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Press Articles 2002-2004

Best of 2004/Asbury Park Press

Tom Chesek 12/20/04

Shore Stages in 2004: You Had to Be There

Any attempt to pick the Monmouth-Ocean area's most noteworthy stage presentations of 2004 has its own built-in complications; not the least of which is the fact that most theatrical companies' seasons tend to straddle two different calendar years. Sticking strictly to 2K4, though, an habitual theatergoer can discern some thematic patterns. Government and its discontents was a big motif for both professional and amateur troupes; in contexts both sobering and silly — do we smell the burnt-out embers of an election year? — and somewhere in the parade of corrupt bureaucrats, tinhorn dictators and ineffectual elected officials, a lot of creative people (many of whom have seen public funding for the arts peter out like a Texas dry hole) were blowing off a lot of steam. Beyond that, it was yet another year when the local audience, skewed as it is to an older demographic, went out and had way more wicked fun than those who opted for a movie or TV show in these increasingly content-regulated times. It was, in fact, one of the best years in recent memory on the local boards — and while this correspondent can never lay claim to catching all that there is to see over the course of the year, think of this mere handful of picks as momentary standouts in the midst of a strong ensemble.

THEATRICAL EVENT OF THE YEAR: "My Rifle, My Pony and Me" (New Jersey Repertory Company, March 15-17) This one required a category unto itself, as it wasn't so much a play — or even a "festival" of short plays — as it was a unique opportunity to see what makes the Long Branch-based NJ Rep tick, in a year that brought such strong entries to the downtown Broadway stage as "Lemonade," "Whores" and "Old Clown Wanted." A three-evening smorgasbord of dramas, comedies, monologues, skits, songs and surreal stuff centered around the theme of "the American Cowboy" (a favorite topic for company co-founders Gabe and SuzAnne Barabas ),this inaugural offering in a proposed Theatre Brut series of presentations brought together the talents of very nearly every actor, director and playwright who'd ever had a hand in a Rep production. As such, it was a staggeringly successful showcase — and the fact that NJ Rep was able to draw upon all of these creative energies at one time AND sell out the house during some of the iciest, most ornery weather of the year was testament to the level of passion and support this organization inspires in its extended family (another Theatre Brut event, this one built around the theme of "Sacrifice," is slated for this coming March). Honorable mention: Brookdale Community College's outdoor frolic with Shakespeare's "As You Like It," a genuine effort to recapture that Globe Theatre vibe; gnats and all.

BEST READING: "Dix Tableaux" (New Jersey Repertory Company, July 26) This was a particularly tough call, as venues from Eatontown Playhouse to the Strand Theatre and Sulli Studios/Black Box of Asbury Park took some interesting gambles and presented some pretty way-out works in progress throughout the year. Maybe it was the presence of famed actress Betsy Palmer here, but this very funny, very touching and VERY strange piece by Mark ("North Fork") Dunn — set in a series of human historical dioramas at a small-town museum — broke down all resistance with its charming study of a friendship that evolves sensibly in the midst of ridicuous surroundings. Add what's probably the single most satisfying final few moments this correspondent has ever witnessed, and you've got a real crowd-pleaser that's surely as fun to watch as it is expensive to produce.

ONES TO WATCH: Ames Adamson continued to advance his career as master of his stagebound mini-universe; whether as standout member of an ensemble ("Old Clown Wanted") or simply the whole show ("Circumference of a Squirrel").

REVIEW: Whoring (and scoring) at NJ Rep
Published in the Asbury Park Press 10/13/04


It's the sort of thing that an earnest, crusading playwright -- flush with righteous outrage and intoxicated by sugarplum visions of Pulitzers -- would have a field day with.

Three American nuns and a Catholic lay worker are kidnapped, raped and murdered by Salvadoran national guardsmen some 20 years ago. The subsequent denials and cover-ups implicate a senior guard commander as well as the defense secretary himself, a couple of characters currently enjoying a comfortable upper-middle-class existence in these United States.

Through Nov. 14
New Jersey Repertory Company
179 Broadway, Long Branch
(732) 229-3166

Although it never attained the cultural touchstone status of, say, Zsa Zsa Gabor slapping a beat cop, this appalling and relatively obscure real-life story continues to play out in a symphony of legal stymies and bureaucratic stonewalling.

So what in the world was Lee Blessing, award-winning author of "A Walk in the Woods" and head of Rutgers University's playwriting program, thinking when he used this tragic event as the basis for his wicked and wacky satire "Whores?" And why do audiences find it so hilarious -- with this correspondent even regarding it as the funniest show he's seen all year?

To call it a guilty pleasure doesn't even begin to address it; think about it too much, and you can almost picture the laff-riot gags being penned with the blood of innocents.

Then again, guilt doesn't play a huge part in this new, improved, 33-percent funnier version of "Whores," the play now in its statewide premiere run at New Jersey Repertory Company's Lumia Theatre in Long Branch. The central character of the deposed Central American general -- a man known here only as Raoul Raoul Raoul de Raoul -- is a proud yet pathetic sort whose shoulders have never sagged from the weight of guilt; only the gilt-edged epaulets on the ridiculous dress uniform he continues to sport in his South Florida exile.

The action, set during the general's stateside trial for atrocities, plays out inside Raoul's head, a bizarre place that looks remarkably like a standard-issue motel room (Jo Winiarski's appropriately functional set design melts into Third World decrepitude at its edges) and features a running commentary from the martyred Archbishop Romero. It's a place peopled by what, for lack of a better term, could be called the spirits of the four murdered women -- a group of souls that have been reimagined by Raoul as a quartet of French whores.

As made manifest by Lea Eckert, Carol Todd, Lily Mercer and Corinne Edgerly, the nuns and whores are just a couple of aspects of the same multifaceted characters. These smart, strong, sexy players don full habits, severe business suits and thongs to transform themselves into everything from United States attorneys and TV network executives, to Raoul's own wife and kids. Slipping in and out doors and windows -- in and out of character -- the actresses effect lightning-fast costume changes (Todd in particular often seems to be in two places nearly at once), show off their dance moves (Eckert's formidable go-go technique would brighten the stage of any fine Jersey Shore establishment) and continually break down the wall between performer and audience, via a series of 'candid' talks that very quickly win over the crowd.


Carol Todd and Jonathan Cantor are among the cast of "Whores," being presented by the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

Savvy performance

This would appear at first to put Jonathan Cantor (performing but a single role as Raoul) at a marked disadvantage, and at first his broad assumed accent and bellowing, unmelodious delivery make it difficult for theatergoers to find a point of access into the character whose head we're ostensibly touring. It's not long, however, before this savvy performer manages to find a way to get the audience on the side of the despicable little tinhorn despot -- particularly in a hilarious monologue wherein the general confesses his longstanding dream of doing stand-up comedy in Miami, addressing the onlookers while juggling his stress-relieving "worry balls." Feeding off the energy of an enthusiastic opening night crowd, Cantor was obviously having an enormous amount of fun at this point, and by the time he brought down the house with a giddy victory dance, the actor had imbued the murderous martinet with a great deal of high-wattage charisma.

All of which leads back to the matter of how we can wind up laughing with a man who's responsible for the brutal killings of thousands of men, women and children -- including, of course, those ill-fated missionaries. While there's a good bit of evocative language describing the final hours of the four women (along with some pre-show expository comments from NJ Rep co-founder Gabor Barabas), it becomes evident very early on that the author's treatment of their story is way more satiric than sanctimonious -- particularly when the play opens on the general starring in a private porn-flick scenario that features an eager-to-please young nun. Blessing and director John Pietrowski spice the proceedings with a bit of striptease, lapdancing, masturbation and salty sailor-talk. While all of this sounds pretty dreadful on paper, it works, with its own skewed logic, to put across the very serious points that underpin the script (note to all you younger viewers who have been avoiding live theater: The old folks are having a lot more naughty fun than you).

This is the fourth and finest co-production of NJ Rep in cahoots with Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey (to whose home stage in Madison this show moves upon completion of its Long Branch engagement), and PTNJ's Pietrowski has done a great job drawing the audience into Blessing's difficult piece -- a still-unpublished play that is actually much different from the two-act script that was seen in a reading at NJ Rep just last year (a performance in which Eckert, Edgerly and Mercer participated). It's been shortened by some 30 minutes into a breakneck-paced, intermission-free series of blackouts, becoming even more savagely funny in the process and hammering home its bitter lessons with a sure satirist's touch that's rarely seen on American stages these days. (Compare it to Italian playwright Dario Fo's "Accidental Death of an Anarchist," onstage at the Algonquin Arts Theatre for one more weekend).


NJ Rep's "Whores" just another day at the theater

by Philip Dorian


            Put aside the reasonable supposition that Lee Blessing titled his play based on the murder of four American women (three of them nuns) in El Salvador Whores just because he could. And don't worry that those women are portrayed as sex workers; they are not. There's a traditional hooker or two in the play, as well as some uninhibited porno divas, and the nuns also appear; but, while they're all played by the same four actresses, the one group is not the other.

            Using the 1980 murders as a springboard, Blessing blisters the history of United States diplomatic relations with Central American dictatorships. A former dictator, now living in comfort in Florida, is on trial for the slayings. The action takes place in his mind, where justification dwells and eroticism rules. (The former drives the play's conflict; the latter its commercialism.) The particular Central American country is unnamed, but as Blessing amusingly suggests, they all merge in our minds anyway. And the generalissimo taking the heat is named Raoul Raoul de Raoul – as generic as it gets.

             To paraphrase Pogo, I have seen the whores and they is us. The real bad girl is the policy of supplying financial support and weapons to dictators, including these particular weapons of Mass destruction. Employing non-linear storytelling, off-the-wall imagery and unconventional staging, the playwright makes a case for his ungenerous political viewpoint. Ungenerous, but not unsupportable. Even the 'guns don't kill people; people kill people' crowd must allow that guns shouldn't be handed out indiscriminately. Raoul and his ilk have a wanton disregard for human life.

            Raoul (Jonathan Cantor) is essentially alone with his thoughts in designer Jo Winiarski's excellently rendered motel room set. Clearly the four dead women who invade his memory (not his conscience – he hasn't any) are not really there, nor are the hookers or the prosecutors. His wife and his teenage son and daughter might be in real time, but it doesn't matter. With the tepid exception of the wife, they all make a strong case against Raoul. 'I didn't know what was going on' is his one-note defense.

            Cantor plays the bad guy; he's the only male, and he's terminally horny. He's sat upon (straddled, if you must know) and danced with, accused and interrogated. He's sexually inadequate, even in his fantasies (some fantasies!), and he does a five-minute stand-up comedy riff with humor based on where he plants his hand (don't ask). The actor's Latino accent is hit-or-miss, but that flaw pales beside the range of activity he covers. It's a strong performance.

            Cantor has the advantage of four gifted co-stars, all in multiple roles, each a major contributor and none even a mite slack. Corinne Edgerly plays a pious nun, a potty-mouth porno movie director and Raoul's wife and sometime interpreter. She's sympathetic as the first, scary as the second, and dithering as the third. Lily Mercer is a stunning blonde who tangos seductively and whose striking appearance brings home the contrast between the secular and practical concerns of the play.     

             The women contemplate a TV movie about their murder (there actually was one), and Miou-Miou (Lea Eckert) hopes they get someone cute to play her. Well, NJ Rep one-upped them by casting Eckert as the original. As the youngest and the only none-nun, her soliloquy about the killing field is heart-tugging, even as she remains fresh and winsome. In a gem of an inside-show biz scene, Miou-Miou and Josette (Carol Todd) argue about addressing the audience directly. It's very entertaining and ends with Todd explaining the actor's dilemma, and she couldn't be better. These two also play Raoul's obnoxious kids, and they ace those roles as well.

 Director John Pietrowski, aided by Jill Nagle's snappy lighting, engineers the many time and place transitions well. Credit him also with ensuring that the abrupt changes in mood – from somber and pious to raucous and bawdy and back – are always distinct, never jarring.

Blessing, whose A Walk in the Woods holds up yet today even though its cold war dialogue is history, uses a similar technique in Whores. By not identifying the country or its dictator, he might have another lasting work on his hands. Scenes with near-naked women don't hurt that cause, although a reference to Lt. Calley and My Lai does. And even at ninety minutes there's repetition. It's said that written works generally improve with pruning and condensing. Given enough time and editing, you'd end up with only a sentence or two in, say, this review (okay, okay). Be that as it may, there is one line in Whores that says it all. Eschewing responsibility for the slaughter of innocents, Raoul de Raoul addresses the American court (the audience): "You sent us rifles and nuns," he says. And…blackout.

Lee Blessing's Enticing Whores is as Provocative as its Title

Lea Eckert and Jonathan Cantor
Lee Blessing's Whores is an exceptionally provocative and promising new play. It is unusually theatrical and ribald for a play which engages the mind with strong political and social commentary.

Whores was originally produced in a two act version at a regional theatre in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. The New Jersey Repertory Theatre production is the premiere of the revised one act version. It is still a work in progress. However, it is already a superior work that can be highly recommended.

In 1980 in El Salvador, four American women, three Maryknoll nuns and a lay missionary worker were abducted, brutally raped and shot dead by soldiers of El Salvador's National Guard. It seems certain that these women were targeted for death because it was believed that they were aiding Communist insurgents. A cover-up ensued, but months later, bowing to pressure from the United States government and with the use of evidence developed by the F.B.I., five soldiers were convicted of the crime and sentenced to thirty years imprisonment.

Evidence developed over the years, led to a U.N. Truth Commission report that concluded that the Minister of Defense General Jose Guillermo Garcia and National Guard Commander Colonel Eugenio Vide Casanova participated in the cover-up. Additionally, there is evidence to suggest that Casanova, who would be promoted to General and Defense Minister, had actually ordered the abductions and murders. The 12-year insurgency which resulted in at least 75,000 El Salvadoran deaths came to an end with a peace agreement in 1992.

By 1989, General Casanova had quietly left El Salvador and settled down in a posh Miami suburb, the beneficiary of permanent residency status (his wife and children had preceded him). However, the families of the slain American women, employing Federal statutes, brought a civil action against Casanova and General Garcia, who had also settled comfortably in the Miami area. The families charged these men with responsibility for the wrongful deaths of the four women.

It is at this point that the long one act Whores begins. The entire play takes place in the mind of Casanova surrogate General Raoul de Raoul. We are in Raoul's Miami suburban home during the period of his civil trial. Raoul is having fevered dreams and fantasies. These dreams and fantasies are filled with self justification, a cold eyed view of American foreign policy, sexual panic and obsession, and fear for his future. Four actresses interact with Raoul in his fevered brain. They instantly morph from one role to another with the roles often overlapping. They mostly play images of the four raped and murdered women, and prostitutes and porno actresses. Among them, they also play Raol's wife and children, lawyers, television executives, themselves and others.

Whether or not one agrees with his political, religious and social positions, Lee Blessing makes a very strong case for his views. Blessing is unflinching in his hatred of what he sees as an immoral America whose foreign policy is to support, train and arm vicious dictators who slaughter and terrorize their own people. Raoul speaks directly to us, his American audience:

... You don't prejudge me. How can you? We're on the same side. World democracy is a team effort, right? And you own the team. We don't complain. On the contrary, we spend our lives reading the fine print of your foreign policy. We read between the lines, too. "Lift up the world's poor" you say. But we know you're not serious. There are far too many of them. "Manage the poor". That's what you mean. "Keep them from rising up, from moving around-from moving to Florida". And we do. We keep them poor, we keep them ignorant, we keep them off your back. And what thanks do we get? You pretend we're not even doing this for you. And if anything goes wrong, then it's our fault. We're bad leaders, we're repressive, we don't value human life. And when we're through, and we've dedicated our lives to managing the unmanageable, so you don't have to soil your hands, do you let us retire in peace, under the Florida sun? Do you even once say, "Thank you. General de Raoul, we couldn't have done it without you"? No. You set your courts on us, as though we were common criminals. We should have known. You sent us rifles and nuns. You are the least consistent people on the face of the earth.

The amoral, murderous Raoul is rendered as sadly ordinary as many an immigrant parent when one of his spoiled suburban American children tells him and Mrs. de Raoul:

No, you listen to me! You and Dad just don't get it, do you? You're immigrants. Your whole job was to get us to America, and into good schools and good careers and then die. You did it all just fine, except the dying part. You completely screwed up the dying part!
As impressed as I am with this play, I must note that it is most explicit in its language as well as its depiction of sexuality. It is also critical of theology. Your reaction to Josette's response to Raoul's asking her why she calls him "Daddy" should give you a good indication as to whether or not Whores is for you:
I was a Catholic nun! Every man is Daddy for me! For Christ's sake, think about it. What's the Holy Trinity all about? I married my Daddy! A nun is the ultimate passive entity. I am what I submit to. Daddy, I submit to you, to the glory that is salvation and to the evil that takes my life-...

Jonathan Cantor does terrific work as Raoul. Despite his evil acts and sexual perversity (or is it because of them?), he emerges as a very understandable and convincing everyman. While much credit must go to Lee Blessing and director John Pietrowski for this, it is Cantor who must deliver the goods and he does.

The women do solid work in very difficult roles requiring split second transitions in style, character and accent. The strongest performance may be that of Corinne Edgerly (Carmencita) who has the more mature roles, including Mrs. de Raoul. However, Lea Eckert (Miou-Miou), Carol Todd (Josette), and Lilly Mercer (Angelique) are exemplary.

Director John Pietrowski has a play of true value here. Although the work of author and director still needs some fine tuning, Pietrowski has done an excellent job, solidly putting across the complex, exceedingly difficult to stage Whores.

It is not immediately or consistently clear whether all of the action is within the mind of Raoul. Pre-curtain, the audience was informed that the play in its entirety is a dream of Raoul. On balance, this is useful. However, as there are several between scene pauses in the early going, the play at first lacks the flow of a dream. As Whores progresses, the dreams became far more continuous, and the conceit works better. For me, the play plays best with Raoul in conscious control of his fantasy life. Also, as the trial progresses in a linear fashion, I think that Whores works best as a series of fantasies.

There is no nudity, although the script would seem to require it. I have been told that it is Blessing's preference. In any event, the seemingly semi-nude actress in the opening scene should not turn toward us as it seems odd after the initial illusion is established. I would also suggest that the porno film scene late in the play be moved to the end in order to bring Raoul's fantasies full circle. As it now stands, it misleadingly sends out a signal that the play is ending.

I cannot help but observe that Whores would be a terrific vehicle for Al Pacino.

An Interview with Lee Blessing About

October 7, 2004 - November 14, 2004
NJ Rep, 179 Broadway, Long Branch (732) 229-3166

The New Jersey Repertory Company presents the New Jersey premiere of Whores written by Lee Blessing. The play is being co-produced with Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey and is directed by John Pietrowski, the Artistic Director of Playwrights Theatre.

"The heart of the play is about American foreign policy," said Lee Blessing. "It's highly critical of American foreign policy in the '80s."

Enter the depraved mind of Raoul Raoul de Raoul, a corrupt Central American general haunted by the four nuns his death squad murdered - a twisted landscape where everything and everyone can be bought and sold. Before his current trial, Raoul Raoul de Raoul was a dictator, but he cannot remember the name of the country - and his victims keep turning into different women: TV producers, actresses in a porn movie, prosecuting attorneys, dance teachers, his children, and his wife. What's more, his standup act at a Florida comedy club is 'knocking them dead,' but he never tells a joke.

Whores is a brutally funny, frank and provocative new play. Inspired by the true story of the murder of three American nuns and a Catholic lay worker in El Salvador, Blessing sets his fictitious story in the deranged mind of a general from an 'unnamed' Central American country who is being tried in civil court in the United States after receiving political asylum. The play examines the moral and political implications of what happens when America projects its ideals beyond its shores and winds up creating an environment that breeds corruption and violence. Through dark humor and heightened theatricality, Whores takes aim at the media, our legal system, and politics, and asks the question - what is true obscenity - the general's perverted fantasies, or the murder and subsequent betrayal of innocents through political expediency? The play is especially timely, for after almost twenty-five years since the murders, the story is in the news again.

This play was originally commissioned by Florida Stage. Lee Blessing said that the company found the work to be too controversial. It then made its debut at the Contemporary American Theatre Festival. Blessing, known for politically charged works like A Walk In The Woods had three straight plays commissioned by three different theaters - none of whom premiered the plays. All three plays have since premiered elsewhere.

"When you commission a writer, that writer will write it the way he or she writes it," explained Lee Blessing. "And you may not like it or it may not fit the image you want to project."

Blessing currently heads the graduate playwriting program at Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University. He is fortunate to have reached the level where he is almost certain to have a theater interested in premiering his work if the original commissioning theatre declines. This, he admits, is a situation many of his students may not find themselves in - especially if they follow his lead and write topical or controversial work. He tells his students to be "thematically ambitious" but recognizes that can be difficult in these times.

"It's very hard to get produced if you're writing controversial right now," said Blessing. "A lot of regional theatres are scared of being controversial and turning off their subscription base. Times are tough and they read their subscription base as being more conservative and less tolerant of controversy."

Blessing believes that when the public gets polarized with its political views, as it did in the '60s, there is a rise in the amount of political theatre. It is during conservative times like this that playwrights must rise up and be heard.

"You can write a play much quicker than you can make a film," he explained. "Theatre is in a much better position to respond to the here and now. Theatre promises a very different perspective - it allows you to say more problematic things. It can talk about politics as no one else can and can challenge people to get involved.

"The impact of the arts has ebbs and flows. There are times when artists have a lot to say and people listen and other times when they don't listen as much."

Plays by Lee Blessing have won Drama Desk award, The American Theater Critics Circle Award, the L.A. Drama Critics Award, The Great American Play Award, The Humanitas Award and the George and Elisabeth Marton Award among others. He has been nominated for Tony and Olivier awards, as well as for the Pulitzer Prize. In January 2005, George Street Playhouse (New Brunswick), who staged A Walk In The Woods last season, will present a new work from Blessing entitled The Winning Streak.

-Gary Wien

'Whores' on Broadway: (Street)walking with Mr. Lee at NJ Rep
Published in the Asbury Park Press 10/08/04

Don't get too upset over the title of this article: The cultural renaissance of downtown Long Branch, spearheaded in large part by the New Jersey Repertory Company, continues ever so deliberately apace -- and the only "Whores" on display at NJ Rep are the titular characters from the season-opening production, now onstage at the professional troupe's Lumia Theatre homebase.

A play by Lee Blessing
New Jersey Repertory Company Lumia Theatre
179 Broadway, Long Branch
8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday; performances continue through Nov. 14
(732) 229-3166

Not that the play is really about whores, although there are several ladies of the evening represented onstage. It's also about nuns, and the nuns look an awful lot like the whores. That makes sense because they are the same characters -- except they may not be true characters in and of themselves, but rather fantasy figments from the fractured yet fertile imagination of an egotistic, opportunistic male character.

