.

As she moves around the stage (direction by SuzAnne Barabas), the audience never loses track of who she is and what she is doing, and never loses interest in what happened that summer many years ago.

Wild Horses is a great evening of theater, telling a tale of adolescence at once particular and universal.


Wild Horses making world premiere at the Shore

ILANA KELLER, CORRESPONDENT


(Photo: COURTESY OF SuzAnne Barabas)

You can be among the first to see a brand-new show, right here at the Shore.

New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch is presenting "Wild Horses" by Allison Gregory through March 25. "Wild Horses" is set in 1996 in a Tastee Freeze-turned-karaoke bar in "Anywhere, USA." It promises a "savagely funny play about a summer that changed an adolescent girl forever, told by her grown-up self."

"I'm going back to the place where I spent my early adolescence in the hopes of seeing a friend, who was part of the first big autonomous act (of my life)," says Estelle Bajou, who stars in the piece. "It jumps back and forth in time from me recounting the story to me reliving the story, so I play a bunch of characters from that time in my life, from age 13, from that event. It's about processing that time in order to better guide my own kids."

"Wild Horses" is a one-woman show, with a few twists.


Estelle Bajou stars in "Wild Horses," which is staging its world premiere at the Shore. (Photo: Courtesy of NJ Repertory Company)

 

"A lot of one-person shows are almost like a monologue, but this show is really unique because I'm diving into scenes, playing three, sometimes four characters all talking to each other as they would in a more traditional play. So it's a challenge to be able to flip back and forth between each person's perspective really rapid-fire. It's my first one-woman show and it's definitely the first time I've had to jump back and forth between characters really quickly."

Bajou says the sharply written characters help her really inhabit each one distinctly.

Another twist was added by director SuzAnne Barabas, N.J. Rep's artistic director, to help set the atmosphere. Local performers Alli Angelou, James Benner, Debbie Bernstein, Jessica Freeland, Danielle Grosso, Velda Harris, Carl Hoffman, A.J. Melnick, Chris Price, Amelia Vitale and Heather Welsh appear as bar patrons over the course of the show, and perform pre-show karaoke to welcome the audience.

"We've been joking that it's the biggest cast for a one-woman show ever," Bajou said.

Bajou grew up in North Carolina and turned to acting in college as a way to meld her interests and talents.

"When I got to college, I was interested in all of the humanities, history and anthropology and history and politics, sociology — all of it really interested me. Theater and film felt like a way to keep exploring all of that, how humans live and behave and interact with each other. It felt like I could keep learning in all of those different ways while connecting in real time," she said.

Bajou returns to N.J. Rep after appearing in last year's "The Jag," another new piece.

"I love working on new work because I love inhabiting someone without any preconceptions about how it's supposed to go and really finding the voice. You get to make discoveries. It's like detective work in a way."


Allison Gregory's "Wild Horses" will have its world premiere at the Shore. (Photo: Courtesy of NJ Repertory Company)

 

"Wild Horses" is presented as part of the National New Play Network's Rolling World Premiere program. Other theaters participating in the rolling premiere of "Wild Horses" are the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, West Virgina, CenterStage Theater at the JCC in Rochester, New York and The VORTEX in Austin, Texas.


With 'Wild Horses," a N.J. theater grows closer to 100 world premieres in 20 years

  By Natalie Pompilio

Estelle Bajou performs in a scene during a rehearsal Feb. 15, 2018, for €œWild Horses€ at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, New Jersey.

 

When SuzAnne and Gabor Barabas founded the New Jersey Repertory Company more than 20 years ago, one of their aims was to introduce and grow local interest in theater arts, thus sparking positive community change.

But a second goal -- to develop and produce new plays with the hope of making a lasting contribution to the American stage - made the first all the more challenging.

"We've always felt that it's important to take chances and to support the work of new, young, and contemporary writers, perhaps introducing works that will become classics," admitted Suzanne Barabas, now the company's artistic director while Gabor Barabas is its executive producer. "Compared to doing established and well-known plays, it was not a pragmatic decision from a business stand point."

"It took us two or three seasons to gather momentum and develop our model of orchestrating an entire season around new works while at the same time maintaining our financial stability" Barabas said.

N.J. Rep's 98th world premiere and its second this season-- playwright Allison Gregory's "Wild Horses"-- opens Feb. 22 and will enjoy a month-long run. Barabas, who is directing the production, described it as a darkly comic one-woman show set in a Tastee-Freeze-turned karaoke bar in 1996 "Anywhere, U.S.A." Actress Estelle Bajou, who appeared last season in N.J Rep's The Jag and had principal roles in the film "The Post" and TV's "Boardwalk Empire," stars. About a dozen local actors will appear pre-show as karaoke-loving bar patrons to set the mood.

