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Press Articles 1999-2001

"The Girl With the High Rouge" Anchors in Long Branch
by Donnie G.

On Friday, July 28, Vincent Sessa's "The Girl With the High Rouge" opened at the Lumia Theatre (179 Broadway) in Long Branch. Presented by the New Jersey Repertory Company, this show will run until August 20th. Andy Hall outdid himself with the set design. Members of the audience were seated on opposite sides of the room. Acting as the stage, a boat separated both sides of the room. The walls were painted to be the seascape. This set increased the lever of anticipation for the show to begin.

Liz Zazzi was wonderful as Piper (the woman who couldn't remember her past). Finding herself on Captain Lob's boat, Piper quickly captured his fancy. Also on the were Gabriel and Ryan (Lob's sons). The three men end up competing for Piper's affection. Barney Fitzpatrick, who played Officer Sharkey on "All My Children" for three years, gave us a very convincing Lob. Ryan, who hid from life through literature, was portrayed by Ken Wiesinger. Lenny Bart portrayed Gabriel, who became jealous every time Piper directed her attention to one of the other men.
All of the actors captured the personalities of their characters. This is a direct compliment to the director, Stewart Fisher. Besides directing NJ Rep's first production ("Ends"), Mr. Fisher directed the critically acclaimed "Adult Fiction".
Being drawn into the fantasy world of these characters, one can almost find themselves feeling what they felt. This is a tribute to the actors. There are some interesting developments within the story that won't be revealed, so as not to spoil the fun. The New Jersey Repertory Company should be commended for bringing these original works to the theatre. Therefore, bring out your swimmies and reserve your seats by calling the theatre.

ATLANTICVILLE August 3 thru Aug 9, 2000 by Milt Bernstein
High Rouge Washes Ashore at NJ Rep
The Girl With the High Rouge by Vincent Sessa, the latest offering of Long Branch's New Jersey Rep Co. on Broadway downtown, is a surreal drama set on a ship that never goes anywhere.
With a cast - and crew - of three men, all family members, a "captain" and his two sons, the play explores what happens when a supple young woman, clad only in a revealing night-shirt, mysteriously lands on the deck of the ship, as though she has fallen from the air above.
As the two sons ponder her sleeping form, one can see the conflicts arising, and the sexual tensions showing themselves immediately. One son, the older, is sexually experienced, and leaves little doubt as to his desires and his methods, his "modus operandi." His brother, on the other hand, is a bookish introvert, very shy, and forever to be found with a paperback classic clutched in his hand. However, he is a most handsome youth. One can easily see how he would also appeal to the young woman, who has awakened by now (the "high rouge" of the title refers to the reddish color in her cheeks, the source of which is unknown).
And all of this before our captain even comes up from below! He of course is a single man, a youthful-appearing widower, who lost his adored wife, the mother of the two boys, in a mysterious apparent suicide walk which almost seems the reverse of the way in which the young girl has materialized.
Needless to say, he too, is drawn to the girl, and she to him, and in the second act of the play, the tensions erupt in a violent and chilling manner.
The set of the play, which dominates the action, is an artfully constructed wooden deck of the ship, complete with hatches and entryways that enable the actors to disappear from view to further the action. The set is so huge that the company was forced to abandon the normal proscenium stage and perform like a circle, or a rectangle, in-the-round; and limiting slightly the number of seats for the audience as well.
The Girl With the High Rouge is ably directed by Stewart Fisher; and the small cast of four includes Lenny Bart and Ken Wiesinger as the two brothers, Barney Fitzpatrick as their father, and Liz Zazzi as the innocently seductive cause of it all. All four actors acquit themselves beautifully.
Performances of this fascinating, mysterious play will continue through August 20.

Set designer can take a bow . . . and a stern

The Girl with the High Rouge


By Peter Filichia

Where: New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch

When: Through Aug. 20. Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m.

How much: $25. Call (732) 229-3166.

Andy Hall can claim to be one of the few set designers who is playing with a full deck.

When the Red Bank resident was enlisted to design "The Girl with the High Rouge" at New Jersey Repertory Company, he learned that the action would take place on board a boat. An important plot device in Vincent Sessa's play about two brothers has one sibling manning the bow, while the other constantly stands in the stern.

"How do you put a big boat on our small stage?," Hall recalls wondering. He had previously provided the troupe with a rustic cabin for "Ends," a suburban Texas home for "North Fork," and a porno bookstore for "Adult Fiction." But this time he felt he was in over his head.

Indeed, the Long Branch theater is the tiniest of the state's professional venues. It only seats 62 patrons in armless chairs, but its stage is even most modest: A scant 18 feet wide and 24 feet deep.

"We'd just have a short, squat boat," SuzAnne Barabas, the theater's artistic director, had speculated. "The brothers would be much too close to each other."

"I thought of putting the bow in the distance," says Hall, "but (director) Stewart (Fisher) wasn't comfortable with that. No matter which way we put the boat on that little stage, it just wouldn't work."

Finally Hall suggested that they just reconfigure the theater.

Instead of playgoers sitting in their seats, facing a proscenium arch, what if he built a boat in the middle of the theater? The free-standing chairs would be set on platforms surrounding it. In essence, he'd turn the place into a theater-in-the-round, with the boat as the centerpiece.

"This gives us an environment that's total, which is very exciting for such an abstract play," Fisher says.

Hall, who is also an instructor at Monmouth University, says he had "a thing" for boats when he was a pre-teen growing up on Long Island, but didn't know much about them. As luck would have it, John Wenz, New Jersey Rep's technical director, is a boating enthusiast and was taking a yachting trip to Maine.

"But, funny thing," says Hall. "I decided not to talk to him, afraid that I'd get too much information. Because this is such an allegorical play, I just didn't want to be that literal."

Hall also assured Barabas that, even with building additional platforms for seats, his conception would not cost more than any of his previous sets.

"Though," he adds with a sigh, "I thought this would wind up being a little more work, but as always, it's turned out to be a lot more work, getting all the plywood, sculpting and laminating it. Still, it's worth it because you do want to grow and expand."

Which is what happened to Sessa's play; after a well-received reading last year, Barabas decided to give it a full production.

"It's kind of a cross between Lewis Carroll's 'Alice in Wonderland' and Jean-Paul Sartre's 'No Exit,'" she says. "On the surface, it's about those brothers and their father who one morning awake to find this woman face-down on their deck, red-faced from falling. They don't know how she got there, and she doesn't, either. She doesn't even know who she is, and even the playwright doesn't give us a final answer."

When patrons enter the Shore-based theater, many will find their usual seats have been displaced by the 29-foot-long, 9-foot-wide boat. They'll also see some differences in the seats encircling the bow and stern.

"They won't be our usual chairs," says Hall. "Some will have arms, some won't, though we decided not to have folding chairs, because they're not comfortable enough. They'll all look good, though, because we're painting them all white. And we're going to get even more than 62 seats in there by doing it this way."

Down to the sea

Published in the Asbury Park Press 7/23/00


ALTHOUGH PLAYWRIGHT Vincent Sessa has spent most of his 40-some years living on islands, he feels connected to water mostly through his soul, not geography.

Born in Brooklyn, raised on Long Island and now living in Manhattan, Sessa was named after an uncle who served in the United States Coast Guard and was killed overseas during World War II.

Staged by the New Jersey Repertory Company
179 Broadway, Long Branch.
Previews 8 p.m. Thursday,
opens 8 p.m. Friday,
continues 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Aug. 20
$25; $35 on opening night with reception
INFO: (732) 229-3166

"I have always loved the sea and all my plays have some kind of sea imagery in them," Sessa said in a recent telephone interview. "One day I would love to live by the ocean."

All of the action in Sessa's latest play, "The Girl With the High Rouge" -- beginning performances this week at the New Jersey Repertory Theatre in Long Branch -- takes place on board a sailboat docked at the end of a long pier.

It centers on a young woman who can't remember her past and her late-night encounter with a father and his two grown sons who live on board the boat. It is stocked with classical literature from which the sons have learned most of what they know about life.

"During my teen-age years I was alone a lot and I read, and read, and read," Sessa said. "One of my regrets now, since I do so much writing, I don't get to read as much ... there are so many great books I haven't gotten to.

"I'm hoping in my future to have a life that combines writing and reading ... and to be physical," said Sessa, who has a bachelor's degree in English and works at his cousin's commercial restaurant supply business.

Being physical by walking everywhere he goes in Manhattan helps him in his writing, a solitary endeavor he performs every day.

"I hear so many wonderful things on the street and write them down ..things I couldn't have thought of in a million years," he explained. "I know there is a play in my future saying something about the political system from what I hear on the streets.

None of his 15 plays are alike, he said.

"It's hard for me to describe my plays sometimes ... they cover a broad spectrum of life," he said. 'I think of 'The Girl With the High Rouge' as a kind of human drama with a lot of comedy.

"It has elements of things we've all encountered in life... happiness, sadness, the idea of fleeing from something," he explained. "And I guess the sea, for me, represents many things Piper (the 'girl') talks about, such as it offers freedom and fear, is deep and dark, we came from the sea and we are mostly water."

Sessa admits he tends to worry about things most people never think about. He was appalled recently to read a story in the Science section of The New York Times claiming within the next 50 years the North Pole may melt.

"That kind of catastrophic change is frightening," he said, adding he couldn't understand why such a story didn't run on the front page.

He wants to address such issues and finds the theater a good place for them. He previously wanted to write the great American novel but found, over time, that his descriptions were becoming mostly dialogue and were better suited to the stage.

William Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams and Eugene O'Neill are among his main influences. Sessa, who has never taken a playwrighting course, believes he's come into his own in the past five or six years.

"I knew I always had a gift for the lyric line, but putting it all together with the right characterization -- that took time," he said. "I think it was Yeats who said he had the language early on -- and his early poems are lovely -- but they don't have the guts of his later ones."

So Sessa has spent a number of years reworking all his plays.

"I felt I had an obligation to go back," he said. "There was a lot of love put into them -- what they lacked were technical expertise."

He expects to finish that task by the end of the summer. From then on, he said, it will be "clear sailing" for new plays, including one he is just finishing about the reservation staff of an ocean cruise ship company based on Homer's "The Odyssey."


Published on July 23, 2000

NJ Rep's 'Octet' a stunning success


By Milton Bernstein

With their latest production, the new play called "Octet", Long Branch's New Jersey Repertory Company have achieved a stunning success.

The play, written by Mark Dunn, and with music by Merek Royce Press, takes place in a sanatorium where the eight male and female patients (or residents, as the institution's director insists they be called), have given up speaking, and communicate with each other and themselves by playing a musical instrument, individually or as a group, to the music of a ninth young man, called the "composer".

Into this apparently harmonius scene appears a self-confident young woman (Sally Cubbage by name), who is there to study the methods used in treating the patients. Trouble soon arises when Sally tries to find out more about the residents than the director (Dr. Janice Goldman by name) wishes her to know, and even more so when Sally finds herself drawn to the charismatic young composer.

The music, as seemingly performed by the residents, each in his or her own style, is a most important part of the play, supporting the action in a way that is both haunting and unique. Merek Royce Press, resident composer of the theatre company, has written a remarkable score which should find its way into an anthology of music for the theater.

The single set, designed by Brian Higgason, is an antiseptic, ascetic study in white walls and white plastic squares serving as stools for the players/performers.

Director SuzAnne Barabas, co-founder of the company, did a masterful job of modulating the action, and the cast, headed by Kendal Ridgeway as Sally, Kathleen Goldpaugh as Dr. Goldman, and Chris Tomaino as the "composer", did an outstanding job.

This show, which will run through June 18, should be a must-see for New Jerseyites who are at all interested in supporting and seeing fine and original theater in the Shore area.

Tickets for Thursday, Friday and Saturday evening performances and for Sunday matinees, are priced at a top of $25, and can be reserved by calling 229-3166.

'Octet' A Witty Look at Music as Therapy

TriCity News


In "Octet", now on stage at the New Jersey Repertory Company, playwright Mark Dunn uses an ingenious plot structure to weave a witty love story set in a mental health institution. Dunn has laid out a difficult task for his actors, all top-notch performers, and they respond to his mixture of pathos and bravura with a spellbinding evening in the theater.

As the play opens, the author's eight sanitarium inmates have been induced by the medical director, the strident Dr. Janice Goldman (Kathleen Goldpaugh), to eschew spoken language and express themselves through musical instruments. A ninth patient, the Composer (Chris Tomaino), scripts scores for the ensemble at breakneck speed.

In act one the quirky therapy seems to be working, but things take an unexpected turn when chatty Sally Cubbage (Kendal Ridgeway), a research assistant, turns up to gather facts on the unusual treatment devised by Dr. Goldman. Sally falls for the Composer, gets him talking and spreads panic through the institution and the patients.

In the second act, the faux musicians--they fake the music expertly thanks to the offstage experise of sound designer and composer Merek Royce Press--toss off their muteness and seem headed toward normalcy. Gabby Sally, on the other hand, veers into catatonia after her romance with the Composer goes off track. And Dr. Goldman comes completely unstuck at seeing her life's work jeopardized, eventually delivering an overwrought, show-stopping soliloquoy.

The musicians, Cellist Jim Donovan, Concert Mistress Gigi Jhong, Violist Kurt Elftmann, Clarinetist Rozie Bacchi, Flutist Marian Akana, aggressive Trombonist Nicole Godino, Trumpeter Leslie Wheeler (who tosses in a five-minute tapdance) and Percussionist Billy Stone (he's a virtuoso with the triangle), lip-sync perfectly and create characters without a word being spoken.

Playwright Dunn says he wrote "Octet" years ago when he was a musical composition student. Real-life composer Press wrote original music for the play, which the "Octet" inmates "play". SuzAnne Barabas, artistic director of the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, where "Octet" is premiering, directed.

"Octet" continues its world premiere Thursdays through Sundays through June 18 at the NJ Repertory Company's Lumia Theatre on Broadway in Long Branch.


Musical play better composed than written



By Peter Filichia

Where: New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch

When: Through June 18. Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m.

How much: $25. Call (732) 229-3166.

While New Yorkers have been asking, "Is 'Contact' really a musical?," we here in New Jersey can pose the same question of "Octet," the newest offering from New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

For Mark Dunn's new play is about a mental health institution where Dr. Goldman encourages her patients to stop speaking and start playing musical instruments. Audiences, instead of hearing wall-to-wall dialogue, get 90 minutes of conversation and a good half-hour of music.

Very good music, in fact. Merek Royce Press, New Jersey Repertory's composer-in-residence, is a talent that deserves to be heard. He's written 11 separate pieces, ranging from a traditionally named Adagio for Cello in D minor to the less conventionally titled Prelude Confused in F minor, Anti-Rhapsody for Solo Flute, and Concerto for Octet and Screaming Woman. All are hauntingly beautiful, though each contains a requisite number of whimsical sounds that reflect the oddities of the patients playing them.

We hear these works over the theater's sound system, while they are either mimed or softly played by The Violinist, The Violist, The Clarinetist, The Flutist, The Trombonist, The Trumpeter and The Percussionist. (Dr. Goldman insists that the players discard their names in favor of their roles.)

Dr. Goldman's theories are put to the test when Sally Cubbage, a research assistant, comes to the facility to glean information for her boss, who's writing a book. Sally soon becomes intrigued with The Composer, who breaks years of silence to speak to her. What happens to them isn't particularly surprising. That's true, too, of Dunn's eventual message -- a too simplistic one -- that psychiatrists are crazier than most.

Dunn also makes some amateurish errors. Dr. Goldman tells Sally what she discovered about her when she put the woman under hypnosis, but this is a scene we should witness. Later, The Composer tells of a rebellion that we also should have seen. "Show, don't tell" is one of the first lessons taught in Playwriting 101, but Dunn must have been absent for that class.

Director SuzAnne Barabas has found eight charmingly loony performers for her octet. She has Nicole Godino blithely use her trombone as a weapon when things don't go her way, and Marian Akana blast through her flute when she wants someone to leave. The brooding and bald Bill Stone plays his triangle with great seriousness, adding to the fun.

That leaves the three nonmusical roles, and they're well performed, too. As Sally, Kendall Ridgeway goes from a just-doing-my-job mentality to a woman who has a purpose in rescuing a man she thinks she loves. That will get her character into trouble, but it doesn't get Ridgeway into any. She maneuvers splendidly.

Chris Tomaino, who plays The Composer, carefully builds his character from ostensibly disturbed to warm. Kathleen Goldpaugh doesn't overdo the officiousness that has been written into Dr. Goldman.

"Octet" is not a significant work, but once again, New Jersey Repertory has given a play it loves a handsome production. How many theaters with only 62 seats would choose a work with 11 characters? The expense would give other producers apoplexy, but when SuzAnne and Gabor Barabas want to do something, they find a way.

'Octet' is a bold move for the NJ Rep

Published in the Asbury Park Press 05/31/00

Who lives in the real world and who lives a life of self-deception is at the heart of Mark Dunn's new play "Octet," now receiving its world premiere at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch through June 18.

Sally Cubbage (Kendal Ridgeway) is a research assistant assigned to collect information for a book about new methods for treating the mentally challenged and Janice Goldman (Kathleen Goldpaugh) is the doctor who has developed a radical new therapy that allows her patients to use music as their primary language.

New Jersey Repertory Company
179 Broadway, Long Branch
Thursdays through Sundays through June 18
INFO: (732) 229-3166

They are the ones who interact normally. The eight other characters, or octet, are identified by the instruments they play, including Chris Tomaino as Composer. They are the ones who are supposed to be sick and in need of help.

But as Dunn's drama progresses during its 2 1/2 hours, we come to realize the members of the octet are the ones who have faced reality and found a way to cope with it by voluntarily coming to the sanitarium and losing themselves in Composer's music. It is Sally and Janice who are sick, have refused to admit it to themselves and thus are destined to have mental breakdowns.

Nicely directed by NJ Rep Artistic Director SuzAnne Barabas on Bryan Higgason's functional, all-white set, well lighted by Jeff Greenberg, the play moves along rather smoothly.


Kathleen Goldpaugh plays psychiatrist Janice Goldman in "Octet," which is being staged at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch through June 18.

A major part of "Octet" is Merek Royce Press' music. His music has underscored nearly every production mounted at this 2-year-old theater. But this time it takes center stage and it is simply marvelous. It is the ninth character of the octet.

While NJ Rep specializes in new plays, "Octet" is a bold move for the adventurous company. It is the first time music has taken center stage. It works well, although it is taped and not actually played by the actors. The play jumps between naturalistic and surrealistic moments, and that works as well.

As always, productions values here are superb, even remarkable given the physical challenges the company has not only mounting new plays but mounting them in a building still being converted from a medical supply store to a two-stage performing arts space.

Dunn's plays -- last year the troupe presented his "North Fork" -- tackle family and societal issues and his work is a nice fit for NJ Rep.

Published on May 31, 2000

Part concert, part play

'Octet' weaves drama through classical chamber music score


By Peter Filichia

Where: New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch
When: Through June 18. Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m.
How much: $25; $35 opening night May 26. Call (732) 229-3166.

Most New Jersey theatrical productions rehearse for three or four weeks. But "Octet," which begins performances on Thursday at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, began work in January.

The reason was not that the cast had so many lines to learn. In fact, eight of the 11 characters have no lines at all. Yet that octet began rehearsing in the dead of winter.

"Well, we had to," says Kurt Elftmann. "We're playing musicians -- and had to learn our musical instruments."

The octet of the title is a musical group assembled by Dr. Goldman, who heads an institute where patients are encouraged to communicate through music rather than speech. "It's her nontraditional idea on therapy," says Kathleen Goldpaugh, who plays Goldman. "She wants it that way . . . because she doesn't like to tackle anyone verbally. She knows people can use words as swords."

Playwright Mark Dunn, 43, says he wanted to write a work in which music had a powerful role. "It's a hybrid of a concert and a play, a story threaded through a classical music chamber work," he says.

While the theatrical rule of thumb says that each page of script represents a minute of stage time, "Octet" has only 63 pages, yet plays two hours. The rest is music.

The playwright didn't compose the score, even though he majored in music at the University of Memphis. New Jersey Repertory's house composer, Merek Royce Press, wrote the music, including a nine-minute piece, "Tea for Eight."

Then the cast had to learn it.

Says Elftmann, who plays The Violinist, "Getting through that piece has heightened my appreciation of musicians who must get through an entire symphony."

"We chose actors who'd be willing to take on an instrument and play it," says composer Press. "We met once every two weeks from January through April, then stepped it up to every week. I made CDs of my music, so they could listen and replicate the notes on their instruments. Rote and repetition is how they learned."

The CD will be playing along with the octet in performance. "But you'll definitely hear what they're doing, too," Press says of the cast.

Rozie Bacchi, who plays The Clarinetist, did play the instrument during her grammar school years, but hadn't picked it up in more than a decade. "Now when I play, some squeaking comes in," she concedes.

Others weren't as lucky. Leslie Wheeler played the viola as a kid, but was cast as The Trumpeter. "Admittedly, I hadn't played viola in 30 years," she says, "and while going back to an instrument isn't like riding a bicycle, I still feel I would have had a leg up if they had me on viola. But they saw me as The Trumpeter, and now, I really feel I can play it."

Chris Tomaino once played the trombone and clarinet -- "but both those roles have to be played by women," he said, ruefully. He was cast as The Composer. Similarly, Mare Akana already knew how to play the cello, but that's a man's part, so she became The Flautist.

"I had hoped to be The Flautist, because a flute is so much lighter," says Nicole Godino. "Now I'm glad I'm on trombone, because working it has changed my body language. I find myself taking a wider stance. I'm 5' 6" and of average weight -- but this has made me feel bigger."

Billy Stone, who plays The Percussionist, thought his job would be easy. "I mean," he says, "how hard could it be to play a triangle? Then I started to learn. You have to strike a triangle in different ways at different times -- and at different lengths, too. When you go inside the triangle, it's going to make a different sound from when you hit it from outside. It's the same note, always the same note, but it somehow comes across sounding different."

'Octet' sings love's praises

Published in the Asbury Park Press 5/25/00

For the first time, the New Jersey Repertory Company is letting music take center stage.

"Octet," a play by Mark Dunn previewing Thursday night and opening Friday in Long Branch, takes place in a sanitarium where all the residents communicate not with words, but with musical instruments. All, that is, except the composer, who communicates with the music he writes and the residents play.


By the New Jersey Repertory Company
179 Broadway, Long Branch
WHEN: Thursdays through Sundays through June 18
COST: $25-$35
CALL: (732) 229-3166

Everything seems to go along just fine until free-lance writer Sally Cubbage (Kendal Ridgeway) shows up to study this new approach to music as a therapeutic technique pioneered by Dr. Janice Goldman (Kathleen Goldpaugh). The two women get along until the composer (Chris Tomaino) falls in love with Sally and begins "talking" the old-fashioned way -- with words.

Dunn, 43, who's written 23 plays, said he's comfortable telling women's stories. His comedy "North Fork," staged here last spring, centered on the relationship among four sisters with unresolved childhood issues.

"Sometimes the story involves women as main characters, and the issues are feminist," he explained from his home in New York's Greenwich Village. "In this particular case, there is a love story . . but it isn't as important to the story that Sally Cubbage is a woman as it was important there were four sisters in 'North Fork.' "

N.J. Rep Artistic Director SuzAnne Barabas, who helms the production, said she selected it because she was intrigued by how the story, together with the music, "gels and moves along without actually being a musical." But, she adds, she and her brother, Merek Royce Press, who wrote the music, are rehearsing the 11-member cast as if they were in a musical.

"We worked separately with the musicians and with the speaking roles," she explained. "Then we put them together, working on individual scenes, making sure it was coherent, making sure the transitions ran smoothly."


Although this is the play's first production and its development has been nursed by the rep company, Dunn said he wrote it around 1975 while in college studying music composition. At a concert of a fellow music major's compositions, Dunn heard a piece that transported him, filled him with emotion. The piece built and built to an almost unbearable moment in which he felt the only release would be a human voice -- that of a woman screaming at the top of her lungs.

This idea of the beauty of music versus the beauty of language evolved into his play. He also explores the theme of head vs. heart.

"Sally represents someone who comprehends the world through intellect," he said. "Janice, the doctor, created an environment of people who see the world in an emotional, nonverbal way."

Dunn himself has begun to explore the world differently as well. He recently resigned from his job in the rare books and manuscript division of the New York Public Library and now devotes himself totally to writing. Royalties from pervious plays and his wife, an interior designer, help pay the bills.

On the emotional side, he can write plays and devote himself to the beauty of the language. On the intellectual side, he has signed a contract with a publisher to write for a geographical encyclopedia scheduled for publication in 2002.

"Play writing is what interests me and excites me," he sighed. "The encyclopedia . . . it's practical."

Published on May 25, 2000

Music, Madness, Medical Ethics Explored in Octet, Preem in NJ May 25

Octet, a new play with music on the subject of music therapy for the mentally ill, has its world premiere by the New Jersey Repertory Theatre, beginning with a preview May 25 and opening May 26.

The Long Branch, NJ, professional troupe (Equity SPT) brings Mark Dunn's comic-drama "concert play," set in a sanitarium, to life with 11 performers under the direction of artistic director SuzAnne Barabas. Performances continue to June 18.

Merek Royce Press provides original music and actors mimic playing instruments for the story of free-lance writer Sally Cubbage (Kendal Ridgeway), whose assignment is to write a story about a new method of treating the mentally challenged.

She meets eccentric Dr. Janice Goldman (Kathleen Goldpaugh), who has developed a radical therapeutic technique where her patients communicate through music. The two women hit it off, until Sally is introduced to one of Dr. Goldman's "special" patients, the composer (Chris Tomaino). Their blossoming romance threatens the harmony that Dr. Goldman has worked so hard to create.

The doctor takes measures to guarantee that life in her safe little sanitarium will not be disrupted.

"We chose to go with actors rather than musicians," Barabas told Playbill On-Line. "They have been working with these instruments for six months. They need to be playing the right notes [to the soundtrack]." She said audiences will suspend their disbelief for the musical sections of the production.

Also featured in the cast are Jim Donovan as the enigmatic cellist, Marian Akana as the obsessive-compulsive flutist, Billy Stone as Jules Richardson de Speer, Leslie Wheeler as the tap dancing, reclusive trumpeter, Kurt Elftmann (violist), Gigi Jhong (concert mistress), Rozie Bacchi (clarinetist) and Nicole Godino (trombonist).

Playwright Dunn is the author of a number of plays which together have received over 150 different productions throughout the U.S., Canada, Great Britain and Hong Kong. A new version of his play Belles received its world premiere by StoneGate Artists in Red Bank, NJ in a production directed by SuzAnne Barabas. Last year Dunn's North Fork was mounted as part of NJ Rep's inaugural mainstage season. His The Deer and the Antelope Play was included in Charlotte Rep's 1998 New Play Festival and subsequently staged in full production in January 2000.

Composer Press has written music for four short films as well as for cable TV, computer multimedia and the internet. He has scored the music for two full-length dramatic musicals, Immortal Interlude and Hyde and Seek, and has designed sound for numerous theatrical productions. Director Barabas was the co-founder of the Cincinnati Repertory Company and the American Repertory Theater of Philadelphia, and served as the artistic director for these companies. She is co-author and lyricist of several plays and musicals, including Find Me a Voice, Hyde and Seek and Immortal Interlude.

For NJ Rep, Barabas directed the mainstage productions of Find Me a Voice and North Fork, and staged readings of North Fork, Ends, Maggots, Helen's Most Favorite Day and Belial.

Tickets are $25. Performances are at the Lumia Theatre, 179 Broadway in Long Branch, on the Central New Jersey shore. For tickets and additional information for Octet and NJ Rep, call (732) 229-3166, or visit the website at

-- By Kenneth Jones
Playbill Online

Theater company rarely slows down, even to do the same thing


Published in the Asbury Park Press 5/18/00

The New Jersey Repertory Company rarely is idle.

A new marquee announcing upcoming plays has just gone up on the troupe's art deco exterior at 179 Broadway.



During rehearsals for the New Jersey Repertory Company's upcoming play, "Octet," are (from left) Jim Donovan, Holmdel, and Gigi Jhong, Kurk Elftmann and Rozie Bacchi, New York.
A new outer lobby and box office is under construction. An inner lobby, being turned into a future children's theater performing space, is in a state of deconstruction with exposed steel cables and duct work, bare light bulbs, wires and dust everywhere.