Some explanation is in order. "Whores" is a five-actor play from the pen of the renowned Lee Blessing, who heads up the playwriting program at Rutgers University's prestigious Mason Gross School of the Arts. He's best known for "A Walk in the Woods," the oft-revived Cold War reverie that's become a universally hailed study in the ways that humans talk over their conflicts.

The Tony- and Pulitzer-nominated Blessing (whose play "The Winning Streak" initiates its East Coast premiere at New Brunswick's George Street Playhouse in January) took as his inspiration for this surreal comedy a very real tragedy that occurred during Ronald Reagan's presidency.

Calling "Whores" a "political play and one of moral outrage," New Jersey Repertory executive producer Gabor Barabas said the script was "inspired by a true event, the murder of four innocent Catholic women from the heartland of America, on a mission of mercy in El Salvador. . . . more than 20 years later, they are largely forgotten and justice has still not been served."


The cast of Lee Blessing's "Whores" includes (from left) Carol Todd, Lea Eckert, Jonathan Cantor, Corrine Edgerly and Lily Mercer.
In an e-mail regarding the production, Barabas observed that "whenever we align ourselves with repressive governments because of political expediency, there is a great danger that we may be sowing the seeds for unleashing destructive forces that are in conflict with the very ideals that we are trying to promote."

In this work that's been variously branded both "brutally funny" and "very serious," Blessing presents a portrait of a tinhorn dictator by the name of General Raoul Raoul de Raoul -- sort of a standard-issue Latin American generalisimo of the type that used to be overthrown weekly by TV's "Mission: Impossible" team. He's a man whose shoulders have never sagged beneath the weight of guilt, merely the gilt-edged epaulets of his uniforms.

While engaged in an endeavor to gain asylum within the friendly borders of the United States, the exiled leader (played here by Jonathan Cantor) is more or less "haunted" by manifestations of the slain nuns and missionaries. The four women (portrayed by NJ Rep company members Lea Eckert, Corinne Edgerly, Lily Mercer and Carol Todd) appear not only as "themselves," but as the aforementioned whores, a cadre of network execs and a number of other personas. It's an aspect of the script that's intrigued the quartet of featured actresses, most of whom reprise their roles from NJ Rep's original presentation of "Whores" as one of the troupe's script-in-hand readings.

According to Lily Mercer, "It's a lot of fun to take on multiple roles, but the most fun, or the biggest challenge, is taking on the General himself."

"Even though these four women and the various roles they play are figments of General Raoul's twisted imagination, none of the characters are victims," Corinne Edgerley agreed. "They constantly get the upper hand."

Lea Eckert (who co-starred in the 2003 smash "The Good Daughter") maintains that Raoul "creates multifaceted superwomen who can give him what he is lacking. He wants to possess them (and), of course, he fails miserably."

According to director John Pietrowski of the Madison-based Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey (whose stage will present this production after its Long Branch run), the women in Blessing's play "are not concepts, they are mental forces driving Raoul to confront himself."

This is the fourth collaboration between Pietrowski's PTNJ and the folks at NJ Rep, a happy symbiosis that began a few seasons back with "Big Boys" and most recently spotlighted "The Circumference of a Squirrel."

And this being New Jersey, some observers have worked hard to draw some pretty threadbare parallels between this show and the likes of "GoodFellas," particularly a certain dream-sequence-obsessed HBO series about mafia life. It's an idea that's whacked in a businesslike fashion by Lee Blessing.

"It's easy to have 'The Sopranos' on the brain these days, particularly in northern New Jersey, but I don't think that 'Whores' much evokes that show. It's a play about international relations, first and foremost," the author said. "One might see a useful analogy perhaps between the way criminal organizations work and the way our State Department works with some Third World nations . . . that people get away with their crimes and feel the right to move in among us is definitely something that both presentations have in common."

Having arrived with a pair of preview performances yesterday, "Whores" concludes its preview engagement tonight and opens in earnest with an 8 p.m. show tomorrow and a 2 p.m. Sunday matinee. The play then continues its Long Branch run with performances at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Nov. 14. For reservations and other information, call NJ Rep at (732) 229-3166.

Politics, and other strange bedfellows
Published in the Asbury Park Press 9/19/04

Two River Theatre Co., NJ Rep stage a cool-weather coup


A scathingly slapstick indictment of the process that perverts American ideals, when said ideals are shoe-horned into cultural settings that are arguably ill-prepared to receive them. A bureaucratic burlesque that hangs overzealous enforcers of homeland security by a noose of their own transcribed natterings. A pair of bitterly funny works that were inspired by some decidedly unfunny events -- a bombing in a public space, and the cold-blooded killing of a group of nuns.

With that inkiest of all black comedies -- the Race for the White House 2K4 -- lumbering through its hopelessly drawn-out third act, it's probably no coincidence that the Shore's two major professional theater companies have each opted to inaugurate their 2004-2005 season with a couple of sociopolitical satires that really put the tasers to such institutions as cops, judges, the media and other fearless leaders.

So, as the nation patiently awaits the appearance of some Great Pumpkin figurehead (while perhaps realizing too late that we were once again tricked out of our treats), things are about to get really interesting on the local boards.

While 2005 is slated to be the year that the Two River Theatre Company finally fulfills its destiny -- moving into a custom-constructed Red Bank showplace venue that bears its name -- the acclaimed troupe will present the first few offerings of the season on their longtime "temporary" home stage at Manasquan's Algonquin Arts Theatre. Overseen by executive producer Robert Rechnitz and artistic director Jonathan Fox, it's an ambitious series that starts on Sept. 30 with a new production of a controversial favorite by Nobel Prize winner Dario Fo.

Based on a 1969 bombing that killed and injured dozens of people in Milan -- and the officially-ruled "suicide" of a leftist suspect in police custody (the detainee perished when he plunged four stories from an office at police HQ) -- "Accidental Death of an Anarchist" has become a calling card for Signore Fo (who, despite the musty mantle of the Nobel laureate, has his roots in the down 'n dirty world of satirical cabaret revues). The play's enormous impact (more than half a million people saw it in its original run) resulted in the eventual exoneration of the unfortunate anarchist and his incarcerated compadres, and led to Fo himself being barred from public performance - not in his native Italy, but in the Reagan-era United States.

Running through Oct. 17, "Anarchist" (for which the author incorporated actual transcripts from the 1970 police investigation to expose "hilarious gaps in logic and blatant abuses of power") fuses its creator's own instincts for both timeless clowning and edgy topicality, for a piece that seems to retain its comic energy even as it displays new colors through the prism of current events.

Two River Theatre Company returns in 2005 with a new production of Martin McDonagh's 'The Beauty Queen of Leenane' (Jan. 20-Feb. 6), a powerful mix of whimsical humor and jarring dramatics that was seen a couple of seasons back at Monmouth University. Pamela Glen's "The Syringa Tree' (March 24-April 10) is a tale of forbidden love in Apartheid-era South Africa that features a single actress performing some two dozen parts. Finally, TRTC christens its new home stage with a revival of "You Can't Take It With You" (May 5-22), the golden-age Broadway ensemble smash by Kaufman and Hart that's retained its power to win over audiences via cheerful eccentricity and sheer joie de vivre.

As always, the Two River people will be offering a variety of show times and pricing structures for all shows on their schedule. Subscriptions for the 2004-2005 season (featuring some deep discounts for theatergoers under age 26) are available from Two River Theatre Company at (732) 345-1400. The company also offers special senior and group discounts and specially enhanced performances for visually and hearing-impaired audiences. More information can be had by calling the box office hotline or logging on to

Meanwhile, up on Broadway in Long Branch, New Jersey Repertory Company kicks off a new season of productions beginning on Oct. 7, with the state premiere of "Whores." The play by acclaimed author Lee Blessing (whose best known work "A Walk in the Woods" continues to resonate far beyond its Cold War-era origins) marks the relatively young company's fourth collaboration with fellow professional group Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey -- and, like so many of the troupe's mainstage offerings at their Lumia Theatre home, this production began in earnest as one of their Monday-evening series of script-in-hand readings.

Running through Nov. 14, "Whores" is set largely within the twisted psyche of one General Raoul Raoul de Raoul -- exiled dictator of some unnamed Central American republic, candidate for political asylum in America, and a man apparently haunted by the quartet of nuns and missionaries who were brutally slaughtered by his goon squads. The female characters recur throughout in a variety of guises, including the titular ladies of pleasure -- think Neil Simon's "Jake's Women" as interpreted by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, with just a dash of "GoodFellas" at the end.

NJ Rep resumes its schedule in 2005 with the world premiere of Mary Fengar Gail's fantasy-tinged meditation on art and love, "Touch of Rapture" (Jan. 13-Feb. 20). Another world premiere, Ruth Wolff's "Aviators" (March 31-May 8) presents a story of an academic couple whose relationship is tested by the appearance of a mysterious young woman. The long-awaited East Coast premiere of Richard Strand's comedy "Ten Percent of Molly Snyder" (May 19-June 26) uses a trip to the dreaded DMV to embark upon a Kafka-cum-Serling bureaucratic daymare. The world premiere of Vincent Sessa's "A Child's Guide to Innocence" (July 7-Aug. 14) follows three generations of an Italian-American family over the course of a half century.

Still another world premiere derived from a script-in-hand reading, Dan Dietz's "Tilt Angel" (Oct.14-Nov. 20) is a "blues-infused fairy tale" about a Southern family coming to uncertain terms with their matriarch's untimely death and uneasy transition to the afterlife. Yet to be confirmed is another new play scheduled to be presented from August 25 through October 2 of next year.

Theater Notes: Hollywood or 'Bust'
Published in the Asbury Park Press 9/03/04

Film projects are a wrap at NJ Rep


While Labor Day weekend is traditionally something of a siesta for most area stages, the actors, directors, playwrights, producers and tech types who make up the quasi-official stock company at New Jersey Repertory have been laboring overtime to preserve some of their very special stuff on the much-maligned (by theater-snob types) medium of celluloid.

179 Broadway, Long Branch
(732) 229-3166

A close look at the actor bios in any of the NJ Rep mainstage or script-in-hand productions is enough to show that there's no real 'anti-cellulite' snobbery in effect among these working actors of the tri-state area -- and any longtime NJ Rep subscriber who also happens to follow the NYC-based "Law & Order" franchise on TV has surely been able to place a few familiar faces among the shows' grand parade of suspects, witnesses and victims.

Currently in post-production -- having gone before the lens in mid-July -- the independent short film "Bust" is an ambitious little feature with a marked NJ Rep pedigree. The capsule crime drama was scripted by one of the most familiar faces in the Long Branch-based troupe -- Dana Benningfield, who also co-stars as a Russian prostitute. The actress -- seen most recently on the stage of NJ Rep's Lumia Theatre as a young mom tempted into an extramarital affair in Mike Folie's sweetly sour comedy "Lemonade" -- has never let her leading-lady good looks interfere with her choices as an accomplished character player ("North Fork") or as a promising new director. She appears in her own tale with a lead actor who undoubtedly rings a few bells with TV watchers: Dan Lauria, the dad from the old "Wonder Years" series -- here in the somewhat uncharacteristic role of a "tough-as-nails detective investigating a mob-related murder."

The cast under the direction of Maplewood native Duncan M. Rogers also features Rep regular Philip Lynch, an actor who's lit up the Lumia with some stellar work in both leads ("The Adjustment") and slightly surreal support ("Spain"). This linchpin of the NJ Rep family co-starred in the company's very first mainstage offering, and appeared alongside director Rogers in the troupe's inaugural script-in-hand reading, to boot. Rogers, meanwhile, has busied himself as an indie filmmaker; having completed a couple of short features -- "The Able's House is Green" and "The Reader," the latter starring Tony winner Elizabeth Franz.

New Jersey Repertory Company members Philip Lynch and Dana Benningfield are featured in a scene from 'Bust,' one of several short film projects now in the works from NJ Rep regulars.
Long Branch residents who get an opportunity to view the finished film (plans are in effect to submit the work to several film festivals, and even to pitch it as a possible TV pilot) might spot yet another familiar face in a cameo -- city police Sergeant Frank Rizzuto, who served the production as a Law Enforcement Consultant. He's joined by several other community businesses and entities -- including the Long Branch Arts Council, Siperstein's, Amy's Omelette House, Casey Jones Restaurant, Wilson's Ice Cream, Island Grille and Attilio's -- who lent a helping hand to the homegrown opus.

Also pitching in on the project were a number of NJ Rep stalwarts -- from production manager Rose Riccardi to craft services coordinator Lina Moccia -- who have been integral members of the extended family headed by company founders Gabor and SuzAnne Barabas. This clannish vibe was perhaps never more apparent than in "My Rifle, My Pony and Me," a three-day festival of short works (all of them built around the theme of the American Cowboy) presented last winter as the first in the troupe's projected series of Theatre Brut productions -- with the Brut-al weather failing to stop this sold-out showcase from assembling a virtual 'Who's Who' of regional creative and performing talent; a homecoming for practically everyone who ever made a contribution to this still-young company's already formidable legacy. The only thing this observer disliked about "My Rifle" was that all of the playlets were presented exactly one time only, ostensibly never to be seen again -- until now. With the formation of NJ Rep Film Brut Production Company, director Eric Stannard is getting underway with plans to film several of the cowboy-inspired one-acts for posterity. While the segments have yet to be cast or even selected, there's been mention made of two pieces that originally involved the talents of Dana Benningfield: the Folie monologue "There's a 200 Foot Cowboy in Istanbul" (in which she starred as a disillusioned but sadly seductive tobacco company exec) and Dickie Nessinger's 'Harvest Moon,' which she directed as a gently hilarious tall-tale slice of magical realism.

New Jersey Repertory inaugurates its new season this October with a production of Lee ("A Walk in the Woods") Blessing's sociopolitical satire "Whores."

Old Clown Wanted Provides Rewards for Adventuresome Theatergoers

The enterprising New Jersey Repertory Theatre in Long Branch is presenting the American premiere of Old Clown Wanted by internationally acclaimed Romanian (expatriated to France since 1987) playwright Matei Visniec. This absurdist work is being presented in a well acted and directed production which serves to introduce an intriguing writer new to American audiences, and makes for a thought provoking and rewarding evening of theatre.

An apercu on the roots of Visniec's absurdist style is needed here. In the post Holocaust era of the late 1940s and 1950s, an avant-garde school of playwriting emerged from Europe which had a most significant impact on our theatre. In his seminal work of theatre analysis, Martin Esslin deftly defined it as The Theatre of the Absurd. Among its earliest practitioners were Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco and Jean Genet. Harold Pinter brought an English sensibility to this style, Tom Stoppard brought a cheerier viewpoint, and Edward Albee uniquely among American playwrights found in it a means for expressing his anomie.

To quote from Esslin's brilliant analysis, absurdist theatre mirrors a world in which there is no meaningful communication, in which man cut off from his roots flounders in a void bereft of all certainty. With its meaningless plots, repetitive dialogue and dramatic non sequiturs, it is the artistic expression of the philosophy of Albert Camus that life is inherently absurd, as well as the theatrical incarnation of dreams.

Old Clown Wanted is a classic throwback to the pure absurdist style of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot right down to its rich vein of humor. Not so strangely at one point in composing this review, I erroneously wrote Old Men Waiting in lieu of its correct title.

Set in a nightmarish, windowless, misshapen anteroom in Italy, the play depicts three elderly men, old friends as it turns out, armed with suitcases for their props, who arrive singly in response to a flyer advertising Old Clown Wanted. As no one appears to interview them, it is not even clear whether any job is actually available.

Viewed as a dream depicting man's fear of competition, joblessness, rejection, obsolescence, poverty, helplessness and death, the ensuing, non-linear events brilliantly depict the logic of dreams. However, you may well find for yourself a different prism from which to view and interpret this play.

An added edge here is the fact that all of the characters are artists, the most insecure and abused professionals on earth.

Old Clown Wanted
Ugo Toppo, Al Mohrmann, Ames Adamson

Three excellent actors form a smooth ensemble. The first arrival, Niccolo (we may view him as the dreamer), the most insecure of the three, is played by Ames Adamson. Niccolo is the centerpiece of the play and of the hilarious extended second act set piece in which the three depict routines from their glory days as circus clowns. Adamson is appropriately hilarious, ridiculous and poignant in a performance that evokes memories of the great Bill Irwin. Adamson would be even more poignant if he did not let his youthfulness show through. However, in total, his is a very superior performance.

Next on stage is Filippo, a bullying, domineering type, played by Al A. Mohrmann. His fine performance always keeps Filippo's insecurity near at hand, just below his blustering surface.

Lastly, we have the dapper Peppino effectively portrayed by Ugo N. Toppo. Seemingly, the most urbane and confident of the three, Toppo chillingly turns out to be the cruelest clown of all.

The English translation by Alison Sinclair appears felicitous. Director Gregory Fortner creates a consistent sense of unease and elicits excellent performances from his trio of actors. His inventive direction catapults the "performance" sequence to heights of hilarity. In a coup de theatre therein, the audience contributes to a "magic trick" of Filippo. Whether credit is due to the director or author, it is quite effective.

Americans are less receptive than Europeans to The Theatre of the Absurd. I think that this is because our history and good fortune have made us more optimistic and allowed us to believe that we are in control of our own lives. While such a belief inevitably contains elements of naivety, it is quite a wonderfully enabling way to view our world.

However, if you have ever enjoyed the early European absurdists (even with the estimable help of performances by the likes of Bert Lahr or Zero Mostel), you will certainly want to make the acquaintance of Matei Visniec.

Certainly, Visniec's Old Clown Wanted is well worth our time and attention. The New Jersey Rep is to be cherished for bringing it to us.

Sending in the 'Clown' at NJ Rep
Published in the Asbury Park Press 7/13/04


LONG BRANCH -- While some theatrical professionals might view it as a handicap, the absence of a curtain on the modestly-scaled main stage of the Lumia Theatre sometimes works to the advantage of the productions presented by New Jersey Repertory Company.

In the case of Romanian-born Matei Visniec's "Old Clown Wanted" (an oft-produced work now making its American debut on the Long Branch stage), the pre-show sneak peek at the unsettling scenic design by Carrie Mossman turns out to be a crucial component in the way that the audience experiences this latter day bit of absurdist theater -- it helps to foster the impression that this airless, oppressive, blandly nightmarish place has been there, waiting, long before any of the show's characters arrive.

Through Aug. 15
New Jersey Repertory Company Lumia Theatre
179 Broadway, Long Branch
(732) 229-3166
Into this setting come Niccolo (Ames Adamson) and Filippo (Al H. Mohrmann), a couple of past-their-prime circus performers responding to a vague advertisement for an "old clown" -- although exactly who they're supposed to meet, and when (and why) are just a few of the script's built-in mysteries.

While the two applicants enact a hearty embrace upon recognizing each other, things go from convivial to cut-throat as the desperate entertainers attempt to psych out the competition; jockeying for favored position and opening a Pandora's box of head games.

When fellow veteran clown Peppino (Ugo N. Toppo) arrives, the two quickly form an alliance against the elderly interloper. That union ultimately turns deadly serious even after it spurs some genuine laughs.

Visniec's 1992 piece (performed here in a translation by Alison Sinclair) was first mounted in France and became a popular item throughout Europe. The NJ Rep production (nimbly directed by Gregory Fortner, who was instrumental in bringing the show to these shores) is not only the American premiere of the play (known as "Petit Boulot Pour Vieux Clown") but the first of the eminent Romanian playwright's works ever to receive a full American staging.

With its circus-as-society metaphor and bleakly by-the-numbers existentialism, it could be argued that Visniec's point of view is a tad too European for mass American consumption -- even though most of its points resonate in a universal way. The end result appears equal parts Sartre and Rod Serling, with a cup of Kafka and maybe a boullion-cube of Beckett for flavoring.

While there's nary a gob of greasepaint or a Bozo shoe in sight (costumer Patricia Doherty has effectively outfitted the actors with blemished suits, battered hats and biohazard handkerchiefs), there's some very funny business at hand here -- particularly in the revved-up interludes that occur immediately following intermission, as the trio endeavor to one-up each other with some classic routines.

NJ Rep stalwarts Adamson and Mohrmann, who have starred in numerous offerings both comic and tragic (appearing together in "Maggie Rose" a couple of seasons back) continue to cement their standing as linchpins in what has become an extraordinary stock company. The seasoned veteran "newcomer" Toppo cuts an impressive figure as well -- his still-dapper but fast-fading Continental character delivers a formidable first-act soliloquy of sorts. It is no offense to note he evokes the dented dignity of the great Bela Lugosi in the perigee of his career.

Indeed, each of these fine actors (who originally performed the play as a script-in-hand reading at NJ Rep in 2003) gets his chance to shine, but none more so than the always-impressive Adamson who carried this season's "Circumference of a Squirrel" by his lonesome and who delivers a very lengthy, very physically demanding and very hilarious demonstration of misconceived mime that's the high point of this production. While nowhere near as old as the clown he portrays, the actor does a pretty convincing codger when he has to -- often looking for all the world like he stepped off the cover of Jethro Tull's classic rock album "Aqualung."

Old Clown Wanted


The premiere of "Old Clown Wanted" by the New Jersey Repertory Co. marks the long-awaited U.S. debut of prolific Romanian-born playwright Matei Visniec. Inspired by Federico Fellini's 1970 pic "The Clowns," Visniec has crafted a chilling, compelling charade of a trio of old circus clowns who have arrived at a booking office in response to an advertisement. However, the casting director, like Samuel Beckett's nebulous and enigmatic Godot, is an elusive and ominous no-show.

Ames Adamson, fresh from his giddy comic perf as Holoferenes in "Love's Labour's Lost" at the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey, is Niccolo, the disillusioned, dusty clown who mourns the fact the circus is not what is used to be: "Nobody laughs at somersaults anymore."

In a desperate attempt to prove his point, Niccolo demonstrates with an exhaustive pantomime of a man who ascends a staircase, steals a melon and is chased and beaten by an angry pursuing crowd. Unable to convince his doubting colleagues that the skit is an inspired piece of comic business, he repeats the routine again and again. Adamson turns the long sequence into an inventive tour de force of frustrated desperation.

Filippo (Al H. Mohrmann), in an attempt to triumph over his wary partners, produces a magic black box that (with the help of the audience, which returns from intermission to find a necessary prop on each seat) miraculously produces a stageful of colored balloons.

"I always made them laugh," brags the nattily dressed and articulate Peppino (Ugo Toppo), a veteran burned-out clown of 50 years who has long harbored the secret of his art. To illustrate his talent, Peppino feigns a devastating heart attack that panics and angers his partners.

Adamson, Mohrmann and Toppo play well off each other, keenly balancing the grim attitude, verbal tension and dark corners of the play with a generous dose of Three Stooges slapstick.

The play ends where it begins and, like the Beckett of long ago, "nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it's awful." Yet one leaves the theater with a mind awhirl with speculation.

Director Gregory Fortner has harnessed a well-tuned ear to the play's inner rhythms, staging it with an exacting balance of the wit and the sobering aspects of the text. Sans intermission, the piece would clock in more comfortably at an uninterrupted 70 minutes, but those balloons have to be set in place. (The obvious answer is to drop them from above, but then again, I have never been one for audience participation.)