"'Wild Horses' is a compelling coming-of-age story about the vulnerabilities of adolescence," Barabas said. "The audience learns how an adventurous young girl transitioned to adulthood while facing the uncertainties and potential dangers of the grown-up world."

The production is a National New Play Network Rolling Premiere. The National New Play Network is a non-profit which partners theaters nationwide that then independently produce the same new work - in this case, Long Branch as well as Shepherdstown, W.V.; Rochester, N.Y.; and Austin, Tex. -- within one year.

"In this way, a completely unknown play receives tremendous exposure among the theater-going public and hopefully will go on to be produced by many other theaters in the future," Barabas said.

N.J. Rep began this season with "The Calling," an original psycological thriller with humorous overtones written by Joel Stone, N.J. Rep's literary manager. After "Wild Horses," which is also the company's 123rd production, the company will host four more world premieres before the end of the year: "Issei, He Say" by Chloe Hung; "Mercy" by Adam Szymkowicz; "Wolf at the Door" by Marisela Trevino Orta; and "Assisted Living" by Michael Tucker.

As the company has gained a reputation for the excellence of its productions, it's attracted many now-well-known theater professionals. A few who have taken the stage at N.J. Rep include Dan Lauria, (Broadway's "Lombardi", TV's "The Wonder Years"); Wendie Malick (TV's "Dream On" and "Just Shoot Me" ); Gary Cole, ("Office Space," TV's "Veep""and "The Good Wife"); Michael Tucker {TV's "L.A. Law" and "Law and Order"); Jill Eikenberry, (TV's L. A. Law), and the late Kim Hunter, who won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Stella in 1951's "A Streetcar Named Desire."

N.J. Rep has also seen plays that debuted on its Long Branch stage move up and away to subsequent productions off-Broadway, in Chicago, Detroit, Sarasota, Indianapolis, Sacramento, Buffalo, Seattle and Denver, as well as overseas in Austria, Estonia, Australia, and Turkey.

"More and more of the plays we first introduced to the public are produced by other theaters or are published, thereby making them widely available," Barabas said. "In this way, our relatively small stage and our work extends way beyond the physical confines of our building."

Speaking of that building, that's another way N.J. Rep hopes to expand its mission and its reach: After 20 years in a building donated to its cause by a young couple who wanted to revitalize the community, the company is hoping to move. Two years ago, N.J. Rep purchased a former school that is about a five minute drive from its current theater and just two blocks from the beach.

A new capital campaign aims to raise $12 million to begin work by 2020 on the first stage of its plan: a new main stage theater that will anchor a 50,000 square-foot arts complex with two theaters, an art cinema, galleries for the visual arts, classrooms, studios, and residences for out-of-town actors and playwrights.

"Our goal," Barabas said, "is to be a catalyst for the redevelopment and revitalization of our community and to ignite the cultural renaissance of our city."


A CurtainUp New Jersey Review - The Calling

  By Simon Saltzman

L to R Ames Adamson and Jared Michael Delaney (photo credit: SuzAnne Barabas)

Father Dan, I think the world's lost its way. Good people suffer, while bad people prosper. And God just lets it happen. — Carl

Father Dan (Ames Adamson) has just concluded the funeral service for one of his parishioners. Believing the church and the pews are now empty, he begins to pick up the prayer books. He is startled to find that a man has evidently fallen asleep in a pew. Carl (Jared Michael Delaney) is awakened and explains that the deceased was under his care at the local hospital where he is a nurse in the I.C.U. (Intensive Care Unit.) Light chatter between the men quickly grows a bit testy as Father Dan bluntly asks Carl if he is plans to rob the church as he does not recognize him as a regular parishioner. Locking the door to the church, Carl assures Father Dan that he only wants privacy. It is Carl's intentions and Father Dan's response to them that provide the plot in The Calling by Joel Stone, now having its world premiere engagement.

Part thriller and part psychological inquiry, savvy New Jersey audiences will likely make the connection as the ensuing discourse and developing dilemma unfold between a man of faith with a medical practitioner. The play alludes to the 2005 case of a serial murderer, Charles Cullen, a nurse who was charged and convicted of murdering 29 patients in his care at various N.J. hospitals. At least three books and two TV specials delved into his personality and motivations.