Workmen are unloading plasterboard and lumber from a delivery truck and setting it up inside. It is noon, but they won't be returning until evening to begin work to continue transforming what once was a medical supply building into various theater spaces devoted to new and original work staged by professional actors.

Meanwhile, deeper inside the building in what is called the Lumia Theatre, Artistic Director SuzAnne Barabas, 50, of West Long Branch, is helming a rehearsal for the upcoming world premiere of Mark Dunn's "Octet," a play set in a sanitarium where patients communicate through their musical instruments, not words.

Barabas has been at the theater since 8 a.m. Rehearsal began at 10 and will continue until 4:30 or 5. The workmen will arrive soon after and work until midnight, she says.

The cast is running through the "Resume" scene.

Kendal Ridgeway, 34, of New York City, is approaching the patient-musicians and reading their resumes as they "play" their instruments to tape music: Gigi Jhong, 26, of New York City, concert mistress. Kurt Elftmann, 33, of New York City, violist. Jim Donovan, 41, of Holmdel, cellist. Marian Akana, of Tinton Falls, flutist. Rozie Bacchi, 25, of New York City, clarinetist.

Composer Merek Royce Press, 34, of New York City, starts and stops the tape and watches closely how the actors finger their instruments.

They run the scene over, and over and over as Press and Barabas work on the fine details.

Then they move on to the next scene in which Ridgeway's character and Kathleen Goldpaugh's character Dr. Janice Goldman, the head of the sanitarium, confront a non-speaking patient who is the composer.

"That line . . . it just doesn't feel right," says Goldpaugh, of New York City, in the middle of the scene the first time they try it.

Barabas moves down from the seating platform, sits down on the stage and works with the actress to make it "right."

Then they run the scene over, and over and over again.


from the Asbury Park Press
Published: May 18, 2000

APPRECIATION: End of a love story


Published in the Asbury Park Press 4/23/00

For years, actress Kim Hunter and her actor-writer husband Robert Emmett had wanted to appear together in the play "On Golden Pond," a love story about a couple returning to their summer home for the 44th year.



Kim Hunter and Robert Emmett rehearse the final scene of "On Golden Pond" at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch last summer. It was to be their last show together.
One thing or another kept them from committing to it -- until last August, when it all came together at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. It was to be Emmett's last appearance. He died April 8 in New York at age 78 from surgery following acute appendicitis.

Hunter's career spans nearly 60 years. She made her Broadway debut in 1949 opposite Marlon Brando in "A Streetcar Named Desire" and is also well-known for her appearences in the "Planet of the Apes" movies.

Emmett, who had pursued an acting career both on and off-Broadway, was better known as a writer who penned the satiric 1960s' TV show "That Was the Week That Was," as well as segments for dramatic shows and specials for stars such as Barbra Streisand, Julie Andrews and Harry Belafonte.

When news of his death reached members of the NJ Rep, they were deeply saddened.

"He was such a dear man, always cheerful, a joy to be around, incredibly funny and very professional," said SuzAnne Barabas, West Long Branch, artistic director of the company. "After we worked together he would call us up periodically to check up on us, especially after he'd seen on TV flooding from a storm along the shore."

Barabas said one thing that struck her was how active the couple were. After "On Golden Pond," she said, Hunter and Emmett flew to Spain for a film festival.

"They were constantly traveling and doing things," she noted. "They lived in an apartment on the third floor for 40 something years.

"They would fly up and down those stairs and I would get out of breath," Barabas said.

Hunter and Emmett has also done several staged readings for the troupe, which specializes in new work. Both were scheduled to return over the winter, but illness forced Emmett to cancel, she said.

Alex Brumel, a freshman at Marlboro High School, played Billy opposite Emmett's Norman in "On Golden Pond." Billy is a kid with an attitude that softens and changes as he spends time with Norman. And Norman finds in Billy the kind of loving relationship he never found with his own daughter.

Brumel said he was apprehensive about a scene in which his character yells at Norman.

"The director said to throw everything I could into it," Brumel said. "And Bob looked me right in the eye and said 'Lay it on me, kid.'

"He was always looking for everything to be real," Brumel continued. "It was almost like he didn't believe in acting, more like get up and become the character."

But things got a little too real one night during the run of the play, Brumel said, which deeply saddened him. In the play Norman takes a walk, becomes disoriented and returns to the house in a panic afraid he is losing control.

"Bob was having a lot of problems with with his memory late in his life and there was one performance when he completely blanked out," Brumel said. "He tried to improvise but the audience knew something was wrong.

"Later, backstage, I saw him sobbing and I remember feeling so horrible ... it was awful," Brumel said.

But mostly what Brumel and Barabas remember was Emmett regaling them with stories.

For Brumel, it was hearing about all the stars for which Emmett had written.

For Barabas, it was the time she and husband Gabor spent socializing with the acting couple.

Hunter, she said, is a gourmet who wrote a cookbook and she and Emmett loved to eat. They were particularly fond of Joe & Maggie's Bistro on Broadway and the Fromagerie in Rumson.

"Kim and Bob stayed at the Ocean Place (Resort) for awhile and after a show we would go sit in the bar, have a few drinks and share stories.

"He was so funny," Barabas said. "I am just so happy they were able to share 'On Golden Pond' together."


Tri-City News 03-30-00
Adult Fiction? Yeah! by Nick Montesano triCity Staff Writer
LONG BRANCH - Sometimes the most apt of pupils and the most philosophical of teachers miss emphasizing the single most important aspect of a lesson. The Result leaves both with more to learn.
The New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch is currently presenting the New Jersey premiere of Brian Richard Mori's "Adult Fiction". Don't miss it.
Mori's tender tale is set in the most unlikely, yet somehow appropriate of places, an adult bookstore in Times Square in 1979. What unravels is the relationship between Earl, the proprietor of the shop and Mikie, the son of one of Earl's former love interests.
In the course of one evening, the two men discuss life, women, predestination, money, coffee, and life. And when Earl sets Mikie up on a date, Earl instructs his young protégé how to bring candy, take her to a movie, compliment her, and not expect sex right away. We are sure that Mikie knows exactly what to do.
The results however are nothing short of hysterical and disastrous with bitingly difficult realizations for both men.
This is an outstanding evening of theater.
The play itself is a masterwork of character study. Mori has written a story with a poetic vernacular that rings so true it almost sounds improvised. Only Earl could get away with statements like, "Her beauty is in bad shape, I don't mind tellin you." and "I always try to improve my language when I am around opposite sexes." There is nothing "unright" about this writing.
The language of Mori's play serves to create characters that are tender and rich, and he weaves a tale that is filled with subtlety, sadness and an underlying hope.
The acting is superb. Jerry Marino as Earl and Aaron Vieira as Mikie are a team of performers so intertwined in their craft that each complements the other, strengthens the other and carries the other to funny, unsettling and wonderfully touching moments while creating a friendship that is not soon forgotten.
Marino is remarkably adept at showing Earl's gift of gab. Vieira is the wide-eyed sponge hanging on Earl's every word. The mere fact that these two men have found so many readings for the word "yeah" in itself is astounding. They are truly amazing to watch.
The Moment these gentlemen create when Mikie reads a note from his date written on a Snickers wrapper is rife with varied emotional levels from both actors.
Billy Stone and Dominic A. Gregoria provide a correctly sleazy presence as the other customers.
At the helm of this production, director Stewart Fisher has led this cast beautifully, never missing a beat in pacing. Fisher has embraced and clearly presented the nuances of these characters, making them funny and pathetic while preserving their dignity.
Andy Hall has created a set that winningly leaves no detail untended to. Electrical junction boxes run along the walls above viewing booths with functioning red occupancy lights. The shop has a black and used to be white tile floor, racks of videos, magazines (even copies of "Oui" and "Amateur Babes"), dildoes, paperbacks and pinups. Outside the mottled and scratched windows of the shop there is a perfectly pre-Disney Times Square assemblage. It pays to arrive early just to take it all in.
Hall's scenic creation is pivotal to the story. The fact that such a tender tale is told in such a sleazy environment serves to heighten the beauty of the production.
Listen, too, how craftily Merek Royce Press has created an introductory sound design that brings you from period music to a grating, scratching audio depiction of New York City. It partners perfectly with Hall's set.
So, go!

The Two River Times     March 31, 2000
New Jersey Rep's 'Adult Fiction' in Long Branch
New play proves fledgling company's mission possible
by Philip Dorian
After the opening night performance of "Adult Fiction" at New Jersey Repertory Company, Executive Producer Gabor Barabas made a brief pitch on behalf of season subscription plans. Noting that the company, starting its second season, specializes in new or neglected plays, he made the point that subscribers will not have the comfort of seeing familiar titles on NJ Rep's schedule. The idea is to make a leap of trust.
If the next four productions spanning May-December 2000, live up to the promise of the current offering, that trust will be amply rewarded. For while you probably have never heard of "Adult Fiction", now running at the 65-seat Lumia Theatre on Long Branch's lower Broadway, be advised that it is a startlingly good play. Playwright Brian Richard Mori has a sure ear for common dialogue, and, ably guided by director Stewart Fisher, Jerry Marino and Aaron Vieira act the heck out of it.
Set in 1979, the store's proprietor (Marino) passes on his earthy philosophy to Mikie (Vieira), whose mental acuity is just on the plus side of "slow". Earl, 55 years old, is resigned to his present and future as the manager of a sleazy adult bookstore, but in his own way he functions above that lowly station. He's a 'dese, dem and dose' guy, but in pithy comments and brief anecdotes, he reveals a temperament, if not hopeful, at least patient, and tolerant.
Mikie, already forlorn at 19, accepts Earl's efforts to arrange a blind date with a coffee shop waitress. The scenes leading up to the fix-up phone call, and the call itself, are as comical as can be, but they don not lapse into stand-up. The laughs don't come from quips; rather they come from recognition of the awkwardness we've all experienced in similar situations. Earl's advice regarding first-date behavior might be blunt and sexist, but it's downright funny - and not far removed from pseudo-scientific self-help manuals on the same topic. Judging from "Adult Fiction," Mr. Mori is a writing talent to watch.
Marino and Vieira are excellent. Their incisive acting, with as much attention to listening as to speaking, gets the most from the spare dialogue. Marino's Earl is paternal without condescension, and Vieira's Mikie, though dull-witted, is sweetly sensitive. Best of all, both actors make it look effortless. Director Fisher makes sure the two don't overplay the lingo, and the result is natural and realistic. So is the bond of affection between the crude middle-aged sage and the emotionally need young man. And casting Billy Stone as customer Spike was a coup. Stone's physical appearance and his consummate performance in a minor role serve the play well.
We're used to Andy Hall's fine set designs on the small Lumia Theatre stage, and this one, the inside of a tacky adult bookstore, is exceptional. Deede Ulanet's props, displayed semi-discreetly, add to the illusion, and Jim Hultquist's lighting design, with muted red neon blinking outside the front of the shop, keeps us aware of Times Square.
"Adult Fiction" is not an optimistic play; its theme is failed relationships. One such, barely hinted at, is the key to the bond between Earl and Mikie. The hinted-at relationship might be the most significant one in the play.
The play runs about 90 minutes, including an unnecessary, even disruptive intermission. Good as it is, "Adult Fiction" would be better in one act with two scenes: pre-Mikie's date, and post-Mikie's date. And maybe Mr. Fisher and Mr. Marino could work on keeping Earl unaware of his profundity right up to the very end. Poignant as it is, the denouement should not represent an epiphany.
There's some coarse language in "Adult Fiction", but no more than is found in many mainstream movies. The language is, in fact, a source of the synergy among the play's writer, director and actors. There is no doubt that this is the way Earl and Mikie talk, and rather than offend, the expletives serve to punch up the humor and emphasize the emotions. These are, after all, not articulate characters, and their blankety-blanks are legitimate adjectives and adverbs. The indelicate language doesn't descend into the gratuitous. Be not offended; be drawn into the expressive writing, directing and acting of "Adult Fiction"

Lusts of the flesh

Exploring matters of the heart in a porno bookstore


By Peter Filichia


Where: New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch

When: Through April 16. Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m.

How much: $25. Call (732) 229-3166.

When theatergoers enter "Adult Fiction" at New Jersey Repertory Company, they walk into a gritty re-creation of a pornographic bookstore. Magazines abound, with such titles as "Jail Babies"; lines of videotapes display covers of naked couples. A mop and bucket are placed near the screening booths.

As the lights come up, it's somewhat surprising to hear Earl, the store's manager, ask Mikey, his 19-year-old customer, "So how's your mom?"

Playwright Brian Richard Mori lets us know -- simplistically -- that purveyors of porno and their customers are basically good-hearted people with the same wants and needs as the rest of us. They may use "adult" language (there's plenty in this 90-minute play), but if we prick them, do they not bleed?

The 55-year-old Earl views Mikey as the son he never had. But Earl has all the wisdom of Archie Bunker, who, sad to say, must have been Mori's model. The playwright includes malapropisms worthy of Archie -- "hospital" for "hospitable" -- and if that weren't enough, has him utter "whoop-de-doo," too.

Earl secretly lusts for Ann, a waitress in a nearby coffee shop, but knows he's too old for her. He calls her to see if she'll date Mikey. That the young woman would take a recommendation from a porno distributor may seem odd, but her reasons later become clear.

Theatergoers will assume the match won't work out because Mikey -- a gullible nerd in a Led Zeppelin T-shirt -- is hardly a catch. Aaron Vieira expertly shows us a kid who works hard to keep up with the conversation, hoping that the comment he's just thrown in registers. His face and squint constantly spell confusion. He often casts his eyes down to the floor, and, when he looks up, hopes that he'll see a kind and understanding face.

Jerry Marino certainly gives Earl that face, though he isn't above playing the lord of the manor to the other customers. ("This ain't no library!") He unfolds many layers of paternal feeling, and forgives Mikey no matter how much the young man disappoints him. Marino lets us sympathize with the man and his wasted existence, especially deep in the play, when Earl is forced to examine his life.

Stewart Fisher's direction shifts smoothly from the first-act laughs to the second-act poignancy. "Adult Fiction" is a competent work that doesn't aim too high, but hits the mark it set for itself.

'Adult Fiction' plot needs fleshing out


Published in the Asbury Park Press 3/28/00

The New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch has opened its second season of main-stage plays with a work about two misfits that takes place in 1979 at a pornographic book store in Times Square.

The acting is terrific. The set by Andy Hall, a Monmouth University professor, is a knock-out. Lights by Jim Hultquist and original music and sound by Merek Royce Press are very good. And Stewart Fischer's direction is right on the money.


New Jersey Repertory Company
179 Broadway, Long Branch
WHEN: Thursdays through Sundays through April 16
CALL: (732) 229-3166

The only down side is Brian Richard Mori's play, which is OK as far as it goes, but doesn't go far enough.

His two-character drama, with comedy, centers on the relationship between Earl (Jerry Marino), a middle-age man who manages the porno book store, and Mikie (Aaron Vieira), a 19-year-old lost soul with little common sense and even less brains.

The first act of this 85-minute play (with an unnecessary 15-minute intermission) centers on getting Mikie a date. The second focuses on how the date doesn't work out. Within this framework, we learn Mikie barely graduated high school, has been laid off and lives with his single mother as he drifts through life. Earl lives in a roach-infested apartment; he hates working in a store, he hates eating his meals in a coffee shop that he loves.

This slice-of-life play resembles a slice of apple pie that has been sitting under glass on the counter of a coffee shop all day. It's OK, but warm it up and add a scoop of vanilla ice cream and it would be much better.

Mori offers the audience very little conflict and characters we can pity, but not empathize with. Both characters are frustrated with life -- aren't we all? -- but where are the revealing monologues or seminal moments that help us better understand why Earl and Mikie are the way they are?

Mori asks us to accept his two characters at face value and, perhaps because the production values are so rich, the audience expects richer, deeper characters.

Why has Earl loved and lost, and, although fatalistic about life, is not bitter about the hand he has drawn? Is Mikie really that naive, or is he perhaps mentally disabled, growing up in a city where the school system has failed him? Why does he look to Earl as a father figure, and is it the lack of a real father that hindered his maturity?

Mori needs to give us more to better understand Earl and Mikie's relationship with each other and society at a time that, the producers point out, was one of uncertainty and disillusionment.

Could all of their disillusionment stem from their simple exchange near the end of the play when Mikie, who has screwed up yet one more time, says, "I wanna love somebody, y'know, Earl? I just wanna love somebody."

And Earl's answer is, "I know."

They are looking for love. The porno shop customers are looking for sex.

The audience needs to know more about Earl and Mike's quest for love, for that is a sentiment we all can empathize with, and one that could truly touch our hearts.


Published on March 28, 2000


Porn in the U.S.A.


Published in the Asbury Park Press 3/24/00
Theater Writer

Brian Richard Mori never dreamed the New Jersey Repertory Company would produce his play "Adult Fiction" because it takes place in a pornographic book store in Times Square.

By the New Jersey Repertory Company
179 Broadway, Long Branch
Opens 8 p.m. Friday; continues 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays
Through April 16
(732) 229-3166

But the cutting-edge troupe did, and at 8 p.m. today "Adult Fiction" opens the company's second season of main-stage productions at the 70-seat Lumia Theatre in Long Branch.

Mori said his play was staged at the Geva Theatre in Rochester, N.Y., about 10 years ago. The rest of the Rep's five-play season are world premieres.

"Part of our mission is to do new plays and neglected plays and this is a new, neglected work," explained the Rep's Artistic Director SuzAnne Barabas, West Long Branch. "I think people who are offended by (profane) language shouldn't come and see this, just like they may choose not to see an R-rated movie."

Barabas said the play may be a "turn-off" to some people, but to her it's a "quite funny and very moving play" about human relationships.

The two-act, two-character play takes place during the summer of 1979 -- in pre-Mayor Rudy Giuliani Times Square. It centers on Earl (played by Jerry Marino of Edison), a man in his 50s who manages a porn shop, and 19-year-old Mikie (played by Aaron Vieira of Manhattan), a shy loner. It is directed by Stewart Fisher of Brooklyn, who also directed "Ends" for the Rep.

Mori, 42, of Manhattan, divides his time between writing stage plays and screenplays while working part-time for the Ford Foundation. He said he began writing as a high school student to express himself since he was so shy.



Actors Aaron Vieira and Jerry Marino share a laugh in a scene from "Adult Fiction."
"Adult Fiction" is semi-autobiographical, he said -- not that his father ever worked in a porn shop or that Mori ever hung out in one, he adds quickly.

"Earl is so much like my Dad, who died shortly before the Geva production," Mori said. "He was not the brightest guy in world, but he was a kind and decent man living on the margins and frustrated by how his life had turned out.

"And there was a time in my life when I was shy and lonely," Mori said. "Dreaming of love and not sure how to go about getting it."

After his mother and father split, Mori's father, like Earl, became a coffee-shop junkie while living on the edge of society.

"He used to take me to coffee shops when I was a kid," said Mori, who was born in Pennsylvania and grew up in southern California. "He became a regular and they were special to him, a way to keep in touch."

The play revolves around a blind date Earl sets up between Mikie and a waitress from his favorite coffee shop. However, circumstances prohibit Earl from returning to his favorite shop.

Now married and living in Manhattan, Mori struggles to earn a living with his writing. His play "Dream of Flight," published by the Dramatist Play Service, "pays me unbelievably less than $5 bucks every six months."

He rewrote and polished parts of "Adult Fiction," which is the first play he's worked on in about four years, he said. He said it has been optioned several times for off-Broadway productions, but the financing never comes together, he believes, because of the play's milieu scares off backers.

"It's impossible to make a living just writing plays," said Mori, whose first New York production was in 1978. "This is my 20th production and I've made less than $20,000 in all these years.

"I've had a bunch of options on my screenplays, which pays me enough money for six months," he explained. "But if this one screenplay I have kicks in, it will give me enough money to write for two-three years ... I dream of making a living at writing."


Published on March 24, 2000

Two River Times January 15-22
Scene On Stage by Philip Dorian
The Plays Within The Plays Are The Thing At Two Theaters
INTENTIONALLY AWFUL PLAYS-within-plays are centerpieces in two comedies that opened last weekend on New Jersey Regional stages. "Noises Off", the 1983 farce by British playwright Michael Frayn, is at Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, and "The Play's the Thing," written sixty years earlier by Hungarian dramatist Ferenc Molnar, plays through January 23 at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. It may be stretching a point to claim further similarities, but both are comedies about theater people at work, and both New Jersey productions feature established actors of note in leading roles. Experienced farceur Brian Murray plays the director in "Noises Off", and Stuart Vaughan, a founder of the New York Shakespeare Festival, plays a playwright in "The Play's the Thing", and, in fact, directed the production.
Good things come in small packages. NJ Rep, in its 65 seat Lumia Theatre, comes closer to realizing the essence of its play than does Paper Mill, twenty times larger. The relative sizes of the venue serve to enhance the one and weaken the other. "The Play's the Thing" becomes a charming chamber frivolity in Rep's intimate space, while "Noises Off" is blown up and amplified (literally) to something other than the compressed frenzy it should be.
If it's not a contradiction in terms, "The Play's the Thing" is a mannerly farce. Clever word-play and mental gymnastics take the place of physical action and slamming doors. One theory of farce says that it harbors subversive qualities and addresses unspoken urges; in Molnar's "putting on" of a play writing, actors, critics, class distinction, elitism and intellectualism, "The Play's the Thing" fits that description. The adaptation by P.G. Wodehouse is remarkably close to the original, and directed by Stuart Vaughan, the highly professional production at NJ Rep is leisurely paced. As the plot thickens, audience interest becomes amusement, and early chuckles grow to robust laughter.
A young composer overhears his actress-fiancée in a passionate exchange with another actor. To avert personal and professional ruin, a playwright dashes off a short play in order to convince the composer that all he heard was a rehearsal. That's "The Play's the Thing" in a nutshell, but the essence of the play is in the simplicity and lightness with which Molnar has drawn the situation. Within the formality and elegance of a luxurious Italian Inn, worldliness and wit prevail. There's a propriety about the behavior of the older playwright and his collaborators, but the earthiness of their instincts is not far beneath the veneer. "No poetry in my soul, but a balance in my bank account," says the playwright. But there is poetry - and poetic license, as he writes the playlet and passes it off as one by Sardou, whose melodramas had dominated the Parisian stage in the late 1800's.
While it is generally unwise for an actor to direct himself, this play might be an exception. (So might be, for that matter, Stuart Vaughan.) The role of Sandor Turai, the play wright based on Molnar himself, is at the hub of "The Play's the Thing". Everything that happens, the other characters' actions and reactions are at Sandor's instigation. It is perfectly natural for him to control the tone of all else on stage. Mr. Vaughan does it with aplomb. Looking dapper in formal attire to leisure wear, his Sandor runs the show - literally, as well as within the play.
AS Sandor's associate, William Shust is equally at home with wordplay; Philip F. Lynch, as the composer, carries callowness to an extreme. Angela Roberts is very good at capturing shadings of worldliness under the fiancée's sunny disposition. As the would-be seducer, Joseph Culliton's bombast is out of sync with the rest of the play, but the actor does make hay with the comic playing of the faux scene - it's broad reading probably too much so, but funny nonetheless.
New Jersey Repertory producers Gabor and SuzAnne Barabas have promised to produce neglected or infrequently staged works. To start the New Year, they're off and running in high style with "The Play's the Thing."

Atlanticville January 13 thru January 19, 2000
CurtainCalls Review by Diana Moore
The play-within-the-play's the Thing at NJ Rep
Adultery is usually dangerous, but in Ferenc Molnar's "The Play's the Thing," now playing at New Jersey Repertory Company's Lumia Theatre in Long Branch, it's downright humorous.
Set in an Italian castle in 1924, Molnar's comedy (adapted by P.G. Wodehouse) is directed by and stars Stuart Vaughan, who reigns supreme in the role of playwright Sandor Turai, with a style reminiscent of Anthony Hopkins and a relaxed approach to acting that makes his delivery thoroughly believable. Opening with some sly commentary by the main characters on theatrical clichés and conventions, the farcical situation kicks off when Sandor, his longtime collaborator Mansky (William Shust) and their young composer friend Albert (Philip Lynch) happen to overhear the titillating sounds of erotic overtures coming from the bedroom of Albert's "Prima Donna" (Angela Roberts) bride-to-be and her former suitor and co-star Almady (Joseph Culliton). This send the composer spiraling into a turbulent sea of despair, anger and self-loathing; his fiancée sinks into her own frantic ocean of woe when she discovers that her late-night rendezvous was overheard by the man she truly adores.
So, can this couple ever be stitched back together? Possibly - by way of a masterwork of deceit conjured by the veteran dramatist, who seeks to turn this tragedy into a "life imitates art" spectacular. The ingenious plot involved disguising the salacious encounter as a play rehearsal, in hopes that he'll believe it, she'll be forgiven and all will be well again - or will it?
In addition to Vaughan, William Shust radiates excellent stage presence as the other half of the sardonic and sneaky pair of playwrights - and if you aren't weak of heart, you will laugh till you have an aneurysm when you watch Joseph Culliton drive everybody mad as the hilariously hammy Almady.
This being my first NJ Repertory experience, I was very impressed at not only the talent of the cast of characters, but the way the set designer Bart Healy and costume designer Juliet Ouyoung took an intimate setting and turned it into a whole different and exciting world. One word of advice to the readers: "Beware of thin walls." (You would be surprised at what one can hear through soft paneling - I know I am).
The COASTER January 13-January 19
Review by Robert F. Carroll
The play-within-the-play's the Thing at NJ Rep
Ferenc Molnar's turn-of-the-century --- that's the other century -- comedy, "The Play's the Thing" is a funny, gentle, well-crafted play short only on social relevance of "significance" that modern playwrights seem to believe is demanded by modern audiences.
The Hungarian Molnar's comedy (as adapted by P.G. Wodehouse, the English humorist), is the current offering of the New Jersey Repertory Company at its cozy Lumia Theatre on Broadway in Long Branch.
Stuart Vaughan, the founding artistic director of the New York Shakespeare Festival, directed and plays the lead in this classy production. Vaughan is Sandor Turai, an elder playwright who has arranged a meeting between his composer and protégé, Albert Adam (Philip Lynch), on a new musical, and Ilona Szabo (Angela Roberts), who is to play the lead in the show, to go over the details.
The meeting is set in an Italian villa whose walls are paper thin, especially the one between Turai's suite and Ilona's bedroom. So, of course, Turai and Adam overhear Ilona and a former lover, Almady (Joseph Culliton) conduct an incendiary assignation. This presents Turai with a problem: How can he explain away the overheard conversation to young, inflamed Adam, Ilona's fiancé?
It's a nice plot, and Turai is up to solving it. The overheard conversation, he explains, is dialogue from a new play the pair have been rehearsing. How he goes about convincing everybody concerned takes the second and third acts before everything is resolved to everyone's satisfaction, including the audience.
Vaughan is superb as the elder playwright - self-assured, in control and accustomed to having his own way. He and Mansky (William Shust), a fellow playwright and co-author of many years' standing, make a marvelous pair, exchanging pleasantries and showbiz quips and snips in the best Oscar Wilde tradition. John FitzGibbon, as the waiter Dwornitschek, almost steals the show with his calculated obsequiousness. Not far behind is Culliton as the fatuous Almady, who strives to maintain his innocence via a hilarious third act tete-a-tete with Ilona. Brenton Popolizio plays a superheated major domo of the villa.