The ominous and dingy antechamber designed by Carrie Mossman is a stark, grimy and windowless waiting room, furnished with two chairs and a teetering metal filing cabinet.

Jill Nagle's sharp and keenly defined lighting design accents the faded glory of circus days and the ominous atmosphere of a dark future.

Old Clown Wanted
By: Simon Saltzman

Long Branch – The notice posted on the door says "Old Clown Wanted." That's a good enough hint to the purpose and identity of Niccolo (Ames Adamson), the tired older man fast asleep in one of only two straight-back chairs in a virtually barren windowless anteroom. His beaten up suitcase sits on the floor. Another hint as to what awaits him and us is the room itself. The two-toned walls are slightly tilted, as is a lone file cabinet giving the room a skewed sense of reality. Filippo (Al H. Mohrmann), another weary-looking man enters the room. He also has a suitcase.

Not only is it evident that he too has come to see about the job but that he also knows the other man. Filippo isn't terribly happy to find out that he isn't going to be the first to be interviewed, but he appears happy to be unexpectedly reunited with Niccolo, whom he hasn't seen since their circus days. Filippo says it was the way that Niccolo blows his nose that made him remember him. But quite soon Filippo, braced by the contents of his flask, begins to bait and taunt his old friend challenging the veracity of his tales and repeating rumors of Niccolo's death.

Insults are punctuated with embraces as the two reminisce about their lives and their travels. Filippo's insults prompt Niccolo to demonstrate his agility by doing a headstand against the wall. In the meantime, they wait for someone in authority to come. Someone does come, but it is Peppino (Ugo N. Toppo), yet another old clown with a suitcase. You can expect that long festering rivalries will be brought to the surface, and they are.

The New Jersey Repertory Company, known for its policy to produce new plays, is presenting the U.S. premiere of Romanian playwright Matei Visniec's (born in 1956) "Old Clown Wanted." Visniec's play is a either a tribute or a throwback to the "theater of the absurd," an expressionistic style of theater in which a world that is no longer rational is turned into a world of the absurd. Either way you look at it, it is clearly prompted by the kind of surreal theater that flourished during the 1950s and 1960s. The most famous play of the genre being Samuel Beckett's " Waiting for Godot." Since then many playwrights, including Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, Edward Albee, and Sam Shepard have been influenced by this kind of theatrical literature that stressed poetic metaphors.

Written about ten years ago, "Old Clown Wanted" is a curious but compelling dark comedy with its roots buried in the tradition of ground-breaking existentialist playwrights Beckett, Jean Genet and Eugene Ionescu (to name a few). It resonates boldly with its kinship to "… Godot," especially in the thrust of its so-called plot in which three forlorn but plucky fellows find solace in each other while futilely waiting around for the answers to their questions.

Amidst the enjoyment of watching three accomplished actors careen through circular antics, redundant arguments, and friendly and hostile combat, there is the playwright's agenda to consider. Visniec, who is currently alive and well and living in Paris, was given political asylum in France in 1987. But since the fall of communism has become one of Romania's most performed playwrights. Niccolo, Filippo and Peppino are also perplexed by the circumstances in which they find themselves. Each is filled with anxiety and even still yet a hopeful wonder about what the future holds. A final image of (well, I won't spoil it for you) allows us to consider whether what has happened has been a fantasy, dream or nightmare.

Whether this production by the N.J. Rep will activate American interest in Visniec's more than thirty plays remains to be seen. "Old Clown Wanted" is neither dense nor obscure, but it is somewhat retro in its conceits. Although director Gregory A. Fortner's forte is primarily opera, his theater credits are growing. A few seasons ago, he assisted director Stephen Wadsworth in his production of Moliere's "Don Juan" at McCarter. Fortner provides a firm grip on this play that could otherwise get lost in abstractionism. He inspires some very clear and touching performances, particularly as the three relive their old clown act in a whirl of funny mime and, of course, growing menace.

As the defensive Niccolo, Adamson gets a lot of mileage out of an aggressively used handkerchief and his amusingly eccentric body language (most recently put to memorable use as Holofernes, in the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey's production of "Love's Labour's Lost"). Mohrmann is eerily effective as the enigmatic provocateur Filippo, while Toppo, as the dapper and condescending Peppino, their senior and mentor, gives the most poignant performance. He is unmercifully derided by his colleagues because he has found a modicum of success as, of all things, an actor.

Translated from the French by Britisher Alison Sinclair, this play might appear even better with an American translation that would soften the slightly arch text. Praise to Carrie Mossman's off-kilter set design, Merek Royce Press's multi-channel sound design, and Jill Nagle's stark lighting. "Old Clown Wanted" is not especially innovative, but it is intriguing. This is a play that I would recommend for all those interested in getting a perspective on international theater.

Romanian comedy strikes a chord

Monday, July 12, 2004
Star-Ledger Staff

Leave it to the adventurous New Jersey Repertory Company to find, of all things, a Romanian playwright's absurdist comedy that was banned in his own country.

Now, in Long Branch, the troupe is presenting the American premiere of "Old Clown Wanted" -- which turns out to definitely be a play for our times.


For Matei Visniec's 1992 play deals not only with an individual's profound anxiety that comes from being unemployed, but also with the genuine fear that he's too old for the job market. He knows that, in a world that prizes youth, he has as much chance of getting hired as this year's Montreal Expos have of getting to and winning the World Series.

While there are more job opportunities in America than in Romania, only the rarest of theatergoers won't know someone who is sitting at home and suffering just as much as Niccolo, Filippo, and Peppino.

Niccolo is the first to see the placard "Old Clown Wanted." He's overjoyed at the prospect of finally getting an interview, let alone a job, in his chosen profession.

But soon Filippo arrives. The two were old friends, and, under different circumstances, they'd be thrilled to see each other. But now they're immediate rivals.

What's worse is that Peppino, their old mentor, shows up for the job as well. He was once their greatest friend, and suddenly, he's now their greatest enemy.

For 100 minutes, all of them try to one-up the other, all in hopes of proving that he's the best possible clown for the position. Meanwhile, no one's in any hurry to interview anyone.

Director Gregory A. Fortner, who saw the play in a Portuguese production, brought it to New Jersey Repertory. Could he have imagined when he persuaded the theater to do it that he'd find three actors who could make it work as splendidly as the trio he now has?

Ames Adamson, who's Niccolo, can get a laugh just from way he walks across the stage. But he does much more than that in this physically demanding show. In the second act, he has a protracted mime scene that he turns into one of the standout moments of the season. When it comes to body English, Adamson shows that he's a genuine valedictorian.

What makes this scene funnier, though, is that Adamson leavens it with frustration, for he expects the other two to guess what his mime means. They can't. Or are they pretending not to, so they can make him think that he's lost his edge, and thus ruin his confidence? That's always a possibility in this play.

Al H. Mohrmann is Filippo, ostensibly the evening's straight man who uses words more than his body. The actor is deliciously droll when he says to Niccolo, who's rolling all over the floor, "You're ruining your suit. They won't let you rent it again" -- not allowing for the possibility that Niccolo might in fact own it. This is the typical insult that Filippo makes all night long, and Mohrmann has a most amusing way of delivering these digs in a pseudo-innocent manner.

Ugo N. Toppo, the best of the three at seeming European, shows that Peppino is intent on remaining elegant at all costs. Still, he ensures that the clown can't keep his desperation from poking through every now and then.

While "Old Clown Wanted" definitely tells of a breakdown in our society, Long Branch audiences will be breaking up with laughter -- for at least the first act of the play. Then they'll be nodding in agreement and understanding when they see what happens to inherently nice people who are pushed to the brink.

Waiting for Bozo: NJ Rep's 'Old Clown' heralds a new voice on U.S. stage

Published in the Asbury Park Press 7/09/04


An advertisement appears, seeking applicants for a position that, as it turns out, may or may not even exist. A trio of hopefuls -- "three men used up and discarded by a world that has never really wanted them" -- gather to await consideration for this phantom situation; a collection of lost souls who "battle each other with wit and humor, as they reminisce about painful failures and long-forgotten triumphs."

A play by Matei Visniec
New Jersey Repertory Company
Lumia Theatre
179 Broadway, Long Branch
8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday; 8 p.m. Thursday
Performances through Aug. 15
(732) 229-3166

If that hits a bit too uncomfortably close to home for anyone who's made the rounds of job fairs over the course of these past few uncertain years, it's likely just a minor point among the major salvos fired by Romanian-born playwright Matei Visniec in his bittersweet play "Old Clown Wanted."

As the title suggests, the protagonists of this story are all members of that tragicomic subculture known as clowns. Their story transpires in an oppressive and vaguely "foreign" setting, and the play -- a familiar one to European audiences in the years since its 1992 debut -- makes its U.S. premiere this weekend (as the first Visniec work to receive a full-fledged American staging) in a new production by Long Branch- based New Jersey Repertory Company.

According to director Gregory Fortner, the Visniec text is "one of those pieces that, after you see it, just stays with you . . . I first saw a production in Rio de Janeiro in 2001, and I kept thinking about how timely the message was for us here in the U.S."

When Fortner brought the semi-obscure work to the attention of NJ Rep literary manager Kittson O'Neill, he set off a chain of events that culminated in the play's first American performance as a script-in-hand reading at the troupe's Lumia Theatre. That test-run led (as it so often does) to the show's appearance on the 2004 schedule as a fully-staged premiere.

Originally presented under the title "Petit Boulot Pour Vieux Clown," Visniec's script has been translated into English (having been written in Romanian and initially performed in French) by Alison Sinclair. If you're wondering why Romania's leading dramatic voice is mainly heard in the Gallic tongue, it's probably due to the fact that Visniec has adopted France as his home country since his defection from Ceausescu-era Romania in 1987. Audiences there have embraced the one-time refugee as their own, with "Old Clown" and more than 20 other Visniec plays having been performed and/or premiered at major French venues over the past decade.


Ames Adamson rehearses a scene from "Old Clown Wanted," premiering this weekend at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.
It was on a junket to France at the invitation of a literary foundation that Matei Visniec requested political asylum. Following the overthrow of the Communist leadership in 1989, the onetime poet and journalist took his place as one of the preeminent literary lights of his homeland. To date, over 30 Visniec plays have been presented in Bucharest and elsewhere -- and a 1996 retrospective festival saw some dozen companies producing Visniec works concurrent with each other. Although it's making its maiden voyage to our shores, "Old Clown Wanted" has been a genuine calling card for its creator, having been staged not only in France, Brazil and Romania but in Germany, Denmark, Austria, Poland, Italy, Turkey, Finland and Moldavia as well.

Observing that the author took his inspiration for the piece from Federico Fellini's film "I Clown" -- and its sad take on the traditional circus -- the director maintains that Visniec is able to 'make a clearer expansion of the metaphor so that it could apply now to any institution -- governmental, cultural, economical -- that is in a state of decline."

As to precisely why this prominent playwright hasn't become a household name in this neck of the woods, Fortner speculates that "maybe since things were so good in the '90s we didn't need his message -- times have changed and I think Matei's writings could teach us a lot or at least give us the inspiration to stand up and take notice of what is going on around us."

Veteran New Jersey Rep subscribers and supporters should have no difficulty recognizing a couple of the old clowns on hand. Ames Adamson and Al H. Mohrmann both have put their talents for broad comedy on display with their respective turns in "Panama" and "Big Boys" (the two actors were also among the comic ensemble in "Maggie Rose"). They've further exhibited a feel for more poignant material: Mohrmann as a suicidal patient in "Til Morning Comes," and Adamson in the nearly unclassifiable solo tour-de-force "Circumference of a Squirrel."

The two NJ Rep mainstays are joined here by Ugo N. Toppo (a familiar presence as actor and director on major stages from coast to coast, as well as a familiar voice from scores of literary recordings and commercials). All three players work under the supervision of Fortner, an accomplished director of operas and dramas here making his NJ Rep debut.

"These are the same three guys that did the reading last summer, and when we had auditions there were no three guys that we could put together that had the chemistry of these three," the director maintains. "You really get the sense that these (characters) do like each other -- however, when times are tough and there is only one job for three applicants, a sort of basic survival instinct takes over."

Independent voices: NJ Rep's play-reading series provides forum for original work

Published in the Home News Tribune 7/09/04
Pulse Writer

Perhaps you've grown weary of sitting through one too many revivals of "My Fair Lady" or yet another reheated production of just about anything by George Bernard Shaw. If so, the New Jersey Repertory Company's latest offering could be just what your inner indie has been craving.

New Jersey Repertory Company
Ben Masur and Dana Benningfield starred in New Jersey Repertory Company's recent production of "Lemonade." The play was featured in the theater's collaborative Script-In-Hand New Play Series last year.
NJ Rep's Script-in-Hand New Play Series, an integral part of the Long Branch theater's mission since 1998, is the brainchild of Artistic Director SuzAnne Barabas. The latest installment of the quarterly play-reading series will run over the next five Monday evenings.

"It's kind of nice to see new pieces," Barabas says. "There's certainly a need for the classics and revivals, but there needs to be theaters that take the chance to present new works, because you won't have your future Arthur Millers and Eugene O'Neills if you don't start taking chances now."

The series is critical to the playwright's development, Barabas says. In a way, it also eliminates the proscenium, allowing audience members to feel as if they are an integral part of the often-mysterious creative process.

Barabas says the post-reading give-and-take between artist and the audience is "really important because they ask questions that perhaps have not been answered by the play. It sort of points to holes in the play. It really is a very helpful tool. So the discussion . . . is one of the key elements to the collaborative nature of this."

She says NJ Rep's mainstage season is often drawn from the series. Mike Folie's "Lemonade" was part of the series in July 2003, and the full production recently closed at NJ Rep. Matei Visniec's "Old Clown Wanted," which opened yesterday, was read in August. Other plays have gone on tour or have been published, Barabas says.

And the participants are impressive: Lee Blessing's "Whores," which was read there last year, is part of Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey's new season. (Blessing will also have a work on George Street Playhouse's mainstage next season.)

The process generally goes like this: NJ Rep receives submissions (the theater accepts work from all over the world), then the staff chooses a director and assembles a cast of actors from the company. The artists are given 15 hours of rehearsal time and a spot in the series.

"We're not a closed shop here," Barabas says. "We're always open to new adventures, new ideas, new, young directors coming in who make bold choices."

Sometimes these "bold choices" take off, Barabas admits, and sometimes they fizzle. No matter: She says the journey is always an interesting one.

"They get to see (the work) without all the bells and whistles, and they get to really hear the words and make intelligent comments," Barabas says.

"Sometimes the plays are not wonderful," she adds, "but the audience discussion is fabulous . . . They take their job very seriously."

Bridge and tunnel productions worthy of awards

Sunday, June 06, 2004
Star-Ledger Staff

Take it from someone who's seen virtually every professional and semi-professional production at New Jersey theaters for the past 11 seasons: 2003-04 was the strongest in more than a decade.

So creating this list -- which poses the question, "If New Jersey gave out its own Tony Awards, who would win?" -- was painfully hard. Over the past 12 months, there have been so many more extraordinary performances than usual.

How else to explain the omission of both men (David Adkins and Mark Hammer) in "A Walk in the Woods" and all three women (Suzzanne Douglas, Laurie Kennedy and Maria Dizzia) in "Agnes of God"? Both were terrific productions at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick. Tony winner Priscilla Lopez and Tony nominee Daphne Rubin-Vega (both in "Anna in the Tropics" at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton) couldn't crack the list, either.

Here are nominees and winners of this mythical contest:

Best Musical New to New Jersey: "The Big Bang" by Jed Feuer and Boyd Graham (Tri-State Actors Theatre, Sussex); "Dragons" by Sheldon Harnick (Luna Stage Company, Montclair); "The Full Monty" by Terrence McNally and David Yazbek (New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Newark); "Passing the Blues Along" by Mississippi Charles Bevel and Chic Street Man (Crossroads Theatre Company, New Brunswick); "tick, tick ... BOOM!" by David Auburn and Jonathan Larson (George Street Playhouse)

Winner: "tick, tick ... BOOM!" How can a struggling songwriter please his girlfriend, who doesn't quite believe he'll succeed? How can he not succumb to his best friend's advice to join him in the corporate world? Here is the story of Jonathan Larson -- who resisted both and wound up writing the mega-hit "Rent."

Best Play New to New Jersey: "The Adjustment" by Mike Folie (New Jersey Repertory Company, Long Branch); "The Afghan Women" by William Mastrosimone (Passage Theatre Company, Trenton); "Anna in the Tropics" by Nilo Cruz (McCarter's Berlind Theatre); "The Chosen" by Aaron Posner and Chaim Potok (Paper Mill Playhouse, Millburn); "A Wilderness of Mirrors" by Charles Evered (George Street Playhouse)

Winner: "The Afghan Women," Mastrosimone's timely tale about an Afghani-American who returns home to help an orphanage -- but runs into a warlord. Those who missed it at Passage can catch it starting this week at the Garage Theatre Group in Teaneck.

Best Musical Revival: "Baby" (Paper Mill Playhouse); "A Child's Christmas in Wales" (Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, Madison); "I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road" (Women's Theater Company, Wayne); "My Fair Lady" (McCarter/Berlind); "The Tragedy of Carmen" by Brook and Bizet (Two River Theatre Company, Manasquan)

Winner: "Baby." Three women from three generations meet in the obstetrician's office and become good friends. Anyone who's ever been a parent -- or a godparent, uncle or an aunt -- could relate to this tender tale.

Best Play Revival: "Agnes of God" and "Lips Together, Teeth Apart" (George Street Playhouse); "King John," "Pygmalion" and "That Scoundrel Scapin" (Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey)

Winner: "Lips." A Fourth of July weekend with friends and relatives? Everyone knows how fun-filled and painful such an outing can be -- but in director Michael Morris' hands and playwright Terrence McNally's words, it was memorable, too.

Unique Theatrical Experience: Ames Adamson in "Circumference of a Squirrel" (New Jersey Repertory Company); Cynthia Adler in "Downloaded -- and in Denial" (Passage Theatre Company); Kathy Cogan in "Late Nite Catechism" (Resorts, Atlantic City); Francesca Faridany in "Fraulein Else" (McCarter/Berlind); Richard Furlong and Steven Cole Hughes in "Stones in His Pocket" (What Exit? Theatre Company, Maplewood)

Winner: "Fraulein Else." Faridany blithely played a young Viennese woman without a care in the world -- until her parents asked her to prostitute herself so they can pay their sky-high bills. Faridany showed a girl who is flirty and brave at meeting her Mr. Wrong, before descending into a harrowing spiral.

Best Musical Actor: Ian August and Eben Gordon ("The Big Bang"); Michael Cumpsty ("My Fair Lady"); Colin Hanlon ("tick, tick ... BOOM!"); Aaron Serotsky ("The Tragedy of Carmen")

Winner: Cumpsty. Many men have acted Professor Henry Higgins to perfection, but they speak, rather than sing, the songs. Cumpsty let us hear the notes composer Frederick Loewe had in mind.

Best Musical Actress: Nancy Barry ("I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road"); Margaret Bell ("If These Hips Could Talk," Symphony Hall, Newark); Kate Fry ("My Fair Lady"); Cassandra McConnell ("The Tragedy of Carmen"); Sandra ReAves-Phillips ("The Late Great Ladies of Blues and Jazz," Crossroads Theatre Company)

Winner: ReAves-Phillips. No entertainer on Jersey stages this year worked as hard to seduce and entertain an audience as this ample-bodied, moon-faced dynamic diva, who saluted Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington and Mahalia Jackson.

Best Featured Musical Actor: Andrew Blau ("Oliver!," NJPAC); Alan Gillespie ("Miss Saigon," NJPAC); Michael McCarty ("My Fair Lady"); Michael Rupert ("Baby"); Paul Whelihan ("Dragons")

Winner: Whelihan. As a timid man who is threatened by a dragon, he was a hilarious nervous wreck, blinking and babbling while bobbing about. After the dragon is slain, and he comes to power, he exudes smarmy confidence, noting that power may corrupt -- "but if you're rotten to begin with, what harm can it do?"

Best Featured Musical Actress: Meg Bussert ("The Sound of Music," Paper Mill Playhouse); Carolee Carmello ("Baby"); Sarah Litzsinger ("tick, tick ... BOOM!"); Jane Connell ("My Fair Lady"); Nicole Ortiz ("Black Nativity," African Globe TheatreWorks, Newark)

Winner: Ortiz. In celebrating the birth of Christ, the doe-eyed, high-cheekboned beauty revealed a voice that resonated like a cello, and sang as sultry as Dinah Washington and as exciting as Diana Ross.

Best Play Actor: Egon P. Davson ("A Streetcar Named Desire," African Globe TheatreWorks); Brian Dowd ("Twilight of a Warrior," Celtic Theatre Company, South Orange); Glenn Jones ("Cafflin' Johnny," Celtic Theatre); Paul Niebanck ("Pygmalion"); James Michael Reilly ("That Scoundrel Scapin"); Carl Wallnau ("Engaged," Centenary Stage Company, Hackettstown)

Winner: Wallnau. Playing a Victorian dandy, Wallnau was indeed dandy. His character's fatal flaw was that he couldn't help himself from proposing marriage to every woman he met. "I am a man of quick impulses. I see, I feel, I speak," Wallnau said most accurately, perfectly replicating the manner of matinee idols a century ago.

Best Play Actress: Karen Case Cook ("Wit," Women's Theater Company); Wendy Barrie-Wilson ("The Glass Menagerie," Shakespeare Theatre); Victoria Mack ("Pygmalion"); Cigdem Onat ("Attacks on the Heart," George Street); Liz Zazzi ("Pterodactyls" at the Theatre Project, Cranford, and "The Adjustment")

Winner: Zazzi. All five were brilliant, but Zazzi's the one who was brilliant twice -- first as a confident political lobbyist who's surprised when she turns out not to have all the answers, then as a constantly complaining mother who doesn't know how wonderful life is.

Best Featured Play Actor: Austin Colaluca ("King John"); Kevin Carolan ("Lips Together, Teeth Apart"); John Lloyd Young ("The Chosen"); Jimmy Smits and David Zayas ("Anna in the Tropics")

Winner: Colaluca. Though the character was supposed to be a 16-year-old king, Colaluca has just finished fifth grade. Yet he was superb at delivering the dense language, and amazingly conquered a scene where he must use grace and psychology to keep from being blinded by enemies.

Best Featured Play Actress: Vanessa Aspillaga ("Anna in the Tropics"); Alison Fraser ("Lips Together, Teeth Apart"); Leslie Lyles ("Wilderness of Mirrors"); Gerrianne Raphael ("A Delicate Arrangement," TheatreFest, Montclair); Dana Jones ("The Other Side of Newark," Luna Stage)

Winner: Fraser. She played a community theater actress who's part diva, part flibbertigibbet, and all free spirit. Yet when she had to come down to earth, she also came down to brass tacks -- and used those tacks to burst everyone else's bubbles.