Stone's play is not a replay of that case but it appears to be its inspiration. Stone, who is the literary manager for NJ Rep., was commissioned by NJPAC's Stage Exchange in Association with the New Jersey Theatre Alliance and NJ Rep to write a "a cutting edge work." As such, the play cuts to the core of Father Dan's belief in forgiveness, salvation, and redemption as he attempts to relieve the desperation of the apparently unhinged Carl who feels compelled to end the life of those terminally ill and without hope. The play deals with moral and ethical values that are clearly at stake. It directly considers the perspectives of the spiritually grounded Father Dan in contrast to Carl who wants to strike back at a God who can be so cruel.

The crux of the play turns on a twist that would be cruel to reveal.As a thriller should, the plot takes a few unexpected curves in order to confound us. These include both Father Dan and Carl challenging each other in a battle of wills, each facing the truth of their own callings. Not sure whether the digressions into song merely muddle the action or compliment it as the two seem to connect for a while recalling tunes both Christian and rock n' roll. Confessions surface as their pasts appear to be linked. Is Father Dan's life put in peril? Can Carl's soul be saved? Can Father Dan ever reveal what he learns about Carl?

Adamson has commendable grasp of Father Dan as a devout but conventional purveyor of God's words all the while confronting his own battle with health and faith. Playing the sociopath-provocateur, Delaney certainly captures our interest as he shifts his increasingly diabolical tactics so that Father Dan is forced to face his own demons. While credibility is stretched, the actors, under Evan Bergman's direction keep the tension taut throughout an eighty-minute play in which God's messenger is pitted against the Devil's executioner. The interior a small town church has been handsomely evoked by set designer Jessica Parks.


The LINK News

Theater Review: Powerful, suspenseful crisis of faith in The Calling at NJ Rep

By Madeline Schulman

 


Ames Adamson & Jared Michael Delaney in The Calling. (SuzAnne Barabas photo)

Long Branch — "Ah, look at all the lonely people."

I could not resist opening with a quote from Eleanor Rigby after viewing Joel Stone's powerful play, The Calling, having its world premiere at NJ Rep, 179 Broadway, because The Calling is a two character play about a priest and a troubled visitor.

However, Father Dan (Ames Anderson) and Carl (Jared Michael Delaney) are not Eleanor Rigby and Father McKenzie. The two are not explicitly lonely, but Carl is burnt out from his years as a nurse, most recently in the Intensive Care Unit.

Jessica's Parks' setting is a wonderfully realistic church, with eight real pews facing the audience so that its point of view is the altar (which is especially effective when Father Dan kneels in prayer).

Father Dan is picking up debris from Mrs. Callahan's funeral. He finds tissues. He finds a Santa hat. Finally, he finds Carl, sleeping on a bench (hidden from the audience so we are as surprised as Father Dan). First Father Dan thinks Carl is homeless, and then he mistakes him for a would-be thief, but when he finds that Carl attended the funeral to pay last respects to his late patient, the priest invites the nurse to stay and talk for a while.

That is a bad idea, but without that decision, there would be no play.

Soon, the men are arguing about several basic philosophical questions. Why do good people suffer? Does God have a master plan? Do we treat our pets with more humanity than we treat our elderly?

Father Dan seems firm in absolute certainty of his faith. He worries that Carl is tempting eternal damnation by contemplating suicide, and assures Carl that his troubles will be lifted by trust in Christ.

Carl is a "sort of lapsed Catholic," and argues to the point where Father Dan accuses him of playing mind games, and deliberately pushing the priest's buttons.

There are moments of levity, especially a great argument about whether there are as many as five explicitly Christian top 40 hits (Carl is willing to concede White Christmas but not Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer), which leads to a lovely sing-along. But the mood darkens and there are disturbing revelations and actions.

Ames Anderson is wonderful as Father Dan, coping with asthma, bad knees, and an increasingly unsettling visitor. Jared Michael Delaney, as the ambiguous Angel of Mercy, will make you feel many strong emotions.

The Calling raises many questions and leaves us to ponder the answers.


NJ Rep presents darkly confessional world premiere

TOM CHESEK, CORRESPONDENT


(Photo: COURTESY OF SuzAnne Barabas)

"Thank God for showing me my true calling," says Carl (Jared Michael Delaney), a possibly suicidal visitor who's made himself temporarily quite comfortable inside the church of longtime Catholic priest Father Dan (Ames Adamson).

It's a moment that takes place in "The Calling," the world-premiere show now playing at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch —and, when taken out of context, that line of dialogue could suggest a heartwarming scenario of a couple of conflicted souls who help each other find their way back to faith, hope, and higher purpose.