ASBURY PARK PRESS January 11, 2000
'Play's the Thing' well worth the timeby Gretchen C. Van Benthuysen
"The Play's the Thing," which opened last weekend at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, begins its first act with characters talking about the difficulty of beginning a play.
It ends its second act with a discussion on how to leave the audience - as well as the critics - in suspense.
It's good this 1924 comedy by Ferenc Molnar has a third act. because that's when this 2 1/2 hour play finally comes alive, speeding along with humorous repartee. The time-honored theatrical device of a play-within-a-play keeps the audience in stitches. All seven characters are finally together in one room and we have dispensed with all of that boring exposition that often causes plays to stumble in their early stages.
After all, the play was introduced at a time when artistic entertainment was found via three to five hours of live entertainment on stage, not half-hour sitcoms in our living room. Audiences were more willing to invest time in exposition.
By the end of "The Play's the Thing," we've forgotten about the slow-moving first act and the somewhat stilted second. The third act is well worth the wait, especially as it proves the play is indeed the thing.
Director Stuart Vaughan, who also plays the leading character Sandor Turai (whom he said is based on Molnar), has assembled a cast of marvelous actors that range from respected and experienced William Shust, whose resume ranges from Broadway to the new Shakespeare Globe Theatre in London, to newcomer Brenton Popolizio, who spent last season in the George Street Playhouse's children's touring ensemble.
Molnar's look at theater people takes place in the suite of an Italian castle owned by a baron we never see. Turai, the eternal optimist, has arrived early with his writing partner, the pessimist and lyricist Mansky (Shust). Their composer, the gifted and young Albert Adam (Philip F. Lynch), also has just arrived, and is looking forward to seeing his fiancée, Ilona Szabo (Angela Roberts), a guest at the castle and also the star of the trio's new operetta.
They should have sent a telegram announcing their early arrival, a warning that is oft repeated in the second act after Ilona and her former lover and mentor Almady (Joseph Culliton) are overheard in mid-tryst through her paper-thin bedroom walls.
The telegraph was invented, Turai philosophizes, so women will never have to be surprised. Albert, of course, is devastated to overhear his fiancée claim Almady was the only man to ever mean anything to her. Mansky is worried the operetta now will never be staged as Albert's broken heart will stand in the way.
But Turai - who believes all of life is theater - sees a way out. After all, he says, what use is it being a playwright if he can't use his craft to solve this problem. So he writes a play and attributes it to Sardou because nobody remembers French plays or their authors.
He also uses this instant play, "A Tooth for a Tooth," to make fun of French romances and playfully punishes Almady (who is married with four children) for his lecherous feelings toward Ilona that have made Adam so unhappy.
As Almady, Culliton sports a pencil-thin mustache that would make Errol Flynn proud and a pair of the hardest working eyebrows in show business. As he rehearses "Tooth," he becomes increasingly frustrated as he stumbles over long French names with six hyphens and complains Ilona has no long monologues to memorize. It's the technique, Turai responds with a gleam in his eye, and actors around the world groan with a "been-there" understanding.
Popolizio's kinetic secretary to the baron is memorable. He does a lot with a character that only shows up in the final act. He nicely balances John FitzGibbon's droll. deliberate butler who gets the joy of saying the classic line - "Dinner is served" - that closes the play. Not only does he deliver the line perfectly, it is a perfect ending to this play about the theater.

For well-traveled stage vet, 'Play's the Thing' still

The Play's the Thing


By Peter Filichia


Name a city, and there's a good chance that Stuart Vaughan has directed a play there. He's shuffled off to Buffalo, Chicago, Providence, Denver, Cleveland -- not to mention Seattle, New Orleans and Tarrytown, N.Y.,where he established professional regional theaters.

Right now, the 74-year-old actor-director is at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, staging and starring in "The Play's the Thing." It's P.G. Wodehouse's adaptation of Ferenc Molnar's Hungarian comedy about a playwright who causes mischief among his friends just so he can manufacture a good farce.

"My very first professional job as an actor, back in 1946, was in Newark," Vaughan recalls. "I was cast as Jack Armstrong, an upstanding college boy who, in the heat of his love and ignorance of his heart, had put a girl in the family way. That's why the play was called 'Her Unborn Child.'"

Vaughan played the old Mosque Theatre in Newark (now Symphony Hall), followed by stints in Baltimore and Norfolk, Va. -- before the less than magnificent play shuttered without braving Broadway.

"Notice," he says, "that we were traveling farther and farther away from New York, and not getting any closer."

Vaughan did eventually get there. In 1955, he met a man named Joseph Papp, who envisioned an inner-city theater that would bring Shakespeare to the masses. Vaughan directed the New York Shakespeare Festival's first productions of "Julius Caesar" and "The Taming of the Shrew"; he cast Colleen Dewhurst in the latter.

"We were successful because we used a popular approach," he says. "No record exists how Shakespeare wanted his plays to be done. In fact, many authorities think American speech is closer to the original pronunciation than the kind of university English one hears in British productions of Shakespeare."

Vaughan then became artistic director of the Phoenix Theatre -- not in Phoenix, but the one by that name in New York, which lasted through the '70s. Nevertheless, it wouldn't be long before he left town to work in and establish professional regional theaters: The Seattle Repertory Theatre in 1962, Repertory Theatre of New Orleans in 1966, and the New Globe Theatre in Tarrytown, N.Y., in 1981.

The last he formed with actress Anne Thompson, whom he met and married in Seattle in 1965. It was she who got him to New Jersey Repertory.

Thompson was an evaluator for the New Jersey State Council on the Arts when she was introduced to SuzAnne and Gabor Barabas, who were starting a new company. She soon became their development director, and Vaughan signed on to stage Kim Hunter and her husband, Robert Emmett, in "On Golden Pond."

"As much as I've been around the country," he says, "it was the first time I worked in New Jersey since that time in Newark." (Though the Newark engagement is one of the first adventures he mentions in his 1969 autobiography, "A Possible Theatre.")

Says Barabas, the theater's executive producer, "After 'On Golden Pond,' Stuart and I were chatting. I mentioned that I came from a Hungarian background, which got us talking about Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnar, who's best known for writing the play 'Liliom,' on which Rodgers and Hammerstein's 'Carousel' is based. Stuart knew that he'd written a number of other worthy plays, too."

"I've liked ("The Play's the Thing") since I first saw it in 1948 with Louis Calhern, so when we established our Tarrytown theater in 1981, we did it there," says Vaughan. "An actor named Joe Colliton played the young lover then; now he's the older actor in this new production."

Vaughan portrays the playwright. "The atmosphere is Noel Coward-like, with European elegance and wit. Largely the humor is situational, but it's not a farce because most of the jokes are verbal."

While Vaughan is pleased at the growth of professional regional theater in this country, he is chagrined that one important dream he had has never come true. "I've always been interested in forming repertory companies, a group of actors who work together for enough time to develop a method of work, like the Berliner Ensemble in Germany and the Swedish Royal Theater."

But as long as people are going to the theater, he is gratified. "There are still places in modern life where people come and sit together and listen to language. Theater is a means of entertainment, but if a play's thoughts are good, the theater is far more than just a means of passing time."

Oldie but goodie: Long Branch theater stages a witty work from the 1920s


Published in the Asbury Park Press and the Home News Tribune 1/07/00


Theater Writer

Just because something is older doesn't mean it isn't any good, says director and actor Stuart Vaughan.

Was Rubens, a 17th-century Flemish painter, any less an artist than Picasso, a 19th-century Spanish painter? No, Vaughan responds, they're just different.


By Ferenc Molnar
New Jersey Repertory Company
179 Broadway, Long Branch
Opens Friday at 8 and closes Jan. 23
$35 Friday, $25 all other performances
(732) 229-3166

Was turn-of-the-century Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnar any less talented than the contemporary Neil Simon?

Vaughan, 74, doesn't think so. And to prove it, he's directing and acting in Molnar's comedy "The Play's the Thing," which opens tonight at the New Jerey Repertory Theatre in Long Branch.

"There's nothing in art that says in every way, every day, things are getting better," Vaughan said in an interview earlier this week prior to rehearsals. "The human spirit hasn't changed since before the Greeks and that's what real theater is about.

"I like to look for plays that speak to the human spirit -- couched in great language from whatever period," he added.

"The Play's the Thing," Vaughan said, is a "great" play about backstage shenanigans with a "great" translation by P.G. Wodehouse that is as witty as a Noel Coward play. But it is basically a neglected piece, he bemoaned.

Written in 1924, it centers on seven theater people spending a summer working on a play at an Italian villa. The prima donna is engaged to be married to the composer. An older actor, with whom she once had an affair, arrives and the composer overhears the actor making love to his fiance. Everybody tries to convince the composer it was only a scene rehearsal.



"The Play's the Thing" director/actor Stuart Vaughan and artistic director SuzAnne Barabas at the New Jersey Repertory Company theater in Long Branch this weekend.
Vaughan plays a character based on Molnar who got the idea for the play when he overheard his actress wife professing to love someone else. Except she wasn't really. She was taking a German lesson for a part in a play that required her to say "I love you" in German.

Vaughan, who grew up in Indiana and earned bachelor's and master's degrees in acting from Indiana schools, said he first started acting in school plays when he was 6. Later, in Boy Scouts, he was always asked to be the one to stand up front and talk, he said.

After school Vaughan came to New York and landed an acting job his first week. He joined Actor's Equity in 1946 and made his Broadway debut in 1953 in "The Strong are Lonely." He studied with Harold Clurman (1954-'56), one of the founders of The Group Theater. Vaughan was a founding artistic director of the New York Shakespeare Festival (1954), he said, directing the company's first 14 plays. He has worked for regional theaters around the country both as an actor and director and last summer directed the New Jersey Rep's production of "On Golden Pond" with Kim Hunter.

Vaughan is drawn to plays in which language and ideas are paramount, such as works by Arthur Miller, Noel Coward and Georges Feydeau "who are doing real theater." Broadway and off-Broadway, he said, mostly have abandoned real theater and thus lost traditional audiences. The exception is the Roundabout Theatre Company, a subscription troupe that continues to stage work for the thinking audience, he said. It currently has "The Rainmaker" and "Cabaret" on Broadway with "Uncle Vanya" and "The Man Who Came to Dinner" scheduled for later this season.

These are shows, Vaughan said, that are entertaining, not merely diversions to pass the time. If you want that, he said, turn on the TV.

"Tragedy reconciles us, assures us of the worth of being alive; it has some value even though none of us gets out alive as the death rate is 100 percent," Vaughan said. "Comedy shows life's problems can be reduced to human proportions and our problems can be endured through laughter and can be solved with reason.

"That's why good comedies are reassuring and important," he added.

Published on January 7, 2000

Atlanticville Nov. 11 thru Nov. 17, 1999
Memoir of a Divine Life on the Stage
The New Jersey Repertory Company is ending its first season of mainstage productions with a presentation of Memoir by John Murrell, directed by Drama Desk Award nominee William Martin.
The action centers on the island home of Sarah Bernhardt, where the legendary actress is trying to write the second volume of her memoirs with the assistance of her faithful, fastidious valet Georges Pitou. Through the rich reminiscences of the stage legend and the promptings of her loyal second, the play explores the "Divine" Bernhardt's early life, as well as her relationships with her mother, sister and husband.
The role of Sarah is played by stage, screen and television actress, Salome Jens, who brings all of her talents to bear upon the role. The dialogue she is given is literate and stilted - perhaps the way the real Ms. Bernhardt spoke - but Ms. Jens makes the role believable and understandable, as she slides seamlessly from one character to another in the life and times of this extraordinary woman.
As portrayed by Davis Hall. Georges Pitou fulfills the various roles of friend, servant and other players in Ms. Bernhardt's past. All of these characterizations are done with emotion and style, even as each of them bears the unmistakable stamp of Pitou. The real Pitou, meanwhile, is laid bare for all to see when the valet relates his story about why he never married.
The lighting design by Jim Hultquist is masterful, simulating late afternoon sun, dusk, starlight, and morning brightness. The subtle changes set the mood for the action, and help to establish Ms. Bernhardt's personality changes, from sadness to fear and then to optimism.
William Martin's direction keeps the action moving, allowing the actors a generous amount of room as well as an ease of interaction, whether addressing reality or fantasy.
It is worth spending an evening to see Salome Jens and Davis Hall bring this historical sketch to life, as well as to get a peek into the vibrant life of a woman whose name has become synonymous with acting.
Memoir continues its run at NJ Rep's Lumia Theater on Broadway in Long Branch, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through November 21. For tickets or reservations, call 229-3166.
Paul Schlesinger

Asbury Park Press Thursday, Nov 11, 1999
Bernhardt revisited in 'Memoir'
by Michael Kaabe
In "Memoir," John Murrell's essay of how actress Sarah Bernhardt lived out the last months of her life, the playwright depicts Bernhardt's driving passion to come to terms with her life's agonies, disappointments, mistakes and triumphs, so that she could die feeing and believing that her life had meaning and purpose.
Set in the summer of 1922, the 75-year old Bernhardt writes a book of memoirs with the assistance of her valet, Georges Pitou. She orders Pitou to re-enact various episodes in her life by actually playing the roles of her mother, a French Jew who abandoned her at a young age; Oscar Wilde, for whom she had a fascination, and other characters in her life.
Rather than using some of the great characters Bernhardt played to fuel his drama - such as "Phaedra" or "Hamlet", Murrell uses lyrical metaphors and visual imagery, thereby conveying a sense of immediacy and reality.
Sitting on the veranda of her estate near Brittany, we immediately see the connection between the flowers and espaliers with which it is decorated, and this final journey that Bernhardt takes. People and events from ages past creep up all over her.
"My mother was like a bunch of violets whose fragrance was enhanced when they were crushed," she emotes. Georges knows what she means. Like mother, like daughter? Years later when, due to the irresponsibility of a stagehand, Bernhardt suffered a fall that required a leg to be amputated, the actress continued to perform - and only got better.
Still, Bernhardt is written as an independent, realistic character who benefits from self knowledge. "I'm like the sun," she tells Pitou, "that brilliant star that has been shining for a billion years - yet it knows that it's not immortal."
The New Jersey Repertory Company's production of "Memoir" makes the most of Murrell's use of language and ideas, keeping the possibility of boredom from the play's talkiness tucked away in the wings.
The two actors in "Memoir", Salome Jens as Bernhardt and Davis Hall as Pitou, make a spectacular duo.
Although "Memoir" isn't for everyone, it is for those who want to see an intimate, personal story, presented with a first-class punch.

In role reversal, Salome to play Sarah Bernhardt

The Star-Ledger

By Peter Filichia


Memoir Where: New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch

When: Through Nov. 21. Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 and 7 p.m.

How much: $24 Thursdays; $30 Friday and Saturday evenings; $26 for all other performances. Call (732) 229-3166.

The actress who created a sensation as Salome is herself being played by another Salome.

At New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, Salome Jens is starring in "Memoir," John Murrell's play about Sarah Bernhardt. She, of course, was the illustrious 19th century French actress who so enchanted Oscar Wilde that he wrote "Salome" especially for her -- in her native French.

Jens has some pretty impressive theatrical credentials herself. She was part of the original Lincoln Center Theatre Company in 1963, and appeared in the world premiere of Arthur Miller's "After the Fall." For Shakespearean impresario Joseph Papp, she played leads in "The Winter's Tale," "Macbeth" and "Antony and Cleopatra." Those, though, occurred after her days in the burgeoning off-Broadway movement of the late '50s.

This wouldn't necessarily be expected from someone who spent her childhood on a dairy farm in Wisconsin and attended to a one-room schoolhouse. But once Jens' family moved to Milwaukee, she discovered modern dance. "And though I took a little detour in becoming Miss Wisconsin, my sole goal in life was to become a Martha Graham dancer," she recalls.

Jens came to New York, met a number of would-be actresses, which spurred her to study not only with Martha Graham, but also with noted drama teachers Herbert Berghoff and Uta Hagen. They got her an audition with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio.

''Strasberg always said, 'If you want to get in here, do a role that you know something about that no one else does.' I had always liked Josie in Eugene O'Neill's 'A Moon for the Misbegotten,' which, at the time, no one else had really rediscovered. So I tried that, and I got in."

She eventually did the play off- Broadway. "And I honestly believed I helped its reputation," Jens says. "This is where (drama critic Walter) Kerr decided that it was a major O'Neill play."

Jens was then cast in the 1960 revival of Jean Genet's "The Balcony," which became off-Broadway's longest-running play revival. "It took place in a brothel," she says, "and I was cast as 'The Pony Girl.'

''Don't ask," she adds with a laugh. "But after that, I knew I was dropping the dancing and concentrating on acting."

In "Memoir," Jens, now 64, plays Bernhardt in the last stage of her life, after her leg was amputated. "So I've been working on perfecting a limp," she says. "I learned that she also positioned her furniture in a way that she would always, always have something to lean on. So we've done that in this production, too."

The play also mentions Bernhardt's stint as Hamlet, considered a radical notion at the time.

''What a commotion that made back then," says Jens, "when she said she just didn't want to settle for Gertrude or Ophelia. She felt that Hamlet lent itself to a woman's sensibility, that he had a dual nature that was both feminine and masculine, and she could bring both elements to the character. She knew it was extremely risky to do Hamlet in England -- and she got horrible reviews there, though Oscar Wilde thought she was incredible." That led to his writing "Salome" for her.

''What I love about Sarah Bernhardt," she concludes, "is that she worked right until the end. Two weeks prior to her death, she was on the set doing a silent movie. What a way to go, eh?"


Resurrecting Bernhardt: 'Memoir' to bring exceptional actor to modern audiences


Published in the Asbury Park Press
Theater Writer

Actress Salome Jens said she knows a good play when she sees it.

New Jersey Repertory Company
179 Broadway, Long Branch
Through Nov. 21
(732) 229-3166

At age 64, Jens has had a successful career working onstage, in film and on TV. She's seen many a script but rarely at this point in her career, she said, does she get one as "beautifully written" as John Murrell's "Memoir," opening tonight at the 62-seat New Jersey Repertory Theatre in Long Branch.

"That kind of script doesn't come by you too often," said Jens from her hotel suite in Eatontown where she is staying during rehearsals. The two-character play concerns legendary French actress Sarah Bernhardt at the end of her life as she struggles to write her memoirs with the help of her valet, Pitou, played by Davis Hall.

"I love the play and I love doing it in this small, lovely, little theater," Jens said. "Gabor and SuzAnne Barabas (managing and artistic directors, respectively) are extraordinary people and doing something quite heroic and extraordinary in Long Branch."

Jens also knows extraordinary people when she sees them.

After growing up in Wisconsin, the daughter of Polish and German immigrants, Jens attended two years at Northwestern University before dropping out and heading for New York to study with modern dancer Martha Graham. At the same time, she enrolled in acting classes with Herbert Berghof. She also worked as a secretary in an advertising agency, using the secretarial skills her Depression-era mother, also named Salome, insisted she learn.



Salome Jens invokes the memory of the late great Sarah Bernhardt in "Memoir."
Two years later, she began working off-Broadway. A part in the Jose Quintero directed 1959 production of "Deirdre of the Sorrows" was seminal.

"That's when my career really started to take off," Jens said.

That play landed her the title role in the 1961 movie "Angel Baby." Shortly after that, she got accepted into the invitation-only Actor's Studio in New York, where she studied with Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler. That was followed by an invitation to become a charter member of an acting company Elia Kazan was starting at Lincoln Center.

She also landed lead roles in such Joseph Papp-directed productions as "The Winter's Tale," "Antony and Cleopatra" and "Macbeth." In 1966, she landed what she considers one of her best film roles in "Seconds," which co-starred Rock Hudson and was directed by John Frankenheimer.

Jens was a series regular on TV's "Superboy," "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" and "Falcon Crest" and was a guest on "L.A. Law," "Gabriel's Fire," "MacGyver," "Cagney and Lacey" and "Star Trek."

She currently teaches acting to master's-degree candidates at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she also lives. She shares an apartment in New York with her brother-in-law Anthony Zerbe.

"I love doing it all," Jens said. "Theater is where I came from and certainly where I received all my training.

"One of my goals was to be a fine actress and in order to do that I learned primarily in the theater where the actor's art is most challenging," she added.

One of the challenges she anticipates with "Memoir" is grabbing the audience's attention early in the evening.

Bernhardt, who was half Jewish, delivered all of her performances in French, including the ones she gave on a tour of the United States. Her contemporary, playwright Victor Sardou, wrote: "If there's anything more remarkable than watching Sarah act, it's watching her live."

But the actress, who lived from 1844 to 1923, is not well known today. Her greatest parts were the title roles in Sardou's "La Tosca," Jean Racine's "Phedre" and Alexandre Dumas' "Camille." Jens will re-create moments from some of these during the show, as her character recalls bits and pieces from the past that she demands Pitou write down. She also orders him to impersonate characters from her life to jump-start her memory. The play takes place during the weeks before she died.

"She was so mythological in so many ways -- and the myth was so enormous -- yet she was a woman before her time, very independent," Jens said. "She left the Comedie Francaise (the French national theater) and started her own theater.

"Then she went to England and did Hamlet!" Jens said, adding it was the first time a woman had stepped into the role. "She didn't take that lightly and in her exploration of Hamlet she had some real insights into the male/female side of that character which she felt she could fulfill in a unique way ...

"She was not just any actress," Jens added. "She was an actress who took enormous risks, who changed the face of modern theater."


Published on November 5, 1999

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TriCityNews 10.06.99
Playwrights' Voice Rings Rich and Haunting
by Nick Montesano
triCity Staff Writer

LONG BRANCH - From the outset, as writer sits typing. And typing. And typing. Typing amidst a collage of images: a framed portrait of a mother and daughter, a pile of books beside a makeshift wooden cot, a trunk draped with a granny square quilt and barbed wire entrapping the scene.

The writer suddenly lifts the paper from the typewriter, crumples it, and reaches for a stiff drink while trying to get past his loss of words. Then from everywhere around him, the mother and daughter step out of the painting, others appear, from under the quilt, and from around the wires and walls. They beg the writer, "Find me a voice... Find me a voice... Find me a voice, for those who speak no more."

What unfolds is not unlike that granny square quilt with its patches of colors and beautiful patterns all tied together by a black thread. In this case, the black thread is the horrors of the holocaust. It is those patches of color, in the form of poetry and prose, that become the New Jersey Repertory Company's finest production to date.

It seems fitting that NJRep founders and producers, Gabor and SuzAnne Barabas have authored this masterful piece. "Find Me A Voice" plays rich and haunting and beautifully lyric.

"Find Me A Voice", while never forgetting the six million victims of one of the century's most unspeakable horrors, tells tales of very specific individuals. A wise choice by the playwrights because though the vast numbers are striking, the individual stories tear at the heart. And the soul.

A conductor prepares a group of European Jews to sing a Catholic requiem in Latin to German officials. A mother leaves her daughter in the safety of nuns in hopes of saving her daughter's life, convincing the young girl to renounce her Judaism. A woman recounts the horrors of her grandfather's trip to the gas chamber. An Aryan youth presents a slide show to prove that the entire holocaust was nothing more than a propaganda newsreel created to make people believe in something that never happened. And on and on.

Recurring themes and thoughts tightly connect the tales: "Monsters don't look like monsters." "You must come back to remember." "By the time they came..." Haunting words when framed by the events.

Ms. Barabas, who employs simple, yet effective theatrical conventions to tie the pieces together, smartly directs the action. An actor physically changes character when he puts on a hat. A book used in one piece is passed to an actor who uses it in the next. Each action seems to say; "Now it is your turn. Tell your story."

The ensemble cast is simply excellent.

Marian Akana, Susan G. Bob, Elisha Joy Gordon, Philip F. Lynch, Christine Todino and Harlan Tuckman step into focus and stand back in support, clearly knowing the importance of telling these stories as a group. They all shine with remarkable craft.

Merek Royce Press has created original music for this production. The music richly underscores the text, tender when needed, moving and properly dramatic at times, yet wisely silent when the words make their own music.

Set designer Bryan Higgason, new to NJRep, beautifully render the aforementioned collage, allowing the scenery to represent a wide variety of locales from gas chamber to writer's studio to church. While you might expect a dreary backdrop, Higgason creates the scene with remarkably vibrant browns, grays and reds. The raked stage works well, especially when lit from behind and underneath.

The producers smartly use the Broadway Gallery, the lobby and entrance to the theater, to create a timeline of pictures and words recounting the plight of the Jews through the 1930's and 1940's. A proper and enlightening set up to the play.

"Find Me A Voice" plays through October 17th, 1999 at the Lumia Theater, 179 Broadway in Long Branch. Call the box office (229-3166) for tickets and information.

"Find Me A Voice" is must-see theater. Take a loved one and count your blessings.

The horror and the humanity


Published in the Asbury Park Press 10/08/99

The New Jersey Repertory Company
179 Broadway, Long Branch
Through Oct. 17
(732) 229-3166

The New Jersey Repertory Company, during its first year of existence, has devoted itself mostly to new plays about controversial issues for adventurous audiences.

Now, in the final show of its first season, the troupe is getting personal.

Or more precisely, Rep founders and codirectors SuzAnne and Gabor Barabas are staging a play they wrote about the Holocaust, "Find Me a Voice," which is being performed on the theater's intimate stage in Long Branch through Oct. 17.

Running two hours, with an intermission, it consists of 13 scenes. These range from "I Will Hide This Bit of Potato," in which a little girl in Auschwitz agonizes over having stolen some food; to the monologue "Geraniums," about a hospital where children with mental disorders were exterminated but the flowers were well tended; to "Requiem," concerning preparations by an orchestra in the Terezin camp to play for visiting Nazi dignitaries.

The play is based on Gabor's family rememberances and explores the spiritual aspects of the Holocaust in prose, poetry and music.

His parents, both Hungarian Jews, survived the Nazi concentration camps of World War II, but lost many family members. His mother was at Auschwitz and his father at Mauthausen. They met and married after the war and Gabor was born in 1948 and raised as a Reform Jew. The family emigrated seven years later to escape an unsuccessful Hungarian revolution against Communist dictators. They eventually settled in Connecticut.


"For us, this is an important story -- it is not a Jewish story," Gabor said. "It is a human story."

The play, with musical underscoring by SuzAnne's brother, Merek Royce Press, was workshopped at the former Meadow Theatre in Red Bank in April 1994. It premiered as a fully staged production at the Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati in March 1995. It later was produced as an Equity Showcase in New York in 1997.

Gabor said this version is the final version. There is less poetry and more prose compared to earlier ones. There are now six, rather than five main characters, with the new character acting as the writer struggling to find a way to give voices to all the other characters.

"In a way, it is a new play," he explained. "We wanted the narrative to be stronger and smoother.

"I think at this point we have the play the way we want it," he added. "I can't see any further evolution to any significant degree."


The genesis of the piece, Barabas said, was a poem he wrote 10 or 15 years ago concerning the subject of Holocaust survivors. A writer of poetry since he was 8, it was the medium he felt most comfortable in.

"I had some of these poems published and done readings of them and SuzAnne felt it might be an interesting undertaking to try to develop them into a play with a theme and prose pieces," he explained. "She was also very involved in writing and developing the play."

Married to each other for 32 years, Barabas said he and his wife have collaborated on a number of plays over the years and while there can be stress, they trust each others' opinions -- no matter how honest or critical they may be.


The bigger problem with writing the play, Barabas said, was the search for an appropriate language in which to tell a story about the horrors.

"Sometimes I get the feeling something as big as (the Holocaust) needs a new theatrical language, not that the story can't be told in a linear fashion," he struggled to explain. "I, myself, have listened to the stories my parents recounted about the destruction of their family. I have come to feel the spirituality of God does infuse everything. What form God takes I've not really reconciled in my mind, but certainly in the play it takes some very specific forms."

Although the play is specifically about the Jews, Barabas said most of the previous audiences have been non-Jewish.

The exploration of evil, he adds, is unfortunately a universal subject.


Published on October 8, 1999

Holocaust survivors inspire Long Branch show

By Peter Filichia

Gabor Barabas still remembers how his father would constantly tell him the stories. And how his mother never would.

''They weren't bedtime stories," admits the executive producer of New Jersey Repertory Company, where his "Find Me a Voice" opens tonight. "They were tales of the Holocaust."

Both of Barabas' parents were Hungarian Jews who were incarcerated in World War II concentration camps. His father endured three years at Belsen, where he witnessed the deaths of his father, younger sister and most of his uncles and cousins. His mother saw her father, mother and two brothers killed in Auschwitz.

''They met after the war," Barabas says, "when the survivors went back to their villages to see if anyone would return. They both waited and hoped, but realized after time that no relatives were coming back. I learned none of this from my mother, who steadfastly refused to talk about her experiences. But my father was always telling the stories, the same stories, over and over. Every time he told them, though, I could see in his eyes that it was as if he were telling them for the first time."

The stories prompted Barabas to learn more about the Holocaust. When he was in medical school at the University of Cincinnati in the early '70s, he happened upon a shocking piece of information.