Best Director of a Play: SuzAnne Barabas ("The Adjustment"); Bonnie J. Monte ("Pygmalion"); Emily Mann ("Anna in the Tropics"); Paul Mullins ("King John"); John J. Wooten ("A Delicate Arrangement")

Winner: Mullins. Staging "King John" was no easy task, for the play doesn't hold together, though it has many compelling scenes. Mullins simply didn't worry about the former problem, but made each scene dynamic and compelling.

Best Director of a Musical: Jonathan Fox ("The Tragedy of Carmen"); James Glossman ("Dragons"); Gary Griffin ("My Fair Lady"); Mark S. Hoebee ("Baby"); David Saint ("tick, tick ... BOOM!")

Winner: Hoebee. If he'd staged this show on Broadway in 1983 with such precision and clarity, it would have been a hit.

Best Choreography: John T. Booth ("Black Nativity"); Dawn Ward Lau ("The Rocky Horror Show," Forum Theatre Company, Metuchen); Jenn Warnock ("The Big Bang")

Winner: Booth. The 19-year-old shows he's wise beyond his years in the deft and unexpectedly delightful hip-hop, tap and jazz steps he gives his dancers.

Best Book: David Auburn and Jonathan Larson ("tick, tick ... BOOM!"); Boyd Graham ("The Big Bang"); Sheldon Harnick ("Dragons"); Terrence McNally ("The Full Monty")

Winner: McNally. He didn't edit the 1997 British film, but adapted it for Americans, setting it in Buffalo, N.Y. He succeeded in making the audience care about a new set of guys who were out of work and didn't know that to do next.

Best Score: Boyd Graham and Jed Feuer ("The Big Bang"); Marcus Devine, Michael and Alexis Allen ("If These Hips Could Talk"); Sheldon Harnick ("Dragons"); Jonathan Larson ("tick, tick ... BOOM!"); David Yazbek ("The Full Monty")

Winner: Larson. A plot point in the musical is that Stephen Sondheim, Broadway's premier composer-lyricist, winds up a fan of Larson's work. No wonder, given the 14 songs in this score.

Best Sets: Tim J. Amrhein ("The Merry Wives of (West) Windsor," Princeton Rep Shakespeare Festival); Nora Chavooshian ("Immoral Imperatives," Luna Stage); Andrew Lieberman ("Wintertime," McCarter Theatre); Thomas Lynch ("Fraulein Else"); Michael Vaughan ("A Walk in the Woods")

Winner: Amrhein. In this update of a dim Shakespearean comedy, he provided a replication of Mercer County -- down to the train platform in Princeton Junction and the tony suburban homes of West Windsor.

Best Costumes: Cathleen Edwards ("The Sound of Music"); Karen A. Ledger ("Pygmalion"); David Murin ("Lips Together, Teeth Apart"); Mattie Ullrich ("That Scoundrel Scapin"); Anthony Ward ("Oliver!")

Winner: Ullrich. For this free-wheeling commedia dell'arte, she provided elegant clothes for the high-born characters and colorful rag-tag duds for the lower-borns.

Best Lighting: James H. Aitken ("That Scoundrel Scapin"); Peter Kaczorowski ("Anna in the Tropics"); David Lander ("Wilderness of Mirrors"); Steven Rosen ("Pygmalion"); Shelley Sabel ("Much Ado about Nothing," Shakespeare Theatre)

Winner: Lander. He took a terrifying tale of what the espionage game is really like, and lit it so it appeared to be a film noir, with layer upon layer of shadows.

Regional Theatre Award: George Street Playhouse. Every one of the six plays scored at least one nomination, from the scary "Wilderness of Mirrors" to the scarier 9/11 drama "Attacks on the Heart," to the erudite "A Walk in the Woods," the sizzling "Agnes of God," the hilarious "Lips Together, Teeth Apart," and the edgy "tick, tick ... BOOM!" Every theater should have such a season.

A Tart 'n Tangy 'Lemonade' at New Jersey Rep
Published in the Asbury Park Press

As this touch-and-go Jersey Shore spring edges its way from frigidly finicky to tentatively torrid, one might be seized by a yen for some good ole lemonade. Then again, one might also be possessed of a hankering for a good ole sex comedy.


Ben Masur (left) and Bruce Faulk are among the cast of "Lemonade."

Well, now there's no need to drive all over creation in an attempt to satisfy that craving at curbside -- the lemonade, that is. If the evening of April 23 was any indication, the cool quencher is available in the lobby of New Jersey Repertory Company's Lumia Theatre in Long Branch -- peddled from a little stand that was manned, at least for a portion of opening night, by author (and former Middletowner) Michael T. Folie. The company playwright-in-residence was on hand because the folks at NJ Rep (the same people who've premiered at least five major Folie works) were staging the East Coast debut of his funny four-character sex comedy -- also called "Lemonade" -- for an appreciative audience that seemed thirsty for something a bit more tart and tangy than the usual watered-down dinner-theater fare.

"Lemonade" the show takes its title from the observations of dedicated wife and mom Jane (Dana Benningfield), who muses that sex is like lemonade, in that it's naturally bitter and requires the sweetening of romance -- and that, like lemonade, you don't want it all the time.


Ben Masur (left) as Jim, Dana Benningfield as Jane and Bruce Faulk as Carl, all from New York, are among the cast of "Lemonade."

This is just one character's opinion, of course. Jane, a naturally radiant creature who's put her glamorous art-world career on hold to raise an infant daughter, happens to be married to public-relations pro Carl (Bruce Faulk), a stockily built and self-absorbed cad to whom sex is more like a tankful of high-test in the Hummer. When not busy grappling with his roles as helpful hubby and doting dad (not to mention a devotee of the hyper-fashionable Asian lifestyle discipline Chu Wa), Carl has been carrying on an extended fling with his client -- and Jane's old college buddy -- Betsy (Stephanie Dorian), a driven type who seems every bit the polar opposite of his sweet, sacrificing spouse.

Carl's chance meeting with old acquaintance Jim (Ben Masur) -- the two men are introduced playing a tableside game in which they assign dollar values to female passersby -- leads to an invitation to a dinner party; an event for which the guest list boils down to just Jim (himself a follower of competing Asian discipline 'Sha Zen') and, much to Carl's dismay, Betsy. Naturally, Jane thinks it would be a cute idea to fix Betsy up with Jim.

While the Jim-and-Betsy thing works on the surface (the two enjoy a sexually robust relationship of their own), it's complicated by Jim's knowledge of the Betsy-Carl affair -- as well as by the fact that Jim's first glimpse of Jane "sets his insides vibrating." This is just the start of the festivities, as it turns out, since Jim and Betsy are openly scheming to split up the Carl-Jane marriage and divvy up the spoils for themselves.


Dana Benningfield (left) and Stephanie Dorian as Betsy.

Although things really accelerate from that point, it's not giving too much away to suggest that each participant in this four-sided equation winds up with the best possible partner by play's end. And, even if the plot seemingly spins off in a dozen different directions at once, Folie keeps the tightly-constructed comedy's focus zeroed in on the way we messed-up moderns view our relationships through the distorted prisms of our own pathetic egos. In other words, "Lemonade" is as cold and sour, yet refreshing, as its namesake.

In his first-ever NJ Rep outing, director Evan Bergman puts his talented professional cast -- all but one of them newcomers to the Lumia stage -- through some precision maneuvers. Working up a sweat as the character most held up for ridicule by the author, Bruce Faulk invests his numerous scenes with a comic intensity that somehow never paints Carl as a truly bad guy, no matter how much we know not to trust him at his word (his first-act confrontation with Betsy, rife as it is with pusillanimous back-pedaling and fad-therapy doubletalk, is a particular gem).


Bruce Faulk (left) and Ben Masur.
While Ben Masur's Jim comes across as the Nice Guy simply by default, his character (an insufferable macrobiotic dieter, to boot) wears his ulterior motives on his sleeve and ultimately seems to be acting as impulsively as Carl. Sure, the male characters come off looking pretty silly here -- but that adds up to more laugh-getting opportunities for Faulk and Masur, particularly in their slapsticky "Chu Wa vs. Sha Zen" showdown.

Still, neither Jane nor Betsy is entirely clear on exactly who they are or what they want -- and Dorian projects both comic vulnerability, and a confidence that makes her Betsy a completely believable magnet for the two insecure guys. Although Benningfield is seemingly saddled with the play's most "boring" part -- she's forced to spend much of her time fussing with a baby carriage -- the NJ Rep mainstay comes off most like a real person; warm and caring and generous at heart, but also prickly and not averse to using the aforementioned pram as a deadly weapon.

Make no mistake, this sharply written comedy of couples is no static talkfest; the silly "slow martial arts" duel is followed immediately by a frenetic cat fight scene, and the action-packed second act is further punctuated by a well-staged interlude in which the characters have at each other via the magic of cell phones. A succession of short, sharp scenes - coupled with the lighting and sound work of Jeff Greenberg and Merek Royce Press -- keep the actors in constant motion across Jo Winiarski's versatile, vaguely Metropolitan Home-looking set design.

Michael T. Folie's hard 'Lemonade'

Published in the Asbury Park Press 4/23/04

Shore-area playwright serves up a cool comedy at New Jersey Repertory


"Sex is like lemonade," opines one of the lead characters in "Lemonade," the comedy of modern manners opening tonight in a new production by Long Branch's own New Jersey Repertory Company. "It's refreshing, but it's naturally bitter. You have to add the sugar of romance yourself. . . and like lemonade, you don't want it all the time."

A play by Michael T. Folie
New Jersey Repertory Company Lumia Theatre
179 Broadway, Long Branch
Performances through June 6
(732) 229-3166

Like the beverage that inspired its title, Mike Folie's play has become something of a cool seasonal signifier as the weather takes a turn for the tepid. Originally penned prior to such previously produced Folie fare as "Slave Shack" and "Panama," "Lemonade" was first served on the stage in sunny Southern California, in a production starring TV faces Maxwell Caulfield and Heather Tom. A revised version reached NJ Rep's Lumia Theatre as a script-in-hand reading in July 2003 -- a point in time when the current mainstage offering was a little thing called "The Adjustment," by one Michael T. Folie.

Indeed, the happy symbiosis between the Shore-based professional troupe and the former Middletown resident turned NJ Rep playwright-in-residence has included such early successes as "Naked by the River" and "An Unhappy Woman." These productions really helped put the fledgling company on the map, and the Rep braintrust even raided the Folie folio for sketch contributions to the occasional 'Underground Rep' comedy cabarets.

The prolific playsmith describes "Lemonade" as "the fifth play I wrote, but in some ways it feels like my first play. I think it was the first play that was truly mine; that was a true expression of my own individual voice as a writer."


"Lemonade" cast members (from left) Bruce Faulk, Dana Benningfield, Stephanie Dorian and Ben Masur rehearse a scene at the New Jersey Repertory Company theater in Long Branch.
A convoluted but cunningly constructed study of floating fidelities, mix-and-match monogamy and other under-covers intrigue, "Lemonade" presents a quartet of itchy characters -- no, not Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, but Jane and Carl and Betsy and Jim -- under the direction of Evan Bergman in his rookie outing with NJ Rep. Public-relations guy Carl (Bruce Faulk) and vitamin-salesman Jim (Ben Masur) are a pair of miserable moderns who are obsessed with faddishly "ancient" Asian lifestyle disciplines. They attend workshops in both masculinity and femininity, employ such empty concepts as "creative actualization" to rationalize their irresponsible impulses and spend a good portion of their liquid-laden business lunches rating female passersby as to how much money they'd pay to have sex with them.

Noting that "both men are simply taking on the coloration that they think will get them what they want," Folie confesses that "I'm probably being a traitor to my own gender here, but I just think men are so much sillier and less grounded than women are in every way -- and this attitude does reveal itself in almost all of my plays."

When Carl invites his single buddy to a dinner party at the home he shares with his wife Jane (Dana Benningfield) and their infant daughter, it seems innocent enough -- but when the rest of the guest list dwindles down to just Carl's co-worker Betsy (Stephanie Dorian), things get a tad tight. You see, Carl and Betsy have been carrying on an affair for some time -- and Jane's notions of fixing up Betsy with Jim are complicated by Jim's falling more or less in love with Jane at first sight.

Confused already? It gets even more baroque, with the four points of this romantic rectangle mixing it up in ways you might not have thought possible at first -- and with each little competing alliance packing an ulterior motive that's designed to rearrange these musical chairs in the way that will ultimately work out best for all concerned.

"A lot of the play seems to be about how we try to adapt our external selves to fit in with current sensibilities," the playwright observes. "Much of the tension of modern life comes from trying to reconcile how we think we should be with how we really are."And, despite Folie's formidable history at the Lumia, this "Lemonade" looks especially refreshing in that it involves a number of faces that are new to the Rep stock company. In addition to director Bergman, three of the four actors are making their debuts on the Long Branch stage -- the exception being Benningfield, the longtime company mainstay ("Laramie Project," "North Fork," "Winterizing the Summer House" and numerous other offerings) whose efforts as both actor and director in their recent "Theatre Brut" festival included a stunning performance in the Folie one-acter "There's a 200 Ft. Cowboy in Istanbul."

"I actually don't think sex is much like lemonade," Folie sums up. "But Jane in the play thinks it is, and a lot of people seem to respond to the analogy. I think sex is more like 12 year-old Jameson's Irish whiskey."

Having arrived with a pair of preview performances yesterday, "Lemonade" initiates its "stand" this weekend and continues with performances at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and at 2 p.m. Sundays through June 6. For reservations and other information, call NJ Rep at (732) 229-3166.

from the Asbury Park Press

Published on April 23, 2004

Review: Long Branch troupe ponies up the goods
Published in the Asbury Park Press 3/24/04

'Tweren't a fit night out for man or hoss during much of New Jersey Repertory Company's "My Rifle, My Pony and Me" - a three-part festival of new short plays and the first in a projected series of programs organized under the title "Theatre Brut." But inside the professional troupe's Lumia Theatre in downtown Long Branch, the big-sky sun was blazing over a modestly-produced affair that stood as one of the most engaging regional stage events of the past several seasons.

Organized around the theme of the American Cowboy - and involving the talents of dozens of NJ Rep's ever-burgeoning roster of actors, directors and playwrights - "Pony" was mounted on the evenings of March 15-17 as a vehicle for showcasing an amazing variety of new works (most, if not all, created expressly for this occasion) in a "raw" setting, with the pleasant side effect of acting as a most excellent sampler for this busy company's wares.

Having literally written the book on the topic (their comprehensive guide to "Gunsmoke" stands as both the first and last word on the classic series), NJ Rep guiding lights Gabor and SuzAnne Barabas invested this project with a heaping helping of heart and soul. That so many of their regular creative contributors and loyal supporters braved the ornery weather to participate in this unique event stands as testament to the enormous amount of faith and fervor that the company has built up in just a few short years.

While such festival-style smorgasbords are hit-or-miss almost by definition -- with interludes of brilliance often jockeying for pole position with poorly rehearsed, script-in-hand works-in-progress -- the 19 little playlets on the program happily favored the inspired over the insipid. The participating authors (including such NJ Rep veterans as Mike Folie, Joel Gross, Gino Dilorio and D.W. Gregory) ran a gamut from magical realism and surreal slapstick to grim bits of frontier Americana and contemporary social commentary - with just a few of the scribes going off-message to deliver distracting diatribes on South American dictatorships, CIA skullduggery and other dog-eared pages from the playwright's playbook.

What remained was right purty indeed, with many of the assembled talents working double-overtime to bring this one to market. The prolific Folie (whose many NJ Rep-produced plays include the upcoming "Lemonade") offered up a pair of his caustically comical satiric sketches, while Joel Stone upped the ante by directing both of his written submissions. Not to be outdone, David Tyson not only wrote and directed the absurd burlesque "Western Water Revenge," but displayed the classic clown's gift for controlled chaos in the starring role as well.

The masterful comic actor Michael Irvin Pollard ("'Big Boys') delivered a pair of tightly rehearsed, dialogue-intensive characterizations (in Folie's 'Human Resources' and Mary Fengar Gail's 'Tall in the Saddle') that went above and beyond the call of duty for works that were scheduled to be performed only once. And Dana Benningfield excelled as both actress (playing a disillusioned tobacco company exec in a Folie piece cleverly staged by Jonathan Hadley) and as director, transforming Dickey Nesenger's gently hilarious tall tale 'Harvest Moon' into a bit of wistful wizardry that provided a perfect capper to Tuesday evening's ticket.There was much more good stuff on hand, including the wondrous Betty Hudson's monologue as Calamity Jane; Susan G. Bob's virtuoso impersonation of an old swayback filly; Stephen Innocenzi's singing-cowpoke turn and the usual fine work by Rep regulars Ames Adamson, Barney Fitzpatrick, David Foubert, Phillip Lynch and Brian O'Halloran, to name a few. An all-star assemblage not seen since the days of the Long Riders, to be sure - and therein lies the real strength of this program.

While Gabor Barabas has composed a very eloquent mission statement/manifesto for the Theatre Brut project, it doesn't even begin to touch upon the festival's appeal as a true showcase for this company's formidable human resources. It's a unique primer for anyone interested in the best and the brightest of the area's stages, and a genuine social occasion for all those who've long championed the good work of this crew. Far from the "outsider art" that inspired the festival, "My Rifle, My Pony and Me" was the ultimate "insider" event for anyone who's truly passionate about theater here on our fair Shore -- a place to be among friends; in the company of people who really love what they do.

The only catch? This particular presentation has rode off into the sunset, likely never to return in this exact form. It seems a safe bet that there will be other Theatre Brut presentations to come. In the meantime, audiences can savor a bit of this vibe with NJ Rep's ongoing series of Sunday and Monday evening readings of new plays in development. The series resumes on Sunday with "Wandalaria" by Dave Valdes Greenwood. Tickets, $10, can be reserved by calling (732) 229-3166.

Theater Notes: Cowboys in Long Branch
Published in the Asbury Park Press 3/12/04

A hats-off to an American icon at NJ Rep By TOM CHESEK

The American Cowboy is a figure who once upon a time bestrode our national culture like a colossus. For three nights during this coming week, however, this popular icon will be center-stage for a theatrical festival of short works presented under the umbrella title "My Rifle, My Pony and Me" and hosted by New Jersey Repertory Company, in the rootin'-tootin' frontier town of Long Branch.

7 p.m. March 15-17
New Jersey Repertory Company
179 Broadway, Long Branch
(732) 229-3166

There's a precedent here, of course. The name of Miss Kitty's bar on the long-running "Gunsmoke" TV series was none other than the Long Branch Saloon, and NJ Rep co-founders SuzAnne and Gabor Barabas are the authors of "Gunsmoke: A Complete History and Analysis of the Legendary Broadcast Series." There was even a real-life Long Branch Saloon on lower Broadway in the city's wilder and woolier days.

But this is 2004, Festus, and nightlife on Broadway in Long Branch is now centered around the acclaimed professional stage troupe and its Lumia Theatre home base, where the festival will take place March 15, 16, and 17. It's the midweek interlude between performances of "Emil," the comedy that continues its world-premiere run through April 4.

That fragrance you're detecting is the scent of "Theater Brut," the new series of experimental limited-engagement presentations of which "My Rifle" is the inaugural production. Said Gabor Barabas, "The cowboy embodies our most potent myths of America: the independent spirit, the man who speaks the truth, the man who metes out simple justice, the trailblazer, the one willing to die for the democratic ideal, and the white-man battling the elements and a savage foe."

The true nature of the cowboy and America is, of course, much more complex, Barabas continued. "It is this conflict between the ideal and the real that provides a fertile arena for exploration as well as the starting point for drama, comedy, pathos, and self-recognition," he said.

Actor James Arness played Marshal Matt Dillon on the television series "Gunsmoke."
The inspiration for the "Theater Brut" name derives from "Art Brut" (or Raw Art), a phrase first used to describe the work of Hans Prinzhorn, a Weimar-era German psychiatrist who collected and published the psychotic art of patients who resided in asylums for the insane.

"It's a concept better encapsulated as outsider art; the creative impulse unfettered by social and artistic convention," said Barabas, adding the theater selected 18 out of 100 submissions for inclusion.

Avid friends and followers of NJ Rep will recognize such familiar playwrights as Mike Folie (whose numerous productions include "Naked by the River" and the upcoming "Lemonade"); Joel Gross ("The Color of Flesh"); D.W. Gregory ("The Good Daughter"), and Gino Dilorio ("Winterizing the Summer House"). Cast and directors read like a virtual all-star team of regional regulars, with Ames Adamson, Dana Benningfield, Barney Fitzpatrick, David Foubert, Kathleen Goldpaugh, Davis Hall, Philip Lynch, Brian O'Halloran, Kittson O'Neill, John Pietrowski, T.R. Shields and Peter Zazzali just a few of the familiar names.

With material spanning a spectrum from reverential to revisionist and points beyond, the collected pieces range from traditional morality plays, to "anti-hero treatments involving fantasy to commedia del arte and everything in between," SuzAnne Barabas said.

Tickets for "My Rifle, My Pony and Me" are $15 each performance, or $40 for all three programs (student discounts are also available).

All shows are at 7 p.m.; for schedule details, reservations and other information, call NJ Rep at (732) 229-3166.

Rodent ripple effect: One-person play gathers plaudits despite nutty title

Tuesday, January 27, 2004 BY PETER FILICHIA
Star-Ledger Staff

John Walch isn't making it easy on himself.

The playwright could have called his new script by any number of names, but what he ultimately chose turns out to be the worst title of many a season: "Circumference of a Squirrel."

But the one-person play is much better than that clumsy title would indicate -- especially as enacted by Ames Adamson in James Glossman's compelling production at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

Any theatergoer who doesn't raise an eyebrow at the awkward title might be discombobulated by the show's opening image. After all, not every play starts with a man's chomping into a tire's inner tube and keeping it clenched between his teeth.

Does that magazine Weird New Jersey ever publish plays? This one's a natural for its next issue.

Adamson plays Chester, a thirtysomething who still feels responsible for what happened to his father many years ago. His daddy was pushing him on a swing -- before being attacked by a squirrel. Dad had to go to the hospital for some painful treatments.

After that, squirrels became his father's archenemies. Dad even encouraged Chester and his brother to kill them every time one came near. He rewarded them if they engineered novel ways of slaughtering the rodents.

"Circumference of a Squirrel" will not be voted Play of the Year by PETA. But Walch uses his plot to make a strong statement about hate. Now -- will the son of this obsessive go nuts himself?

What's sad is that Chester's father doesn't restrict his terrible swift sword to squirrels. There's a certain portion of the human race he hates, too. But the hatred of the father is passed to the son in a way that Chester's old man could never have predicted.

En route, Chester tells Everything You Never Wanted to Know about Squirrels But Didn't Care Enough to Ask. Did you know their incisors would grow 6 full inches each year if they didn't wear them down by chewing? That Aristotle was instrumental in naming them? Now you do.