But then again, we're dealing here with the ever-edgy NJ Rep, where no personal breakthroughs or epiphanies can ever occur onstage without an awesome backdraft of collateral damage.

Just as the priesthood represents a calling, so too does Carl's chosen path as a nurse to the terminally ill exist as a noble, if deeply exhausting, calling on its own. But there are other forces that call out to the self-proclaimed "lapsed Catholic" who's found sleeping in the nave, following the funeral service of one Mrs. Callahan.

Over the course of a fast-moving single act, the hospital worker who "prefers to fade into the background" takes the spotlight as a man with a history, a somewhat dubiously motivated plan, and a taste for games.


Ames Adamson, left, and Jared Michael Delaney in "The Calling." (Photo: COURTESY OF SUZANNE BARABAS)

 

The script by company literary manager Joel Stone plays out across a more or less real-time interlude of shifting power dynamics, and a tone that veers from the trappings of conventional stage thrillers, to a discussion of old hit records (complete with singalong snippets) that just might tempt some shout-out interaction from the audience.

Rested and ready for action at the outset, Carl — all curiously channeled energy, complete with a "girlfriend" who's almost certainly fictitious — sets the agenda here, and it's one that, given its source, doesn't need to make a whole world of sense.


Ames Adamson, left, and Jared Michael Delaney in "The Calling." (Photo: COURTESY OF SUZANNE BARABAS)

 

It falls upon the aging, ailing Father Dan to get to the nut of what his extended-stay guest is after — a task he takes on with a listen here, a lecture there, and an occasional reminder that this "calling" once meant something real to the "wild kid" once known as Daredevil Dan.

Although their characters can be said to inhabit different planes of reality, the Philly-based co-stars Adamson and Delaney work well together under the direction of Evan Bergman. In the process of exploring a play that doesn't necessarily go where you'd expect — and that isn't all as preachy as the setting would suggest — the three Rep returnees display the versatile stuff that's made them some of the company's finest frequent-flyer collaborators.

Working amid the pews of a no-nonsense set by resident designer Jessica Parks, the team conjures a claustrophobic little cosmos — sealed off like a confessional booth from the sunlight and passing sirens of the nearby outside world — where secrets run deep; where retribution doesn't necessarily wait until the afterlife; and where your role in the Lord's "master plan" might not be the one you tried out for.

Now While it was developed through a partnership with Newark-based NJPAC, this inaugural production of 2018 stands as a homegrown showcase for what NJ Rep can do with modest means and a generous tithing-box of talent.


BWW Review: THE CALLING at NJ Rep is an Outstanding and Poignant New Play

www.broadwayworld.com




"Do I seem like prodigal son material to you?"
by Carl in The Calling

New Jersey Repertory Company (NJ Rep) kicks off their 2018 season of new plays with the world premiere of The Calling written by Joel Stone, directed by Evan Bergman and starring Ames Adamson and Jared Michael Delaney. This is one to see. The stellar cast and meticulous direction bring Stone's well-crafted, poignant play to life on the Long Branch stage.

The Calling was originally commissioned by Stage Exchange (Stage X), a partnership formed between NJPAC and the New Jersey Theatre Alliance to develop cutting-edge works by notable New Jersey playwrights.

In the show, Father Dan, a Roman Catholic priest for 30 years, has just performed a funeral service for one of his parishioners, Mrs. Callahan. In the empty church, he is surprised to find Carl asleep in one of the church pews. Carl turns out to be an ICU Nurse who cared for Mrs. Callahan just before her death. As Father Dan and Carl discuss their respective professions, their communication becomes spirited and contentious. Carl is depressed and cynical about life as he deals with death everyday in his work while Father Dan ardently believes that people's fate lies in God's will. As the two men communicate, alarming truths are revealed and conflicting attitudes about faith, responsibility, and salvation define their brief encounter.

Ames Adamson as Father Dan and Jared Michael Delaney as Carl are superb in their roles. They master the play's intense, captivating dialogue along with the occasional humor. The actors bring such a sense of authenticity to their characters, audiences will feel they are part of the scene unfolding in the church.

The Creative Team has done a great job of bringing The Calling to the stage. They include scenic design by Jessica Parks; lighting design by Jill Nagle; costume design by Patricia E. Doherty; sound design by Merek Royce Press; properties design by Maris Procopio; Kristin Pfeifer is the Production Stage Manager; Adam von Pier is the Assistant Stage Manager/Company Manager; Brian P. Snyder is the Technical Director.