''In the '30s, there was a famous German psychiatric hospital that was used as a so-called 'euthanasia center,' where the doctors gassed handicapped children, as well as adults who had psychiatric problems -- even problems as minor as depression. Then they'd send letters to the people who had entrusted their loved ones to them, saying that the patients had died from pneumonia. What they were really doing was perfecting their gassing methods in how to kill Jews."

Barabas discovered something more cruelly ironic. "They had pots of geraniums in the killing rooms. Those were kept beautiful. How awful, I thought, that they were giving such care to plants, but not to people." He eventually wrote poems about this incident, as well as other Holocaust-related issues. About 15 years ago, his brother-in-law, Merek Royce Press, liked the poems enough to set them to music. "Just as an exercise for my freshman music class at Rutgers," he says.

About 10 years ago, Barabas' wife Suzanne, a theater director, thought that her husband's poems and brother's music had the makings of a good theater piece. The two agreed, and eventually wrote "Find Me a Voice" -- "about a writer," says Barabas, "who is haunted by the experiences of six Holocaust victims and is trying to articulate for those who died. 'Find me a voice,' he implores, 'with which to speak for those who can speak no more.' But I wouldn't include any of my father's stories," he says. "I couldn't put him through those again when he attended."

Five years ago, the three collaborators rehearsed the show at the Meadow Theatre in Red Bank. That led to a full production at the Ensemble Theater of Cincinnati in 1995, and an intimate off-off Broadway production two years ago. Says Barabas, "After seeing it in a big theater in Cincinnati -- where they built scaffolding and a crematorium in hopes of making it dramatic -- we really felt the power of the piece when it was in a small, tiny space."

That should pose no problem at New Jersey Repertory, which has all of 62 seats.

''But something wonderful did happen in Cincinnati," says Barabas. "At the time, the city was creating its own Holocaust museum. When representatives came to see the show, they were especially taken with the writer's plea, 'Find me a voice with which to speak for those who can speak no more.' That line is now carved into a stone at the museum's entrance."

A streetcar named success


Published in the Home News Tribune


Kim Hunter was puzzled.

By New Jersey Repertory Company
179 Broadway, Long Branch
Through Aug. 29
Shows 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays
(732) 229-3166

She had performed this scene from "A Streetcar Named Desire" hundreds of times during the run of the Tennessee Williams' drama that marked her Broadway debut in 1948.

Two years later she was doing it again in Hollywood. And Elia Kazan -- "The best director, without question, that I ever worked with" -- once again was directing.

Her character, Stella Kowalski, is in her bedroom sitting on the arm of a chair talking to her sister, Blanche Dubois, played by Vivien Leigh. Blanche is desperate to have the love of Mitch, played by Karl Malden.

"There was one take after another, after another, after another -- and they all seemed fine," Hunter recalled. "So I finally went to Gadge (Kazan's nickname) and said, 'Am I doing something goofy?

" 'No, no, no... It's going just fine. I'm just curious to see how many times Vivien can drop a tear on exactly the same syllable," Hunter said. "She was amazing."

Some people might say Hunter, 76, who is still recognized on the streets of Manhattan where she lives, is pretty amazing.

Her career stretches across nearly 60 years. She begins previews Wednesday in "On Golden Pond" at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch with her husband of 48 years, Robert Emmett. The play also features Alex Brumel of Marlboro in the role of their step-grandson.

It is directed by Stuart Vaughan. His wife, Anne, is director of development for the theater and they are long-time friends of Hunter and Emmett.

Hunter began rehearsals for "Pond" the day after she got back from Ontario, Canada, where she made a movie with James Whitmore and Ossie Davis called "Old Hats." It also features Eric McCormack, who stars in NBC's "Will & Grace."

"I am a little tired," admits the petite actress with the huge resume. "But I'm happy with work in spite of it all."

Other than a slow time in the 1950s, when she was blacklisted as a communist by the House Un-American Activities Committee, Hunter has worked steadily since she made her stage debut at age 17 in her hometown of Miami Beach, Fla., in a community production of "Penny Wise."

By age 21 she had been signed to a movie contract by David O. Selznick, which he tore up after two years, telling the actress she could do better on her own, she said.

She went to England and gained attention with the 1946 film "A Matter of Life and Death," which was renamed "Stairway to Heaven" when it was released in the United States. But nothing much was happening for her in movies, she admitted.

"I had the opportunity to come back East to do 'Claudia' in summer stock and I was happy to get back into theater," she said. "I was doing that when I got the call to come in and audition for 'Streetcar,' which I got."

Sounds too simple.

The play is a classic. The movie is a regular on cable. Kazan just received a lifetime achievement award from the motion picture industry. Marlon Brando is an icon. And Hunter is the recipient of one of the most famous lines of all time ... "STELLA!"

Hunter said excitement was building during the 4 1/2-week pre-Broadway try-outs in Boston, New Haven and Philadelphia.

"Also, because Tennessee had made a name for himself with 'The Glass Menagerie,' everybody was eager to know what's this one was going to be like," she said. "It gave us a funny feeling, but most of us thought it was a damned good play and we were just glad to be working in it.

"Kazan took us aside one day and said to pay no attention to all the nonsense going on," she related. "He said: 'It's a little like oysters. They're marvelous, but not everybody likes then.' "

The reviews were "incredible," she said. But not much changed in her life. Except, she did locate permanently in New York and has lived the past 46 years in the same apartment.

Hunter recalls how the Broadway cast of "Streetcar" was concerned that their only cast member to be nominated for a Tony Award, Jessica Tandy as Blanche Dubois, was not asked to be in the movie version.

"I think even Jessie understood that the producers were fairly sure they had an artistic success, but they desperately wanted the movie to be a financial success as well," Hunter explained. "Of course, Vivien played in the London production of 'Streetcar' and she was infinitely better known to movie audiences than Jessie was at that time."

Hunter found Leigh charming but noted she never seemed to sleep during the filming -- dancing every night after shooting and, with husband Laurence Olivier, hosting open-house parties every weekend.

"I shouldn't say this, but, well she was a little like The Rockettes -- everything was absolutely organized," Hunter said. "She had that incredible capacity for reading a script and figuring exactly what should be done to make it come to life -- and do it!

"Her way of performing was a little bit mechanical," she added.

Hunter's way was not. She loved to rehearse, to discover all the nuances a part could offer. She found a soul mate in Humphrey Bogart when she played his former wife and he played a newspaper editor in "Deadline U.S.A." in 1952.

"Working with Bogart was a joy and we even rehearsed by ourselves, in his dressing room, without the director," she said. "'He was such a dear, wonderful person ... a sheer joy to work with."

Hunter still works. She is awaiting the release of two other recent films -- "Abilene" and "The Hiding Place" (with Timothy Bottoms) -- have been shown at festivals but have no distributors, she said.

She is frequently asked to speak before groups about the restored version of "Streetcar," which was rereleased in 1993 with four minutes of footage originally censored that plays up the sexual tension between Blanche and Stanley, and Stella's sexual attraction to her husband. But Hunter, who said she's seen the film enough, usually goes to dinner while the movie is being screened, returning for questions and answers afterward. The Oscar she won for it sits on a bookshelf, she said.

And she showed up recently, along with Charlton Heston and Roddy McDowall, for a festival sponsored by American Movie Channel celebrating the 30th anniversary of "Planet of the Apes," in which she played Zira.

She becomes visibly upset when she talks about McDowall, her eyes filling up with tears. "He was such as angel," she said. "I had only seen him a few weeks before he died ... and he seemed fine.

"I couldn't believe it when, a week or two later, I learned he was that ill," she said. "He was a dear human being, such a love."She is doing "On Golden Pond" -- a project that has taken two years to get produced -- for the same reason she has done movies, TV and radio dramas -- "It's about the work."

"The characters in 'On Golden Pond' are very well rounded, not stereotypes at all," she explained. "Everyone is a true human being and the story is about how we all survive ... I just love it."

She accepted "Planet of the Apes" because "I loved the script."

"I thought it was marvelous and it was certainly fascinating," she said. "I never dreamed what I would have to go through -- four hours of makeup every day 4 a.m. to be ready for shooting at 8 a.m. and another hour and a half to get it off -- they were long days."

Hunter does not consider herself a bona fide movie star.

"I was more like the girl next door than a jazzy movie-star type," she said. "I wasn't a great beauty, so that wouldn't do it on its own ... attractive enough, but not a pinup girl and nobody ever told me to take my clothes off.

"But I did some fascinating roles, particularly 'A Matter of Life and Death,' " she said.

Yet, if she had to give up all but one medium, "theater is what I would keep."

She likes to rehearse and she likes a live audience. "These are very much a part of the whole profession," she said.


Dysfunctional family values: Problems don't take a holiday in New Jersey Repertory's 'North Fork'


Published in the Asbury Park Press

Theater Writer

It was supposed to be a simple, Memorial Day weekend getaway at the Beckle family's long-time vacation cabin on the north fork of the Guadeloupe River in Central Texas.


By Mark Dunn
New Jersey Repertory Company
179 Broadway, Long Branch
8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays, and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through June 6
(732) 229-3166

This time, however, the family chose not to invite one daughter, who is institutionalized. She makes her way to the cabin anyway ... with a hostage.

Another daughter arrives without her husband, or so she thinks.

A bossy daughter is even more bossy, now that their mother has died.

A fourth daughter, who has an eating disorder, devours cookie after cookie.

Their recently widowed father has taken to drink.

And Aunt Tammy is locked in the bathroom for most of the first act in Mark Dunn's "North Fork," opening tonight at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

Pathos and comedy have been the hallmarks of the professional troupe's first main stage season and this, the third and last show of the season, is no different.

Playwright Dunn, who grew up in Memphis but now lives in Manhattan, said he is ashamed to admit he has written 22 full-length plays and a handful of one-acts.

"It's the quality versus quantity thing," he explained by telephone, taking a break from his job in the rare books and manuscript division of the New York Public Library. "The perception is people should be sweating it out with one play for two or three years."

His plays have been published in several catalogs of plays, including five with Samuel French Inc. But he has yet to make a full-time living from theater.

"I don't teach and I'm not a (Wendy) Wasserstein or (David) Mamet so it's difficult to have a satisfying career," he said. "But I'm not giving up."



Director SuzAnne Barabas rehearses "North Fork" cast members Yvonne Marchese, Meryl Harris and Dana Benningfield.
That's just fine with SuzAnne Barabas, artistic director of NJ Rep and the director of "North Fork." She said Dunn is a "wonderful" playwright to work with.

"He listens to suggestions, makes changes when necessary, is incredibly open, rewrites and rearranges," she said. "Some playwrights need to see the work up there before they can make changes and are defensive.

"But Mark is a good writer and he can afford to be open," she added.

Dunn, 42, said his wife's family had a cabin in the Texas hill country just west of San Antonio -- in what he said people call LBJ country, referring to the area President Johnson called home. And his wife was one of four daughters. But the resemblance ends there.

Dunn, whose original goal was to be a film composer and screenwriter, said he is most comfortable writing what he calls "Southern comedy dramas." In the South, he said, these are taken very seriously.

In "North Fork," as the Beckle family comes together that fateful holiday season and things begin to unravel, there are times when the audience doesn't know whether to laugh or cry. The heart of the issue is, so to speak, the women's hearts.

"I feel real comfortable telling women's stories and a lot of women's stories are not getting told," he explained. "We male playwrights oftentimes talk about our own gender while women form the backdrops ... and I always resented that."

He's written several plays with no male characters. This play has seven cast members, only two are men and, in a nontraditional casting move, the husband of one of the daughters is black. She is white.

"We open these plays up for whomever is the better actor," Barabas explained. "The character of Michael, who is played by Johnny Kitt, was not an African-American role.

"But he was in the staged reading, he was wonderful in it and had a wonderful vulnerability," she said. "Mark was concerned at first because we didn't want to stereotype the character either, but Johnny understood the lost-child aspect in the character."

Dunn was a little hesitant about the casting move because he was concerned the black character would be perceived as the only bad guy in the play since he is an abusive husband.

"But as the play goes on, he suffers his own abuse at the hands of the family and he becomes a sympathetic character to me," Dunn said. "He is a lost child, just as the troubled sister is a lost child, and it does reach a point where they step back and examine each other and we see absolutes do not exist for them -- and that's a nice moment."


Source: Asbury Park Press

Published: May 21, 1999

. . . recently in Back Stage . . .

The New Jersey Repertory Company, Long Branch, currently ending its first mainstage season with Mark Dunn's North Fork, has slipped in a summer show. Kim Hunter and husband Bob Emmet star in On Golden Pond, Aug. 13-29. Stuart Vaughan directs at the 62-seat, inner-city theatre. Ross Giunta, Christina Pabst, and Bob Lavelle round out the cast.

Real-world drama: Playwright wants theater to reflect human experiences


Published in the Asbury Park Press

Theater Writer

Audiences are smarter than many Broadway producers give them credit for, said Bryan Williams, who has a play opening tonight at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 7 p.m. Sundays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through May 2
(732) 229-3166

But instead of astute theatergoers, Williams said, Broadway tends to attract professional theatergoers: over-educated, upper middle-class people who buy pricey tickets to shows they heard were a must-see, at some cocktail party.

"I'm probably digging myself in deep here," Williams admitted in an telephone interview from his Manhattan apartment earlier this week. "I think a lot of what passes as sophistication today is herd mentality.

"People want to see the latest Tom Stoppard masterpiece, but they don't understand it," he explained.

Williams began writting plays 20 years ago in college and now is a playwright-in-residence at New Jersey Rep. His play "In This Fallen City" was developed at the O'Neill National Playwrights Conference and produced at Circle Repertory Company in Manhattan. His screenplay "Night of Courage" won ABC's New Drama for TV Award. And he has had numerous plays staged in Manhattan and in small theaters around the country that often are followed by audience discussions.

"The comments from the untutored audience are so much more perceptive," he said, than those he often gets from professional audiences, including producers and directors, who tend to talk about a characters's arc or some obscure theatrical convention.



Dete (Brian O'Halloran) has Nell (Kendal Ridgeway) by the throat in Bryan Williams' "A World I Never Made," opening tonight at the New Jersey Repertory theater in Long Branch.
Williams wants audiences willing to work, put themselves into the story, allow themselves to be swept up for a couple of hours. He finds that in off-off Broadway and small professional theaters outside New York, such as New Jersey Rep, which tonight opens his two-act play "A World I Never Made."

It's a three-character Greek tragedy that takes place in a bar frequented by cops in a working class urban neighborhood from 1980 to 1987. A presentational work, the bar's owner Nell (Kendal Ridgeway), her policeman brother-in-law Evan (Steve Carroll), and small-time drug pusher Dete (Brian O'Halloran) often turn and talk directly to the audience.

Directed by Arlene Schulman, the play centers on Nell, a widow, who is in love with Evan, whose life is turned upside down when he finds marijuana in his daughter's bedroom and tracks down her pusher, Dete. Evan's principles and inflexibility destroys his family and a revenge plot nearly destroys them all.

"This is a modern tragedy, but there is a lot of humor in it," Williams said. "I believe in humor, it's always been very important to me, and in this play it helps people with the difficult material.

"People who go to a small theater deserve a full theatrical experience with all the elements like sets, lights and sounds," he said. "You are asking people to see plays they've never heard of so even if they may not be in love with the play, they'll get a first rate evening of theater.

"I'm so thrilled they do that at New Jersey Rep," he said. "The people in charge have vision and enthusiasm very much like the early days of off Broadway and regional theaters."

Don't get Williams wrong. He would love to have the money that goes with a Broadway show. Currently, he supplements his theater income with public relations and office services.

But he wants to see less pontificating and more story telling. Something like the recent Broadway musical drama "Blood Brothers," which was a "life-changing experience" for Williams.

"It had the guts to touch you and was incredibly searing emotionally," he said about the work that concerned twins separated at birth who grow up to fulfill the prophecy they must die on the day they find out is their heritage. "But it was intellectually sneered at."

Plays that grab you emotionally, he said, are swept aside by critics as sentimental.

"If you let the audience know the characters, let them get involved in the story -- I still do believe in story -- and touch those things that make us human beings, we can disagree about what the play is saying," he said. "But at least we are part of a truly different experience at each performance -- the one thing theater can still do that TV and movies can't."


Source: Asbury Park Press

Published: April 16, 1999

Means to an 'Ends': Diversity is key to new troupe's mission
Published in the Asbury Park Press

Theater Writer

Most of the time, actors want an audience to check its baggage at the door, step inside a darkened space and go on a two-hour mini vacation.

By David Alex
New Jersey Repertory Company
179 Broadway, Long Branch
Through March 28
(732) 229-3166

Not so with the world premiere of "Ends," the first fully staged production at one of New Jersey's newest professional theaters.

After a yearlong series of play readings, this two-character play by Chicago playwright David Alex launches the New Jersey Repertory Company's main stage season, which opens in Long Branch tonight.

The play, which takes place in 1967, features Johnny Kitt as a black man who has been living an isolated life for the past 18 years in a remote mountain cabin hidden deep in the woods. During a snowstorm, a white Vietnam veteran, played by Philip F. Lynch, stumbles to the cabin seeking shelter.

The three-story theater owned and operated by West Long Branch residents SuzAnne and Gabor Barabas, who are white and of Hungarian descent, is deep in the business district of Long Branch, where blacks, Latinos and Portuguese live in nearby houses.

Developing new and neglected plays that speak to the city's racial diversity is New Jersey Rep's mission. About 80 actors, directors and technicians based locally and in New York make up the troupe that will operate with a letter of agreement so members of the Actor's Equity union can appear on the local stage.

Philip F. Lynch and Johnny Kitt portray two men with very different points of view who eventually stake out common ground in "Ends."

During a recent Saturday morning rehearsal for "Ends," the actors and director Stewart Fisher talked about the burden and the joy of being the first play that will help set the tone for things to come in the 50-seat, black-box space.

"We know folks who come in here are going to have their own set of prejudices, both great and small, their personal baggage," Fisher explained. "To a certain extent, we're counting on that.

"You can't out-think an audience, but there will be a broad spectrum of ideas coming to bear on how they perceive the show," he said. "The beautiful essence of theater is they can all come together and take a trip . . . while we mess with their minds."

This off-Broadway approach to theater is the company's signature.

"We want to challenge people's thinking," added Kitt, 29. "A lot of entertainment is not challenging, doesn't ask you to think critically, analyze situations, break stuff down, then take something away with you to make you a better human being or at least make you look at something differently."

That's not to say the play is a serious social history lesson. It often is very funny as each man speaks English but, at first, can't really communicate.

"In this highly political environment of the play, the play itself is not about politics, or racism or even Vietnam," Fisher said. "It's about two men who deal with those circumstances from very, very different points of view and finding a common ground that allows them to move on.

"That's a fine line -- to bring truth to the issues without pounding on them so there's a resonance and universality for everybody who is sitting in the audience and living in this community," he added.

Ultimately, the play is about fathers and sons, according to Fisher.

Lynch, 30, who plays a 'Nam vet who hates his father, said it's very important to him that he nails his character.

"I don't know why exactly, accept maybe that America has unconsciously buried this war," he said. "The movies play up facts about the terrible experience, but what it comes down to is we lost and this country hasn't accepted that.

"It's a very personal play in a way and it's important to give faces to our country's experience with that," he said.

Kitt plays a character who adores his father, a civil rights activist. When the boy was 12, his father left him and his mother at the isolated cabin for their own protection, saying not to venture far until he returned. The mother soon died from fever and the father was killed during a demonstration. For 18 years, the "boy" has been living in a book-lined cabin waiting for his father to return.

Director Stewart Fisher (right) goes over a scene from "Ends" at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch with actors Johnny Kitt and Philip F. Lynch.

Kitt, too, believes "Ends" is very important as much for what it says as where it is being done.

"It's good that a play like this is in a little place like Long Branch, New Jersey, because it needs to be out there," Kitt said. "People need to see it wherever it can go because it is a very moving and important piece.

"As far as it being the very first show here . . I really want this theater to do well because when you see things being done the right way, as they are here, you want to see it succeed and you want to stay a part of it."

Fisher said most theaters in New York, in the course of their history, have never achieved the level of commitment to the art as well as the artists and community as New Jersey Rep has already.

"I know this play will be awesome," Kitt added. "While it's a joke to New York people now that we're doing this in Long Branch, the bottom line is it's not cheesecake, it's not cheap.

"It's powerful, it's good and it's real," he said.

"Ends" will be performed at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 7 p.m. Sundays, with a 2 p.m. matinee on Saturdays and Sundays.

Source: Asbury Park Press

Published: March 12, 1999

Copyright ©1997-1999 IN Jersey.

New Jersey theater: More local stages take a bow



Just as National Football League fans have been talking a lot lately about parity -- that no team is dominant and a disproportionate number of clubs are just as good as others -- New Jersey theater fans could say the same about the plays of 2001.

Last year, the McCarter Theatre in Princeton dominated the Top 10 attractions with four entries, but this year no New Jersey stage receives more than two nods in the roundup. While such flagship theaters as McCarter and the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn handily made the list, three others made debuts: Luna Stage Company in Montclair, New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch and even the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark.

Let's not think of this as our old reliable theaters getting weaker, but that our smaller theaters are becoming stronger. The 10 best, in alphabetical order:

"The Belle of Amherst"

New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Newark

Emily Dickinson once wrote, "We never know how high we are till we are called to rise." And though audiences have known for a half-century how wonderful an actress Julie Harris is, how uplifting to have another opportunity to see her as the reclusive poet in William Luce's play. As it turned out, after Harris left NJPAC, she suffered a stroke. She may never work again, so we were lucky to have a chance to see her.

"A Chorus Line"

Paper Mill Playhouse, Millburn

In a year that saw "The Producers" win more Tonys than any other musical, it's refreshing to be reminded about the best musical of all time. This 1975 masterpiece about the rigors of dancers who sweat through the audition process received a carbon-copy staging of the original production -- but it was a welcome sight after having been away from us for more than a decade.

"Funny Girl"

Paper Mill Playhouse

They should have changed the name to "Funny Confident Amazing Sensational Musical Girl" -- and she's a 23-year-old powerhouse from Livingston named Leslie Kritzer. Going up against the legend of Barbra Streisand wasn't easy, but Kritzer created her own Fanny Brice -- and even had a fresh take on "People." Robert Cuccioli, as her wayward husband, provided able support.

"Getting in Touch with My Inner B*tch"

New Jersey Repertory Company, Long Branch

The asterisk couldn't possibly stand for the letter "i," for folksinger Christine Lavin showed herself to be a good-natured charmer, full of inner beauty, in her original one-woman show. Out of her protractor-shaped mouth came witty songs that celebrate everyday life: spotting a celebrity, dealing with nieces and nephews, entering the express line in the supermarket when you've got more than 10 items. It was such an entertaining bunch of numbers, audiences were glad she got in touch with that inner batch.

"La Bete"

Two River Theatre Company, Manasquan

The always adventurous company went out on a limb -- and found something beautiful blooming out there with David Hirson's comedy, set in 1654 France and written in rhymed iambic pentameter. In it, a thinly-veiled Molière must agree to the Prince's demand that he work with an actor-playwright who can't stop talking. (No, really; he goes on for 27 minutes before letting anyone else get in a word.) But Two River got out the word that this was one funny play that nevertheless had a great deal to say about the making of art and artists.

"Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill"

George Street Playhouse, New Brunswick

As superb as Suzzanne Douglas was last season when she appeared at the George Street in "Wit," she trumped her own ace when she portrayed Billie Holliday. Here she had to sing as well as act. Did she ever, showing us a legend on the wane who still had the power to mesmerize.

"My Children! My Africa!"

Luna Stage, Montclair

Athol Fugard's best play was a perfect fit for the cozy confines of Luna's black box theater -- as three characters took the audience into their confidence when delivering their monologues. Eddie Aldredge as a high school teacher in South Africa, and Jamahl Marsh and Nell Mooney as his students, black and white respectively, delivered heartbreaking soliloquies on the evils of apartheid.


New Jersey Performing Arts Center

While most touring productions that saunter into NJPAC are second-rate affairs (the recent "Guys and Dolls" is a perfect example), here was one -- finally -- that was genuinely impressive. While it wasn't nearly as opulent as the Broadway original, the songs, stories and performances shone through in this tale of the intermingling of WASPs, Jews and blacks in 1906 New York.

"Romeo and Juliet"

McCarter Theatre, Princeton

Director Emily Mann knows that youth must be served -- especially in a production about these star-crossed lovers. As her leads, she chose Jeffrey Carlson, a recent grad of the Juilliard School, and Sarah Drew, who was still in college. Both young actors served Mann, themselves, and Shakespeare.

"The Three Sisters"

New Jersey Shakespeare Festival, Madison

Director Bonnie J. Monte made Chekhov's 100-year-old play seem wonderfully young. Not only did she turn in a sterling job of direction, but she adapted the text, too, in a version that managed to sound true to the period, yet entertaining to contemporary ears. As for those sisters: Laila Robins, Angela Reed and Caralyn Kozlowski all showed the dreams they had, and the dreams they had shattered.

New Jersey theater: More local stages take a bow




Just as National Football League fans have been talking a lot lately about parity -- that no team is dominant and a disproportionate number of clubs are just as good as others -- New Jersey theater fans could say the same about the plays of 2001.


Last year, the McCarter Theatre in Princeton dominated the Top 10 attractions with four entries, but this year no New Jersey stage receives more than two nods in the roundup. While such flagship theaters as McCarter and the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn handily made the list, three others made debuts: Luna Stage Company in Montclair, New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch and even the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark.


Let's not think of this as our old reliable theaters getting weaker, but that our smaller theaters are becoming stronger. The 10 best, in alphabetical order:

"The Belle of Amherst"


New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Newark

Emily Dickinson once wrote, "We never know how high we are till we are called to rise." And though audiences have known for a half-century how wonderful an actress Julie Harris is, how uplifting to have another opportunity to see her as the reclusive poet in William Luce's play. As it turned out, after Harris left NJPAC, she suffered a stroke. She may never work again, so we were lucky to have a chance to see her.

"A Chorus Line"


Paper Mill Playhouse, Millburn

In a year that saw "The Producers" win more Tonys than any other musical, it's refreshing to be reminded about the best musical of all time. This 1975 masterpiece about the rigors of dancers who sweat through the audition process received a carbon-copy staging of the original production -- but it was a welcome sight after having been away from us for more than a decade.

"Funny Girl"


Paper Mill Playhouse

They should have changed the name to "Funny Confident Amazing Sensational Musical Girl" -- and she's a 23-year-old powerhouse from Livingston named Leslie Kritzer. Going up against the legend of Barbra Streisand wasn't easy, but Kritzer created her own Fanny Brice -- and even had a fresh take on "People." Robert Cuccioli, as her wayward husband, provided able support.

"Getting in Touch with My Inner B*tch"


New Jersey Repertory Company, Long Branch

The asterisk couldn't possibly stand for the letter "i," for folksinger Christine Lavin showed herself to be a good-natured charmer, full of inner beauty, in her original one-woman show. Out of her protractor-shaped mouth came witty songs that celebrate everyday life: spotting a celebrity, dealing with nieces and nephews, entering the express line in the supermarket when you've got more than 10 items. It was such an entertaining bunch of numbers, audiences were glad she got in touch with that inner batch.

"La Bete"


Two River Theatre Company, Manasquan

The always adventurous company went out on a limb -- and found something beautiful blooming out there with David Hirson's comedy, set in 1654 France and written in rhymed iambic pentameter. In it, a thinly-veiled Molière must agree to the Prince's demand that he work with an actor-playwright who can't stop talking. (No, really; he goes on for 27 minutes before letting anyone else get in a word.) But Two River got out the word that this was one funny play that nevertheless had a great deal to say about the making of art and artists.

"Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill"


George Street Playhouse, New Brunswick

As superb as Suzzanne Douglas was last season when she appeared at the George Street in "Wit," she trumped her own ace when she portrayed Billie Holliday. Here she had to sing as well as act. Did she ever, showing us a legend on the wane who still had the power to mesmerize.

"My Children! My Africa!"


Luna Stage, Montclair

Athol Fugard's best play was a perfect fit for the cozy confines of Luna's black box theater -- as three characters took the audience into their confidence when delivering their monologues. Eddie Aldredge as a high school teacher in South Africa, and Jamahl Marsh and Nell Mooney as his students, black and white respectively, delivered heartbreaking soliloquies on the evils of apartheid.