Adamson shares the stage with a park bench, which he's able to leap over in a single bound. He romps on it with the greatest of ease -- with a squirrel's ease, in fact. All the while he's talking nonstop for 85 solid minutes in what is certainly a yeoman performance. He first engages the audience's interest, then its sympathy, and then its solid admiration for a job superbly done. What's more, he must adopt a number of voices for the various members of his family, and he sustains them to the point where an audience easily comes to recognize which of his characters is doing the talking. Credit, too, to Glossman for guiding him well.

Finally, with only a few minutes to go, Adamson lounges on that bench, using the inner tube as a pillow. No one will deny him his right to his rest.

Walch includes an astonishing amount of circular imagery in his script. There are references to doughnuts, life savers, bagels, silver dollars, wedding bands, and that aforementioned inner tube. But the story does not go round and round; rather it centers on an important message of how two and plenty more wrongs don't nearly make a right.

To use more circular imagery, "Circumference of a Squirrel" ranks much closer to a 10 than a 0.

New Jersey

If Circumference of a Squirrel sounds a bit wacky—a story about an inner tube, a bagel, a donut, a lifesaver, and a squirrel—that's probably because it is. This one-man show with bite features Ames Adamson as Chester. For 90 minutes, he regales us with stories about his past, including witnessing his father attacked by a squirrel. Neither he nor the old man was the same afterward. As Chester scurries around the stage, jumping on and off a park bench, he takes us on a journey into his past as a former student (who hangs around the campus to remain part of a family), as an ex-husband, and as a son. He employs different voices for each character and pulls off the conceit with flair. Under director James Glossman, John Walch's somewhat absurd play is captivating—and fun. It continues at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch through Feb. 15 and is a co-production with Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey.

Gretchen C. Van Benthuysen

Review: The circle in the 'Squirrel'
Published in the Asbury Park Press 1/27/04


Turns out that Willie Shakespeare and any dramatist who ever picked up a quill in his wake were on the wrong track all along -- while those guys expended vats of ink and enormous amounts of energy trying to determine the Measure of a Man, Texas-bred playwright John Walch has seen the whole meaning of Life Itself in "The Circumference of a Squirrel."

It's a one-man rumination on family ties, lost love, missed opportunities and the burdens of petty hatreds passed down through the generations -- all of it filtered via the distorted prism of "rodentophobia." Walch's bizarre little 'riff with an inner tube stands as a somewhat unorthodox opener for the 2004 season of productions at New Jersey Repertory Company.

Through Feb. 15
New Jersey Repertory Company's Lumia Theatre
179 Broadway, Long Branch
(732) 229-3166

Last year's final main-stage offering at the professional troupe's Lumia Theatre in Long Branch was D.W. Gregory's epic slice of Americana "The Good Daughter," a family drama that pulled out all the technical stops and opened a fair number of emotional floodgates to boot. By contrast, "Squirrel" is as small and speedy as its namesake, and is presented without intermission in the Lumia's modestly-scaled Dwek Performance Space. Its big themes are channeled into the sparse furnishings of a bench, a tire inner tube, and a strange young guy named Chester.

As embodied by NJ Rep veteran Ames Adamson ("Panama," "Maggie Rose" and numerous readings), Chester is a former student (one who continues to hang around the old campus for the sense of belonging), an ex-husband and a once-and-forever rodentophobe. This fear and loathing of rodents -- specifically, the long-toothed, bushy-tailed species of rascal Aristotle called a "skiouros" -- is the lasting gift bestowed upon poor Chester by his father, a bigoted old-school enigma who may or may not have contracted some weird strain of rabies from a savage squirrel-bite incident (an attack that's been embellished into legendary proportions in the retelling).

Not to be sneezed at is this thing against squirrels -- it manages to infect every aspect of Dad's life; from cursing his golf putt with a vicious "yip" to somehow nourishing the old man's anti-Semitism. Chester has consequently grown up to be terminally cautious; a conflicted ouch-cube of jangled nerve endings with "issues" far beyond the old National Geographic magazine he carries around like a hoarded acorn.

Take Chester's obsession with circular objects -- it's the sight of a squirrel lugging an impossibly disproportionate bagel that sets him off on this rant -- a fascination that reverberates throughout numerous references to doughnuts, washers, lifesavers and wedding rings. It might call to mind the Circle of Life, with Chester and Dad a pair of shaky stand-ins for Simba and his Lion King pops.

What actually gets driven home is that our protagonist perceives a great big void in the middle of his soul (his happiest childhood memory revolves around eating the "holes" peddled by the local doughnut shop); a hole that can only be closed up by coming to terms with his feelings for Dad.

Armchair analysis aside, this ultimately sweet-natured comedy-drama hybrid is still a bit of a difficult sell -- particularly in opening-weekend weather fit for neither man nor squirrel -- and one that demands an actor who can invest this fragile doughnut of a character with a real center.

Lucky theatergoers who caught Adamson's "Panama" turn in five extremely nutty roles know that he can be a show unto himself. Here, he brings a heart as big as that oversize bagel, presenting an earnestly sympathetic Chester in addition to wife, parents, squirrels and assorted peripherals. To call it a tour de force somehow makes it sound gimmicky and showy -- the actor is more force of nature; grounded and at harmony with his stage environment.

He doesn't do it completely by himself, of course. Director James Glossman has worked hard to find the real play in something others might dismiss as an extended sketch. With dozens of rapid-fire cues, lighting designer Richard Currie and sound sultan Jeff Knapp play crucial roles in the proceedings -- while the inner tube essays the parts of bagel, steering wheel, holiday wreath and numerous other objects with great flexibility.


11/05/04 - Posted from the Daily Record newsroom

Ames Adamson plays Chester, a man suffering from an obsession with squirrels, in 'Circumference of a Squirrel' at Playwrights Theatre. Jennifer DeWitt / Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey

Through Nov. 14 Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey, 33 Green Village Road, Madison Tickets are $22.50-$27.50; Students $10 Call (973) 514-1787, ext. 30


'Circumference of a Squirrel' is a tour de force for Ames Adamson

It's hard to know if actor Ames Adamson ever watched "Rocky and Bullwinkle" or "Secret Squirrel" as a child, but his signature character certainly never did.

Adamson, the affable star of "Circumference of a Squirrel," currently onstage at Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey in Madison, plays Chester, a troubled soul whose father taught him to fear, hate, stalk and murder the furry little scamps.

"I'm either compelled or repulsed by them," says Chester, "Like a car wreck."

On its own, Chester's "rodentophobia" represents a relatively harmless fetish. But what of the other lessons he was taught by his dad? Chester explores many dark corners of his past, and his present, in John Walch's fascinating, funny and frequently touching one-character play.

A co-production with the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, "Circumference of a Squirrel" made its New Jersey premiere to rave reviews last autumn at New Jersey Rep. Since then, Adamson, one of the busiest actors in the Garden State, has starred in "Foreign Exchange" at Playwrights Theatre and played a supporting role in "Love's Labour's Lost" at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. Next month, he'll return to the Shakespeare Theatre for "Illyria."

NJ Rep is now staging its second co-production with Playwrights Theatre, the New Jersey premiere of Lee Blessing's "Whores," while Playwrights Theatre takes its turn letting Adamson loose in a role that seems to fit him like a glove. His everyman quality helps you identify with Chester. Everybody knows a guy like Chester, a decent sort of guy whose childhood scars give him a few quirks. As we meet him, some of those quirks are catching up with him. His wife has filed for divorce and his graduate-school advisers have convinced him it's time for a hiatus from his microbiology studies.

"The bacteria will be here when you get back," they promise, but Chester's not so sure. At the moment, he's not sure about anything except the sight of a squirrel trying to carry a bagel up a tree, which pops the cork on a bottle of troubling memories.

From the perspective of an 8-year-old boy, witnessing a squirrel bite his father was like watching a bloody mauling. His father's reaction and subsequent obsession with squirrel-ocide reinforced the trauma of the event.

Tales of his childhood alternate with more recent recollections of bringing his Jewish fiancée home to Kansas City to meet mom, who blissfully indulges her own obsession with decorative wreaths, and dad, a passionate anti-Semite. Later, in the emotional climax of the story, Chester is summoned home to pay respects to his dying father.

In between, there are lectures on squirrel biology and other relevant issues, along with imaginary slide shows and visual aids that Chester presents with a pointer and a hand clicker.

There's a great deal of comedy and indeed, this show is essentially a comedy. But because Adamson never crosses the line into caricature, you can never forget that his character is wracked with pain. You laugh along as Chester and his brother dream up new ways to kill squirrels, even though you know their father's hatred is poisoning them like second-hand smoke. Then, as the entire family chases a squirrel loose in the living room, the hunt takes a dramatic turn.

Adamson accomplishes his mission on a simple stage with only a few props to keep him company. In the middle of the stage is a wooden bench, sturdy enough for Adamson to sit, lie or jump on when the mood strikes.

The central prop is an old-fashioned rubber inner tube, one of many circular objects that weave their way into this less-than-linear story. Wedding rings, washers and Life Savers all appear before Chester's tale comes full circle and offers a sense of hope, if not resolution.

It's a squirrelly tale to be sure, but even if what's described above doesn't turn you on, consider "Circumference of a Squirrel" just so you don't miss one of the best onstage performances of 2004. Or 2003, for that matter.

A drama with bite
Published in the Asbury Park Press 1/23/04

Squirrel attack propels story at New Jersey Repertory


Director James Glossman has been gushing over the entire experience of staging the New Jersey premiere of "Circumference of a Squirrel."

"It's a piece that is emotionally moving, comical, and yet is also redemptive. . . . and the whole thing is no more than 75 minutes."

A play by John Walch
Presented by the New Jersey Repertory Company and Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey
Performances through Feb. 15
179 Broadway, Long Branch
(732) 229-3166

So what? We all have heard that good things come in small packages -- or in this case, short ones -- but more importantly, directing a work of this nature in New Jersey means a great deal to Glossman. Originally trained as an actor at the Yale University School of Drama, Glossman became a director nearly by accident.

"I staged a play that I wrote, and other drama students were very impressed with me as a director," he said recently over the phone from his home in Madison. "I became interested in what a director's job really is -- providing the spark of inspiration for actors, so that they can grow."

And Glossman feels that even though his current project is a one-act play that features one character, a director makes all the difference in achieving the artistry of the finished product.

"Circumference of a Squirrel" is one man's journey to a difficult time of his past in order to be able to face the future. It opens this weekend at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

"In order to deal effectively with our present and future, we must rid ourselves of any emotional baggage of the past that we may be carrying around with us. A person must face what he's most afraid of in order to free himself and face the future," Glossman explained.


Ames Adamson portrays a character coming to grips with the emotional baggage that accrued after witnessing his father being bitten by a squirrel in "Circumference of a Squirrel," opening this weekend at the New Jersey Repertory in Long Branch.
"Here, we have a character who is a graduate student in microbiology. He had a very difficult relationship with his father. One time in his boyhood, he witnessed his father getting bitten by a squirrel, and the experience colored everything in his life," Glossman explained. "In the play, the memory serves as a catalyst for dealing with earth-shattering issues -- issues to which we can all relate -- and issues that we must deal with in order to go on and live an effective and emotionally satisfying life."

Yet even with a well-written script, Glossman feels that there is still a big job for himself as a director.

'I have the privilege of working with a wonderful actor, Ames Adamson, who has a wonderful sense of presence and weight of character," Glossman said. "He has the unique ability to be simple and underplay passeges, then snap into comic flourishes. As his director, I first take note of the fine material and the many unique crafts that Ames brings to it; then I become the outside eye that decides what form the production will take, then provide the spark that allows the actor to grow in the role. I help the actor bring his many talents together and make sure that they all mesh effectively."

"Circumference of a Squirrel" is presented as a collaboration of New Jersey Repertory Company and Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey.

Glossman, who has directed in many regions of the country favors this kind of collaboration, as well as the advent of working in the Garden State.

"It's just that New Jersey has so many regional theaters that are willing to do new material," he explained. "Even though this play has been done in other theaters in the U.S., a director needs a place where an actor and director can have time and space to breathe . . . and be concerned with the artistic partnership and its effective result. Also -- right now New Jersey is an exciting place for theater because you can do so much so often -- and with this collaboration of theaters, new plays can be seen by audiences in more than one region."

SuzAnne Barabas, artistic director of NJ Rep, agrees.

"(When) the play is seen by more audiences, the playwright has the opportunity to further promote and develop his work, and the theaters share the production costs . . . it's a win-win situation whose time is long overdue."


from Restore by the Shore 88.1 FM

Ames is fabulous in "Circumference..." his one man show!!! John Walch is a master of language. His circularly plotted scenes are brilliantly executed thru James Glossman's direction. With the agility of a squirrel, Adamson has us eating out of his hand every minute. Note: yes, the park bench is specially constructed for his hijinx by the very  talented scene designer Jessica Parks.


Like father, like son: Spirit of Rutgers educator lives in NJ Rep comedy 'Emil'

Published in the Asbury Park Press 2/27/04 By TOM CHESEK

Emil Gadaletta is a man who believes in the healing power of love, even if it has to be prodded along at the point of a gun.

A play by Ben Bettenbender
New Jersey Repertory Company Lumia Theatre
179 Broadway, Long Branch
8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday; performances continue through April 4
(732) 229-3166

Lording over the living room of the North Bergen ranch house that he shares with his grown-up daughter Beatrice (Elizabeth Audley), Emil (Barney Fitzpatrick) simply wants to see his only child paired off with a man who's level-headed, devoted and dependable -- qualities that seem to be in short supply with Todd (Calvin Gladen), a neighborhood lout with anger issues who "would count as two picks in the NFL draft."

When an awkward former Rutgers classmate of Bea's by the name of Michael (Jacob Garrett White) appears at the Gadalettas" doorstep -- having taken a bus all the way from Chicago just to maybe catch a glimpse of the girl who's never so much as acknowledged his existence -- Emil sees his window of opportunity.

Michael and Bea are an arranged match made in suburban heaven: Never mind such variables as his fatal lack of confidence, her complete lack of interest, and the fact that a murderously furious Todd is on his way over to settle a score over some missing money and a wrecked 'Vette.

The comedy by Jersey-bred playwright Ben Bettenbender originally was workshopped by the Cape Cod Theatre Project in 1996. It is being promoted by the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, where it opens tonight, as a " 'Father Knows Best' for the new millennium."

While it's never quite clear exactly how household-fixture Emil makes his living in this world, the resemblance to Robert Young's iconic TV dad pretty much ends there.


Members of the "Emil" cast include (from left) Calvin Gladen, Elizabeth Audley, Jacob Garrett White and Barney Fitzpatrick.
Favoring average-joe flannels over Ward Cleaver suits and ties; forcing pre-made sandwiches upon his guests; encouraging fisticuffs and casually cleaning his gun as tensions flare, this patriarch takes a perverse delight in pitting one person against another. Still, if there's an agenda at work, it's one that's rooted in Emil's own (not always successful) wooing of Bea's mother all those years ago -- and his desire to see true romance conquer all at the end of the day.

"I'd have to say that in spirit, the character of Emil is very much based on my father," observes Bettenbender, who considers Highland Park his hometown and who attended the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers. "He was a hopeless romantic who, fortunately, found his true love both romantically and professionally, and lived his life encouraging others to do the same."

John Bettenbender, a director and educator, was a legendary figure in the arts at Rutgers University. He was the first dean of Rutgers University's School of Creative and Performing Arts, a predecessor of the Mason Gross School. He died in 1988.

"Hell, he inspired me to be a writer -- he was a director; a great director, in fact -- but it was watching him in meetings with some wonderful writers he worked with that got me hooked."

Under the direction of NJ Rep co-founder SuzAnne Barabas, the cast of "Emil" features a number of company stalwarts, with veteran TV and stage actor Fitzpatrick ("All My Children," "Law & Order" and many others) remembered from "The Girl with the High Rouge," and White a major player in such past productions as "Panama" and "The Color of Flesh." Gladen reprises the role of Todd, having performed the character in a script-in-hand reading at the Lumia a couple of seasons back.

"Most of the characters I get interested in have a background story that might read something like Michael's or Emil's or Bea's," said the playwright. "The belief in the redemptive power of a one true love is something I keep exploring; the only difference is sometimes the characters find it, and sometimes they don't."

Featuring a set by Andy Hall and costume designs by Patricia Doherty, "Emil" goes up this weekend and continues with performances Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through April 4. For reservations and other information, call NJ Rep at (732) 229-3166.

from the Asbury Park Press

Published on February 27, 2004

Al H. Mohrmann (foreground) and Michael Irvin star in Rich Orloff's Big Boys at the Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey in Madison.

The Good Daughter

Deborah Baum, David Foubert
Deborah Rayne plays a Missouri farm girl and David Foubert is a poetic shopkeeper in 'The Good Daughter' at New Jersey Repertory Co.
The New Jersey Repertory Co., located in Long Branch on the Jersey shore, is an adventurous year-round company dedicated to the discovery of new playwrights and the presentation of new plays. Its latest, D.W. Gregory's affecting family drama "The Good Daughter," boasts a flavorful, cinematic sweep. It's a sprawling tale of small-town family conflict centering on a prodigal daughter who inadvertently brings despair upon her return home.

Gregory is also the author of the compelling "Radium Girls" (under the name Dolores Whiskeyman), produced by Playwrights Co. of New Jersey three years ago. The playwright is comfortably nestled in William Inge country, where "a well is a hole in the ground" and a young girl nurtures a restless desire to get on a barge and float down river -- not unlike Madge Owens of "Picnic." Gregory even gives her farm family the name of Owen.

Her writing has a naturalistic style and a homey flavor similar to Inge's. Director Jason King Jones has captured the dusty rural climate of northwest Missouri in the days before and after World War I. His deft staging captures Midwestern mood, manners and movements, despite a well-executed but melodramatic finale, when the drama literally opens its floodgates.

Cassie, played by Deborah Rayne, is the play's pivotal character, a saucy flirt with a far-away look in her eyes. She pursues big-city glamour only to find despair in an abusive affair with a factory worker. Back on the farm, old wounds are opened on the homestead.

Rachel, acted with whiny vigor by Lee Eckert, is the giggly younger sister, soon disillusioned in a loveless marriage that prompts a harrowing second-act moment. Esther, (Christine Bruno), the mule-headed eldest sister crippled by polio in her youth, is feisty, honest and insightfully wise. Not willing to accept the proposal of Cassie's former beau on the rebound, she rallies with a gallant, independent thrust. Bruno is wonderful.

Davis Hall is the rheumatic, Bible-quoting family patriarch, a widower who works his 150 acres with a team of mules and rejects such modern conveniences as the tractor (he calls it "a mechanical horse"). This may well be the finest perf from Hall, a reliable actor in Jersey productions for the past two decades.

Brian O'Halloran is perfect as the colorless, good-natured gentleman caller, and David Foubert gives a sturdy account of the handsome, poetic storekeeper who struggles for the construction of levees to hold back the flood-works of the mighty Missouri River.

Plaintive musical strains accent scene changes, and period costumes have an old-world-daguerreotype dowdiness that's just right. Fred Kinney's functional set is an immaculate country barn, furnished with accessible stools, ladders and buckets, with a view of golden cornfields. The occasional placement of a dining table or a counter transforms the playing area into the farmhouse or country store. Cunning lighting and sound design bring forth a torrential storm, accompanied by thunder and lightning, that Lear might envy.

 Theater review: 'The Good Daughter' is as good as it gets
Published in the Asbury Park Press 10/16/03


It begins with a literal bang -- a thunderclap that gives voice to a temperamental river as it shakes off its man-made shackles and bears down upon a modest Missouri farm.

While friends and family members try desperately to persuade an old man to flee the oncoming floodwaters, the pent-up fury of a long-overdue maelstrom is conjured in a riveting mix of light and sound.

Presented by the New Jersey Repertory Company
179 Broadway, Long Branch
Through Nov. 16
(732) 229-3166

Like some downstream eddy, "The Good Daughter" draws you in within seconds -- and by the time the action arrives full circle back at the prologue's tense starting point, the audience has been caught up in some pretty strong emotional currents, courtesy of a production whose technical mastery and epic approach stand it among the best things ever offered up by Monmouth County's acclaimed New Jersey Repertory Company.

Currently in its world-premiere engagement at NJ Rep's Lumia Theatre in Long Branch -- and set in the years surrounding America's involvement in World War I -- D.W. Gregory's drama has at its heart a saga of a stern, Scripture-spouting widower and his attempts at ensuring the family's future by marrying off his daughters as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Farmer Ned Owen (Davis Hall) sees his best hope in the verbally arranged betrothal of middle daughter Cassie (Deborah Rayne) to an earnest and hard-working man of the soil by the name of Rudy Bird (Brian O'Halloran). It's an arrangement that makes sense to the pragmatic patriarch, given that eldest daughter/mother figure Esther (Christine Bruno) is crippled and hence not marrying material -- whereas baby-of-the-family Rachel (Lea Eckert) is a giggly thing of 15 at the play's start; a child who's at least a year or two away from birthing a future generation of strapping field hands.

As you'd come to expect, there are complications surrounding Ned's simple plan, arising largely from the free-spirited Cassie's disdain for shy, unassuming Rudy -- and her fascination with Matt (Gable-esque David Foubert), a college-educated storekeeper as well as a forward-thinker who's intent on controlling the capricious Missouri River by constructing levees. It's an idea that sits as well with hidebound traditionalist Ned as the prospect of trading in his horse team for a tractor.

Add to this the ever-unpredictable ebb and flow of the river -- an offstage character of sorts that seems to delight in pulling the strings of the scurrying human ants who depend upon it for their most basic needs -- and you've got enough variables at work to make even a man such as Ned begin to doubt the whole concept of "God's will."

This is the sort of play that almost makes you regret taking the customary intermission snack-safari to the lobby; so different are the characters' dynamics by the time the second act lights come up on the autumn of 1924, you feel as though the march of time had passed you by while you waited on line at Lina's Cafe.

Cassie, who had skipped out on her dilemma by the play's midpoint, has returned from the big city claiming an involvement with some unseen Russian prince. A very pregnant, very unhappy Rachel wonders when she'll ever feel anything for her husband Rudy. Esther is being courted by none other than Matt, now something of a pompous small-town Babbitt with a Ford dealership and an eye toward his legacy as a Great Man. Only Ned seems unchanged, albeit as redundant as the "tamed" river that lies just outside -- a river that, as it turns out, still has a few cards left to play.

If things get a tad melodramatic toward the end and if some of the characters' motives remain a bit ambiguous, it's little more than a minor quibble with Gregory's sharply written slice of Americana. The playwright (best known for the well-received "Radium Girls" of a few seasons back) resists turning her people into cornpone caricatures; crafting instead an intelligent script that challenges its cast and crew to deliver something truly extraordinary.