NJ Rep's Executive Producer, Gabor Barabas and Artistic Director, Suzanne Barabas are once again presenting metro area audiences with an outstanding new play. It is their 21st season and The Calling is the 124th show presented by the company. This production will inspire interesting conversations about the human condition. See it while you can.


'The Calling' is a Remarkable New Play

  Let's Go To The Theater

Ames Adamson and Jared Michael Delaney in a scene from "The Calling," a world premiere by Joel Stone playing at NJ Rep. Photo credit: SuzAnne Barabas

 

The New Jersey Repertory Company is starting the new year off right with the world premiere of a remarkable new play. The Calling by Joel Stone was commissioned by NJPAC's Stage Exchange in Association with the New Jersey Theatre Alliance and the NJRep. It was first introduced at an impressive initial reading at the NJPAC in April, 2017. Even then, there was a sense that the play had unique qualities about it that would deliver on a live stage. Now with it being performed on an well-designed set with two very strong actors, the promise from that reading has been realized. This play delivers a most unexpected series of events keeping its audience guessing until the very last minute of the show. Additionally, the marvelous development of the characters gives theater goers something to ponder as they leave the show.

Evan Bergman provides superb direction to this thriller. The story of The Calling is set in a Catholic church following the funeral of Mrs. Callahan. Father Dan is straightening up after the service when he finds Carl sleeping on one of the pews. They begin to talk and as they do, Carl reveals that he is an ICU nurse who works the night shift at a nearby hospital. Mrs. Callahan was one of his patients and Father Dan is impressed that Carl took time out of his busy life to come to the service. Just why he came to the service becomes the springboard of all the eventual revelations and actions.

Playwright Stone carefully constructs the conversations so that each level of revelation comes out slowly and carefully. This approach allows the layers of the plot to unfold in such a way that the audience on opening day gasped at certain points. That's how startled they were at several points.

It would not be right to reveal critical turning points in this story. So suffice it to say, just when you think you have it figured out, something else is revealed leading to more information about the characters which in turn feeds the plot. The background and actions of the characters are what makes this play such a thriller to sit through. Both Father Dan and Carl have many sides to them including some good and some very sinister.

"The Calling" demands a lot from the two actors. Both Ames Adamson as Father Dan and Jared Michael Delaney as Carl definitely deliver what is needed to bring these characters to life. As a priest, Mr. Adamson both looks and acts the part. He allows the very human side of the priest to come through which intensifies the action taking place. At first, Mr. Delaney shows the uncertainty bothering Carl with a light flair. This allows a more intense approach as the deeper, more complex part of the character emerges. Not an easy thing to do, but it is well done.

As you watch, you realize these are not people who Mr. Stone decided to create out of nothing. No, they could easily be people right in one's own community. The play demonstrates how people hide behind facades that relate to the work they do and how the community regards them. And that makes you feel a bit uncomfortable when the truth of what has happened comes out.

This play definitely lives up to the billing that NJ Rep is using: heart-pounding, mind-bending psychological thriller. Your own feelings about what each character does will determine how heart-pounding it is. But it is definitely mind-bending as the psychology of the characters becomes more exposed.


www.NJ.com

World premiere of 'The Calling,' a psychological thriller with comic undertones'


Jared Michael Delaney as Carl and Ames Adamson as Fr. Dan in Joel Stone's "The Calling," which has its world premiere Jan. 4 at NJ Repertory Company. (SuzAnne Barabas )

By Natalie Pompilio

As literary manager for New Jersey Repertory Company, Joel Stone wants the plays he chooses for the troupe's season to have certain qualities.

"I read hundreds of plays every year," Stone said. "I look to be excited. I look to be stimulated. I look for something thought-provoking. I look for something that won't put me to sleep."

Stone kept those qualities in mind while crafting his own play, "The Calling," which will have its world premiere at NJ Rep Thursday and run through Feb. 4. The piece was one of three commissioned this year by Stage Exchange (Stage X), a partnership between the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and the New Jersey Theatre Alliance that aims to promote local playwrights inspired by local subjects.

Stone's describes his play as "a psychological thriller with comic overtones," a battle of wits between two characters. The show is set in a church after a funeral when a priest, Father Dan, finds a stranger sleeping in a pew. During the interaction that follows, the men find they have a few things in common: Both felt "called" to their professions, one to the priesthood and the other, Carl, to the medical profession. Both are also questioning their choices.

"The priest is priestly, but also a bit street smart. He has a past," Stone said. "The stranger is quirky, mysterious and also mischievous."