New Jersey Performing Arts Center

While most touring productions that saunter into NJPAC are second-rate affairs (the recent "Guys and Dolls" is a perfect example), here was one -- finally -- that was genuinely impressive. While it wasn't nearly as opulent as the Broadway original, the songs, stories and performances shone through in this tale of the intermingling of WASPs, Jews and blacks in 1906 New York.

"Romeo and Juliet"


McCarter Theatre, Princeton

Director Emily Mann knows that youth must be served -- especially in a production about these star-crossed lovers. As her leads, she chose Jeffrey Carlson, a recent grad of the Juilliard School, and Sarah Drew, who was still in college. Both young actors served Mann, themselves, and Shakespeare.

"The Three Sisters"


New Jersey Shakespeare Festival, Madison

Director Bonnie J. Monte made Chekhov's 100-year-old play seem wonderfully young. Not only did she turn in a sterling job of direction, but she adapted the text, too, in a version that managed to sound true to the period, yet entertaining to contemporary ears. As for those sisters: Laila Robins, Angela Reed and Caralyn Kozlowski all showed the dreams they had, and the dreams they had shattered.


A 'River' runs through it: Long Branch troupe extends play


Published in the Asbury Park Press 11/23/01
Theater Writer

Through Sunday
New Jersey Repertory Company's Lumia Theater
179 Broadway, Long Branch
(732) 229-3166

The New Jersey Repertory Company has held over its production of "Naked by the River" and is offering theatergoers a chance to include it in the cost of a season subscription.

Stephanie Roy and Duncan M. Rogers share a smooch in the New Jersey Repertory's production of "Naked By the River" in Long Branch.
Michael T. Folie's play closes after the 2 p.m. Sunday matinee. So, too, does the subscription offer to at least three of the season's five plays at the theater at 179 Broadway in Long Branch.

Subscribe to three or more plays for $25 a ticket. The regular price is $30.

The season also includes: the New Jersey premiere of "The Laramie Project" by Moises Kaufman, about the beating death of gay student Matthew Shepard, Jan. 17 to Feb. 10; the world premiere of "Till Morning Comes" by Mark McNease, about a couple married for 25 years, Feb. 21 -- March 24; the world premiere of "Panama" by Michael T. Folie, a comedy about a man's search for the secret of eternal life, July 11 to Aug. 11.

A fifth show running from May 2 to June 2 will be announced.


Undressing relationships


Published in the Asbury Park Press 10/30/01


In Michael T. Folie''s last play staged at the New Jersey Repertory Theater, Long Branch, "An Unhappy Woman," the characters were worried about holding on to jobs they hated.

In his latest work, "Naked by the River," now playing through Nov. 25, the characters love their jobs.

WHERE: The New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch
WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays through Nov. 25
CALL: (732) 229-3166

As the romantic comedy progresses, however, Tim and Peggy realize their love for each other has to outweigh their love for work or they will never be truly happy.

The pursuit of happiness appears to be a common thread in Folie''s works; at least the ones presented at the NJ Rep, where the former Monmouth County resident is a playwright in residence.

Much more accessible than the surrealistic "Unhappy Woman," Folie''s "Naked by the River" is down to earth, frequently funny and often surprising -- especially that ending.

Peggy (Stephanie Roy) is a lawyer on the fast track when she meets up with Tim (Duncan M. Rogers), a paralegal/secretary. A mutual friend suggested she hire Tim to work on a case that should help Peggy make partner in her law firm.

Tim sees straight through to Peggy''s insecurities and coolly pulls out all her secrets. He remains an enigma to Peggy, although she does discover he is a former lawyer who walked away from a successful career. This, of course, confuses her even more because she can not rationalize why somebody would do that.

When she finds out he dumped law after an out-of-body experience that suddenly made the meaning of life clear to him, she is a nonbeliever. A nonbeliever, that is, until she reads the book Tim wrote about the personal experience. It, too, changes her life. When she finds out, though, Tim plans to publish his tome on the internet rather than land a lucrative book deal, she is flabbergasted.

What she does about that has dire consequences for both of them.

Both Rogers and Roy turned in fine performances as two people who are attracted to each other but not sure how far to go in their relationship.

Liz Zazzi, as book publisher Gabriella, almost steals the show in the second act. Her line delivery and comic timing are right on the money. Her character is larger than life and Zazzi takes full advantage of it.

Director Stewart Fisher keeps the pace of the play moving along nicely and although some scene changes at last Friday''s opening night were awkward, they didn''t hamper the play too much. It may have been the first time since the NJ Rep opened its doors a couple of years ago that the small size of the performing space worked against a production.

New Jersey stage: Leads make 'Naked' revealing





If there were a yearbook for the 2001-2002 New Jersey theater season, Duncan M. Rogers and Stephanie Roy would be unchallenged as "Cutest Couple."


They are the two important ingredients to the success of "Naked by the River," the newest production at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. Playwright Michael T. Folie has given them engaging dialogue, too, which masks the play's one deficiency: a message that seems overly familiar.


Rogers plays Tim Grant, a secretary-paralegal for junior associate Peggy Ryerson, portrayed by Roy. But Tim's preoccupation in his spare time is writing a book that will teach people how to view the ordinary things in the world as really quite extraordinary, and that they shouldn't get obsessive over money and power -- as Peggy does.


Little by little, Tim influences Peggy, and makes her question her ambition. Not that the lawyer doesn't understand the simple things in life; on vacation, she stood naked by the river and felt the freedom.


Nevertheless, old habits die hard, so Peggy tries to change Tim just as much as he tries to change her. Who'll win in this battle of the sexes and ideologies?


How it turns out won't amaze theatergoers, but what will surprise them is the chemistry between the couple. That's the hardest quality for a director and performers to capture, but, under Stewart Fisher's amiable direction, sparks fly between Roy and Rogers. Some theatergoers may be so convinced they're a couple, they'll search the program bios.


Roy wears a dress that's utterly shapeless and a hairstyle that makes her purposely sexless. Yet her face makes clear that beneath her snooty look is genuine humanity. She lets on right away that she likes her new employee, but cannot admit it in order to keep control.


Rogers starts off with a chip on his shoulder the size of a doorstop, and a crooked smile that complements his always-askew hair. He, too, must obfuscate what he's feeling, and does a commendable job.


The third cast member is equally proficient. She's Liz Zazzi, who portrays Gabriella Rossini, a profane and pregnant book publisher. Zazzi is one of the best in the state at delivering a no-nonsense barb, and she certainly is up to her high standard here, with the many laugh-getting zingers provided by Folie. But give the actress a line replete with truth -- like "You give birth first, and only later do you find out what you made" -- and she infuses it with compassion.


From its delightfully wacky first act, "Naked by the River" seems to be going someplace special, so the second act is a bit of a letdown. Ultimately, it's like a journey on which a traveler isn't thrilled when he reaches his destination, but is still glad for the friends he's made along the way.

November 2, 2001
Scene On Stage by Philip Dorian
New Jersey Repertory Company Stages Michael Folie's Naked by the River
It the mission of Gabor and SuzAnne Barabas's New Jersey Repertory Company to encourage and produce new playwrights. Among the best of their "finds" have been Brian Richard Mori's Adult Fiction and Mark Dunn's North Fork. Naked by the River, by Middletown native Michael T. Folie, ranks right up there with them.
At the beginning of Naked by the River, when prim, uptight attorney Peggy (Stephanie Roy) is forced by her boss to hire unkempt, raffish paralegal Tim (Duncan M. Rogers), it's soon apparent that the two will fall in love - or at least into bed. Sometime during the first act, however, it also becomes clear that Mr. Folie's play is much more than a predictable sex comedy. It is a tightly written, intelligent, witty play about two complex young people whose contradictory talents and values bring them together, then pull them apart, and then just maybe reconnect them after all.
It is more than Peggy's mannerly attitude and Tim's arrogant sarcasm that separate the two. She's grounded in her legal career, working toward a partnership in a prestigious firm, while he's a seat-of-the-pants sort of guy who appears to be just going along to get along.
The attraction between the two is ignited when Peggy reads a book Tim has written. While we never learn much about the book, it is their divergent attitudes toward its future that trigger the events of the play. He wants to post it, gratis, on the web, and she envisions conventional publication and a smash success. Whose concept prevails - and does it work? - is the stuff of the play.
Once he gets past the over-the-top first scene, Mr. Rogers eases comfortably into the role of the would-be idealist. The character must choose: About his book, he says he had a vision, "No", Peggy tells him, "You had an idea." It is to the actor's credit that Tim appears realistically torn between the two. He's a handsome devil too, which lends credibility to the romance between Tim and Peggy.
Not that Ms. Roy needs any help. This actor is as much a find for NJ Rep as is the play. Peggy isn't all veneer, but she does struggle with her professional image, and Ms. Roy captures every nuance of this career woman's dilemma. Her sensitive performance makes everything Peggy says (and, it should be noted, does) exactly right for the time and place. In Ms. Roy's playing, Peggy emerges fresh and open and perfectly natural.
We have us a three-character play here, and Liz Zazzi certainly does justice to the acid tongued literary agent. Tough as nails and a real softy at the same time, the character isn't easy, and they play would be harmed if we didn't like her. But we do, thanks to Ms. Zazzi's way with the wry bons mots Mr. Folie has written for Gabriella. Not incidentally, she's realistically pregnant in attitude as well as appearance. Writing her thus, and carrying her to term before the final scene, is one of Mr. Folie's most effective conceits.
The play depends on establishing the personas of several people who never appear, and the playwright accomplishes this adroitly. Peggy's boss, her parents and an influential book publisher are fleshed out sufficiently in dialogue that's not forced exposition, and their influence on the on-stage characters is believable.
The message of Mr. Folie's play - does success, like power, corrupt? - isn't new. How many new messages are there anyway? What's important is communication that message in an interesting voice, and that the playwright accomplishes. If "interesting" sounds like faint praise, try to remember the last time you were truly interested in the lives portrayed in popular fiction.
It doesn't hurt one bit that it is acted so sublimely by Ms. Roy, so commendably by Mr. Rogers and so audaciously by Ms. Zazzi. No hindrance either is Stewart Fisher's direction, sensitive as it is both to character and situation. But from now through November 18 at New Jersey Rep, the play's the thing.

The Coaster
By Robert F. Carroll

Michael Folie, a prolific young playwright, a native of Middletown Township and something of an old hand at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, appears to have a winner with his latest romantic comedy, "Naked By the River." Folie's "An Unhappy Woman" premiered at New Jersey Rep in February.

The new two-acter, which opened at the Lumia Theatre in Long Branch last Friday, pits a headstrong young writer against and ambitious young lady lawyer as they grope their way to a romantic attachment.

In the play, paralegal Tim (Duncan M. Rogers) shows up at a Manhattan law office staffed by Peggy (Stephanie Roy). He's primed for a fight, having screwed up his former job at a Cincinnati law firm. The reason: he's written a book the product of a personal epiphany that changed his life. Peggy, in a smart, smart-alecky exchange of dialogue, is gradually drawn to the cantankerous young man, attracted by both his idealism and his book which, after a quick read, she finds enthralling.

But the road to true love gets exceedingly rocky in Act Two. Peggy discovers she really likes her law career and really wants Tim to market his book. But the true artist in him rebels at publishing his life's work -- he doesn't even want anybody to read it -- and it takes every bit of her feminine guile to get him on board the corporate express. Once convinced, Tim, alas, turns into a hard-nosed, slick-haired, money-grubbing salesman.

It would be scurrilous to reveal how true love gets back on track, suffice to say that Peggy's one lapse into impropriety -- she once had her picture taken nude, by a river -- provides the key.

Rogers is a vigorously engaging Tim, always in charge until Peggy brings him to heel. And Roy, as Peggy, is a charmer, especially when she drops her office cool and warms to Tim. Liz Zazzi makes a hilarious publicist who informs Tim that what he's written is, God forbid, a sure-fire sales manual -- and he's be a fool not to cash in on it. Zazzi is a funny, funny woman, using a wit that's been honed by any number of cabaret and television appearances.

Stewart Fisher directed "Naked By the River" which runs Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through November 18th Long Branch's Lumia Theatre, on Broadway.

He said, she said: Playwright finds himself in strong female characters


Published in the Asbury Park Press 10/26/01


Theater Writer

"Naked by the River," opening at 8 tonight at the New Jersey Repertory Theatre in Long Branch, is the third play from Michael T. Folie in which a strong woman character is central to the story.

By the New Jersey Repertory Company
179 Broadway, Long Branch
Opens at 8 p.m. Friday
8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays (through Nov. 25)
(732) 229-3166

"The woman in each play, in a way, stands in for me," Folie said from his home in Rockland County, N.Y. "It's easier for me to deal with issues if I have the character as far away from me -- biographically -- as possible."

"Naked," receiving its first fully-staged production here, features Peggy (Stephanie Roy), a rising young lawyer at a New York City law firm, and Tim (Duncan Rogers), an unpublished novelist who supports himself with temporary work as a paralegal. Liz Zazzi plays the pregnant owner of a small publishing company. Stewart A. Fisher, NJ Rep's company manager and associate director, helms the two-act, romantic comedy.

Folie, who is a resident play writer at NJ Rep, had his "An Unhappy Woman" produced there in February. It is an Orwellian-like look at the future when terrorism in the norm, happiness is in short supply and the title character trusts no one.

His third strong-woman play, "The Adjustment," centers on a woman with a powerful personality who worked as a lobbyist in a big city and falls in love with a married man.


Actors Duncan Rogers and Stephanie Roy go over a scene from Michael T. Folie's "Naked by the River," opening tonight in Long Branch.
All three of these plays were written within two years of each other, said Folie, a 1970 graduate of what is now Middletown High School North. Yet, he said, his dozen or so plays are vastly different from each other.

"Naked by the River" came from Folie's personal experiences as a temporary worker at a law firm during the 1980s when making money - lots of money - was paramount. Although he was living a somewhat bohemian actor's life, he hit it off with a woman lawyer on the fast track to fame and riches. If both had not been married to other people, Folie said, they may have grown closer. That made him think about the stresses such a relationship would encounter.

So he wrote a play about it.

"In the old days (on stage) parents kept (the lovers) apart," Folie noted. "Now, in romantic comedies, the writer has to bend over backward to find things to keep people apart."

In "Naked by the River" the lovers, at first, can't physically unite because each is involved with someone else. Later, after moving in with each other, they are divided emotionally. Each must sacrifice something they hold dear before their relationship can truly be consummated.

When Folie sits down to write a play, he usually knows how it will begin and end. The stuff in the middle emerges after he writes pages and pages of improvisational, non-dramatic chit chat, he explained.

" I have to do that in order to find the action and it may be after 20 pages that I discover why a character said what they said earlier," Folie said. "I know that sounds psychotic . . . but it's the emergence of my subconscious that causes these illuminations."

It's all about finding a good balance, he added. And for serious writers, he said, the tragic events of Sept. 11 created a richer environment for writing. Of course, Folie said, he would prefer the World Trade Center tragedy never happened.

"It's nice to live in a safe and secure time," Folie said. "But it's not good for the artist.

"It's hard for a serious playwright to make headway when people are satisfied, content and secure, and don't feel like questioning anything," Folie explained. "During dangerous times people are more aware and it's a better time to be an artist."

As examples of this, Folie cites George Bernard Shaw, whose best plays were written between the two World Wars; Anton Chekhov's major works were penned during the declining days of the last Russian czar, and Shakespeare's plays were born during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, which saw the restoration of the Protestant faith, the defeat of the Spanish Armada, at least one serious threat of rebellion and a series of Parliamentary conflicts.

"It's a different world we live in now," Folie said. "In some ways I feel mentally more prepared for that world . . . that it's a rough place . . . and people might be more responsive to plays that reflect that sense of danger and, in a way, find they are doing OK."



Published on October 26, 2001

Actress reveals her 'Secret' to theatergoers


Katharine Houghton is going to tell her best kept secret.

But she's doing it by way of the play she wrote and performs, called "Best Kept Secret," opening Friday at New Jersey Repertory Theatre in Long Branch.

In a way, some theatergoers will probably think that Houghton herself is a bit of a secret: After she made a much-heralded film debut in 1967 as the
daughter of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?," she virtually disappeared from the screen. Her next feature film,
"Seeds of Evil," was a long seven years later, and her next, "Eyes of the Amaryllis," was an even longer eight years after that.

Being reminded of this doesn't unnerve Houghton in the least, as she sits in her dressing room. At 56, her hands are prematurely gnarled and her face
somewhat lined. But time can do nothing to those high cheekbones that remind a visitor that she is the niece of Katharine Hepburn.

"I was put under a three-picture contact," she says, "but the films they offered me were all B-pictures. I preferred to play great roles in regional
theater. Nina in 'The Seagull.' Hedda Gabler, Major Barbara, Louka in 'Arms and the Man.' For seven years, I was a company member of the Actors Theatre
of Louisville."

It wasn't the career she envisioned when she was majoring in philosophy at Sarah Lawrence College. But events took a turn after her sophomore year, when
she went to the Soviet Union. "Most young people go to Italy or France," she says with a smile. "But I was influenced by my grandmother (Hepburn's
mother), who was an ardent Communist."

Little did she know that she'd someday write a play about her experiences there and the years that followed.

Houghton went to such big cities as Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), Moscow and Kiev and smaller towns like Tashkent and Yalta. There, one of the people
she'd met on the trip -- "(a New York University) political science professor and a rabid Marxist," she describes him -- said that she should meet Andre, a
young man who was passionate about politics.

"I was reluctant to meet any Russian," she says, "because by then, we'd all had trouble with KGB. They wanted to know to whom we were talking, were we
giving them magazines and books, or preaching capitalist propaganda?"

Yet she agreed to meet Andre -- "who turned out to look like a Russian Liam Neeson," she says. "He was irritating and challenging. His first question
was, 'Are you a disciple of Aristotle or Plato?' No hello. No small talk -- and I come from a family where there's no small talk, so this was very
interesting to me."

Houghton calls the four days they spent together a watershed event in her life. "Not because of the sex, though there was sex. He changed me from an
extremely shy person who had this feeling I was going to die by the time I was 21 to someone who wanted to live."

Though they were together only four days before she returned home, they continued to write. Four years later, Houghton had big news. She'd
screen-tested for Carl Reiner's movie, "Enter Laughing," and while he didn't cast her, he kept her screen test on file. When director Stanley Kramer told
Reiner that Samantha Eggar had dropped out of "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" and he needed a young actress who could convincingly play Hepburn and Tracy's daughter, Reiner knew how to solve the problem.

Suddenly Houghton's letters to Andre told of her whirlwind fame. Best of all, she'd be coming to nearby Czechoslovakia for the Eastern European Film
Festival, and the two agreed to reunite there.

But during the première, as Houghton desperately searched for him, he was nowhere to be found because he couldn't leave the country, she recalls. "But
I didn't know that until I was home and got his next letter."

The letter writing continued. Houghton estimates there were 200 correspondences between them, though some were intercepted by censors.

Yet it would be 23 more years before Houghton and Andre met again face-to-face in 1990. "That was very romantic," she says. "I'd had other
lovers during that time, of course, but I never married because he was the love of my life."

Andre moved to America in 1993, but lived only two more years.

"I told him that I would someday write our story based on the letters," says Houghton. "Now I have."

Center stage


'Secret' revealed


Guess who's coming to Long Branch?


It's Katharine Houghton, who a third of a century ago captivated moviegoers as the daughter of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn -- and the fiancée of Sidney Poitier -- in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner."


Houghton -- who actually is Hepburn's niece -- will star in her own play at New Jersey Repertory Company. In "The Best Kept Secret," she writes of an American woman who falls in love with a Russian man during the height of the Cold War.


Co-starring with Houghton is Anthony Newfield, who appeared on Broadway in "The Grapes of Wrath" and off-Broadway in "It's Only a Play." Directing them is John Going, who staged Tony LoBianco as Fiorello H. LaGuardia in "Hizzoner!" on Broadway.


"The Best Kept Secret" plays Sept. 6-30 at New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch. Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $27.50. Call (732) 229-3166.

Lucky Star
by Pamela Murray Winters

"Cool" is hard to define, for "coolness" is ever-changing; one minute you're au courant, while the next minute the club kids are laughing at you. But it's a safe bet that the opposite of cool is a 49-and-a-half-year-old, moon-faced folksinger twirling a pair of Day-Glo batons. "Look at me," she laughed, mid-dance-step. "I'm like Britney Spears' grandmother."

That's part of what's special about Christine Lavin — she's been earning money as a musician since 1984 and shows no signs of stopping, but she's never cut her musical consciousness to fit this year's fashions. By being herself — only more so — she's attracted a wide range of fans. And, with her summer stint in a one-woman show on the New Jersey shore, even more people have discovered her unusual blend of music, theater, rhythmic gymnastics, astronomy lessons, beauty pageantry, and even cosmetology.
Even before the batons came out, at one of the last shows in New Jersey Repertory Company's Getting in Touch With My Inner Bitch, one audience member, who'd grabbed a last-minute seat for the sold-out performance and knew nothing about Lavin, kept asking his neighbor, "Is this considered normal for folk music?"
"It's been a real leap of faith," said Lavin about her move to the stage. But it hasn't been a leap she's made without checking her parachute. In 2000 she signed with a new agent, Ann Patrice Carrigan of Poetry in Motion. This agency, owned by actors Anthony Zerbe and Roscoe Lee Browne, is "more theatrical in nature" than her previous representatives, some of whom were unhappy that she was doing much more onstage than merely singing. Poetry in Motion recognizes Lavin's unique gifts, describing her as a "full-service entertainer."
Seated comfortably in the living room of her producers, Gabe and SuzAnne Barabas of New Jersey Rep, in a post-show wind-down, Lavin was nevertheless adamant about making certain statements, though her delivery was, as always, gentle and demure.
"I've felt for a very, very long time, and this is one of the things I'm determined, there are so many people in folk music whose work would be so at home on the legitimate stage. And there's such a need for good songs and good songwriters for theater. There's just not enough. And there's always room for people who are good.
"One of the people who's come to this run here at New Jersey Rep is Jim Nicola. He runs New York Theatre Workshop, which has been interested in me since 1994. I did a four-day workshop in '94 with actors singing my stuff." Not much came of this experiment; while Lavin worked in one room, "in the next room over was Rent." But in the wake of the success of Bitch, Lavin planned to talk with Nicola about getting "a series of singer/songwriters from all over the country and putting them in front of the theatre world.
"When you're a solo performer, what you've been doing, without thinking about it, [is] building a one-person show that's very theatrical in nature. It's just you and your instrument and your voice, and you're telling stories. We're all storytellers." Being a singer/songwriter is "just the simplest form, it's just stripped down — it's entertaining, and it works."
Theater seems like a natural setting for the music Lavin enjoys, as well as the music she makes. Getting folksingers onto theater stages will "open that up for larger audiences who turn their nose up at folk music 'cause it's in a church basement or something. And also, as we get older, we like cushier chairs!" she giggled.
Over the course of Bitch, which ran from August 9 to September 2, Lavin added new dimensions to the one-woman, one-guitar setup. She judiciously used a foot-pedal-activated device called a Boomerang to multiply her voice, creating, in effect, her own girl group. With the audience's help, she opened out a few of her songs as if she were a Hollywood screenwriter pitching scripts: "Shopping Cart of Love: The Play" was a natural for this treatment, as Lavin wove out, with gusto, the tale of a woman's breakdown in the supermarket express lane. And sometimes she brought her audience members onto the stage. Never before has Lavin drawn such enthusiastic male choruses for "Sensitive New Age Guys." "I know a lot of guys come because they want to be 'Sensitive New Age Guys'!" she laughed.

This is an excerpt from an article in Dirty Linen #97 (Dec. '01/Jan. '02).

CurtainCall: No reason to b*tch about Christine Lavin



Published in the Islander 08/24/01
Staff Writer

A few weeks ago, while driving home from Washington, D.C., I was at the Delaware/New Jersey border and had trouble receiving radio stations.

I ended up listening to some folk song that caught my attention right away. It was a "disaster movie in a song," which dealt with an office romance gone horribly wrong. The words were so catchy that by the end I was singing along. The singer had created an intensely vivid scene that was incredibly easy to imagine, and comedy played an essential role.

I had forgotten the song until last week when I heard Christine Lavin, who, as it turns out, was that voice on the radio, perform that song as part of her performance, "Getting In Touch With My Inner B*tch."

Don't let the title fool you: "Getting in Touch With My Inner B*tch," the show currently in its run at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, has nothing to do with feminist angst. Instead, it's a fun sing-along -- an interactive experience that is just plain enjoyable. While seeing the show last week, I couldn't help but find myself laughing and relating to the material Lavin sang about in her folk-music drama/concert.

The show takes participants -- who are truly that, participants -- on an emotional journey through the serious, comical and contemplative. Special effects abound at certain times, and their purpose is clear, and well-planned.

Director SuzAnne Barbaras has done a wonderful job guiding Lavin in order for her to make the most of her performance space. Watch Lavin's feet: She employs a Boomerang, an instrument that echoes music and voice, during the show as an additional effect, which she uses repeatedly to achieve different moods. The capabilities of the instrument are amazing, and Lavin's ensures the authenticity of the live sounds it creates.

Lavin's songs are as diverse as the Boomerang. In one song, a couple of men were invited up on stage to help Lavin sing a song about "sensitive New Age guys" who embrace Volvos and women's feelings. And to demonstrate her range, another song helps Lavin sort out her feelings about the Kennedy assassination. And of course, don't forget about the "disaster movie in a song."

Attendees to last week's performance also had a special treat in seeing Irvin Blake perform, in addition to Lavin. The writer of such songs as "A Room Without Windows" and "Cuando, Cuando," Blake wowed audience members with hits and stories to accompany them.

There's still time to join in the musical revelrie. "Getting In Touch With My Inner B*tch" will run at the New Jersey Repertory Company at 179 Broadway until Sept. 2. Tickets are $25. For more information or to order tickets, call (732) 229-3166.



from the Islander

Get in touch with Christine Lavin



Published in the Asbury Park Press 8/15/01


Folk singer Christine Lavin is calling her new show, "Getting In Touch with My Inner Bitch," but she can't fool us.

She is about as nice, as generous and as fun as one's favorite aunt in her one-woman show at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch through Sept. 2. Her eyes sparkle with the same degree of clarity and brilliance as her rhinestone eye glasses. (Could they be a small tribute to her idol, Dame Edna?)

The one-woman show is at the New Jersey Repertory Company
179 Broadway, Long Branch
WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays through Sept. 2
CALL: (732) 229-3166

She says all her songs are based on some kind of reality and since she lives in New York City, need we say more.

Her second song of the evening concerns the subway and a woman crying for help because a dog is lying on the tracks ... or is it? Another song is about Ray, a guy who owns a store that makes copies on 72nd Street just off Broadway. He has fallen in love with Linda Eder and turned his store into a shrine to the singer who starred in "Jekyll & Hyde."

Because Lavin tours the country much of the year, her songs are not limited to Manhattan. She sings about her reaction to encountering Harrison Ford, "The only living movie star I adore," in the Rocky Mountains and how she is so lucky he doesn't carry mace.

Then there is an out-of-world experience, a song about the controversy of whether Pluto is a planet or a comet or what?

This is Lavin's first time performing in one spot for more than one night and working with a director. SuzAnne Barabas, artistic director of the NJ Rep, has done an excellent job setting the scene.

Lavin, with her acoustic guitar, roams the small stage. Her feet, which push levers on an electronic device that repeat her words and music, are almost as busy as her hands. And as the seating is only three rows deep, she makes frequent forays into the audience.

She plucks several men out to sing backup for her song, "Sensitive New Age Guy." You know, the kind of man whose dream car is a Volvo, his favorite song is "Puff, the Magic Dragon," and he doesn't mind hyphenating his last name. It's to die for.

The closest Lavin comes to being a bitch is a song about a woman who is having the worst day of her life and finally loses it in the 10-item line at the supermarket because she has 13 items and the cashier won't check her out. But even this story has a happy ending.

Lavin's show is a delightful oasis, especially for baby boomers whose life experience may echo her own. And she is sharing the stage with some musician friends who will offer post-show performances. Scheduled are:

THURSDAY: Composer Ervin Drake, who authored such hits as "It Was A Very Good year" for Frank Sinatra, "I Believe" for Frankie Laine, as well as "Good Morning Heartache" for Diana Ross.