Cast members (from left) Christine Brown, Lea Eckert, Davis Hall and Deborah Rayne in a scene from "The Good Daughter" at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.
In his first work for NJ Rep, director Jason King Jones rises to the challenge. Everything about "The Good Daughter" is technically first-rate, and for all the elements that could have gone awry -- there are food and fight sequences; running water and rapid-fire scene changes by the bushel -- Mr. Jones shows the touch of a master moviemaker in keeping this eminently watchable production moving with a downright cinematic grace. Special attention must be paid to fellow NJ Rep first-timer Jill Nagle, for her lighting work on a production design that is easily the equal of any big-stage, big-budget offering.

While all six cast members operate at peak performance, Deborah Rayne as Cassie remains a standout among the standouts. Whether playing a wounded little-town flirt or putting on some city-slicker airs, Baum maintains a sure hand with a character who's scarcely so sure of who she wants to be. Her scenes with David Foubert -- delightful in the first act, devastating in the second -- are among the best duets you'll ever see in a straight play (can't wait for the musical!).

At first glance, Christine Bruno (she of the diminutive stature and formidably tall resume) appears a no-brainer lock for the role of the stalwart older sister -- but as things unfold, it becomes evident just how crucial this intriguingly commanding actress is to the proceedings. Her Esther is the very essence of pride and clarity, and anyone who tackles this part in the future is going to have to contend with her very long shadow.

Taking a character that the playwright herself described as "not terribly interesting" and turning it into a solid and sympathetic linchpin of this play, Brian O'Halloran continues to show himself as an ensemble actor of remarkable depth and dexterity. While his high-profile calling card remains his charter membership in filmmaker Kevin Smith's stock company, it's always a delight to watch this guy hone his considerable skills here at NJ Rep and numerous other regional stages.

It may be a bit hyperbolic to suggest that "if you see only one show this year. . . ," but anybody who's been looking for a reliable spot to test the waters of the local theater landscape would find that "The Good Daughter" is as good as it gets.

Two River Times
Scene On Stage
By Philip Dorian

Good Acting Highlights "The Good Daughter"
World premiere at New Jersey Repertory Company

Where in the world did New Jersey Rep find three actual sisters to play the sisters in The Good Daughter? Okay, so Deborah Rayne, Christine Bruno and Lea Eckert are not really sisters. But the characters they portray are, and five minutes into this play there's no doubt that Cassie (Baum), Esther (Bruno) and Rachel Owen (Eckert) are indeed siblings. The acting by the three, in fact by all six in the cast, is so rich, so humanly real, that any flaws in D.W. Gregory's play are easily dismissed as minor and eminently fixable.

Each of the talented actors nourishes and feeds off the others, and the result is a pleasure to behold. Rarely does a cast mesh so well, so completely. The sisters even begin to look alike. Credit too director Jason King Jones. The sense of family and flow of the play are evidence of his comprehensive vision and sure hand.

It is 1916, just prior to The Great War. On a farm in Northwest Missouri widower Ned Owen (Davis Hall) is concerned with marrying off his three daughters - or at least tow of them. Lovely, sparkling Cassie is being courted by bland, bumbling farmer Rudy Bird (Brian O'Halloran); Rachel is a spunky 16-year old, full of energy and wonder. Esther, in keeping with social values of that time, is considered unmarriageable; handicapped from birth, she has a twisted hip and leg and a resultant awkward gait.

A dashing townie, storekeeper Matt McCall (David Foubert), sweeps Cassie off her feet. He's something of an activist, lobbying for construction of levees along the mighty Missouri River, a concession to progress resisted by staid, religious fundamentalist Ned. (Devastating floods are God's will.)

It wouldn't be fair to reveal key elements of the story, which spans seven years, nor is it necessary. The characters undergo dramatic changes, with relationships weaving in and among one another in ways that are plausible even as they startle. Commitments are made and broken; sacrifices are made and regretted. The family is so well established early that the eventual tensions are more heart-wrenching and even more believable because of that very bond.

Essentially a drama, there's a liberal sprinkling of humor in The Good Daughter. The play Descends into melodrama toward the end (see 'fixable,' above), lbut it survives thanks to the superior acting ensemble. "You can't go home again" is a cliche that here withstands re-examination.

Cassie is well served by Baum's muted beauty. In total control, her marvelous brown eyes sparkle in scenes with Matt and actually go dull with Rudy. She converys the conflict within Cassie, whose willingness to defy one commitment is done in by another. Eckert is perfection as young, perky Rachel, and she meets the challenge of range as Rachel changes significantly. Esther is a paragon of strength and good sense. Bruno plays her without concession to her disability, and any pity one feels for her quickly dissolves. Real sisters develop a sort of code - glances and gestures that communicate without words. Thanks to three outstanding performances, the Owen girls are no exception.

The men as no less effective. Patriarch Ned is severe and unforgiving, but Hall finds the warmth beneath his stern exterior; O'Halloran plays the self-effacing Rudy with restraint, finding kindness and humor in the melancholy man. True-to-himself Matt represents the world outside the farm, and Foubert looks and acts just right. His Matt is smart and sharp, but not a smarty or a sharpy.

Fred Kinney's simple set is particularly effective when characters are silhouetted against the landscaped backdrop. Jill Nagle's lighting enhances every scene, and the costumes (Patricia E. Doherty), from work overalls to farm finery, complete a winning technical trifecta.

On opening night, when producer Gabor Barabas introduced The Good Daughter as "an epic American play," I chucked, certain that he was indulging in hyperbole. A new Grapes of Wrath or You Can't Take it With You in the 65-seat Lumia Theatre? Really. But if 'epic American' means evoking the social, geographical and political realities of a bygone era, then I owe Gabe an apology, because The Good Daughter does just that. If this seems a bit overblown, so be it. See the play and judge for yourself.

TriCity News Theatre Review
by Don Clarke

D.W. Gregory has written a classically American play that really digs deeply into the roots of our sociaty and sociatal expectations. Set in the period from 1916 to 1924, The Good Daughter, premieres in our own little Long Branch.

The play focuses on the lives of three sisters and their very traditional father, all of whom live on a farm. The first act is a time-honored portrayal, in the style of Thornton Wilder, well written, somewhat predictable, yet still intensely interesting. Each of the daughters has a personality; Cassie, the willful one who wants to see the world; Esther, the disabled girl who is limited by her disability (or by her family) and who finds great determination (or pig-headedness); and Rachel, the impulsive youngster.

In the second act, the scene moves forward seven years. Their lives have changed, and the girls have as well. The play is far more compelling and, certainly, less predictable. The author, Gregory, explores the notion of sanctuary and, at the same time, the stifling nature of family. She also examines consequences and responsibility. Some of the conclusions are troubling but the play is hopeful.

Deborah Rayne plays daughter Cassie. She makes the transtition from a headstrong egoist, to a more mature and saddened adult, beautifully. Christine Bruno plays the disable sister Esther. Her personality development and growing discontent are captivating. In life she does have a disability-which must enhance her interpretation. Lea Eckert plays Rachel. Her transformation from tomboy to wife is fascinating.

Davis Hall plays the father, a good man trying to make sense of a changing world by relying on old-fashioned values. David Foubert plays one of the suitors. He may be a modern young man - or Cassie has idealized him. It is a tough role, which he plays well. Brian O'Halloran is a possible predictable, very determined suitor. All the roles are well developed and the players sparkle.

This could be the play of the season.

One about the farmer's daughter: An intimately staged family epic premieres at NJ Rep

Published in the Asbury Park Press 10/10/03


The history of American arts and letters is packed with images of the family farmer as heroic figure; a tower of strength as apt to take some courageous "High Noon" stand as he is willing to spout some improbably stentorian monologue.

A play by D.W. Gregory
New Jersey Repertory Company's Lumia Theatre
179 Broadway, Long Branch
Performances through Nov. 16
(732) 229-3166

Out in the fields worked by the likes of Ned Owen, however, there's little room for heroic posturing when there are barely enough hours in the day to eke out a life of basic subsistence.

Ned, the God-fearing widower whose family is at the center of "The Good Daughter" -- D.W. Gregory's drama opening tonight in its world premiere run at New Jersey Repertory Company's Lumia Theatre in Long Branch -- is a man who appears to have spent his life in a constant state of struggle against forces beyond his control.

From the capricious currents of the Missouri River to the sociological tides that roil an increasingly industrialized America on the eve of the First World War, this native Midwesterner finds the foundations of his world in danger of eroding away; a situation that's not helped one bit by the tensions that simmer underneath his own roof.

As the good Lord has seen fit to bless the Owen household only with female children, Ned sets about assuring his family's survival in a manner befitting a patriarch of some hundred years ago -- namely, marrying off each of the young women to a husband that can furnish the necessities of life, if not necessarily love.

That's easier said than done, as all three of the Owen girls pose their own problems with the traditional procedure. While Esther has assumed much of her late mother's duties about the house, the strong and steady eldest daughter seems destined for a life of spinsterhood, having been born with a birth defect. The beautiful but contrary Cassie is a free spirit whose resistance to an arranged betrothal sends her running straight into the arms of a college-educated merchant's son and self-styled activist.


Cast members (from left) Deborah Rayne, David Foubert and Brian O'Halloran rehearse a scene from "The Good Daughter," being staged by the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.
Meanwhile, the youngest daughter Rachel, a dreamer of some 15 years of age, is the one most apt to appease her father -- although precisely whether she is the "good daughter" of the title is open to interpretation.

Speaking from her Washington home, the author describes her play (first composed as her thesis work in 1995, and revised extensively prior to its NJ Rep debut as a script-in-hand reading) as "pretty close to being an ensemble piece, with six pretty good parts."

Maintaining that "the overall story is more of a romance," Gregory puts the focus on Cassie and her relationships to her father as well as to Matt, the man who would endeavor to build a levee alongside the community.

"To Cassie, Matt represents the outside world; something she finds intriguing . . . while at the same time, he represents a lot of things that Ned finds distasteful," the playwright observes. "You can see it as Matt trying to control nature, while Ned is trying to control his family."

Veteran watchers of New Jersey's professional theater scene may recognize Gregory's work from a slightly different nom de plume. Working as Dolores Whiskeyman, the prolific playwright and "recovering critic" authored the acclaimed "Radium Girls," an award-winning historical drama (based on the devastating fate suffered by the female factory workers of the 1920s-era Radium Watch Dial company of Orange). Developed and workshopped during the author's residency with the Madison-based Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey, "Radium Girls" was recently put into print by Dramatic Publishing. So was "The Good Girl is Gone," a black comedy presented by NJ Rep last year as part of the troupe's Monday-evening reading series.

As for the crack about being a recovering critic, it was her stint as a play reviewer for the Washington Post that helped Dolores cultivate some useful contacts in regional theater circles, although, she says, "it was getting to the point where I couldn't maintain a relationship with certain theatrical companies and still be an objective critic." These days, the working wordsmith supplements her artistic endeavors by editing articles on state tax law -- a gig she describes as "kind of fun, actually."

Jason King Jones directs a cast that features Davis Hall as Ned, with Deborah Rayne as Cassie, Christine Bruno as Esther and Lea Eckert as Rachel. David Foubert plays college-boy firebrand Matt McCall, with Brian O'Halloran (the cult-favorite star of such Kevin Smith film productions as "Clerks" and a solid character player on area stages) appearing as the decent, hardworking (but "not terribly exciting") fellow farmer and prospective husband Rudy Bird.

Featuring set, costume and lighting designs respectively by Fred Kinney, Patricia Doherty and Jill Nagle, "The Good Daughter" opens this weekend and continues with performances at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and at 2 p.m. Sundays through Nov. 16. For reservations and information, call (732) 229-3166.

from the Asbury Park Press

Published on October 10, 2003


"The Good Daughter", by D.W. Gregory, directed by Jason King Jones  






L-above, Cast Party Rocks!! with Deborah Rayne (Cassie), David Foubert (Matt McCall) director Jones, Davis Hall (Ned Owen), playwright Gregory. Above: Brian O'Hallorn (Rudy Bird), Baum, Gregory, Foubert, Hall, Christine Bruno (Esther Owen), and Exec. Producer Gabor Barabas. Left: Lea Eckert (Rachel Owen) with Mom and friend. Cast party, open to company and audience, is a regular feature of opening night at NJ Rep.

And in character - Set in the early 20th century in rural Northwest Missouri, Gregory's play captures an integral period in American life, showing the strains of a dying culture, threatened by the forces of nature, extreme hardship and an impending war. This company demonstrates its mastery in every scene, and most noticeably when they perform Gregory's intricate vocal dance - a precise inter-cutting of dialogue among all six players on stage at once. The timing is impeccable. Don't miss this one! 

New Jersey by Bob Rendell

A Very Good Daughter
World Premieres at New Jersey Repertory

A rewarding new play awaits theatergoers at the New Jersey Repertory Company's Lumia Theatre in Long Branch. Just how good is it? It is certainly good enough for me to strongly recommend it to anyone interested in a multifaceted, thought provoking traditional American play which stirs echoes of Eugene O'Neill.

The world premiere play The Good Daughter is by D.W. Gregory. To quote the author's description of the setting, "the action takes place in a farming community in northwest Missouri, not far from the Iowa line – a part of the country where change comes slowly and at a great price." The first act spans a period of little more than a year, beginning in the summer of 1916.

Daughter's plot and themes are classic, having been employed by playwrights throughout the history of theatre. They provide the potential for scope and power, and for the examination of the human condition, making them irresistible to writers of vision.

Good Daughter
Deborah Rayne and David Foubert
The play's protagonists are widowed and embittered farmer Ned Owens, his three daughters and two young men who play pivotal roles in their lives.

The daughters are of marriageable age. Esther, the oldest, has been hardened and worn down from the rigors of having to care for the home and her younger sisters since the early demise of their mother. She is physically handicapped (this is manifested in a severe limp), and it is assumed by her family that she will never marry.

Middle sister Cassie conveys an aura of intelligence and an interest in the world outside her community which set her apart from her father and sisters. These attributes contribute to her disinterest in her suitor, tenant farmer and neighbor Rudy Bird. Rudy is a decent and practical man, with a plan to acquire land and partner with Cassie's father as a farmer. He is awkward and diffident in his courtship of Cassie.

If this were not enough, Cassie falls in love with another friend of her father, Matt McCall. He has returned from college to his parents and their general store. Bright, sophisticated, forward thinking and ambitious, he is clearly the right match for Cassie.

Ned Owens betroths Cassie to Rudy and is unrelenting in his insistence that she marry him. Matt enlists in the Army at the outbreak of The Great War and refuses to run away with Cassie (Matt's last two actions would read better and play better if their order were reversed). Cassie runs away from her home and family, and a marriage which she cannot accept. Youngest sister Rachel (I bet that you thought that I had forgotten her) accepts her father's dictum that she marry Rudy in place of her sister. End of act one.

When the curtain rises for act two, it is the autumn of 1924. Seven years after having run away, Cassie, the prodigal daughter, returns home. As is the norm in most such cases, Cassie has come home because she is in big trouble. There is an overabundant plot here as there is in act one. However, for most of the second act, the work becomes more resonant and emotionally satisfying as each of the six characters evolves believably in significant ways. I will not say more.

The entire play has a backdrop of the mechanization of agriculture, flood, drought, and a growing ability to bend nature to our will.

If I have properly succeeded in conveying the engrossing evening of theatre being presented at this tiny 60-odd seat home of the New Jersey Rep by The Good Daughter, you will want to hear the balance of this narrative from D.W. Gregory and her talented presenters themselves.

During the first act, I felt that some of the Missouri farm accents were overemphasized. While I do not doubt their authenticity, the accents tend to make the play, along with its humor and dense exposition, feel too broadly drawn. However, when the richness of Gregory's characterizations becomes more evident in the second act, the entire cast probes deeply to convey them.

Deborah Rayne is outstanding in portraying the return of the prodigal daughter. She captures Cassie's pretense of superiority and her ironic disdain for those she left behind. She then convincingly portrays her moments of truth.

Christine Bruno portrays the hopefulness and humanity in Esther without softening the pain and bitterness which have caused her to be abrasive. She honestly earns the understanding of the viewer for her Esther.

To round out D.W. Gregory's three sisters, Lea Eckert strongly conveys Rachel's maturing realization that the needs that she has as an individual are more crucial to her than fulfilling her family niche.

Davis Hall is convincing as Ned Owen. As written, Owen is a kind of one note, unreasonably stubborn individual who does not engage our sympathy. Brian O'Halloran as Rudy and David Foubert as Matt make solid contributions. It is difficult to watch Mr. Foubert here and not think of Clark Gable (or was that Rhett Butler?).

Within the realm of the possible, New Jersey Rep has succeeded admirably in conveying the scope of the work. Director Jason King Jones brings solid work from his cast, maintains an appropriately brisk pace, and achieves a smoothness and clarity of focus that is quite remarkable under the circumstances.

The concept for the basic set is a barn with an open door looking out onto a field. As the action shifts mostly to various rooms in the residence and around the farm, the placement of the barn door shifts, and various items of furniture decorate the set. We may not always be certain just what part of the house we are in, but the design insures that a sense of the farm is always there, and the look and feel seem just right. Credit the solid design work of Fred Kinney. And the lighting and sound design (and effects) by Jim Nagle and Merek Royce Press, respectively, are terrific.

Daughter feels overwritten. It may need less plotting and more room to breathe. The event leading to the first act curtain is presented in a very contrived fashion to produce a surprise twist which undermines Gregory's seriousness of purpose. The climax is sudden and unsatisfying. However, these reservation are significantly outweighed by the play's virtues.

Author D.W. Gregory is terrific at conveying detail and nuance in her characters. Five of the six display extraordinarily organic growth and/or change. It is not that we are told of changed circumstance or just have to accept it as a given. Additionally, the play is loaded with ideas which arise organically from the plot and characters. It also plays against a rich canvas of our history.

The Good Daughter by D.W. Gregory; directed by Jason King Jones; Cast: Deborah Rayne (Cassie Owen); Christine Bruno (Esther Owen); Lea Eckert (Rachel Owen); David Foubert (Matt McCall); Davis Hall (Ned Owen); Brian O'Halloran (Rudy Bird).

By: Simon Saltzman

Long Branch - Whether it has been tales from the Brothers Grimm, plays by Shakespeare, Chekhov and Wendy Wasserstein, or countless novels and film scenarios, the conflict and jealousies between sisters has remained a compelling literary and dramatic staple through the ages. In "The Good Daughter," now having its world premiere at New Jersey Repertory Company, playwright D.W. Gregory hasn't broken any new ground in the familiar genre as much as she has turned the melodramatic soil just enough to make her characters appear fresh and vital.

Set in a farming community in Northwest Missouri, the play's action occurs between 1917 and 1924 and mostly in and around the modest homestead of Ned Owen (Davis Hall), a stolid God-fearing widower left with three daughters to raise. Here, Ned's determination to keep the farm going and survive the ever unpredictable and threatening Missouri River is as pressing as his desire to marry off his daughters to the first man able to provide them with a good home and the basic necessities.

Unsurprisingly, the daughters, the men in their lives, not to mention the river, have their own motivations. Under Jason King Jones' sturdy un-fussy direction, the deluge of romance, regrets, recriminations and rebellious behavior that propel "The Good Daughter," takes an almost retro dramatic course. But it is a course that, for all its contrived arteries, is precisely and skillfully constructed.

The eldest 20 year-old Cassie (Deborah Rayne) is pretty and openly discontent with her life on the farm and unwilling to comply with her father's wish that she marry Rudy Bird (Brian O'Halloran), an awkwardly amorous neighboring farmer for whom she has no feelings. More conciliatory toward the house rules imposed by the somewhat stiff-necked Ned is Esther (Christine Bruno), the middle sister born with a physical defect who has, nevertheless, assumed many of the chores of her late mother. She is also, despite her father's resignation that she is not likely to marry, capable of harboring romantic notions. These are secretly directed to Matt McCall (David Foubert), the dashing college graduate and civic-minded activist son of a local shop owner. Matt has recently come back to his hometown and set as his primary goal persuading Ned and the townsfolk to build a levee to help protect the community.

Cassie's infatuation and open flirting with the equally rebellious Matt doesn't go unnoticed by the youngest, 15 year-old Rachel (Lea Eckert), whose sweetness is tempered by her loyalty to her father. A scheme, hatched between Cassie and Rachel to promote a romance between Esther and Rudy, produces an unexpected consequence. This is no less unexpected than the reason Cassie leaves home after Matt decides to enlist in the Army. It is seven years later when Cassie returns home amid a flood of mixed emotions from the family and a real flood of the Missouri River.

The play has a very fine cast able to provide the subtler and more pronounced changes their characters undergo. Baum's change from a free-spirit to a sadder and wiser Cassie is as impressive as is Bruno's blossoming as a self-realized Esther. Eckert is touching as she reflects Rachel's poignant transition from familial stability into emotional instability, the result of a loveless marriage. It is as revelatory a turn as the ones O'Halloran and Foubert are required to make as more mature and self-made men. Hall is excellent as Ned who finds his fate is determined as much by a good daughter (which one I won't reveal) as it is by his steadfast trust in God's deliverance. A torrential rain storm (a real curtain of rain), with thunder, lightning (lighting design by Jill Nable and sound by Merek Royce Press) is impressive as is designer Fred Kinney's barn-like structure that adapts to various locales. The fine production values serve this good and commendably involving play.

It is important to note that D. W. Gregory previously wrote plays as Dolores Whiskeyman. Under that nom de plume, "Radium Girls," an award-winning drama based on the actual events surrounding the fate of female factory workers at the Radium Watch Dial Company of Orange, N. J. during the 1920s, had its premiere two years ago at Playwrights Theater of New Jersey where it received enthusiastic notices. Other work by Gregory has been under development at both P. T. N. J. and at New Jersey Repertory Company.

'The Good Daughter' has potential to be even better

Monday, October 13, 2003

Star-Ledger Staff

There's a good deal of water -- but some soap, too -- in "The Good Daughter," D.W. Gregory's new play at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

The playwright does well when she deals with the river, rain and floods, and the convincing characters who must cope with them. But Gregory's plot contains too many soap opera touches.

These melodramatic moments don't fatally hurt her drama, however. Gregory rallies with a final curtain that's both wise and moving.

With solid acting and almost as potent direction by Jason King Jones, the adjective that Gregory uses for "Daughter" is the same as one that can describe this evening in the theater.

But it could be a good deal more than good. Given that this is its first production, there's reason to believe that "The Good Daughter" can be very good someday.

At first glance, the play resembles "King Lear," for it involves a landowner father with three daughters. One difference is that this takes place in 1916 Missouri. Another is that Ned Owen isn't thinking about retirement. He sees greater days for his farm -- if only he can get his daughter Cassie to marry Rudy, a sincere young man who's willing to work hard.

Pretty Cassie is Ned's ace trump. Esther walks with a limp, and Rachel is rather ungainly. But Cassie doesn't love Rudy. She's smitten with merchant Matt McCall, a most serious man who holds dear his values about responsibility and community. He's the one who keeps telling Ned he'll lose the farm to flood if he doesn't take precautions. But Ned says, "Only thing you can do is put your faith in the Lord."