This new play explores the complexities of a lifelong friendship The play runs 90 minutes without an intermission. That, combined with the intimacy of N.J. Rep's 80-person main stage, contributes to the tension.

"I love the claustrophobia-feel of it," Stone said. "Father Dan can't escape. The audience can't escape."

This is Stone's first full-length play in decades. In 1998, his play "Horrors of Doctor Moreau," was N.J. Rep's first script-in-hand reading. Stone then began focusing on shorter works. and producing short works show.

"I don't want to ramble on," he said. "Many plays, they should have been about 10 minutes long."

Stone teaches playwriting, most recently at Monmouth College. Many of his students come to class having not seen a play or, if they have, it was a Disney production on Broadway, he said.

But instead of feeling discouraged by that, Stone, who knows the future of the theater is in the hands of young people, is inspired. He's seen students transform in the course of one semester, he said.

"By the time 14 weeks are done, they are incredibly gifted critics of plays and they're pretty good playwrights," Stone said. "Now they love going to the theater."


Theater: NJ Rep, Two River offer world premieres

TOM CHESEK, CORRESPONDENT


(Photo: COURTESY OF SuzAnne Barabas)

The first weeks of the new year might represent something of a post-holiday chilling out period for most purveyors of live stage entertainments on and around the Shore — but theatergoers can take "cold comfort" in the fact that both of Monmouth County's professional companies offer ample reason to emerge from the burrow in the days to come.

It begins this weekend at New Jersey Repertory Company, with Joel Stone's two-hander play "The Calling." Visit njrep.org for tickets and schedule details — and check out our feature on the world premiere drama, at app.com.

Meanwhile at Two River Theater in Red Bank, the 2017-2018 mainstage season resumes this Saturday and Sunday, with the first previews of another world premiere exclusive — a "superhero play" with the intriguing title "El Coquí Espectacular and the Bottle of Doom." Emerging from the ranks of Two River's annual Crossing Borders festival of new Latino plays — and developed with a grant from Kevin Spacey — it's a tale of two Puerto Rican brothers: one a successful advertising exec, the other a unemployed comic book artist turned self-styled costumed crimefighter.

Jose Zayas directs the Matthew Barbot play that opens officially on Jan. 12 and runs through Feb. 4. Call 732-345-1400 or visit tworivertheater.org for tickets — and watch for more on "El Coquí" in the Asbury Park Press or app.com.


BWW Interview: Playwright Joel Stone and THE CALLING at NJ Rep

www.broadwayworld.com



New Jersey Repertory Company (NJ Rep) opens its 2018 season of new plays with the world premiere of The Calling directed by Evan Bergman and starring Ames Adamson and Jared Michael Delaney. Joel Stone's thought-provoking and delightfully quick-witted thriller was commissioned by Stage Exchange (Stage X), a partnership formed between NJPAC and the New Jersey Theatre Alliance to develop cutting-edge works by notable New Jersey playwrights.

In The Calling, Father Dan is preparing to lock up after Mrs. Callahan's funeral. Having dispatched his parishioner's soul to its eternal reward and her mourners to their next stops, his work is done for the day. Or so he assumes, unaware that an epic and life-changing test of his faith and convictions lies ahead and, in fact, lies asleep at that moment in one of the pews. Carl is an ICU nurse who cared for the deceased during her final days. He's burned out and desperately searching for something: answers, relief, absolution? Maybe even revenge on a God that would choose to be so cruel. The front-row seat on suffering that comes with Carl's job has put him at odds with Father Dan's more transcendent views on the subject. Each deeply devoted to his calling, a comfortable man of the cloth and a troubled man of medicine take on life's biggest questions in a heart-pounding, mind-bending battle of wits that arrives at a shocking conclusion.

Broadwayworld.com had the pleasure of interviewing Joel Stone about his career and The Calling.

Joel Stone is the Literary Manager for New Jersey Repertory Company. He was formerly the artistic director of Off-Off Broadway's The Theatre Asylum. On May 17, 1998, his play Horrors of Doctor Moreau (published by Samuel French, Inc.) became the first script-in-hand reading to debut at New Jersey Repertory Company. The following year, his short play The Age of Miracles premiered at NJ Rep and went on to be a finalist at the Samuel French Short Play Festival. Also in 1999, NJ Rep presented "Written in Stone", an evening of Joel's short plays, including The Speck of Dust in Bugsy's Eye (featuring the late Kim Hunter). In 2001, he co-produced "One Night With You", a collection of six short plays about Elvis, created exclusively by NJ Rep playwrights. From 2000-2002, he was the Theatre Education Coordinator for the New York City Board/Department of Education. He has written and directed for all four NJ Rep Theatre Brut Festivals, including Prairie Dogs (2004), Abilene (2004), Trouble on the PATH (2005), Seven4Seven (2006), and The Purgatory of Charlie Hustle (2008). In 2012, Joel directed the acclaimed MainStage production of Gino DiIorio's Release Point. In 2014, Joel was the Director/Mentor of the award-winning NJ Rep Young Playwrights Project, "Shelter From The Storm", in which local high school students wrote short plays about Hurricane Sandy. For the past three years, he has been an adjunct professor of playwriting at Monmouth University and recently taught the initial playwriting class for New Jersey Repertory Company's West End Arts Center. Currently, he is the literary manager for NJ Rep. The Calling is his first full-length play in decades.