SATURDAY: Singer and song writer Julie Gold, who penned the 1990 Grammy Award-winning song of the year "From a Distance," recorded by Bette Midler. Her songs have been recorded by by Judy Collins, Kathy Mattea and Patti Lupone. She tours with her own night club act.

AUG. 24-26: Singer and song writer Red Grammar, who performed with the Limeliters from 1981 to 1991, but best known as a successful childrens' musical performer.

AUG. 30-SEPT. 2: Folk singer and song writer Tina Lear.



Published on August 15, 2001

New Jersey stage: Letter perfect -- Christine Lavin is just too nice for title of her play




That asterisk in the title of Christine Lavin's play can't possibly stand for the letter "i." Even though the folksinger calls her show at New Jersey Repertory Company "Getting in Touch with My Inner B*tch," she shows herself as a good-natured charmer full of inner beauty.


The rotund, owlish-looking Lavin may be dressed in basic black, but, unlike Masha in Chekhov's "The Seagull," she's hardly in mourning for her life. Occasionally she flashes a grin that shows impishness, but never b*tchiness. For that matter, Lavin has gone on record to say that she chose to use the asterisk because "I don't want to offend." What does that tell you about her potential to be a shrew?


Out of her protractor-shaped mouth come perceptively witty songs that celebrate everyday life. Accompanying herself on acoustic guitar, she sings of the thrill of spotting longtime hero Harrison Ford while she was vacationing in Colorado. She expresses relief that her nephews don't have pierced navels or spiky purple hair. Not only does she sing a loving tribute to a favorite aunt, but she shows some sympathy for St. Christopher, who was demoted from sainthood.


Does this fit the profile of a difficult woman? Here's someone who tells her audience, "You've got to leave something beautiful in your wake" and "We all have beauty in our own way." When the crowd responds with enthusiastic applause, she coos, "You're so sweet!" Later, she gives a present to the person who scored the highest grade in astronomy in college. When someone in the crowd sneezes, she interrupts her song to say, "God bless you." Then she sings a number for audience members who have recently celebrated a birthday.


The closest Lavin gets to validating her title occurs when she sings about a contretemps with a cashier in the supermarket express line who won't deal with 13 items. It's a veritable morality play in which revenge is exacted. Another song ostensibly has a sad ending, but after the applause, Lavin adds a section that shows the tale had a happy ending after all. That may be a bit devious, but it's nothing more severe than that.


Indeed, Lavin is capable of complaint. She grouses that she had to attend the opera and later went skiing simply because her boyfriend likes those activities. "Is there anyone here," she asks her audience, "who's in love with someone you have nothing in common with?" She knows the answer is yes, but she isn't defeated by the reality.


Though she's sunny in outlook, Lavin is no Pollyanna. At the end of the show, she asks a tough question of herself and her audience: "What can you do when it's clear to you that dreams will not come true?" But even here, she avoids bitterness and faces reality with a square jaw: "Adjust your dreams" is her advice.


Maybe that asterisk in "Getting in Touch with My Inner B*tch" really stands for the letter "a" and Lavin is giving audiences a chance to get in touch with her inner batch of feelings and songs. It's a chance theatergoers should embrace.

Getting in touch with Christine Lavin



Published in the Asbury Park Press and the Home News Tribune 8/10/01
Theater Writer

Christine Lavin is doing things at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch she's never done in her 17 years as a folk singer and songwriter.


Starring Christin Lavin
New Jersey Repertory Company
179 Broadway, Long Branch
8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; through Sept. 2
(732) 229-3166

"I've never worked with a set before," she said. "I've never worked with a director before in my life and I've never performed in one place so long."

SuzAnne Barabas, artistic director of the NJ Rep, is directing Lavin in a theatrical evening of song called "Getting in Touch With My Inner Bitch," opening tonight. During an interview on the first day of rehearsal, Lavin, 49, sounded like a kid loving every minute of summer camp.

"Usually, it's just been me and my guitar -- and I'm self-taught," said Lavin, who learned to play as a child by watching a guitar teacher on a PBS TV series. "SuzAnne has already given me some wonderful ideas that never occurred to me to do, just because I'm so used to just standing there and playing."

Although Lavin has been "wireless" for three years, she still feels tethered to a microphone and hasn't fully adjusted to being mobile.

But don't think her two-hour show is static.

"I do things other folk singers don't do," she said.

No kidding.

Besides playing several acoustic guitars, she walks into the audience, uses technology that reproduces her voice as her own backup singer and twirls batons, glow sticks and ribbons.

"What I always liked about folk music is it is a very inclusive music," said Lavin, who counts Judy Collins, Bob Dylan and Dave van Rack as influences. "And what I've felt for a very long time is my work would be very at home in a theater."

And NJ Rep's intimate cabaret setting will make audiences feel like Lavin is singing in their living room. She opens each show by including the names of audience members in her song. As the evening progresses, she'll ask some personal questions relating to an upcoming song, all of which are drawn from real life. As she gets older, Lavin noted, she writes more for her peer group.

For instance, "The Kind of Love You Never Recover From," her most requested song, concerns the great love of one's life that, for whatever reason, got away.

"Everyone has someone in their background they never quite got over," she said about the song she wrote in 1990. "They may not have talked about it in 30 years, but it's something they carry with them."

Then there's "Good Thing He Can't Read My Mind." It concerns doing things one normally would not do just to make a relationship work, she said.

"One woman (in the audience) said she took country line dancing for two years and you could tell by the way she said it she hated every minute of it," Lavin related.

Then there's "I Want to Make Friends With My Gray Hair." But we won't go there.

"People tell me it's like I'm writing a musical sound track for their lives," Lavin said.

Also at each performance, Lavin will be joined by some musical friends who, following each show, will entertain about another 45 minutes "for people who don't want to go home," she said.

While not exactly a household name, Lavin has recorded 13 solo albums and produced 12 compilation records. She travels the country, mostly doing one-night stands.

When folk singers get air time on the radio, she said, it's on the far left of the dial inhabited by college and public radio stations.

"Pop radio is locked in with the big record companies," she said. "If (folk singers) sell 10,000 CDs, that's a successful album that makes money.

"Big record companies have to sell at least 100,000 CDs, because their overhead is so different," she explained, adding she thinks the music business is in a calamitous state and songwriting by most pop artists is poor.

"People like me are holding on for dear life, because we don't get air play, we don't have sales anything near what the big companies can do," she said. "I felt for a long time if our music was put into a theatrical setting, it would be a natural fit because . . . our songs tell stories and that's what theater is all about -- story telling."

These days she produces all of her own CDs and sells them at concerts or on the Internet at Each NJ Rep performance will be recorded live and a CD burned that night will be auctioned off to the highest bidder. The proceeds will go back to the nonprofit theater.



Published on August 10, 2001

Folksinger offers a one-woman musical




Folksinger-songwriter Christine Lavin wants her club-hopping fans to know that her one-woman show at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch is not her first gig in a "gen-u-ine theater."


In fact, when she enters the spotlight to sing her songs in "Getting in Touch with My Inner B*tch," it will be all of her second appearance on the legitimate stage.


"Yes," she says in a self-deprecating voice. "I've appeared onstage with Julia Roberts, Joanne Woodward, Paul Newman and Nathan Lane."


Though it wasn't planned that way. Four years ago Lavin, who plays acoustic guitar while singing her perceptive songs ("Blind Dating Fun," "I Bring Out the Worst in You"), agreed to perform her best-known composition, "Sensitive New Age Guys," at a benefit for Paul Newman's Hole-in-the-Wall-Gang Camp. She was the opener for author A.E. Hotchner's spoof of "Cinderella," starring Roberts as Cinderella, Woodward as narrator, Newman as the Fairy Godfather and Lane as the Fairy Godmother.


But three days before the opening, Lavin was told that Sarah Jessica Parker, cast as one of Cinderella's evil stepsisters, canceled -- and would Lavin replace her?


"I'd never acted," Lavin says, with awe surging through her voice. "Never anywhere, anytime. And this was going to be for 300 people who paid $1,000 each to see real stars."


Yet she donned a lime green plastic jacket, black leggings and a blue rhinestone-studded beret. "And," she says, "when we got to the scene before I go to the ball, where Julia Roberts was to clean my shoe, I ad-libbed, 'You missed a spot.'"


She chortles with glee. "Making her shine 'em again was, I guess, my inner bitch showing."


Actually, a visit with Lavin suggests that there's little "b*tchiness" to be found in the stout songwriter with short-cropped locks (a look that's prompted her newest tune, "I'm Becoming Friends with My Grey Hair"). In her small New York apartment, where CDs are piled in every corner and most of the floor, Lavin, dressed in a plain black shirt and slacks, is quick to laugh and talks a mile-and-a-half a minute.


While some of her songs are complaints, they're usually benign whining. "Oh, No" describes her problem of locating lost glasses with less-than-optimum vision. "Big Bug" tells of an insect of inordinate length who pays a visit to her apartment.


"Almost everything I've written in the last 10 years is musical non-fiction -- stories about real things or real people," she says.


What about the song of a woman who misses her boyfriend's call and presses *69 -- only to get a woman on the line who turns out to be his wife? ("That happened to a friend," Lavin insists.) "Waiting for the B-Train," in which subway commuters fear an injured dog is on the tracks, but discover it's a wig? ("Oh, yes, that happened, too.")


While most of her songs are funny or bittersweet, some take on weightier issues. "The Sixth Floor" relates how the Texas School Book Depository in Dallas has morphed into a Kennedy assassination tourist trap.


"After I saw it, I got on a plane and wrote the song with the pen I bought there that said 'The Sixth Floor' on it," she says. "And after I finished the song, I threw the pen away."


Last spring, SuzAnne and Gabor Barabas, respectively the artistic director and executive producer of New Jersey Repertory, saw Lavin in concert in New York and asked her to appear at their theater.


"I went down there to see one of their shows, 'Immortal Interlude,' the same week I went to see '42nd Street,'" Lavin says, "and I thought their show was much better. So here I am."


Lavin cites an unlikely influence in her desire to play a theater: Barry Humphries' Dame Edna Everage, who appeared in "her" own Broadway show last year.


"Seeing Dame Edna totally changed my life," she says. "I saw it in previews and walked out saying, 'This is the gold standard of performance.' I went 25 times -- and at $65 a ticket, I almost went broke. I had to go to a place where the price of soup was cut in half at 5:30 p.m., and had dinner there just so I could afford to see Dame Edna."


Dame Edna is a confirmed Christine Lavin fan as well. "This girl has got the goods," she relates. "There aren't many so-called funny women who make me laugh, other than Joan Rivers and Laura Bush, both for different reasons. When they make a movie about my life and career, I've always said I want little Christine Lavin to be me as a teenager -- only in nicer clothes."


The Peekskill, N.Y. native, now "491/2," says that her parents encouraged her -- to be a nurse. "Well," Lavin concedes, "I'm one of nine kids, so I understood their need for practicality."


In high school, she was a cheerleader, when it wasn't "as hard as it is now." "Today, they throw these girls up in the air and they sometimes get killed," she says, quieting her voice in fear. "I'm glad I learned to twirl a baton, though, because I use that in my show."


Lavin taught herself guitar by watching educational television. "Years later," she recalls, "the TV teacher read this in an interview and came backstage afterwards. She told me I was the best guitarist in the show. It was so untrue!" she says, laughing and slapping her knee. "She was just blinded by her pride."


No question that Lavin is a maverick. How many performers have a nun for an agent?


"Not an ex-nun," she emphasizes, "but a nun right now. All the money she makes goes to support the convent. I tell all the presenters to watch their language when they deal with her, but I add that at least you know she's not going to lie to you."


Lavin is a favorite of many songwriters, even those who write in a much different vein. Ervin Drake, composer of "It Was a Very Good Year" and the inspirational "I Believe," calls Lavin "a one-of-a-kind social commentator."


"Somebody who was writing an encyclopedia of important 20th century songs called me to ask what should be in there, and I immediately recommended 'Sensitive New Age Guys' because it tells of the important changes in our society," he says.


"My songs are often the stories of the strangers I've met in my travels," Lavin explains. "Everyone has a fascinating story. If you sit and talk long enough to them, you'll find it out. I hope I get people to think differently about the cab driver or the waitress, and maybe get them to talk to each other."


To that end, Lavin encourages mingling at "Getting in Touch with My Inner B*tch." (The asterisk, by the way, is her idea: "It's my Catholic upbringing.")


"Live theater brings people together, but I'd like to see them make a greater connection," Lavin says. "So we're setting up a telescope in the parking lot, so people can meet each other while looking at the nighttime sky."


Julie Gold, who wrote the Grammy-winning hit "From a Distance" -- and recently appeared with Lavin at the Bottom Line in New York -- says, "For 25 years, I have seen the world through Christine's eyes and have heard the world through her songs -- and I'm happy to report that the world will never be the same for me. But she's also one of the most generous people in the business, helping her friends to succeed."


Lavin has presented new songwriters' showcases on Martha's Vineyard. "People think it's this altruistic thing," she says, "but to me, there's room for everyone who's good. You don't have one CD on your shelf, you have many-many.


"When I was younger and heard someone really good, I used to be a little jealous, but now that I have my foot in the door, I want to let them in, too. Who knows? Maybe because of my eight brothers and sisters, I just like to have a lot of activity around."

Say 'I do' to 'Harry and Thelma'

Published in the Asbury Park Press 7/17/01

"Harry and Thelma in the Woods" is not unlike "The Odd Couple" in Manhattan.

The new comedy by Stan Lachow, receiving its state premiere through Aug. 5 at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, centers on a couple married for 25 years who have outgrown each other. It is smoothly directed by Mark Graham on a sylvan setting designed by Andy Hall and nicely lighted by John Demous.
New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch
WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays through Aug. 5
(732) 229-3166


In a series of one-liners, Harry (John Lombardi) tells Thelma (Susan G. Bob) it's all over -- except for the shouting. Their performances are flawless.

An author, Harry wants to write like Hemingway and publish the "great American-Jewish novel." Instead, he authors animal training books. Even that has become difficult and depressing lately:

"I'm all bottled up," he tells Thelma.

"Ill pull the plug," she responds.

He blames his lack of literary greatness on the fact he was born too late, causing him to miss all the great things -- like the Depression and World War II.

"You're a rainmaker," says Thelma, who is prone to sing songs to illustrate human emotions.

Thelma has put up with Harry's allergies. She had cooked for him, cleaned for him, mended his clothes. As a matter of fact, she has packed a gourmet picnic lunch and surprises him by returning to the site in the woods where they first made love.

Harry jumps back from the wooded clearing in horror: "Site of the original sin!" he exclaims.

Soon afterward, Harry reveals he wants a divorce:

"I can't stand living with you anymore!" Harry screams at Thelma.

"What else?" Thelma asks.

"That's it," he responds.

"You mean you're going to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start all over again?" Thelma inquires.

And he does. But with his girlfriend Choo Choo. She has youth, golden legs and knows sexual positions not shown in the movies, Harry says.

At the end of the first act of this two-hour show, they arm-wrestle to decide if Harry will leave Thelma. He wins, and he does.

This light comedy falters in the second act, mostly because it is too predictable. We know Harry will never be happy with Choo Choo. We know Thelma is too strong to just wither away. But could there actually be people like Thelma, who, after going through so much pain and humiliation, instantly forgive the person who caused it all?

A year later, a whole new Thelma returns to the woods to celebrate her liberation. She lost weight, restyled her hair and wardrobe, read all those great novels Harry always wanted to write and took singing lessons. She's become such a good singer she is now a cabaret artist.

Harry also returns, but in a disheveled state, with a bandage on his nose, a bad toupee on his head and gun in hand to shoot himself.

Choo Choo left him. He realized dumping Thelma was a big mistake. He still has writer's block and even the suicide note pinned to his coat is badly written. Why on Earth would Thelma want him back?

Nicely produced, wonderfully directed and performed, "Harry and Thelma in the Woods" is one of the better offerings at the New Jersey Repertory Company, a professional troupe devoted to new works.

Published on July 17, 2001

Thelma & the leaves: Divorce gets comic treatment in 'Harry and Thelma in the Woods'



Published in the Asbury Park Press 7/13/01

Theater Writer

Playwright Stan Lachow didn't exactly know where his characters were going when he began writing "Harry and Thelma in the Woods."

New Jersey Repertory Company
179 Broadway, Long Branch
8 p.m. Thursdays through Fridays; 2 p.m. Sundays; through Aug. 5
(732) 229-3166

"I don't plot it out," he said. "I usually start with an idea or a phrase that gets me thinking and I have a vague idea of what's going to happen and how."

"Harry and Thelma," which is being staged at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, began as a serious play. It's now a comedy, Lachow said, or maybe even a farce.

The spark for the plot came from a friend who confided what it had been like when he told his wife he wanted a divorce.

"He said they were taking a walk in the woods and his wife was pointing out the beauty of the day and he was going in the bushes and throwing up because of what he was going to do," Lachow said.

"Harry and Thelma," a two-character play, features John Lombardi of Hoboken as Harry, a disillusioned author of animal-training books who longs to write the great Jewish-American novel. Susan G. Bob of Teaneck is a happy homemaker who loves cooking, singing off-key and misquoting authors. They have been married for 20 years. The play takes place as the couple revisit the woods where they first consummated their relationship.

Lachow, who grew up in Brooklyn and moved to the suburbs in Rockland County, N.Y., to raise his family, now lives in the West Village of Manhattan with his wife, a psychotherapist. He has written five full-length plays, plus several one-acts. He also works as an actor.

Lachow is still refining "Harry and Thelma," which previously was produced in Florida.

He has been working closely with his director, Mark Graham, who lives in Connecticut.

Both men came to theater later in life.



John Lombardi and Susan G. Bob portray a couple who picnic while on the verge of divorce in the comedy "Harry and Thelma in the Woods," premiering in Long Branch this weekend.
Lachow had written plays for his high school, but ended up working in retail following his discharge from the Army after the Korean War. He thought retail would be temporary. But he couldn't quite figure out how to get back into theater. He ended up as an executive. Eventually, he found a community theater where he could do some directing and acting and took the leap.

Graham previously had his own advertising agency and worked as a marketing consultant.

Both men said theater has always been their passion because of the process of preparing a work for public consumption.

Graham not only directs, he also produces.

"Producing, to me, has a tremendous amount of challenges," he explained. "For one thing, you really have to believe in the show . . . it's not going to happen in a week.

"You are committing yourself to at least two years of nurturing the play, finding the right production, getting it published and looking at its future life."

Graham believes "Harry and Thelma" has a big future, especially on regional and community stages. A one-set, two-character play that enables mature members of an acting company to shine are always in demand.

However, he added, there is more to it than that.

"Besides being a 'two-hander,' the characters have universality . . . they are my mother and father, my aunt and uncle," he explained. "I see these people and recognize things about them I see in my own marriage of 27 years.

"The show has something to say," Graham said. "It's reality-based and I really think the audience can get into it."



Published on July 13, 2001

New Jersey stage: Is operetta dead? No, it's 'Immortal' fun


An operetta? These days, it's a rare theater that dares to tackle this antiquated form of entertainment.

But SuzAnne and Gabor Barabas, who head the ambitious New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, have nevertheless gone ahead and written "Immortal Interlude," the type of show that "they just don't write anymore."

SuzAnne Barabas, who is the lyricist as well as co-librettist, has written such lines as "What is this sensation? I am all confused." Even her song titles are as florid as those found in operettas of yore: "You Are Love." "One Perfect Rose." "Is This Romance?"

Is this entertainment? In fact, it is, in a modest way. Though "Immortal Interlude" pales from not having nearly enough happen during its two acts, Merek Royce Press' music is lovely, with an occasional 21st-century twist to keep it from being solely heavy syrup. He doesn't know how to end a song so that an audience knows it's time to applaud, but he still writes haunting melodies with a new-age twist. Too bad the music has been prerecorded and the performers sing along to a tape -- which certainly didn't happen in the grand old days of operettas.

Though the Barabases don't credit the classic "Death Takes a Holiday" (a k a "Meet Joe Black") as their inspiration, its premise was clearly on their minds. They set their libretto in 1939 at a Newport, R.I., summer home. Horace and Margaret Griffin are excited that their lovely daughter, Grace, is marrying James Collier. Now if only Grace could be equally enthusiastic.

Grace is instead intrigued by a Count who happens to drop by in black tie after she endures what should have been a fatal riding accident. In most of his dialogue, the Count drops quite a few hints that he's really Death personified. Nevertheless, everyone on stage -- including other daughter Pamela, Dr. Eisenstein and Katie the maid -- is pretty slow to catch on.

By the time all is sung and done, this Death doesn't take a holiday as much as he takes to matchmaking. Most everyone gets blissfully coupled, though the Barabases don't convincingly show why any of these people should be united.

SuzAnne Barabas does a decent enough job as director, except for a lackluster first-act curtain. Her ensemble is accomplished, with Ted Grayson perfectly cast as the Count. He has handsome, dark, brooding looks that are both enticing and scary. He's not death warmed over; he's hot.

Tricia Burr is enchanting as Grace, with the insouciance of those madcap heiresses of the '30s. Burt Edwards has smoking-jacket elegance as her father; Leslie Wheeler amuses as her constantly tipsy mother; and Kathleen Goldpaugh is fun as her cynical sister. Clark S. Carmichael, as Grace's fiancé, keeps his upper lip stiff with lines like, "It's imperative that we have an upper class."

As always, the Barabases have given their show a handsome production, through Bryan Higgason's ornate set and Patricia E. Doherty's true-to-the-period costumes.

Immortal Interlude

Where: New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch

When: Through May 20. Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m.

How much: $30-$40. Call (732) 229-3166 or visit (

The Coaster
Robert F. Carroll

Death as a stage character holds an irresistible attraction for playwrights, including Gabor and SuzAnne Barabas, authors and founder of the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

In their latest work, "Immortal Interlude", some ten years incubating and now premiering at the Lumia Theatre in Long Branch, the couple have written in Death as a handsome, Hungarian count.

The Barabases said their play, with music, was inspired by Alberto Casella's "La Morte in Vacanze," roughly translated as "Death Takes a Holiday," the title of a years-ago Hollywood movie version of the Casella play.

In "Immortal Interlude," Count Ut-Vege (Ted Grayson) turns up as Death, in tails and with a vibrant tenor voice, as a weekend guest at the Griffin's luxurious summer house in Newport, R.I., just before the start of the Second World War. The mysterious count proceeds to enchant young Grace (Tricia Burr), the Griffins' daughter; Grace's sister, Pamela (Kathleen Goldpaugh), and ultimately Katie (Cristin Hubbard), the Griffins' Irish maid.

Grace's flirtation with the count nettles her fiancé, James Collier (Clark Carmichael), a simpering dandy, and doesn't sit well with Grace's widower dad, Horace (Burt Edwards). But Horace's sister Margaret (Leslie Wheeler), a spinster and not-so-secret tippler, finds the mysterious stranger alluring.

All eventually ends well, if death can be considered a well ending. Along the way the count and Pamela get acquainted in a rollicking tango, "Is This Romance?" The three women musically explore the effect the count has had on their lives, in "Changes," and in Act 2 the entire company chats each other up in the witty "Small Talk".

Hubbard, as Katie the maid, is fetching as she blossoms in the ballad "Go Where Your Heart Beckons," and as she and Collier discover each other in the wild "Swing." John FitzGibbon, as Dr. Ben Eisenstein, adds a tragic undertone as a Jewish doctor bound for Europe to rescue family members as Nazi war clouds gather. But he's buoyed by the affection he's set loose in Pamela.

All the music of "Immortal Interlude," which operatically carries along and amplifies the action, is the work of Merek Royce Press, brother of SuzAnne Barabas. SuzAnne, who also directs and wrote the lyrics, and her husband have co-written several other plays. The couple were co-founders of repertory companies in Philadelphia and Cincinnati before arriving in Long Branch several years ago.

The Long Branch company, as Gabor reminds audiences before each performance, is dedicated to new works by new authors. "Immortal Interlude" is one audiences should cherish.

Atlanticville - Milt Bernstein

The latest news about New Jersey Rep, the adventurous local theater company, on downtown Broadway in Long Branch, is that the husband and wife team of SuzAnne and Gabor Barabas are presenting a fascinating new musical authored by themselves and featuring a score composed by Merek Royce Press, SuzAnne's younger brother.

The musical, "Immortal Interlude", is all about a weekend in the country - but with a twist. An unexpected visitor appears, urbane and charming, who changes the lives of everyone there in mysterious fashion. Who the visitor really is becomes apparent at the end of the play, but not before some very interesting transformations have taken place.

With lovely songs and haunting musical background provided by Merek Press, and excellent performances from the cast of ten, the show sustains the viewer's interest right up to the "happy" ending. (Several of the scenes and ensemble singing put this viewer in mind of Steven Sondheim's "A Little Night Music," a successful musical in its own right).

The principal roles are played by Tricia Burr as Grace Griffin, a central figure; Clark Carmichael as James Collier, her intended; Kathleen Goldpaugh as her competitive sister Pamela; Burt Edwards and Leslie Wheeler as her father Horace and aunt Margaret respectively; John FitzGibbon as a not-so-sympathetic family doctor; Cristin Hubbard as Katie, a most saucy maid; and Ted Grayson (alternating with Michael Gabinelli) as the charismatic visitor.

SuzAnne Barabas directed the play with a sure hand, and the set design of a summer home in Newport, R.I., by Bryan Higgason, was most attractive and evocative of the period.

For anyone looking for a most entertaining evening in the theatre - and enjoying live performances of a musical at a location much closer than that other Broadway - this show, which will run only through May 20, should not be overlooked.

Death takes a (tuneful) holiday



Published in the Asbury Park Press 5/01/01


"Immortal Interlude," the New Jersey Repertory Company's first musical, is a family affair in more ways than one.

It was written by wife-and-husband troupe founders SuzAnne and Gabor Barabas, with music by SuzAnne's brother Merek Royce Press. SuzAnne also directs.

New Jersey Repertory Company
179 Broadway, Long Branch
8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through May 20
TICKETS: $30-$40
INFORMATION: (732) 229-3166

"Immortal Interlude" concerns the Griffin family, whose members are spending the last weekend of the summer at their opulent "cottage" in Newport, R.I., when Death, personified as Count Ut-Vege, comes to call. It seems Death is taking his first holiday in centuries and wants to learn all he can about humans, including what it feels like to be in love.

If the plot sounds familiar, it's because the story is similar to the 1934 film "Death Takes a Holiday," which was remade as a TV movie in 1971 and recycled again as the 1998 film "Meet Joe Black."

The familiarity of the story robs the musical of some of its mystery. Press' music, however, is fresh and varied, from ensemble numbers to ballads to lovely duets such as "One Perfect Rose." There are 17 songs and three reprises during the two-and-a-half hour show.

As usual at the Rep, production values are high -- with a nice set design by Bryan Higgason, good lighting by Jeff Greenberg and some lovely dresses by costume designer Patricia E. Doherty. SuzAnne Barabas keeps the musical flowing smoothly.

All eight actors turn in fine performances, especially John FitzGibbon as the doctor, Ted Grayson as Count Ut-Vege and Rep regular Kathleen Goldpaugh as Pamela Griffin-Snowden. A seductive tango between Death and Pamela is to die for, so to speak.

Although the musical was 10 years in the making, the characters need more to work with. Audiences need to know exactly why Death has chosen this particular family at this time. The one-dimensional characters need to be fleshed out more in order to gain the audience's support, especially at the end, when certain people unexpectedly turn up in love. It has "A Midsummer Night's Dream" quality to it, but there are no fairies or sleeping potions to blame for such dramatic changes.

At the center of the play is Grace Griffin (Tricia Burr), the youngest and prettiest of two daughters, who has had a bad fall from a horse as the play begins. With no pulse, she is carried into the family's living room by her snobbish fiance James Collier (Clark S. Carmichael).

With a sudden inhalation of air, Grace returns to life. Enter Death, through the French doors, wearing a white tie and tails, which he wears for the entire weekend. Doesn't anybody wonder why? A tuxedo is a bit formal for breakfast.

Death/Count begins to charm not only Grace but her older, much-married sister Pamela (Goldpaugh), her alcoholic aging Aunt Margaret (Leslie Wheeler) and even the sassy Irish maid Katie (Cristin J. Hubbard).