Cassie is so superior when she's with the fumbling and nervous Rudy -- only to become the jittery one when she's with McCall. After Gregory convinces an audience that these two are wrong for each other, she proceeds to have them fall in love. For McCall doesn't have his feet so much on the ground that he can't be swept off them when Cassie bats her eyelashes the right way.

Rudy is devastated, and so is Esther, because she loves him, and he doesn't notice. (See where it's getting sudsy?) Gregory does have a masterstroke at the end of the first act, but King doesn't stage it in a way that gets the maximum impact from it. At the same time, Gregory errs by giving short shrift to Esther. The playwright doesn't show what she's feeling until much later -- and much too late.

As Ned, Davis Hall is sleepy-eyed and world-weary, but not too exhausted to show that he truly loves his daughters and fiercely wants the best for them. David Foubert has a Clark Gable-Rhett Butler dash as McCall, but staunchly shows the seriousness of purpose that's so vital to the character. Brian O'Halloran -- of "Clerks" fame -- grows wonderfully from the insecure young man to the responsible breadwinner who always tries to do his best in the face of circumstances that would have defeated many other men.

He's not the only one who deftly shows how seven years can change a person. Christine Bruno's Esther, Lea Eckert's Rachel and Deborah Rayne's Cassie all display a sparkle in the first act that's deadened by the events of the second. They perform beautifully as a unit, too, and embody the essence of sisterly affection.

And which of the three is the good daughter of the title? Gregory slyly lets the audience make up its own mind about this.

Intrepid actress ready for next career step

Friday, October 03, 2003

Star-Ledger Staff

Christine Bruno is glad she got Laura Wingfield out of the way, so she can now get on to the parts she really wants to play.

That includes roles in new works -- such as Esther Owen in D.W. Gregory's "The Good Daughter." Bruno begins performing it on Thursday for four weeks at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

Bruno, 29, was born with cerebral palsy. She describes her case as "medium," for it's solely affected her legs and she walks with difficulty. It's why directors along the way have thought her a natural for Laura Wingfield, the young woman who walks with a limp in Tennessee Williams' classic, "The Glass Menagerie."

"I didn't play her until two years ago -- on purpose," she says. "Because everyone always expected me to play her. What other part immediately comes to mind for me? So I went the other way completely. But then the opportunity presented itself in Lancaster, Pa., and," she adds brightly, "it turned out to be the best experience in my life."

She's hoping her stint in "The Good Daughter" will be as rewarding. In the play, Esther is the eldest of three daughters born to a Missouri farmer. "Once her mother died in childbirth," says the diminutive, lively-voiced actress, "Esther had to become the surrogate mother to her father and the two girls."

The plays starts in 1916 and continues through 1923, taking Esther from an unmarried 21-year-old to someone who's considered an old maid at 28 -- especially because she has no prospects on the horizon.

"What makes not being married more problematic," says Bruno, "is that the play says that she's been deformed since childhood."

The Meriden, Conn., native -- now a New Yorker -- set her sights on a performing career when she was 5, and never wavered through the years. Her mother, father and step-father all tried to dissuade her.

"Not because of the cerebral palsy," she says. "They felt the uncertain life of an actor should be out of the question for anybody. This went on until I was playing Mary Warren in 'The Crucible' in San Francisco. I told them, 'I know it's expensive to fly out here, but you have to see I'm not wasting my time.' And they came out and agreed I wasn't."

Her parents were protective, Bruno says, partly because they'd seen their daughter endure the taunts of children.

"Kids were cruel," she admits, "but at the risk of sounding arrogant here, I'm pretty quick-witted and I realized those kids weren't as on-the-ball as I was. I'm not saying it didn't bother me -- it especially did when someone I thought was a friend felt he had to join the crowd and make fun of me. It took a while to learn that if I'm not with the in-crowd, there's nothing I can do."

Teachers paid extra attention to her and she was allowed to leave class five minutes early so that she'd have ample time to get to her next class. "When kids criticized me about that," she says, "I said, 'Oh, I'll trade my life with yours.' And that stopped that."

Bruno went to Skidmore College and majored both in theater and political science, the latter in order to have the famous "something to fall back on." After she was graduated, she flirted with the idea of law school, but stayed with the acting. Even though the work hasn't been steady -- a few roles in New York and San Francisco -- she makes ends meet as a freelance copy editor and teacher for the New York public schools' "Kids Project."

"Through puppets and actors," she says, "I teach the kids about disability awareness --how to interact with their disabled peers. I encourage them to ask questions. Kids are sometimes yelled at by their parents when they ask a question about the disabled because it's not 'polite.' But it's fine and natural to ask questions. I know I always have."

New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Spain Re-develops at Playwrights Theatre

Natalie Wilder and
Phillip F. Lynch

There are very brave people at Playwrights Theatre in Madison. How else would they dare devote themselves exclusively to developing new plays with both full productions and a plethora of readings, staged and otherwise? Being unable to boost their subscriptions or single ticket sales with any proven, "surefire" popular attractions, they clearly are out there flying without a net.

Therefore, despite a really strong effort by director John Pietrowski to breathe life into Spain, an absurd new comedy by Jim Knable, by staging it in the round with bright lighting and a sense of airy spaciousness, there is just very little in the writing to hold our interest.

Barbara, an attractive young woman whose husband has left her for a younger gal with a "boob job," is fulminating in her Washington, D.C. apartment when a 16th century Spanish Conquistador materializes. It seems Barbara has an obsession with the culture of Spain.

Despite Pietrowski's description of the work as a metaphysical comedy, there seems nothing metaphysical here. What we immediately know is that this blustering figure in armor and any other non-contemporary character who will be introduced will be a figment of Barbara's imagination, a dream or dreamlike hallucination.

Her visitor is a comedic figure who doesn't know how he has come to speak English. However, he is big on rape and murder. In time, he reveals that his name is El Tigre (the tiger). He produces a "Mayan Ancient" who confirms his pedigree with a couple of deadly dull and contradictory stories about "passing through a portal" into contemporary D.C. It really is nothing to worry about, because what you see is not what you get, and it will change over the course of the play.

I could not discern any growth in Barbara nor could I uncover any clues to understanding her from the figments of her imagination which occupy most of play's mercifully brief running time. When more contemporary visions entered the scene, I did sometimes prematurely wonder whether figments were being replaced by reality, but I was rarely amused and never engaged.

The eager cast acquits itself well. Kristin Johansen is a slightly daft, likeable Barbara. Chris Tomaino is game in two variations of her Spanish knight. Angela Della Ventura is quite engaging and shows good range in several of her smaller roles. Her male Ancient was not for me. Natalie Wilder as Diversion (don't ask) performs well throughout.

The on-stage hero of the evening is Philip F. Lynch. He performs a couple of varied roles (including Barbara's husband) well and provides the most enjoyable moments of the evening with his playing of what sounds like traditional melodic Spanish guitar music. It was a pleasure to note in the program that Lynch composed original music for the evening.

This co-production with the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch arrives directly from its run at NJRC. The play was originally produced a couple of seasons back by the Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington. Author Knable felt that he needed to do further developmental work on the play. He found that it is harder to get a work in development a second production than a first. Pietrowski confirms this and states that he feels PTNJ should function as an additional port of call in such situations - another admirable mission for an admirable theatre.

Spain continues performances through October 5 at Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey, 33 Green Village Road, Madison, NJ 07940. 973-514-1787, ext. 30; on-line

Spain by Jim Knable; directed by John Pietrowski; Cast (in order of appearance): Kristin Johansen (Barbara); Chris Tomaino (Conquistador); Angela Della Ventura (Ancient); Natalie Wilder (Diversion); Philip F. Lynch (John)

Photo: SuzAnne Barabas

Tripping through 'Spain': Shape-shifting comedy served in the round at NJ Rep

Published in the Asbury Park Press 8/15/03


It's a moment that occurs pretty close to the end of "Spain," the trippy little play now in its regional premiere engagement at New Jersey Repertory Company's Lumia Theatre in Long Branch -- although it's the kind of device you'd wish more playwrights packed in their bag of tricks these days.

At the New Jersey Repertory Company
179 Broadway, Long Branch
Performances through Sept. 14
(732) 229-3166

A suburbanite by the name of Barbara stands confronted by a drum-beating Mayan mystic in a place that's either antique Andalucia or some trans-dimensional Z-bricked limbo. Two men lay dead on the floor from apparent sword wounds, and ignored for the nonce is the scarlet-gowned, bosom-heaving apparition of Barbara's co-worker, a transformed plainjane by the name of Diversion. When Barbara is asked her take on what it all means, she spells it all out for us, going around the room and explaining what each of the characters represent to her.

As a means to an ending for this often difficult piece, it serves to drive the action back down to Earth for a crucial conclusion. As a handy helper for savvy students with a quiz in the morning (or slow-on-the-uptake critic types with a deadline), it's a godsend.

Not that we necessarily have to buy wholesale any of the notions expressed by the heroine of West Coast scribe Jim Knable's surreal comedy, since it's fairly well established at the outset that Barbara (played with unsettling purposefulness by Kristin Johansen) has been driven over the brink by the departure of her husband John (Philip Lynch, who just wrapped a co-starring role in NJ Rep's "The Adjustment"). We might surmise this by the presence of a sixteenth-century conquistador who arrives (in full period armor and with remarkable command of contemporary American English) with his feet propped up on her living room coffee table 3/4 having allegedly experienced a close encounter with the mystical New World ancient (Angela Della Ventura).

Special to the Press

Chris Tomaino, Philip Lynch and Kristin Johansen star in "Spain," the comedy now on stage at New Jersey Repertory Company.

For Barbara, who admits an obsession with the idea of Spain (though she's never been), the brutal, blustering, unrepentant raper and pillager who calls himself El Tigre is hardly anyone's romantic ideal. As played by Chris Tomaino of Tinton Falls (seen in a lead role in this season's "Winterizing the Summer House") the time-hopping visitor is ultimately little more than a posturing frat brat in an admittedly very groovy helmet; showing infinitely more regard for the plumed headgear than in any human life.

What to make, though, of the fact that El Tigre can also be seen by the repressed, business-suited Diversion (we thought she was named "The Virgin" until we scanned the program)? While we're at it, what's the deal with the occasional appearances of the inscrutable Ancient, a figure whose every muttering and meandering elicited considerable titters from the laugh-at-anything element in the audience, but who seems to be keeping us from some considerably larger and darker joke?

There's little in the overlong and underperforming first act of Knable's "lyrical comedy" -- 3/4 punctuated in parts by what we assumed to be Spanish folk song pastiches by the author that does anything more than lard up layers of flashbacks, fantasies and filigree. Still, we could excuse some of the amorphous mess if we take it on good faith that most of the action happens inside of Barbara's head -- after all, few of us have insides of heads that are the stuff of a tightly-plotted two-act. What does become evident by intermission is that Ms. Della Ventura has much more to contribute than her turns as the Ancient; particularly a fun bit as Barbara's boss.

If Act I comes close to gagging on its own artifice, however, the second act succeeds in peeling away much of the layers of arty-choke, stripping the armor from these humanoid ciphers and giving us a first glimpse of some real characters. While the impressive Della Ventura continues to convey various manifestations of wisdom and authority -- three of them male -- by play's end (there's even a sly in-joke built into the script commenting on her chameleonic duties), Natalie Wilder as Diversion brings her single assigned character to life via a series of walk-on, walk-off appearances that range from candidly confessional cameos to a funny full-gallop visualization of her pet fantasy. Lynch offers up a curious set of characterizations that may or may not all be visions of wayward hubby John. Even the ridiculous El Tigre is not at all what he first seems -- and Tomaino rises to the occasion, finding a human heart inside the discarded battle regalia.Presented in the round within the Lumia's smaller-scaled Dwek Performance Space, this is the second co-production of NJ Rep in cahoots with the Madison-based Playwright's Theatre of New Jersey -- and, unlike 2002's two-man burlesque "Big Boys," this is scarcely an old-school laugh routine. The cast (under the supervision of PTNJs artistic director John Pietrowski) gets put through their multi-media paces here, with Lynch singing and playing guitar; Della Ventura and Wilder duetting, and Wilder called upon to strum the six-string and do a bit of rudimentary juggling -- as well as something akin to a flamenco step. It's up to Wilder and Johansen to steer this weird vehicle through the home stretch; feet propped up on that coffee table for a strangely satisfying conclusion.

Monday, August 11, 2003
Star-Ledger Staff

The play called "Spain" is mainly quite insane.

Jim Knable's current effort at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch starts out promisingly. Barbara Tusenbach is more miserable than her namesake in Chekhov's "The Three Sisters." For after five years of marriage, her husband John has left her for a younger and prettier woman.

Soon after, "El Tigre," a conquistador, time-travels from 16th century Spain. Barbara doesn't think she's hallucinating, but her best friend -- who's named Diversion, of all things -- certainly assumes she is.

Barbara doesn't care. She likes the strong, swarthy guy. "Luckily, he speaks English," she tells the audience.

She is unnerved, though, when he becomes savage, as is his uncivilized wont. "You represent everything I hate about Spain," she tells him. "Why couldn't you be like Lorca or Picasso?"

For El Tigre believes in murdering your adversary when he does you dirty. Eventually Barbara considers becoming barbaric. Maybe a good sword in the stomach is just what John deserves. "Tell me what it's like to kill someone," she implores her conquistador.

That's when matters become disturbing. By this point, the audience has come to care for Barbara, especially because she's so well-played by Kristin Johansen. She has a smile as bright as the sun in the Spanish sky that she describes. Many an actress can show fire in her belly, but when Johansen is called to do that, she also shows a fire in her face.

Yet Knable betrays both Barbara and the audience by suddenly changing the goofy, good-natured comedy. He puts Barbara in a genuinely dangerous and disturbing situation, one that is remotely funny. This makes the first scene of the second act downright unbearable.

By this point, the play has become terribly confusing, too. The writing is so painfully undisciplined that an audience could easily be pardoned for tuning out. If anyone is still paying attention, he might nod in agreement when Barbara says such lines as "What is the point of this?" or "This is madness," not to mention, "I don't understand who I am."

But then, in the final minutes, Knable suddenly and admirably pulls the play together to show us what's really been on its mind. "Spain" turns out to be about the difficulties that cloud the mind when the spouse you still love leaves you.

Granted, that's a good and valid theme, but Knable uses a plot device that often shows up at the end of a sixth-grader's homework composition. Whenever a kid comes up with a solution like Knable's, his teacher often writes "C-minus" at the top of the paper.

Chris Tomaino is El Tigre, burning brightly in a wonderfully haughty and mock-heroic way. He stands tall, poses like Superman, and delivers dramatic gestures at every turn. Moments later, though, he can narrow his eyes to slits when some 21st century technological device -- or feminist viewpoint -- confuses him.

As Diversion -- and why she's named that turns outto be a cheap trick, too -- Natalie Wilder has the chirpy voice and diminutive height worthy of the best second bananas. Philip F. Lynch makes John matter-of-factly guilt-free for all the pain he's caused his wife.

"Spain" is staged with brio by John Pietrowski, the artistic director of Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey in Madison, where the show will move in September. Their subscribers had best hope that Jim Knable does an enormous rewrite before then.

The LINK News August 14 thru August 20, 2003
Theater Review
"Spain" will win you over
By Milt Bernstein

The newest offering of Long Branch's NJ Repertory Company, a play simply called "Spain," and written by Jim Knable, is a fast-moving, inventive and humorous romantic comedy about a fairly young woman whose husband seems to be leaving her for an even younger woman, a "bimbo with big boobs;" and imagines herself getting her revenge in a number of startling ways, incuding swordplay, violent encounters, and, most interesting of all, a Spanish "conquistado," a virile and charismatic throwback to the days of Spanish glory, three centuries ago.

As played by Chris Tomaino, an accomplished young equity actor who hails from Tinton Falls and has starred in several NJ Rep productions, the "Conquistador," dressed in full armor, helmet and sword hanging by his side, is colorful, convincing and amusing, as he tries to cross over the centuries to seduce Barbara (played in her different moods equally well by Kristin Johansen) who has dreamed him up.

The other characters in the story, all ably and professionally performed, include Natalie Wilder as Barbara's concerned friend and office co-worker; Philip F. Lynch as errant husband John , who would like to make up with his wife if it's not too late; and Angela Della Ventura, who accomplishes several different parts, mainly a cloth-robed "Ancient" who acts as a kind of Greek chorus, offering philosophical and poetic comments on the vagaries of human passion.

This eminently worth-seeing theatre evening was directed by Joh Pietrowski, a director with the Playwrights Theatre Co. in Madison, New Jersey, which is collaborating with NJ Rep and will offer the play after it's run here.

triCityNews 8/21/03

Theatre Review
By Don Clarke
triCityNews Theatre Critic

It has been a long time since I put fingers to keyboard and caught up with you all. My life partner, Muffy, has been very busy getting engineering advice concerning our beautiful Asbury Park home. Muffy and Dan, our consultant, have been together night and day, planning for the future.

I must confess I have been a bit jealous of all the attention Muffy (and Dan) are giving our home. I was too depressed to write. Fortunately this reviewing gig gave me my chance for a comeback.

Muffy was pleased to be able to attend a performance of a new play at the New Jersey Rep Co. in lovely Long Branch. The NJ Rep has joined forces once again with Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey (of Madison - no less) to bring us a new production. Jim Knable's "Spain" is a new comedy directed by John Pietrowski.

Because Muffy was eager to see the show, Dan and my angel left extra early for the big city in order to look at color samples for our new deck. Plenty of time to get home in time to dress for the performance! Then the power went out. My own one and Dan were stuck in New York for four days! Sadly, I went, alone again, to the show.

I thought the play might appeal to Muffy, because the lead character is a woman who is obviously under some stress. Barbara - played by Kristin Johansen, is a twenty-first century woman who finds a 16th century Spanish Conquistador in her living room. This is unsettling, particularly as she is just coming to terms with being jilted by her husband.

Faster than you can say time warp she is caught in a world that is either a baroque fantasy, or a bizarre reality. Johansen plays the part the groomed Barbara stepping out of (or into) her life very well. Her eyes are expressive and her body posture develops interestingly throughout the performance.

The COASTER, August 14, 2003
N.J. Repertory
by Robert F. Carroll

Barbara's just been jilted by her husband and, as if that weren't enough, she finds a 16th century Spanish conquistador, complete with metal couture, ensconced in her suburban living room.

That should be more than enough to get you to the New Jersey Repertory Company's "Spain," a witty new comedy having its New Jersey premiere at N.J. Rep in Long Branch.

The conquistador may be only a figment of Barbara's imagination, but who knows? A mysterious female visitor (Angela Della Ventura) also shows up, an addled-brained commentator on the future who blithely muddies the present. She may also be a Mayan visionary, or a lawyer, or a psychiatrist. Who knows?

Barbara's straying husband shows up too, to his regret, and is fatally stabbed (apparently) while attempting a reconciliation. And then there's Barbara's woman friend named, of all things, Diversion (Natalie Wilder), who is mainly bewildered by what's going on. But then who isn't?

It's all wonderfully nutty stuff, carried off by an extraordinary cast. The conquistador (Chris Tomaino) is commanding as the man of actions, even as he admits that looting, raping and killing isn't really his cup of tea. He prefers the peaceful greenery of Andalusia.

Barbara's husband John (Philip Lynch), who supposedly abandoned his wife for a young bimbo, does double duty as a strolling troubadour in one of the comic plot shifts in "Spain."

As Barbara, Kristin Johansen is marvelously befuddled, approaching each new twist in her life - and in the play - with a wide-eyed stare and a comic rejoinder. Wilder is the only sane one in the plot, but just barely; she does a turn in a slinky dress, with castanets.

Playwright Jim Knable is the young man responsible for all this inspired lunacy. His prior work, including a play he wrote at 14 that won a young playwrights contest in California, has been performed in theaters throughout the country.

"Spain" was conceived two years ago. When New Jersey Rep's Gabor Barabas attended a reading in Philadelphia he liked it. So did John Pietrowski, artistic director of Madison-based Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey. As a result the two companies are splitting the coast of production of "Spain."

The play runs through Sept. 14 at N.J. Rep at 179 Broadway, Long Branch. Performances are 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. The production (which is worth seeing twice) then moves to Playwrights Theatre in Madison for performances Sept. 19 through Oct. 2.

The Long Branch performances of "Spain" are dedicated to Stewart Fisher, N.J. Rep's assistant artistic director, who was casting the play when he died last September. Pietrowski picked up the "Spain" direction for N.J. Rep.

Lemonade Reading

  On July 21 at 7 p.m. I attended my first-ever staged reading of a play at the New Jersey Repertory Company at 179 Broadway in Long Branch. Well, to be more accurate, it was my first-ever staged reading of any play, anywhere, but that's really neither here nor there.
   The play was "Lemonade," written by Mike Folie, directed by Evan Bergman and starring Bruce Faulk, Ben Masur, Tricia Burr, Katrina Ferguson and Doris Dunigan. It was done as part of the Company's new "Script-in-Hand" series; held every Monday at 7 p.m.
   Quickly noting the fact that at 20 I was the youngest person in the audience by a good thirty years or so, I also observed that the relatively small theater was absolutely packed for the reading that evening. It became necessary to set chairs along the aisles to accommodate everyone. People scrunched together and fire codes were possibly violated that evening, all in the name of theater.

"Lemonade" players

   Despite the self-explanatory nature of the term, I was still somehow surprised when I found that a staged reading is exactly what it sounds like; the actors sit in chairs on the stage and read from the script. They act just with their voices and occasionally mime gestures or even physical combat, but rarely, if ever, stand up, except to exchange positions with one another when it becomes necessary. Stage directions were read out loud by the narrator (Dunigan), and much of the actual action was left to the imagination of the viewer. Typically this created no problem for me and only became strange when we were told that a character had exited but…there they were, still seated there.

"Lemonade" itself was clever and definitely funny, but particularly in the second act fell into such explosive goofiness that I'm not sure I could even accurately describe it. Suffice it to say it focused on (and exclusively featured) four people: Carl (Faulk), Jim (Masur), Jane (Burr), and Betsy (Ferguson). Carl and Jane are married; Jim is an old school friend of Carl's who falls for Jane, and Betsy is an old school friend of Jane's who has been having a year-long affair with Carl.
   The play, peppered with quick dialogue, focuses on the numerous infidelities and partner exchanges between these four people. I definitely enjoyed it (I'm not a very theater- oriented person and entered with a certain degree of reservation), and reached the point where I barely noticed it wasn't a full production. This in itself is a testament to how well-written and performed the play was.
   Following the performance, the writer and director came out on stage along with the cast and a discussion was held with the audience. They were given the opportunity to comment on the play; nearly everything said was positive, with a general agreement that the second act was, again, exceedingly goofy and not as good as the first. Also, they could ask questions of the cast, writer and director.
   The point of the discussion was for the playwright to get an audience's perspective on his work and further develop it. But the discussion, coupled with the sheer proximity of the cast to the audience, also made for a very informal, comfortable environment for the audience.
   For more information about upcoming events at the New Jersey Repertory Company, visit or call (732) 229-3166.
                 -Adam Taliercio,
NJ Coast

Small theaters pool limited resources

Friday, August 08, 2003

Star-Ledger Staff

Fifty-thousand dollars.