Tell us a little about your early interest in literature.

Growing up in Brooklyn in the 1950's, it seemed that the world revolved around sports. Football, baseball, basketball-it didn't matter-nonstop sports blared from our TV on the weekends. I was a bit of a loner and took solace in drawing and reading. I enjoyed hanging out at the neighborhood library and loved the smell of books. I was fascinated by non-fiction books about movies and UFO's and really liked being transported to new worlds via the works of H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, and Edgar Allen Poe. In my early teens, I wrote plays, short stories, and 'screenplays' for 8mm movies that I made with my friends. Do you have any go-to authors or playwrights that you like to read? The older I get, the more I appreciate the nuances of playwrights like Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter. Their command of language and ideas can be breathtaking. But, to be truly honest, I most enjoy reading new translations of Greek tragedies, especially the plays of Sophocles. And re-visiting the works of Shakespeare isn't so shabby either. Call me old fashioned!

We'd love to know a little about your education.

I went through the New York City school system, like so many others. (Decades later, I became the Theatre Education coordinator for the New York City Board/Department of Education, evaluating arts education programs throughout the five boroughs.) It was at Meyer Levin Junior High School that I first met and befriended the future artistic director of New Jersey Repertory Company--Suzanne Barabas! We've been friends ever since. I went to Brooklyn College and got involved with its excellent theater department. I acted, directed, wrote plays. In 1970, one of the plays I directed, Arrabal's Picnic on the Battlefield, represented our school at the Yale Drama Festival. For the first time in my school career, I really felt like I belonged.

How does teaching complement your work as a playwright?

My role as an adjunct professor at Monmouth University has been very fulfilling these past four years. Each semester, a new set of students show up-a bit scared and very unsure of themselves. They've rarely seen much live theater and most have never considered writing a play. But by the time the 14-week semester is over, they are accomplished playwrights and critics. For me as a playwright, it's fascinating to view the development process through their eyes. It gives me a fresh perspective. And, during the writing of The Calling, I suspect that the adjunct professor in me was subtly guiding my efforts.

What inspired The Calling?

The Calling was a commissioned work from the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, in partnership with New Jersey Repertory Company and the New Jersey Theater Alliance. One of the entry requirements was that the play be based or inspired by a New Jersey subject. I started researching and discovered a news item about a troubled male nurse. It inspired me to write a totally fictionalized version. During the writing process, I discovered several similar news stories that took place in the U.S. and Canada. Many drafts later, I can safely say that The Calling spins its own unique tale.

What would you like audiences to know about the show?

I'd like audiences to know that The Calling is a two-character play that takes place in a small church in an old part of town. A priest discovers a stranger sleeping among the pews, long after a funeral service he presided over. Why is the man there? What does he want? What happened in the past that links them? Probably, the less said, the better. The play is a battle of wits and wills between a man of faith and a man of medicine. It is both surprisingly funny and edge-of-your-seat suspenseful, with some unexpected twists and turns. We've got an exceptionally talented cast and crew and it's been exciting to watch the play develop and come to life during rehearsals.

What do you want our readers to know about NJ Rep and it's mission?

In its 20-year history, New Jersey Repertory Company's mission has been to exclusively produce new plays and, in the process, nurture emerging playwrights. It has presented countless world premieres and is a core member of the National New Play Network, a nationwide organization consisting of theaters committed to presenting new works. I have been NJ Rep's literary manager for the past three years, receiving and reviewing hundreds of play submissions. I help to choose plays for our script-in-hand reading series, some of which eventually get chosen for main-stage productions. With its new West End Arts Center, NJ Rep has broadened its scope and is serving the community with classes, art exhibits, and various special events.

Anything else, absolutely anything you want our readers to know.