Death doesn't fare so badly with the men either. Probably because of the tuxedo, class-conscious family patriarch Horace Griffin (Burt Edwards) accepts the Count. Dr. Ben Eisenstein (FitzGibbon) is convinced to stay on rather than visit a patient in a coma. Death assures the good doctor his patient will survive. And he does, in one of dozens of instances during the weekend when people survive various calamities, including being submerged in water for hours or falling from tall buildings and then walking away.

After all, Death is on a holiday.



Published on May 1, 2001

Birth of a musical: Death makes a visit in NJ Rep's premiere play



Published in the Asbury Park Press 4/27/01


Theater Writer

It's never an easy sell at the New Jersey Repertory Theatre in Long Branch.

New Jersey Repertory Company
179 Broadway, Long Branch
8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays
$30 to $40
(732) 229-3166

With a mission dedicated to staging new works by unknown playwrights rather than the tried-and-true, there isn't much marquee value for attracting audiences to the intimate 60-seat space.

Undaunted, co-founders SuzAnne and Gabor Barabas, West Long Branch, have decided to up the ante by producing a musical, "Immortal Interlude," that they, along with SuzAnne's composer brother Merek Royce Press, have written.

Musicals are major undertakings for small theaters, and this one will cost New Jersey Repertory double what it usually costs to stage a nonmusical play, said Gabor, also the Rep's executive producer. While it is in keeping with the theater's mission, "Immortal Interlude" also broadens the scope of the repertory company because it is the troupe's first musical.

"We do all these serious and dark works and people have been asking, when are we going to do a nice musical," Gabor said.

How "nice" it will be is yet to be determined. According to SuzAnne Barabas, the theater company's artistic director, it will "follow in the tradition of old-time Broadway book musicals."

But New Jersey Rep fans need not worry that "Immortal Interlude" will be confused with, say, "Funny Girl."

The two-act, eight-character musical takes place in a posh house in Newport, R.I., on the last weekend before World War II breaks out in 1939.

The date is very important, SuzAnne explained. On that fateful weekend, a mysterious stranger arrives at the weekend house party and changes each of the other seven characters lives. The stranger, SuzAnne said, is Death.

"Death has arrived in human form and is having a respite before the war," she said. "Once the carnage starts, Death will be very busy."

SuzAnne said she chose blue-blood territory for the show's setting because it's such a different world. She said she lived for awhile on Philadelphia's Main Line and had a chance to observe people's lives.

"Some of the facts in the play come from people I knew who would spend their summers in Newport and winters in Philly,." she said.

Among the characters in the musical are a retired industrialist, his sister, his two daughters, one of whom is engaged, a Jewish doctor with family in Germany and a maid.

"Death takes on the persona of the other guest they all were expecting," SuzAnne explained. "He wants to learn about human emotions and why he is feared."

The Barabases and Press previously collaborated on the World War II Holocaust drama "Find Me a Voice," produced last year at the Rep. They also have written many children's musicals.



Left to right: Burt Edward, John Fitzgibbon and Christina Hubbard rehearse a scene from "Immortal Interlude," a world-premiere musical opening at the New Jersey Repertory Theatre in Long Branch this weekend.
SuzAnne said "Immortal Interlude" has been in the works for 10 years.

"We almost staged it last year," said SuzAnne, who is directing the play. "But we needed to do more work on it.

"We feel at this point it is ready for a first production as we continue its development," she added.

SuzAnne said when the project was born, her personal life was filled with death.

"My mother, grandmother, a dear aunt and father had all died somewhat close to each other," she said. "I was preoccupied in a way with the acceptance of death."

But, SuzAnne is quick to add, there are many humorous moments in the musical.

There is also some dancing, but not much since the stage is small, she said. Size also meant no live musicians to play the 20 songs, including reprises. The music is computer generated, she said, which makes it harder for the actors as they cannot take their cues from a conductor.

Press designs Web sites, scores music for independent films and industrials and has written the underscoring for most all 20 or so shows the Rep has staged in its three years of performing. He writes the music first; SuzAnne then writes the lyrics.

"We work better that way," she said.



Published on April 27, 2001

Of mothers and daughters



Published in the Asbury Park Press 3/21/01


About midway through "Eleemosynary," a grandmother named Dorothea (Lindy Regan), who is in the midst of a difficult conflict with her adult daughter Artie (Yvonne Marchese), gives some interesting if sardonic advice to her granddaughter Echo (Laura Pratt): "Never have a daughter. She won't like you."


On the Dwek Studio Stage
By the New Jersey Repertory Company
179 Broadway, Long Branch
WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 7 p.m. Sundays through April 1
TICKETS: $18; $15 people age 65 and over, students
CALL: (732) 229-3166

Oddly, that quote articulates the offbeat but insightful humor of Lee Blessing's play, now being given a meticulous and inspired second stage production by the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. "Eleemosynary," which means charitable or the giving of alms, takes place in 1985, the peak of the era when co-dependence, toxic behaviors and relationship addiction were buzz words of mental health counselors. The play tries to convey how comedy ad tragedy mesh in a particular case of family dysfunction, forcing the individuals involved to realize their true potential. The only problem is that since dysfunction and parental abuse is the only life these Westbrook women had and will ever know, who knows what they would have become under any other circumstances?

The play begins in the present, when Dorothea has suffered a stroke. Her granddaughter Echo, who has identified with her, tells the story of how her mother Artie was repelled by her mother, Dorothea, and literally moved all over the country just to avoid being near her maternal nemesis. In an early episode in Artie's life, her mother buys her a pair of plastic wings and makes a home movie of herself forcing her daughter to lift herself off the ground. "I want my daughter to fly!" emotes Dorothea. Artie flies, all right: She avoids her mother like the plague, and when she has a child of her own, she is so self-absorbed she gives the child (Echo) to her mother to raise. Eventually, Artie becomes a successful biochemist, and Echo becomes a national spelling-bee champion and an honor student.

The production is unique and invigorating because of two ingredients that work together. One is Blessing's script, which is full of pointed metaphors. For example, in a scene where Artie moves to a strange city, she supports herself by selling, of all things, luggage -- a symbol for travel. The other ingredient is Michael R. Duran's fluid direction. He presents the play in a way that makes the theater going experience transcend the story line.

His three actors, on bare platforms with virtually no props, paint a series of vivid, colorful images using nothing more than words, movements and emotions. We easily make friends with Artie and Echo as they drive us through Dorothea's zany, intermission-less mission.

"Eleemosynary" is highly recommended.



Published on March 21, 2001

The write stuff: Play offers love, laughs and urban terrorism



Published in the Asbury Park Press 2/16/01

Theater Writer

When Michael T. Folie was going to school at what is now Middletown High School North, the 1970 alumnus wanted to become a writer like his idols James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway.

New Jersey Repertory Company
179 Broadway, Long Branch
8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays
Feb. 15 through March 11
$25 to $36
(732) 229-3166

Then, when he went to Rutgers University in New Brunswick, he got involved as an actor in a student-written play that ended up as a finalist in a festival at the Kennedy Center in Washington.

Acting seemed pretty exciting, so he switched majors and went for some post-college training at the famed HB Studios in Manhattan. He got work and traveled around the country performing in plays.

By the time Folie was in his 30s, though, he was tired of his nomadic life. He decided to settle down and return to writing . . . this time as playwright.

Now, 12 produced plays later, he is having the East Coast premiere of his "An Unhappy Women" at the New Jersey Repertory Theatre, Long Branch, less than a mile from Monmouth Medical Center, where he was born 48 years ago. It opens at 8 p.m. today. Another of his plays, "Panama," is scheduled for the Rep's fall season.

" 'Unhappy Woman' is a romantic comedy . . . a futuristic, black romantic comedy," Folie said from the Rockland County, N. Y., home he shares with his wife, Frances, a schoolteacher, and children Brendan and Lizzie. "It's very traditional in the sense two people love each other, they're perfect for each other, but circumstances keep them apart.

"On another level, it's a political thriller, a biochemical, mind-controlled, wacky, way-out comedy with men dressing up as women," he added.



Brenton Popolizio (standing) and Brian O'Halloran rehearse a scene from Michael T. Folie's "An Unhappy Woman," opening this weekend in Long Branch.
The play previously was produced in Los Angeles and is scheduled to be staged next month at the Alleyway Theatre, Buffalo, N.Y. Folie's play "The Adjustment," featuring Stephanie Powers, toured England last spring. It also was staged off-Broadway at the Jewish Repertory Theatre. "Lemonade," a comedy, was translated into French for a Paris production.

Folie said all his plays are different.

"My plays are all over the map," he admitted. "They veer back and forth between outrageous comedies to more traditional, modern, urban dramas . . . but there is always comedy in my plays, although the subject matter may be serious.

"I like to keep people on the edge of their seats," he added.

"An Unhappy Woman" centers on Gayle, the title character, who falls in love with Hank, a government employee. Pearl, Gayle's roommate, is a very happy young woman. She is in love with Gaylord, an urban terrorist. The play takes place in the future, where people have identity bar codes inserted under the skin, everybody carries a gun and a trip from Dulles Airport to downtown Washington requires crossing a war zone in an armored limousine.

Folie said this play began like most of his others.

"These people came into my head and started talking . . . they wouldn't go away," he explained. "Sometimes they do go away and I don't have to write about them."

Folie, who also is a free-lance speech and industrial writer, is satisfied with his lifestyle.

"I like to spend long periods of time by myself writing in my room . . . then I like to be with people," he said. "Writing plays let's me do that."

Writing for TV or film would not let him do that, he said, nor do they mesh with his technique.

"When writing plays, I don't know where I'm going . . . it's like exploring a dream," he explained. "Sometimes things don't work out, there are dead ends, it doesn't make sense or it would never be viable on stage.

"Other times things fall into place," he said. "It's like a partnership between my subconscious and conscious mind, as if they are working in tandem."

When that happens, Folie is a very happy man.



Published on February 16, 2001


A happy audience



Published in the Asbury Park Press 2/20/01

In Michael T. Folie's futuristic play "An Unhappy Woman," which is having its East Coast premiere in Long Branch, people still are worried about holding on to jobs they hate.

Here, the unemployed are thrown into the "insecurity zone," where it is every man, and woman, for his or her self. It's a sort of hell where the have-nots are urban guerrillas obsessed with ruining it for the haves.


By the New Jersey Repertory Company
179 Broadway, Long Branch
WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays ;2 p.m. Sundays
Ends March 11
TICKETS: $25-$27
CALL: (732) 229-3166

And the "haves"? They are obsessed with controlling others, especially women controlling men.

For people who have no problems suspending their disbelief, Folie will take them on a two-hour Orwellian ride where a person's worth is measured by the size of their gun, not their compassion.

Andy Hall's very functional set of gray stone walls and benches, nicely lit by Jeff Greenberg, sets the tone of the play -- the future is bleak. So bleak, in fact, that genuinely happy people are extremely hard to find.

When government employee Hank (Brian O'Halloran) finds Pearl (Gigi Jhong) he is thrilled. Pearl is Gayle's sister. Gayle (Kittson O'Neill), the unhappy woman of the play's title, trusts no one and when Hank proposes marriage within hours of meeting her, she is very suspicious of his motives.

Hank wants Pearl to accompany him and Gayle back to Washington so the government can run a few tests to discover why Pearl is so happy. The three arrive at Newt Gingrich Airport and on their way to secured downtown D.C., their limousine is attacked and all three find themselves battling for their lives in the insecurity zone.

This is where things go from strange to weird.

One of the guerrillas is Gaylord (Brenton Popolizio), who wears a kilt with his army bootsand is the leader of a group that prides itself on only doing stupid things. After a chance meeting years earlier, Gaylord has pined for Pearl's love.

Marjorie (Kathleen Goldpaugh) is a stand-in for the First Lady and Hank's boss. She is in charge of the happiness project and extracts so much "happiness enzyme" from Pearl she resembles a nasty pit bull.

Then there is Manuela (Adin Alai), a Latin American transsexual who dresses like June Cleaver, sews and bakes cookies, carries a machine gun and answers only to Marjorie. She/he is worth the price of admission. Without even trying, Alai steals the show and he doesn't even show up until Act Two. Oddly enough, his character is the show's most believable and most realized.

Director Nick Montesano keeps the action moving despite numerous blackouts and scene changes. He should, however, have reined in Jhong's Pearl, whose "happiness" quickly becomes annoying. She is more hysterical than happy.

Folie's romantic comedy, which borders on the surreal, is for adventurous audiences. And that is exactly what the New Jersey Repertory Company wants and gets. It should make everybody involved happy indeed.


Published on February 20, 2001

Acting up: AIDS issue stays afloat with 'Raft of the Medusa'



Published in the Asbury Park Press 1/26/01

Theater Writer

Playwright Joe Pintauro was walking around Greenwich Village one night just over a decade ago when he stepped into a bookstore.

A notice caught his eye: "Actors with AIDS in search of scripts."


Pearl and Solomon Dwek Little Theater
179 Broadway, Long Branch
Opens at 8 p.m. Friday
8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays
Through Feb. 11
(732) 229-3166

Pintauro copied down the telephone number.

"I didn't want to promise a script and not deliver so I started working on a play," Pintauro said from his New York City apartment. "I started going to ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleashed Power) meetings on 13th street at the gay and lesbian center and I was blown away.

"There were people there of all stripes and all sexual persuasions hot on the issue of fighting to get recognition," he said. "I immediately thought of the painting 'Raft of the Medusa.' "

His play, named after the painting, opens at 8 tonight in Long Branch. It was never staged by the initial group of actors because all of them had died from AIDS, Pintauro said. Subsequently, it was staged in New York, England and Germany, Pintauro said.

It centers on a diverse group of AIDS victims in a therapy session. They discover one of them, a reporter, doesn't have AIDS and is taping the session for an article. They are offended and one victim stabs the reporter with an infected needle.

The play runs 90 minutes long without an intermission.


Jimmy Blackman (reading), Michael Gabinelli, Ian August and Leighann Lord rehearse a scene from "Raft of the Medusa."
The Medusa was a French passenger ship that hit a sandbar in 1816 off the coast of Western Africa. Members of the aristocracy took over the life boats while the lower classes had to make crude rafts, which then were tied to the boats so they could all row to safety. A storm hit and the lines that held the ship's boats to the rafts were broken or cut. Only 15 of the 149 people on the rafts survived.

A large painting by Theodore Gericault (1791-1824) depicts the raft people, with one man waving a white shirt trying to catch the attention of a boat far in the distance. It hangs in the Louvre in Paris, Pintauro said.

Waving that shirt is a metaphor for how AIDS victims felt at the time he wrote his play, Pintauro said. He knew of the painting from a New Yorker magazine article about the ship wreck he had read just months before.


"Gericault interviewed some of the survivors and painted an heroic version of what it must have been like when that ship came into view and either didn't see them or purposely passed them by," Pintauro explained. "It perfectly fit the scene I was trying to get into."

Ken Wiesinger of Queens is directing the play. He is a member of the New Jersey Repertory Theatre, where the play is being staged. Rep founder SuzAnne and Gabor Barabas have encouraged their members to use the second stage space.

Wiesinger said he acted in the play in 1993 and fell in love with it.

"The rhythm of the play is like orchestrated chaos . . . as the lives of these people in group therapy are ticking away and they all want to be heard," Wiesinger said. "They are basically looking at their world as if it were coming to an end.

"Now, with more aggressive therapies, death is not as immediate," he added. "Now there are options."

Pintauro said he has resisted suggestions he update the play.

"To me, it's a snapshot of the time and more valuable because of that," he said.



Published on January 26, 2001


"Piaf in Vienna", an intimate, one-act play-with-music by Brad Korbesmeyer, now in its world premiere at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, is a sparkling little comedy spiced with an air of mystery.

The mystery, kind of a theatrical trompe l'oeil, extends to the play's title. The Piaf of the title is actually a young woman named Vienna Hauser who's obsessed with the memory of the legendary Parisian cabaret singer and drifts in and out of the Edith Piaf character during the course of the evening.

Luckily for the playwright, Deborah Boily, who plays Piaf, is an accomplished cabaret singer herself, having created one-woman shows in French and English and performed in Paris and London many Broadway musicals. From her opening number, "La Vie en Rose", Boily/Piaf is right at home in her role in the Korbesmeyer play.

The play is set in a room strewn with Piaf mementos. When Boily answers the urge to sing, she's joined by a mysterious piano player (John FitzGibbon), addressed alternately as Charles and Guyan and who, on occasion, reverts to a papier mache dummy. There's an equally mysterious Stan (Burt Edwards), who turns out to be the faux Piaf's dad.

As the play comes to a close we learn that the young woman's dementia apparently stems form an auto accident. There's also a hint that, with her improving physical condition, the young woman's Piaf obsession, sad to say, may be disappearing.

TWO RIVER TIMES (Philip Dorian)
One Flew Over Vienna's Nest
In the title of the year sweepstakes, "Piaf in Vienna" gets my vote. Contrary to first impression; the new play is not about what might have occurred when Edith Piaf visited the Austrian capital. No, Brad Korbesmeyer's absorbing one-act play is about a delusional American woman named Vienna who thinks she is the legendary Parisian chanteuse. An enticing premise and a nifty title. While the play doesn't quite live up to either, it is an interesting work, and ideally suited to New Jersey Repertory Company's stated purpose of producing promising new playwrights.
Vienna (Deborah Boily) spends her time in the attic of the home she shares with her retired father (Burt Edwards). She's suffering repercussions from a traumatic event that the compact play reveals as it unfolds. Spending most of her time alone, nested among typical attic relics (Harry Feiner's set and Deede Ulanet's props are picture-perfect), Vienna goes in and out of the character of Piaf, addressing an imaginary audience in word and song. It is revealed that Vienna has also been inhabited by other singers in the past. By any measure she's mentally unstable, but Edith Piaf and Rosemary Clooney are relatively harmless alter egos.
The relationship between father and daughter is well drawn in the situation and dialogue. Stan's (the father) devotion to Vienna is clear, and the reason for his indulgence is nicely interwoven into the play's exposition. There are some inconsistencies - in two years Stan has never come into the attic while Vienna is singing - that weakens the characters, and the ending, a sudden metamorphosis, is abrupt. But at 80 minutes the play has room for tweaking.
Edith Piaf (1915-1963) was an enormously popular singer whose sentimental ballads, sung in a quavering, throaty voice, earned her an adoring international audience. Born Edith Giovanna Gassion, she was dubbed La Mome Piaf, The Kid (more commonly Little) Sparrow, by a nightclub owned who discovered her singing in the streets of Paris. Mr. Korbesmeyer apparently wrote "Piaf in Vienna" as a vehicle for Ms. Boily, whose cabaret turn features songs in French and English.
The play is evenly balanced (as Vienna is not) between spoken scenes and songs a la Piaf. Ms. Boily proves an accomplished actress. Her rambling illusions stop short of rants and she projects an appealing delicacy...
...Interplay between Vienna and her father is heartfelt and amusing. Stan is very well written; in a few short scenes we come to know him well. Mr. Edwards plays him as naturally as can be; it's an impressive collaboration between character and actor. There is also a third performer in "Piaf in Vienna", a pianist with a split personality that complements Vienna's. John FitzGibbon plays this wordless accompanist sensitively, although in some scenes he's rather stiff.
 With the flick of a dimmer, Phil Monat's splendid lighting design transforms Vienna's attic to Piaf's cafe and back again. Under Peter Bennett's sensitive direction, Ms. Boily and Mr. Edwards's characters' devotion is never in doubt - their parrying dialogue is natural and affectionate in the writing and the playing.
"Piaf in Vienna" is part family drama and part Piaf retrospective. In both parts, Brad Korbesmeyer's play succeeds - in part.

A woman's regrets



Published in the Asbury Park Press 12/13/00

"Piaf in Vienna," a new play featuring Deborah Boily, was written by Brad Korbesmeyer especially for the cabaret singer.

Essentially, the 80-minute play stars Boily's voice. She sings eight songs associated with the French chanteuse Edith Piaf, including her signature songs "La Vie en Rose" and "Je Ne Regrette de Rien."


New Jersey Repertory Company
179 Broadway
Long Branch
8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays through Dec. 31
(732) 229-3166

Boily, who accurately describes herself as an actress who sings, is luminescent in the role of a 40-year-old woman who has been mentally unbalanced for the past 20 years due to the death of her mother in a car accident. Vienna, so named because she was conceived in Vienna, Va., was driving the car and blames herself for the death.

She was institutionalized twice and has been under the care of three different doctors. She refuses to take the pills prescribed for her because, she tells her father Stan (Burt Edwards) who discovers a full bottle, if she takes the pills she can't sing. He's never heard her sing and doesn't buy this excuse.

Sing Vienna must to survive, to not go completely mad. She is in her Piaf phase now, having previously assumed the identities of Patsy Cline and Keely Smith. When she sings, she imagines her mother in the audience watching. She also imagines Charles (John FitzGibbon) accompanying her on her mother's beloved piano.

As Charles, who never speaks and is replaced by a dummy whenever Stan comes into the room, FitzGibbon says a lot with his facial expressions -- especially his eyebrows.

Stan, nicely done by Edwards, has never heard Vienna sing. He only sees her pretending to be Piaf pretending to have a hissy fit or pretending to be giving an interview to a newspaper reporter.


Burt Edwards (left) and Deborah Boily in a scene from "Piaf in Vienna," a drama premiering in Long Branch.
All of this happens in the attic, perfectly rendered by set designer Harry Feiner and well lit by lighting designer Phil Monat. Director Peter Bennett keeps the play moving along.

What really worries the 70-year-old Stan is Vienna wandering the streets, making a fuss at the library, hanging out at pool halls and dating a criminal. This he knows must stop for her own good as well as his and he wants Vienna to go back to the hospital. She, of course, refuses, for she will not be able to sing there.

The play certainly has conflict at its center. But Korbesmeyer, who has been working on the play on and off for a decade, needs to elevate the play's climax in order for the audience to accept the ending. Vienna has to be purged of her guilt for the healing to begin. She has to confront the car accident head on, relive the horror for the audience as well as her father, so we can accept she has been severly crippled by this event for the past 20 years.

Instead, Korbesmeyer has Stan discover Vienna singing, then screaming in fear at having been discovered. Stan then decides not to insist Vienna receive more psychological help because he now fears he will not hear her sing for two years.

It's too pat. What about her wanderings? What about her obvious delusions? These aren't going to go away and the audience finds itself back where it was when the curtain rose -- just with Stan being the one additional viewer.



Published on December 13, 2000

New Jersey stage: 'Piaf in Vienna' is a play about neither




The biggest surprise in Brad Korbesmeyer's new play turns out to be its title. "Piaf in Vienna," the three-character play at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, is not about the famed French chanteuse on tour in Austria.


Instead, Vienna is the name of a fortyish woman whose parents conceived her in Vienna, Va. "Be glad it didn't happen in Indianapolis," her father tells her.


Since she had a terrible car accident two decades earlier -- one that killed her mother -- Vienna has holed herself up in the attic, pretending to be somebody else. For a while, it was Rosemary Clooney, then Patsy Cline. Now it's Edith Piaf, whom she has allowed to take over her life (hence, the title).


Vienna's long-suffering father, Stan, tries to reason with her, to no avail. For whenever he encourages her to face reality or seek help, she adopts Piaf's diva persona and dismisses him as a "simple man" and "an embarrassment." She orders him around as if he's the least important lackey in her life ("You can stay in the servant's quarters.") and the poor soul puts up with it.


There's little more to this 75-minute play. There are moments when Vienna emerges from her madness, such as when the 72-year-old Stan has a sudden attack from the many maladies that plague him. But for the most part, she's unsympathetic -- especially when Stan has a chance to find some happiness with a widow. Vienna criticizes the woman on every occasion because she can't lose her father's attention.


Korbesmeyer wrote the play as a vehicle for Deborah Boily, a noted singer of French songs. She's accompanied by able pianist John FitzGibbon, who also bears the brunt of Vienna's abuse. Boily's voice is both lovely and stirring, and her elocution is impeccable. Costume designer Patricia E. Doherty makes Boily look the part, too, by placing feathers in her streaked hair, masking a faded elegant dress with a kimono, and adorning ornate silver shoes with absurdly detailed buckles.


Under Peter Bennett's taut direction, Boily is not doing a strict Piaf imitation, nor does she need to. But she possesses the gestures characteristic of so many French singers. When she extends her hand gently, it appears to be resting on a cloud. Occasionally she slowly pinches her fingers together to show that she's working to capture the precise pronunciation of each word, and the requisite feeling that accompanies it.


After the audience applauds her stirring renditions of such songs as "La Vie en Rose" and "Under Paris Skies," Boily smiles in appreciation -- but wanly, to acknowledge that even now she's still feeling the pain expressed in the lyrics. So too, of course, is Vienna.


Boily steers the lackluster play well, but equally impressive is Burt Edwards as her father. Stan may be a craggy-faced Yankee, but Edwards shows us a man who still desperately loves his daughter, and will try most anything to help her, no matter how many times she waves her hand at him in dismissive disgust.


In an odd way, Edwards' wonderful performance makes our exasperation with Vienna even worse, for we wind up caring more about him.

Piaf in Vienna


Where: New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch


When: through Dec. 31; Thursdays to Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m.


How much: $25 to $36. Call (732) 229-3166.

A French connection



Published in the Asbury Park Press 12/03/00

Actress-singer Deborary Boily doesn't mind being on stage alone.

She's done it often enough as a cabaret singer in Paris, London and the United States. She recorded two CDs -- "The Song Remembers When" and "A French Collection" -- based on cabaret shows she wrote and performed.

Still, given her druthers, she prefers company while in the limelight.

She has that in the New Jersey Repertory Company's current production of "Piaf in Vienna," a show written for Boily by Brad Korbesmeyer.

"I do the one-person cabaret thing not for ego, but because I have total control: I created it, I marketed it, I made the choices and taken the risks," Boily, 51, said recently during a rehearsal break. "It's really different when you are the only one . . . I'm glad I've done it because I know I can and to know that I alone was responsible for the success or failure of this particular performance.

"But I love being on stage with other people in an ensemble," she explained. "I love the interaction and the dependence you have on other people and the dependence they have on you.

"It is nice to have someone up there to share the burden," she admitted.

She will be joined by Burt Edwards, who plays her father, and John Fitzgibbons, who plays her piano accompaniest.

Boily plays a woman named Vienna who blames herself for her mother's death in a car crash. Vienna was driving. The 90-minute production, directed by Peter Bennett, takes place in the attic of her family's home. Vienna imagines herself as the famous French chanteuse Edith Piaf.

"She's psychotic," Boily said bluntly. "She's on drugs and pills the doctors think will help her.

"Her fantasy is to reconcile with her mother . . . and she can keep her mother with her by imagining her mother in the audience while singing Piaf's songs," Boily said. "The one thing she has left of her mother is the piano and her records so she uses those things to create this other life."

One reason the role is tailor-made for her, besides the fact she is diminutive like Piaf, her love of the French people, Boily said with a slight accent she retains from her childhood in New Orleans, La. She now makes her home in Houston, Texas.

Her father, a commercial artist, also taught at an art school on Bourbon Street. As a child she took classes there as well and each Saturday morning, as they walked to school, her father would comment on how the area reminded him of the streets of Paris he'd seen as a soldier in World War II.

Her mother's parents immigrated from France.

"Between the two of them, I developed this idea as a young child that it must be really special to be French," she said. "They instilled in me a French pride."

Her father also helped Boily's interest in music by bringing home a record player and she immersed herself in cast recordings from the well known, such as "My Fair Lady," to the obscure, such as "Ben Franklin in Paris."

Boily graduated from Louisiana State University with a degree in drama and music, married and moved to New York to continue her studies and act. The couple eventually returned south and the marriage didn't last.

Boily, who supplements her income working as a temporary secretary, said she remains busy with theater and cabaret appearences but it's not enough to live on.

A friend one day suggested she write a show about something she knew well. She wrote "A Always Wanted to be French," a mixture of American and French songs. That went over so well she next wrote "From Piaf to Brel and Beyond," which includes songs made famous by singers Gilbert Becaud, Michel Jonasz, and Serge Lama, popular in France but unknown in America. Next came "Ce Soir Cabaret."