I directed the first script-in-hand reading at NJ Rep on May 17, 1998-a reworked, revised version of my play Horrors of Doctor Moreau. The Calling is my first full-length play in 44 years. In all that time, I'd been relatively content to write and direct short plays. Gabe and Suzanne Barabas had been trying to get me to write a new full-length play for decades. With The Calling, I've finally achieved that milestone. And now that the genie is out of the bottle, I'm planning on writing several more.


"The Calling" An Interview With Playwright Joel Stone


NJ Stage
 

New Jersey Repertory Company presents the World Premiere of The Calling by Joel Stone from January 4th through February 4th in Long Branch. This play was commissioned by NJPAC's Stage Exchange in Association with the New Jersey Theatre Alliance and NJRep.

Stone, who was formerly the artistic director of Off-Off Broadway's The Theatre Asylum, has written many short plays in the past 40 years, including several which have been presented at NJ Rep over the years. For the past four years, he has been an adjunct professor of playwriting at Monmouth University and also taught the initial playwriting classes for New Jersey Repertory Company's West End Arts Center. Currently, he is the literary manager for NJ Rep.

New Jersey Stage spoke with Stone about his new play and about his long-standing relationship with NJ Rep which dates back almost to the beginning of the company.

The Calling is billed as a heart-pounding, mind-bending psychological thriller, peppered with comic relief. What can you tell us about the play without giving away too much?

Well, that's the problem. With thrillers, the less you know the better. It's hard to describe, but I'd say it's pretty much a comic psychological thriller about a priest who finds a man sleeping amongst his Church pews after a funeral service. It turns out that this man is in need of spiritual guidance and things turn into a dangerous battle of wits between the priest and the man who is an Intensive Care Unit (ICU) nurse.

Was it difficult to find places for comic relief? Or did they sort of reveal themselves on their own?

The humor arose quite naturally from the interplay between my two characters. So many thrillers are just grim and without a little bit of comic relief they can be hard going. The comic relief is also a way of providing the audience with temporary release from the suspense.

I actually found it quite easy to do and pleasant. I was so happy that I found those moments or maybe they found me! Either way, it was wonderful.

This play is part of the NJPAC Stage Exchange series. What is it like to have a setup like this with a staged reading at NJPAC and a guaranteed production at a theatre later on?

It's fantastic! First of all, you have to be at the top of your game. Second, they require that the play be about a New Jersey subject. That was one of the only qualifications. It's fantastic that you know, at some point, you come into a production.

The initial reading was wonderful. We had a different cast, but the same director - Evan Bergman. We learned so much from that reading. Currently, it's been a constant process of re-evaluating, rewriting, adapting to new actors, adapting to the set, and adapting to the reality of actually getting it on its feet.

When we applied they asked for three story ideas. I submitted three and the one I least expected them to choose was the one they chose! It's funny, I recently reread what I had proposed and although the subject matter is the same, my approach was totally different.

Did the audience at NJPAC know that it was meant to be a little funny at points?

I don't know, probably not. The subject matter is not funny, but I needed comic relief because the subject matter can be very difficult. When I look back at great thrillers, one of my favorites was Wait Until Dark by Frederick Knott - a play that also distracted you from what was going on with humor and warmth. Those are wonderful ways of keeping audiences distracted.

This was your first full-length play in quite a while.

Yes, this was my first full-length play in about 44 years.

Did you find it difficult to move back to a full-length after writing so many short plays?

I thought I would, but I didn't. For years, Gabor and SuzAnne Barabas (of NJ Rep) have been waiting for me to write a full-length play. Whenever anyone asked me, "Why aren't you writing full length plays?" I would always answer, "I just don't have that much to say!" For me, a 10-minute play is fine; I have it all in there.

I love the short play format, but The Calling, in a funny way, almost wrote itself. I did three months of research, three months on the first act, and I believe the second act took me two weeks to finish. It just flowed; it was a pleasure.

How did you first get involved with NJ Rep? You've been with them since the 90s.

Well, I've known SuzAnne since junior high school. I've known her longer than Gabe has! I love them. They're dear friends. Twenty years ago, I directed their first script-in-hand reading, which was Horrors of Doctor Moreau - one of my plays that I had rewritten. I've been their literary manager since late 2014.

What do you do in that role?

I'm a reader. I evaluate whether or not a script would be appropriate for a script-in-hand reading for our subscription audience. Sometimes the plays wind up being produced.

You've been with them long enough to see the West End Arts Center open. What do you think about that facility and its potential?

I think the potential is unlimited. It's a wonderful space. We had the Theatre Brut festival there and it was fantastic. It could become a very vital part of the community.