 A Professional Troupe based in Long Branch

NJ Repertory Theater Actress Deborah Boily 
The passion of a Piaf in Vienna actress is captured on film.

With excellent interpretations during regularly scheduled performances at a local venue, the popularity of the NJ Repertory Company is on the rise. 

A quick glance at the biographies of the men and women of the company clearly reveals the wealth of experience that makes everything flow so smoothly on the stage under the guidance of an equally well credentialed production staff. Some of the popular past productions include: 

  • A World I Never Made
  • North Fork
  • On Golden Pond
  • Voices Carry

The Lumia Theatre on Broadway in Long Branch provides the main stage for productions and will host the presentation of Piaf in Vienna by Brad Korbesmeyer from December 7-31, 2000. See the NJ Repertory Web site or call (732) 229-3166 for more details on attending this and other productions. 

The Perl and Solomon Dwek Little Theater encompasses Stage II, allowing simultaneous productions for a wider audience appeal; upcoming performances in December are two comedies:

  • Naked by the River
  • Any Friend of Percy D’Angelino is a Friend of Mine

The company is a nonprofit professional theater organization that intends, in addition to their primary mission quoted below, to be a part of the revitalization of the neighborhoods in the Broadway area of Long Branch.

The primary mission of the theater is to develop and produce new plays with diverse themes, with a special commitment to fostering the works of minority playwrights. It is also devoted to creating an atmosphere where classics can take on a fresh look and forgotten plays can find a home.

The convenient location, coupled with affordable ticket prices and excellent performances, makes for an enjoyable night out while supporting the local community. 

Enjoy the show!

New Jersey Shore
Mark Hessey

 Standards-bred: Local singer returns to roots



Published in the Asbury Park Press 11/10/00
Theater Writer

Billy Stone admits it's a long way from writing English lyrics for Japanese hard-rock band Loudness to singing songs penned by George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter and Richard Rodgers.

Billy Stone in Concert
Lumia Theatre
179 Broadway, Long Branch
8 p.m. Nov. 16 to 19
(732) 229-3166

"In my younger days, I felt a strong need to prove myself in the rock field," said Stone, now 42 and back living in his hometown of Long Branch. "I think I really was always influenced by the pop signers of the '50s and '60s - Sinatra, Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald.

"But it just didn't fit right to sing 'Embraceable You' in my 20s," he added. "Now I'm older and more mature I can sing that comfortably."

Now that Stone has purged rock music from his system, he feels he has come full circle. He will be singing for four nights beginning on Thursday at the Lumia Theatre in Long Branch in a concert billed as "Love Songs After Six."

He also has returned to his roots. Stone, whose real name is Billy Coughlin, was born in Long Branch in 1957 and lived here until 1974, when his family moved to Wyoming. He would have been a member of the Long Branch High School class of 1975.

Instead, he ended up graduating from a high school in Cheyenne and earning a degree in theater with a minor in psychology at the University of Wyoming. He tried his luck in Los Angeles, fronting several rock bands, including Pyramid Sky, and writing songs.

He returned east to be closer to his mother, a former operating room nurse. An only child, Stone, whose stepfather was a surgeon, said he would have entered the medical field if he had not become an artist. Stone currently earns a living as the managed care coordinator with Orthopedic Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation Center in Red Bank.

But his first love remains the stage and recently has acted in "Adult Fiction" and "Octet" produced by the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. He considers it fortuitous that the NJ Rep opened in his hometown two years ago -- just when he returned.

Founders Gabor and SuzAnne Barabas recently opened a second space in their theater and offered it rent-free to company members, Stone said. He took them up on their offer, although he must split box office proceeds with them, and put together this act. He worked on it with musician Merek Royce Press, the Lumia Theatre's house composer. Stone hopes the project evolves into an album.

"Standards are the most expensive genre of music to record as it needs strings, or an orchestra, with big production values," he explained. "With rock, you just need a bass, a drummer, a guitarist and singer to make a record.

"It's too costly to hire a full orchestra but with a computer, Merek can take samplings and record tracks himself, so all I have to do is press play."



Published on November 10, 2000

 Applause, applause

New Jersey theaters thank those who helped to raise their curtains





Thanks went to airlines for giving free tickets, and to foundations for their generous contributions. Thanks also were offered to loyal staffers, Web site designers and concession-stand workers.


These and more public thank- yous were offered Monday night in New Brunswick, when New Jersey's professional theater community gathered for the 12th annual Applause Awards.


"The Applause Awards are really about dedication, and this is an opportunity to recognize that," said Angelo Del Rossi, executive producer of the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn.


The New Jersey Theatre Group, newly named the New Jersey Theatre Alliance, organized the event, which began with cocktails at New Brunswick's trendy Soho on George restaurant. Some 320 theater personnel, board members and honorees then paraded over to the nearby George Street Playhouse, where the 90-minute awards ceremony was held. The evening ended with coffee and dessert at Soho.


This year's honorees, selected for their contributions and dedication to the member theaters, ranged from volunteers to staffers to corporate angels. Among the volunteers honored were Piera Accumanno for her work with 12 Miles West Theatre Company in Montclair and Lina Moccia for her efforts for the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.


"Lina has single-handedly painted our theater several times. She is a carpenter, mixes and pours cement, and like an ant, she carries more than her weight," said Gabor Barabas, New Jersey Repertory Company executive producer, in his introduction.


Many theaters saluted the contributions made by board members, including Two River Theatre Company in Red Bank, which thanked Len Pickell, president of the James Beard Foundation, for his efforts as "gala impresario." American State Company in Teaneck celebrated the contributions of James Coia and his employer, Bloomingdale's.


Both the Paper Mill and George Street Playhouse chose to honor veteran employees. Paper Mill's director of education, Susan Speidel, was honored for her work creating the Rising Star Awards, a sort of Tony Awards for high school musicals that has been replicated around the country. George Street applauded business manager Karen Price.


"I'm very passionate about theater," said Price, who accepted the award from George Street artistic director David Saint. "David recognizes that, as a numbers cruncher, I participate in the magic of the theater."


George Street Playhouse managing director Michael Stotts acknowledged the evening's missing company, the embattled Crossroads Theatre Company of New Brunswick, which canceled its 2000-2001 season and was not represented at the awards.


"It is our hope that (Crossroads) will be back on the boards next year, and that they will continue to build on their legacy as the premier African-American theater in this country," Stotts said.


The evening concluded with the presentation of the alliance's Star Award to former NJTA chairman and board member John McEwen, who earlier this year left Paper Mill Playhouse to take a job at New Jersey Network. The Theater Alliance Singers performed a medley of songs in his honor, highlighting McEwen's work on behalf of disabled audiences, as well as his fund- raising prowess.


Here are the theaters and their Applause Award recipients:


12 Miles West Theatre Company: Piera Accumanno


Two River Theatre Company: Len Pickell


TheatreFest: Fleet Bank


Pushcart Players: Rabbi Norman Patz


Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey: Leigh Pierson Conant and Richard Dalba


New Jersey Repertory Company: Lina Moccia


Passage Theatre Company: the Rev. Willie J. Smith and the Times of Trenton


Paper Mill Playhouse: Susan Speidel


The New Jersey Shakespeare Festival: Michelle Cameron and Len Muscarella of Interactive Media Associates


McCarter Theatre: Holly Williams and Vincent Iorio of American Airlines


George Street Playhouse: Karen Price


The Growing Stage Theatre for Young Audiences: John Mintz


The East Lynne Company: Frank Smith


Centenary Stage Company: Susan Riding


American Stage Company: John Coia and Bloomingdale's


The 2000 Applause Awards

By Peter Filichia


NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ -- Had a great time, as always, at the Applause Awards, sponsored by the New Jersey Theatre Alliance. But before you roll your eyes, because you’re assuming I’m about to tell you who was the Best Actor or lighting designer for the 2000 season, let me say that you’re making the wrong assumption.

No, in New Jersey for each of the past 12 years, the professional theaters have given their applause (and handsome plaques) to the person, persons, companies or corporations who have made their lives that much easier. Presto Printing, where the Forum Theatre of Metuchen gets a break on its flyers. 3 Central Cafe, which hosts Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey’s opening night parties. Fat cats, too -- New Jersey Bell, Panasonic, Bristol-Myers Squibb -- who wrote the checks that made things happen. Even the Claridge Hotel Casino was applauded in 1991, for helping South Jersey Regional Theatre.

This year, the awards took place at the George Street Playhouse, which David Saint has revitalized in two short seasons. He’s currently re-staging his George Street hit of last season, Anne Meara’s Down the Garden Paths, for off-Broadway -- at the precise same time he’s starting rehearsals for his next George Street show, The Spitfire Grill, a musicalization of the recent film, with Beth Fowler in the lead. (At the awards, we also heard a selection, "Wild Bird," as part of the entertainment. Pretty song.)

Saint showed that a new broom doesn’t necessarily sweep clean (no matter what Johnny Johnson told us in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn) by applauding Karen Price, who’s been the George Street business manager for 12 years. At the podium, Price apologized for shedding some tears, but she showed more composure than have many Oscar-winners.

The Paper Mill Playhouse made a brilliant choice: Susan Speidel, the troupe’s director of education, who six years ago went to executive producer Angelo Del Rossi to ask if she could stage a Tony Awards for kids. She admitted that Del Rossi thought she was crazy, but he still green-lit the project. Thus were born the Rising Star Awards, made of Tiffany glass. The first year, a kid named Laura Benanti won for playing Dolly at her high school. Yes, it’s the Laura Benanti who would deservedly be up for a Tony only a handful of years later.

There’s also the Alliance’s own version of the Thalberg, called The Star Award. A couple of years ago, it went to Larry Capo, who devised the Applause Awards in 1988. This year, the Star was John McEwen, who was Paper Mill’s director of development for 15 years, until he moved to New Jersey Network this year. During his tenure, McEwen was a tireless advocate for outreach programs and access services. As his reward here, he was serenaded by Speidel (an astonishing performer, by the way) and others in a medley of show tunes ("Johnny One-Note") and lesser works ("Johnny Angel"), with saucy lyrics tailored to McEwen’s many achievements.

And so it went. McCarter Theatre honored American Airlines for flying in Lily Tomlin, Zoe Wanamaker, Charles Durning, and many others. Passage Theatre of Trenton saluted Dr. Willie J. Smith for so urging the black community to see Welcome Home, Marian Anderson that it sold out. The Pushcart Players applauded Rabbi Norman R. Patz for his help on their Holocaust projects, but the rabbi had to send his regrets. He was in Israel on a peacekeeping mission, and though the Applause brass would have liked him there, they understood that he had put first things first.

Many of the theaters seized the chance to applaud their in-the-trenches volunteers, the at-home moms who put posters in the local stores, or the senior citizens who sell candy at intermission. This year, New Jersey Repertory Company applauded Lina Moccia, a sixtysomething Italian immigrant. As she came to the podium, at least 20 who bought tickets to support her were in the back rows of the theater, yelling, "Lee-NAH! Lee-NAH! Lee-NAH!" with the same intensity that Yankee fans used to give to "Reg-GIE! Reg-GIE! Reg-GIE!" Moccia responded by giving a speech in a thick Italian accent, and wasn’t worried a whit that people might not understand her. We caught up.

It was my second favorite Applause Award Moment. First place goes to Ensemble Theatre Company of Newark’s 1994 winner Lathan Salley -- the janitor of the building where the troupe was ensconced.

Ensemble producing artistic director Marvin Kazembe Jefferson said that there were plenty of times when he needed something, and Salley matter-of-factly provided him with it. On more than one occasion, Kazembe had misplaced his keys, needed to get into the building, and had to call Salley to come down to let him in. He always did immediately, and without complaint.

And so, a black inner-city janitor who had to be at least 75 got to put on a handsome suit, stand in front of a roomful of people, and give his thanks for Ensemble’s acknowledging him. It’s a safe bet that he would have spent most of his life assuming that something like that would never, ever happen to him. But it did, and bless the Applause Awards for making it a reality.

Shouldn’t there be an Applause Awards in your theatre community, too? {:-)-:}

 This week's BackStage Regional Round-up

The New Jersey Repertory Company launched its third season with Sandra Perlman's "In Search of Red River Dog". The four-character, one-set drama centers on out-of-work Ohio steel workers and the women who love them. Wonderfully acted by Dana Benningfield, Jeff Farkash, Betty Hudson, and Ross Haines, Perlman's well-written piece captures the frustration of men who see their jobs vanish and their women grow stronger than themselves.

Sam Shepard-like in its starkness, realism. and family dysfunction, Perlman, nevertheless has a voice of her own. Under the direction of Rob Reese, the NJ Rep once again has produced high quality theatre with an edge in depressed, downtown Long Branch. Artistic Director SuzAnne Barabas and Executive Producer Gabor Barabas are pioneers. "In Search of Red River Dog" closes on Nov. 5.

 Superb cast in drama that looks at life, lies



Published in the Asbury Park Press 10/17/00


Men without jobs and the women who love them is at the heart of Sandra Perlman's new drama "In Search of Red River Dog," now playing at the New Jersey Repertory Theatre in Long Branch.

Also at the heart of the matter are lies.

The lies told by the steel mill owners to its laid off workers. Lies told by the garbage company that was illegally dumping chemicals years ago that now have poisoned the groundwater in Deerfield, Ohio, in 1978. And the lies told between a husband and wife that, when revealed, undermine the shaky foundation of their marriage.


New Jersey Repertory Company
179 Broadway, Long Branch
8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays
2 p.m. Sundays through Nov. 5
(732) 229-3166

Superbly acted by all four cast members and directed by Rob Reese, the play unfolds over 48 hours in the front yard of a run-down trailer.

Sam Shepardesque in a stark, reality driven, highly emotional way, the plot centers on Paulette (Dana Benningfield) and Denny (Jeff Farkash), high school sweethearts who married after she became pregnant.

Their young daughter has recently died and Paulette believes the cause was poisoned water from leaky chemical drums. Paulette's beloved dog Red also is sick, and she vows that if he dies (which he ultimately does), she'll have his remains analyzed to prove he was poisoned.

Meanwhile, Paulette has some unusual habits which leads us to think she may be losing her grip on reality. She sings nursery rhymes. Hangs laundry at night to dry. And plants exotic spices she has no use for.

She also is very bright - brightest kid in school - who married a football player who can barely put two words together. Benningfield turns in a finely wrought performance as the young wife who has to make some hard choices.

Her mother Bertie (Betty Hudson), who lost two children to miscarriages before she got the family out of a beautiful but deadly coal mining valley in West Virginia, loves her daughter with a passion. But she does not want to move again, and believes if Paulette stirs up trouble with her theory about the poisoned water, they will never work again and be forced to leave the area.

Hudson is excellent as the mother, particularly when she is horrified at the circumstances surrounding Red's death and what happened immediately afterward.

Her husband John (Ross Haines) is drinking himself to death because he knows the steel mills will never reopen and he can't even land a clerk's job at the local convenience store because he can't work the computerized cash register.

It is the women who have the survival instincts. John accepts this. Denny does not.

Farkash's portrait of a Denny that is insecure and terrified his wife will leave him is nicely done. We want to feel sorry for his predicament and do, up to a point. As his fears overtake him, accusing his wife of infidelity and lack of respect, he becomes pathetic. As always, it comes down to sex and Denny resents not having any with Paulette, just because a doctor said to give her time to recover from their baby's death.

He finally takes his frustration out on her and nobody's life will ever be the same.

At the end of this two-hour drama we realize Paulette is the one who is facing reality and Denny is the one who lives in an imaginary world.



Published on October 17, 2000


New Jersey stage: Tragedy, not trash, in trailer park




In Search of Red River Dog


Where: New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch


When: Through Nov. 5. Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m.


How much: $25 on Thursdays and Sundays, $27 on Friday and Saturdays. Call (732) 229-3166.


Are people who live in trailers necessarily "trailer trash"? Playwright Sandra Perlman is out to refute the stereotype in "In Search of Red River Dog," now at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.


Though Paulette and Denny live in a "sardine can," they're an eloquent and devoted couple, thanks to Perlman's fresh dialogue. Not that the young marrieds don't have problems. Denny's out of work, which doesn't help Paulette's dreams of going to college. Worse, their baby has died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Their prospects have tarnished in the few years since Denny nearly became the football team's MVP, and Paulette almost won the title of the town's Apple Butter Queen.


Fifty minutes into the play, though, Paulette suddenly mentions that she believes their trailer is sitting in the midst of severe environmental problems. Plants won't grow, the water smells and their beloved dog, Red River, is ill. Though a crisis seems imminent, it won't be mentioned again. Perlman indicates that weighty issues occur to these people, but they lack the resources to deal with them.


The playwright spends the second act replacing the couple's dreams of a better life with far less savory alternatives. She suggests that there's no escape from such a lower-middle-class life, and that poverty will eventually overwhelm even the brightest minds. What makes this a genuine tragedy is Perlman's ability to rouse sympathy for these two kids, who had the raw material to succeed.


The sense of loss is made more acute because Dana Benningfield and Jeff Farkash have a wonderful chemistry as Paulette and Denny. In just a few, attention-getting minutes, they exchange faint smiles that bear an edge of desperation; their eyes show how much unhappiness pervades their lives. The couple's brave front makes them all the more heartbreaking.


Benningfield gets the chance to be even more commendable in the way she displays great devotion to her father. He's at first played as a jolly drunk by Ross Haines, until he faces the harsh realities of unemployment. "This man don't bring home nothin', 'cuz this man don't work," Haines says, his voice full of defeat. As Paulette's mother -- who does her best not to be overwhelmed by her job of picking vegetables -- Betty Hudson is the salt of the earth.


Director Rob Reese stages the play with the right pace and mood. Once again, the New Jersey Repertory Company proves itself to be a fledgling playwright's best friend, consistently giving new plays most remarkable productions. This is one of its better choices.

 Playwright finds herself, in Long Branch



Published in the Asbury Park Press 10/12/00

Sandra Perlman has always been in love with theater.

She was in school plays while growing up in the Holmesburg section of Philadelphia and later in Palmyra High School in Cinnaminson.

As an adult, she acted at the Society Hill Playhouse in Philadelphia and during the summer of 1968 did street theater.


Being presented by the New Jersey Repertory Company
179 Broadway, Long Branch
Previews at 8 p.m. Thursday
Opens at 8 p.m. Friday
Performances at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays
2 p.m. Sundays through Nov. 5
TICKETS: $25-$36
CALL: (732) 229-3166

But she never pursued a theater career until years later, when she got mad at the innovative Polish director Jerzy Grotowski, whose improvisational style focuses on the actor who is physical, not intellectual.

In the early 1970s, Perlman attended a lecture given by Grotowski at Kent State University in Ohio, where Perlamn's artist husband Henry Halem taught and where they still live.

"Grotowski announced there was no more need for playwrights," she said. "That made me so angry that I felt a real need to write a play."

She taught herself by studying the works of playwrights who had influenced her, including Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and especially Anton Chekhov.

"It took me a few years, but I started writing plays while also working and raising a family."

Now, at 56, she is a full-time playwright, a member of the Cleveland Play House Playwrights' Unit and has had 12 plays produced. The Ohio Arts Council has granted her two play-writing fellowships. Her work, "In Search of the Red River Dog," opening tomorrow night at the New Jersey Repertory Theatre in Long Branch, was a finalist at the O'Neill Festival.

The two-act, four-character play emerged from her collective experience as a teacher and TV producer.

The play, set in Deerfield, Ohio, centers on Paulette and her husband Denny, an unemployed mill worker. Paulette's mother Bertie and her father John, also an unemployed mill worker, round out the cast.

The plot centers on the young couple whose marriage is threatened by unemployment and the recent death of their little girl, possibly due to environmental factors.

Perlman said she once had a student like Paulette, a smart girl whose life was abruptly detoured by teen-age pregnancy. And Perlman also produced a PBS TV program about the loss of the steel mill industry in Ohio.

"This is a play about lying . . . a play about what happens when you don't trust people to tell you the truth," Perlman said. "The steel and rubber industry had been losing ground for years, but no one was telling people that.

"Then one day these people woke up and there were no jobs," she said. "Some people were able to pull together and recover, like in Akron . . . but Youngstown never recovered."

Many mill workers arrived via Route 77 out of the Appalachia Mountains, Perlman said.

"They came from Virginia and West Virginia to find a better life in Ohio," she said. "When the jobs disappeared, they were caught in a quicksand . . . some became alcoholics (like John in the play), others lose faith (like Denny) and others develop survivor qualities (like Birdie and Paulette).

"Like many women, Bertie is incredibly strong; able to pick up and move even if it breaks her heart, just to keep her family going," Perlman said. "Women bend and adapt, men can't bend so they snap . . . or at least, some do."

Denny is one who snaps.

"I'm inspired a lot by real people I've met and come to know," she said. "I just love the idea of fictionalizing that realness."



Published on October 12, 2000


A Rare Opportunity

The Murder of Tchaikovsky:
"Improper Attention,"
 by Diane Bairamian

In this age of work to eliminate the very existence of hate crimes,
here is an indictment of hypocrisy that has been locked in a closet for over 100 years. This is the little known or suspected, story of the condemnation of the great Russian composer Tchaikovsky, because he was gay. It is the story of his Murder!

Review by Richard Schiff

    Playwrights & Company, in association with New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, New Jersey, 179 Broadway Long Branch, New Jersey 732-229-3166, an equity Theater, mounted a production of "Improper Attention", written by Diane Bairamian, and directed without blemish by John Morrison. I was treated to a previous production of this moving drama last year and will never forget it as long as I shall live.  The play ran four nights last weekend to packed houses, in the Solomon and Pearl Dwek Little Theatre

Improper Attention tells the story of the persecution and eventual murder by proxy of the great Russian 19th century composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, for having had a gay relationship with the nephew of the Grand Duke Stenbok-Fermor.

Jim Netis plays the part of Tchaikovsky with a brilliance not seen on the stage for a long time. The agony and sensitivity, the utter humanity he brings to the role is staggering.

The play recreates a little known event in Russian history; the convening of a group of the composer’s former classmates from the Institute for Jurisprudence. Though the action would take place in the late 1890’s, the show is done in modern dress, on a bare stage with minimal props. Now these former classmates are all middle aged and defending their reputations. They are all known friends of the composer, and a letter from the Grand Duke to the Czar, has condemned Tchaikovsky for having had a gay relationship with 18 year old Alexander Vladimirivich Stenbok-Fermor.  All of these men are attorneys. Tchaikovsky had practiced law in his very early years.

At first, shocked by the rude manner in which he had been literally dragged to this meeting in the home of Nikolai Borisovich Jacobi, played with cruel menace, by David A. Sussman who has a hidden agenda: he had a relationship with Tchaikovsky back in their school days. Here we see the vicious reality of men and women hiding their own dignity when confronted with the mere whims of the Aristocracy. The mere mention of royal disfavor has these men shaking in their shoes.

We get a rare glimpse of Royalty, in the person of the Grand Duke Stenbok-Fermon. Stephan Caldwell, as the Grand Duke, brings back the stuff of the Royalty that met a disastrous end, just a few years later, in the Russian Revolution. Even the internationally reknown and wealthy Tchaikovsky is meaningless, and worthless to the arrogance of landed nobility. Even Tchaikovsky is expendable.

The purpose of this meeting is to extract from this "jury" of Tchaikovsky’s friends, a verdict that will avoid his being prosecuted in open court, by the law. That would disgrace him and these so called "friends." Jacobi has even more to hide than his past. His own son is gay, and for appearances he will sacrifice anyone, even the nation’s greatest composer, to hide this, and keep favor with the ruling class. The hypocrisy is sickening. The performances are brilliant.

Morrison is a master of staging. He excludes the entire cast by having them turn their backs to the audience. In these spaces he has Tchaikovsky picnicking with young Alexander and you swear you are in a flowery meadow in the height of luscious Spring. The entire play is transcendent. The pathos is enough to floor the most jaded critic. The love that grows between the aging composer and the young nobleman is beautiful and haunting. The sheer tragedy of this great artist’s life was unknown to this reviewer. The whole event was covered up by history, and it is generally believed that Tchaikovsky died of Cholera, like his unfortunate mother. And as this play is no doubt going to re-emerge off-Broadway very soon, I will not divulge the outcome. I urge you to contact us to find out when next you will be afforded the opportunity to see this play.. You will be thinking and talking about it for the rest of your life. I guarantee you!

The cast included:
David A. Sussman, Jeff Taylor, Brian Fuorry, Sam Angona, Jim Netis, Kevin Counihan, Jim Kuntz, Jim Watson,  John Newman, and Stephan Caldwell.

All about Anne



Published in the Asbury Park Press 8/20/00

The facts of confessional poet Anne Sexton's life would lead one to believe her's was a rather sad one. Especially when you consider she was in therapy for years and committed suicide in 1974 at age 45.


New Jersey Repertory Company
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Actress Salome Jens sees Sexton's life differently. In her one-woman play "...About Anne," Jens said she chose poems by the Pulitzer Prize winner that offers a "prismatic view of her life through her poetry."

"Anne liked to do her poetry with rock bands -- what fun, I thought! -- this is not a depressed woman," Jens said, speaking from a Manhattan apartment she shares with her brother-in-law, actor Anthony Zerbe. "Anne lived life to the hilt and she wrote a wonderful letter to her daughter Linda tell her to live to the top."

Sexton returned to school and began writing poetry at age 29 at the suggestion of one of her therapists. There she met and became good friends with poet Sylvia Plath.

"Through their creativity they both broke the (poetic) form and at a very young age and in a world that was not very comfortable for women," Jens noted.

Plath committed suicide in 1963.

At the time of the publication of "Anne Sexton: A Biography" in 1991, Time magazine called Sexton "Ophelia all grown up and turned into a suburban mother and basket case." Written by Stanford University English professor Diane Wood Middlebrook, the book generated controversy because Dr. Martin Orne gave the author more than 300 audio tapes from his therapy sessions with Sexton. Professionals called the move unethical, even though Sexton's daughter had approved of the decision.

The book revealed Sexton heard voices, had developed a fantasy personality, was sexually involved one of her therapists and, during episodes of rage, would physically abused her children.

"My sense is Anne ... was someone who lived fully and was addicted to drugs and alcohol," Jens said.

Jens, 65, goes so far as to say in some ways Sexton saved her life.

"When I look at her poetry ... she has all the aliveness, desires, search for beauty and creativity that I have and that is what I saw in her and that is what saved me," Jens said. "In seeing what happened to her, I had the advantage to take a look at what was chemically wrong with me.

"I thought alcoholism was a moral issue but she made me see it was physical ... and once I saw that, it seemed easier to handle," said Jens, who has been sober for 19 years and comes from a family with a history of alcoholism.

As a child, Jens said she craved sugar and as she grew older she turned to alcohol to satisfy "that terrible craving."

Along the way, however, she established herself as a capable actress. She studied with modern dancer Martha Graham and acting teachers Herbert Berghof, Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler. She become a charter member of an acting company Elia Kazan was starting at Lincoln Center.

She also landed lead roles in such Joseph Papp-directed productions as "The Winter's Tale," "Antony and Cleopatra" and "Macbeth." In 1966, she was cast in what she considers one of her best films "Seconds," which co-starred Rock Hudson and was directed by John Frankenheimer.

"...About Anne" was developed about 20 years ago, Jens said, and consists entirely of poetry. Some of the poems used are "Rowing Toward God," "Red Shoes," "My Daughter," "The Play," "The Dog's Neck" and "Daisies."

"It's something I have in my back pocket," Jens said.

Last November, Jens performed in the two-character "Memoir," about the life of legendary French actress Sarah Bernhardt, at the New Jersey Repertory Company. She said founding directors SuzAnne and Gabor Barabas asked her to consider doing "...About Anne" at their intimate theater in Long Branch.

"People who don't know Anne will know her at the end of the evening," said Jens, adding it runs just over one hour long. "She is talking about herself and her life in her poetry as it is happening.

"And they will know something about themselves they didn't know that they knew when it is over," Jens said.

After this, Jens will teach acting to master's-degree candidates at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she also lives.

And she'll continue working on "the Marlene project," a two-character play that was workshopped recently in Westport, Conn., and for which she has high hopes for future productions. It concerns the life of German actress Marlene Dietrich and takes place as she is developing the night club act she took to Las Vegas and toured internationally.

"I just love these strong woman," Jens said.



Published on August 20, 2000