That's what it takes for a workshop production with a small cast and minimal sets to stage a play.

It's the reason that New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch and the Madison-based Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey are splitting the costs on a production of Jim Knable's "Spain."

It opens tonight in Long Branch for a six week run before moving to Madison for another three.

"Spain" is a place where Barbara (Kristin Johansen) wants to go. So after her husband (Phillip F. Lynch) abandons her, she goes there in her mind and meets a 16th-century conquistador (Chris Tomaino). She's as surprised by her hallucination as she is at her attraction to him -- after all, he is a barbarous murderer. But Barbara soon finds that he's not an illusion, given that her friend, the fancifully named Diversion (Natalie Wilder), sees him, too.

"Spain" is the second annual collaboration for the two theaters. The alliance is a happy one, say both John Pietrowski, artistic director of Playwrights, Gabor Barabas, executive producer of New Jersey Rep.

But the union has its roots in tragedy.

Pietrowski went to Philadelphia in 2001 to attend a festival at the National New Play Network, an organization made up of theater groups from 25 states, including New Jersey, devoted to fostering new work. His troupe, Playwrights Theatre, was one of 17 members.

There he ran into Barabas and Stewart Fisher, New Jersey Rep's artistic associate. All spoke of the expense in developing new plays and casually discussed working together to ameliorate the cost.

Meanwhile, all three took a shine to "Spain" when it was read at the festival. Fisher wanted to direct it, and Barabas made the necessary arrangement for an October 2002 opening. Fisher had approved designs and had cast three of the five roles when he unexpectedly died on Sept. 22 of an aneurysm.

"We were, of course, devastated," says Barabas.

Meanwhile, Pietrowski was developing a new play called "Big Boys." Barabas called and said they needed to fill the "Spain" slot, and asked if they could co-produce and move "Big Boys," a comedy about a cowardly man who works for an abusive mogul.

"Big Boys" premiered at New Jersey Rep last fall and moved to Playwrights last winter. The two theaters split the costs, as they are doing again for "Spain."

"It's not quite a 50-50 split," says Pietrowski, "but it's close." Both men say the costs are pro-rated according to the length of runs and the size of their theaters. (Playwrights has 125 seats, while New Jersey Rep is using its smaller 53-seat theater.) But Pietrowski and Barabas are delighted the way the alliance has played out and say they'll continue working together in the future.

Barabas is also impressed with Pietrowski for another reason. The National New Play Network's charter decrees that it would consist of no more than 25 troupes and that each state could only have one member. Playwrights Theatre was already a member, so New Jersey Rep was therefore ineligible -- until Pietrowski went to bat for Barabas' troupe to be included.

"Only once before did a theater ask that it be admitted from a state that already had a member in the network," says Barabas. "But the member theater from that state said no, and that was that. John could have said no, too.

"And here's the thing," he adds. "That theater that vetoed was from Texas, and nowhere near the other one that applied. We're much closer geographically, but still John said 'yes.'"

Deranged in 'Spain:' Dark comedy traces a twisted path to NJ Rep premiere

Published in the Asbury Park Press 8/08/03

A play by Jim Knable
New Jersey Repertory Company's Lumia Theatre
179 Broadway, Long Branch
8 p.m. today and tomorrow; 2 p.m. Sunday; 8 p.m. Thursdays; performances through Sept. 7
(732) 229-3166

Barbara (Kristin Johansen) is a middle-age woman who's arrived at a crossroads in life, without having to stray from the comfort and convenience of her contemporary suburban living room. Dumped by her husband in favor of a trophy bimbo and edging tentatively toward a good old-fashioned nervous breakdown, she must decide between embracing insanity as a lifestyle choice -- or finding romance, adventure and wisdom at the hands of that 16th century Spanish conquistador who's taken up residence on her couch.

That's the logical, straightforward part. What truly sets Jim Knable's dark, surreal comedy "Spain" apart from the dark, surreal competition is the long and twisted path it's rambled on the way to its opening tonight at New Jersey Repertory's Lumia Theatre in Long Branch.

Originally written at New York University by Sacramento native Knable and workshopped by the acclaimed Woolly Mammoth company, "Spain" received a high-profile showcase at the National New Plays Networking Conference in Washington, where it caught the eye of the New Jersey Repertory braintrust. Shoehorned into the 2002 season -- even bumping one of the already-announced plays off the schedule -- the show was assigned to assistant artistic director Stewart Fisher, the Seattle transplant whose flair for edgy new works (particularly those by Michael T. Folie) had earned him justifiable acclaim throughout East Coast theatrical circles.

Just a few weeks into production and right in the midst of a casting session, the 37-year old Fisher succumbed to a heart attack -- effectively bringing down the curtain on the show, and throwing the entire NJ Rep season into turmoil.

Enter John Pietrowski, artistic director for Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey. Poised last October to mount a production of the two-man comedy "Big Boys" at Playwright Theatre's playhouse in Madison, Pietrowski was contacted by NJ Rep co-founder Gabor Barabas with the suggestion that the two like-minded troupes pool their resources and stage Rich Orloff's play as a co-presentation, in an extended engagement divided between the two venues.

Under Pietrowski's direction, "Big Boys" enjoyed a successful run that scored points well beyond merely acting as an emergency stopgap on the NJ Rep schedule (it also didn't hurt that the tag-team approach was viewed as a possible panacea for the jitters surrounding the anticipated defunding of arts organizations). When it naturally came time to discuss a follow-up joint venture, it was the man from Madison who lobbied hard to pick up the production of "Spain" -- reasoning that "some kind of closure was needed for everyone, and I thought doing a play (Stewart) had deep feelings about was a good way of honoring his memory."

Of his potentially uncomfortable task in piecing together fragments of a departed and very much beloved director's artistic vision, Pietrowski observes that "I was fully aware I might be begging comparisons, but that was a challenge -- and I like confronting challenges like that.

"I also saw picking up the direction of 'Spain' as a rare opportunity to work with an additional collaborator, i.e., Stewart," says the director of the predecessor whose contributions to the production's design and casting have been preserved by the current crew. "I felt as though I was having an ongoing conversation with him that transcended language and time -- which is totally in keeping with the play."

Joining Johansen in the cast are a number of faces both familiar and not-so-familiar upon the Lumia stage, including Angela Della Ventura, Natalie Wilder, Tinton Falls resident Chris Tomaino (co-star of this year's "Winterizing the Summer House") and Philip Lynch, who rehearsed this show even as he was performing a lead role in the recently-wrapped Folie offering "The Adjustment."

Knable, who in praising his "very brave" new director maintains that "there is never just one vision in a production of a play," makes the observation that "without meaning any glibness, I have (Stewart) to thank for one of the most meaningful and intense experiences I have ever had -- and I mean the experience of witnessing his sudden passing.

"I have a better understanding of the human condition in all its frailty and beauty because of this experience," the playwright adds. "And isn't that what artists are supposed to give other people?"

Pietrowski, who sees the hastily-arranged union of the two forward-thinking companies as "something that would have happened anyway," looks at "Spain" as "a metaphysical comedy -- there is both madness and wisdom in the play, working together in a magical way to weave a hilarious web of altered consciousness."

"This is not an escapist fantasy. There's a lot of death in it -- a lot of blood," insists Knable. "There is some genuine silliness, but there's also real danger, chaos, confusion, anger and frustration in it.

"This is a play about confrontation, and it asks everyone to meet it on its own terms." the author stresses. "I'm still engaged in a life and death struggle with it -- someday it will kill me, too. Until then, on with the play!"

Featuring set and full-metal-jacket costume designs respectively by NJ Rep veterans Jeremy Doucette and Patricia Doherty, "Spain" opens this weekend and continues with performances at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and at 2 p.m. Sundays through Sept. 7. After that, the show moves to Playwright Theatre's Madison stage for an additional three-week run. For reservations and other information, call NJ Rep at (732) 229-3166 or Playwrights Theatre at (973) 514-1787.

from the Asbury Park Press

Published on August 8, 2003

Hearts and bones: Make a date for a little 'Adjustment' at NJ Rep

Published in the Asbury Park Press 7/11/03


Packed with bullheaded, aggressively neurotic characters and punctuated with enough gunplay, grappling and strangulation to give the local cineplex a run for its grosses, the recent plays of Michael T. Folie have veered from meaningful, issues-driven dialogue ("Slave Shack") to mean-spirited diatribes with lots of driving ("Panama").

As playwright in residence with the Monmouth County-based New Jersey Repertory Company, the former Middletown denizen has enjoyed an arrangement shared by few other working dramatists; a relationship that dates back to the company's early-success stagings of his "Naked by the River" and "Unhappy Woman." With "The Adjustment," a bittersweet love story now in its premiere engagement at NJ Rep's Lumia Theatre in downtown Long Branch, Folie shows a more mature, ever so slightly less cynical hand in relating the tale of two people who never really should ever have gotten together.

Addressing the audience with candor -- but never seeming to carve out any real intimacy with anyone else on the planet -- Sharon Gray (Folie veteran Liz Zazzi) is a big-city political lobbyist who's very good at what she does; a backroom-savvy dealmaker who takes justifiable pride in her somewhat shady line of endeavor, even as she's dogged every step of the way by the grim tattoo of the old biological clock. As if somebody fed her a magic potion that caused her to fall tush-over-teakettle in love with the first man she sees, Sharon's spur-of-the-moment appointment for an "adjustment" leads to an arguably ill-advised involvement with Dr. Matthew Cohen (Phillip F. Lynch, who co-starred in the very first NJ Rep production "Ends").

The struggling chiropractor probably couldn't be more wrong for the ambitious lobbyist, being that he's (a) married; (b) suffering from Parkinson's disease; and (c) an orthodox Jew (to Sharon's "sorta-Jew") and devout acolyte of one Rabbi Shimmel, a possibly fraudulent (though undeniably charismatic) figure with an interest in one of Sharon's pet deals.

As played with immense energy and full command of every scene by Zazzi (veteran of everything from "The Taming of the Shrew" to a longtime stint in "Tony 'n Tina's Wedding"), Sharon is a woman who never does anything halfway when there's a deal to be cut; insinuating herself into the gentle-natured doctor's life with the same amount of gusto she brings to the hair-trigger cable franchise negotiation that's got every one of the town's ward bosses salivating.

Offering to tie Dr. Cohen's competitor down in bureaucratic duct-tape; brokering a compromise with the mysterious Shimmel to obtain the rabbi's blessing on a potentially lifesaving (but forbidden) medical procedure for Cohen; Sharon makes the wooing of the unassuming back-cracker her obsessive focus -- even her next project.

There are pitfalls and pockmarks on the deal table, of course. The advance of the doctor's disease leaves little time for any party to sleep on any offered bargain. To give Shimmel what he desires would likely spell the end to Sharon's professional clout and credibility (the scene wherein Sharon meets the sect leader is especially effective and surprising). And, putting aside his conflicted feelings on the dissolution of his family, Matthew would simply never disobey the rabbi, no matter how dire the consequences to his own life and livelihood.

So, there are choices to be made by these people, and regardless of how one reacts to the way things pan out for the star-crossed couple, you've got to admit that the characters and cast (under the supervision of NJ Rep artistic director SuzAnne Barabas) have you very much hooked by play's end -- and that the often fiendishly hilarious Folie has displayed a real knack for drama here.

Maybe a tad too much drama in places. Sharon's confessional monologue revealing the existence of Holocaust victims in her family tree seems tacked on to little or no effect. And having one of the supporting characters dying of cancer is a completely unnecessary device that would have been overkill even in a made-for-Lifetime weeper. Still, the author's instincts are true where the focus remains on Sharon and Matthew; Lynch maintains a solid and subtle touch in a role that calls for tremors, seizures, paralysis and even a bit of ballroom dancing.

There are other men in Sharon Gray's life, and an assortment of them -- a conniving councilman, a Latino fixer, a gay confidante, an ex-boyfriend and Shimmel's serene yet sinister assistant -- happen to be portrayed by a very versatile Daniel B. Utset (with a toolbox full of accents and mannerisms, and a real character player's instinct for cutting to the chase); as if to drive home the point that all of these guys represent variations on the same leitmotif of cynical wheeling and dealing.

Well worth the risk

Latest New Jersey Repertory producting is sometimes dark, but ultimately bright

Monday, June 23, 2003

Star-Ledger Staff

Before the curtain rose on "The Adjustment" on Friday night, Gabor Barabas, executive producer of the New Jersey Repertory Company, told the crowd that his troupe has produced 30 new plays in the five years since it arrived in Long Branch.

What he didn't say, but what was soon evident, is that this comedy-drama is the best of the entire bunch.

Mike Folie's play certainly takes risks. At times, it's so cynical that it comes dangerously close to insulting the Jewish religion, and the people who most believe in it. It's often ugly, too, in how it looks at politicians and the deals they cut.

But even when it swerves into dark territory, it's always entertaining, thanks to its convincing characters and sharp dialogue. Finally, it offers a most satisfying and wonderfully sentimental ending that justifies the means it took to get there.

Sharon Gray is a political lobbyist who's got a crick in her neck. When she finally gets around to visiting a chiropractor, she finds that Dr. Matthew Cohen is an Orthodox Jew with Parkinson's disease. Right away, Folie shows he isn't setting up a usual boy-meets-girl plot -- though he does make these opposites attracted to each other.

Sharon keeps returning because Matthew is quite good in getting rid of her pains. So when his practice is in danger of failing, she uses use her considerable political influence to see that he stays in business. She's not above doing something unethical to make it happen, though that's anathema to him.

As the plot unfolds, many a theatergoer will nod his head, secure that he's figured out where this play is going. Soon, though, he'll be scratching that head, wondering if he can keep up with the surprise after surprise that Folie delivers.

SuzAnne Barabas, New Jersey Rep's artistic director, stages it briskly, but her best decision was to engage one of the state's best's actresses to play Sharon. Liz Zazzi seems to be a mixture of Lucille Ball and Gilda Radner, but ultimately she is her own special creation. Her delicious voice has the quality of a whiskey sour with a spoonful of sugar added. She has eyes that turn sad and tired when she sees that someone is trying to snow her.

Streisand's Fanny Brice in "Funny Girl" claimed she had "36 expressions," but Zazzi has a good dozen more than that. And when she crawls onto Matthew's examining table on all fours, she appears to be a tigress stalking her prey.

Playing a character who is sure of herself and making her endearing isn't an easy task. Zazzi, though, shows that Sharon's penchant for manipulation is just an occupation hazard. The actress also maneuvers well her character's profane vocabulary that would make her right at home in a David Mamet play. In short, Zazzi has a number of "z's" in her name, but her acting certainly won't put anyone to sleep.

As Matthew, Philip F. Lynch has the less colorful role, but he delivers the right amount of sensitivity and sincerity. He has a wonderful bedside manner befitting the most altruistic of doctors. What's more, he beautifully handles a speech on how he came to embrace Orthodox Judaism.

Special credit, too, to Daniel B. Utset, who must play a councilman, a pretentious partygoer, a well-meaning politician, a medical honcho, and a rabbi's secretary. Though his look doesn't much change when his characters do, he does manage to give each a distinct personality.

Theatergoers are urged to adjust their schedules to include "The Adjustment."

There are some subjects you are well advised not to discuss with your in-laws; sex, religion and politics are the big three. Throw in chiropractic versus medical, and you've got the essence of Mike Folie's play The Adjustment, running through July 26 at New Jersey Repertory Company. So don't bring your in-laws.

But don't let that keep you away. The Adjustment is an altogether satisfying character study that weaves those touchy topics into an engrossing, unusual, romantic story. Folie's play isn't a smooth finished product (producer Gabor Barabas calls it a "new play in development"), but you do end up absorbed in the story and involved with the characters, and that's plenty.

Sharon Gray (Liz Zazzi) is a political lobbyist, single, with an inordinate amount of power and a stiff neck. She wants to be rich and have a baby, not necessarily in that order. She visits Matthew Cohen (Philip F. Lynch), an orthodox Jewish chiropractor, married, with a failing practice and an advanced case of Parkinson's disease. He always wanted to be a Rabbi, but settled for cracking bones. Not exactly a match made in heaven. He adjusts her spine (sans her blouse, which is gratuitous mild prurience; Zazzi is jazzy enough fully clothed), and she uses her political muscle to save his practice.
Matthew will not have life-saving surgery because his Rabbi forbids the particular procedure, and Sharon is extorting ten million dollars from a real estate developer. She also has the political power to divert a 25 million-dollar cable TV contract with a phone call (a point requiring near-impossible suspension of disbelief), and, oh yes; she also takes her temperature to track her ovulation cycle. That this all hangs together in interesting fashion is a tribute to Folie's story-telling; that the relationship progresses believably from casual to intense wins further praise for character development and dialogue skills. That the two actors interact so naturally is a tribute to their skills and to the intuitive direction of SuzAnne Barabas.

Zazzi has a confident physical presence and wonderfully refreshing freedom of movement and expression. In the small Lumia Theatre, we're up close to the performers, and Zazzi's non-stagy immersion into her character becomes a shared experience. In her natural playing, we know and like Sharon right from the start, and we end up aware that no matter how many times Sharon refers to herself as a chronic liar, she's the one who emerges with real integrity.

While Matthew manipulates Sharon literally, the reverse happens figuratively. Everything that befalls the indecisive doc is at Sharon's direction, but Lynch avoids the wimp factor neatly. Lynch affects the look of a bookish fellow, and Matthew's discomfort with newly aroused feelings and ambitions are well and subtly acted. Can he admit his attraction to Sharon and possibly betray his wife (Miriam, of course)? Is he willing to defy the Rabbi to save his own life? Whatever Sharon wants, Sharon gets; a lesser Matthew would make it too easy. Lynch strikes the right balance between resistance and compliance. Another actor, Daniel B. Utset, plays five vignette scenes that flesh out the story. The technique was the only redeeming feature of Folie's Panama, and here it's 60% effective. The cliché Jewish businessman with an accent that went out with vaudeville and an equally exaggerated nance are hardly worthy caricatures, shamelessly written and acted. But in the second act, both Folie and Utset do a 180: An Hispanic politician, a concerned physician and especially a smarmy, imperious Rabbi's "secretary" are authentically written and very well acted. (Utset makes that last one scary.)

Fred Kinney's set is utilitarian; chiropractic offices aren't exactly haute. It's Jeff Greenberg's lighting design that takes tech honors. Actors and lighting are partners here, shifting smoothly with each other to effectively suggest a number of different settings.

The "play in development" could profit from some tweaking. For one, it needs attention to its comedic possibilities. This smart couple and their situations are ripe for quipping, but the rhythms just miss. For another, the crux of the play rests with an assumption, referred to above, that stretches credulity. Sharon is a lobbyist, neither a party nor political boss; that she could effect a huge deal with a phone call is ludicrous.

After a couple of lesser efforts, The Adjustment is Folie's best play since his excellent Naked By the River. Zazzi removed her shirt in that play also, so maybe it's not so gratuitous after all.

TriCity News
Theatre Review
by Aisha Irvis


After a weekend of cocktails and dancing at Club Paradise, I visited the theater - a much-welcomed cultural break from my normal social activities. Sunday afternoon, I headed to the New Jersey Repertory's Lumia Theatre (179 Broadway, Long Branch) to wee a matinee production of "The Adjustment". Now, unlike my esteemed colleague Don Clarke, I'm not really what you would call a theater critic. So I write this review from the point of view of your average Joe who visits the theater maybe once or twice a year. Here goes...

Sharon Gray (Liz Zazzi) is a political lobbyist with lots of in-your-face spunk who visits Dr. Matthew Cohen (Philip Lynch), an orthodox Jewish chiropractor with Parkinson's Disease (no, I'm not setting you up for a joke), after experiencing debilitating neck pain. After several visits to Dr. Cohen, Gray not only comes to know him as a friend, but also learns that an operation that could reverse his medical condition has been forbidden by Cohen's spiritual leader, Rabbi Schimmel. Because of his devout faith in Schimmel, Cohen will not have the life-saving operation performed unless he recieve Schimmel's blessing. This becomes a cause that Gray does not see coming, but nonetheless dedicates herself to.

Overall, I enjoyed the production. The interaction between Cohen and Gray for most of the first act is pretty funny. Lynch brings to the table a very believable performance as Dr. Cohen, and most impressive is the performance of Daniel Utset, who portrays five different and diverse characters throughout the play, including a flamboyant colleague of Gray's, an assistant to the Rabbi, adn an hispanic politian. Although not one of the main characters, I found myself looking forward to seeing Utset appear onstage throughout the show. Zazzi's performance as Sharon Gray was good, although at times I felt the marriage between character and actor was a bit strained.

The set design was cleverly done. It was simple without being tacky, and complimented the intimate space of the theater, which I felt aided in having the audience become more closely involved with the characters and their lives. And, although a little choppy in some places, the play stuck closely to the themes of illness, religion, and humanity. The twist at the end was a bit predictable, but I walked away thinking about the play's messages, and was definitely impacted.

So, in answer to the question "Would you recommend this play to others?" I say yes. "The Adjustment" is well worth the price of the ticket, and is an entertaining and worthwhile way to spend a couple of hours on the weekend.

Theatre Review - The LINK News
by Milt Bernstein

In "The Adjustment," by Mike Folie, the fine current offering of the NJ Repertory Company on Broadway in Long Branch, an attractive woman no longer in her twenties who earns her living as a political lobbyist is compelled to treat an aching back by visiting a chiropractor who happens to be an orthodox Jew, for an "adjustment."

With no such background herself, she nevertheless finds herself drawn to this young man, a serious follower of a sect whose members take their morality and their direction from a relatively unknown rabbinical leader.

Due to this and other difficulties which are readily apparent, the relationship of the two dissimilar personalities gives rise to some very amusing situations which makes us think we are watching a comic story. The dialogue is racy, and the situation is delicious.

However, in its second act, the play takes a more serious turn involving a number of adjustments that are not merely physical. How all this evolves makes for a most absorbing and enjoyable theater experience.

In the starring role of Sharon Gray, Liz Zazzi gives an outstanding performance which runs the gamut of theatrical emotions. Philip Lynch offers her fine support as Dr. Matthew Cohen the chiropractor; and a number of small additional parts were well taken care of by Dan Utset.

The good looking set was designed by Fred Kinney; and SuzAnne Barabas, the artistic director of NJ Rep., directed the sometimes fast moving production with a sure hand.

This eminently worth-seeing production will be performed on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm from now though July 27.

Imagination nation: Genesis of plays are innocent hallucinations

Published in the Asbury Park Press 6/20/03


Most theater audiences know that the creation of a play is a developmental process, but where does the creation of a play actually begin? Does it begin with an idea? Does it start with a concept?

A play by Mike Folie
New Jersey Repertory Company
179 Broadway, Long Branch
8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays through July 27
(732) 229-3166

There are as many answers to these questions as there are playwrights. And Mike Folie, a playwright originally from Middletown whose works have been produced on both New York and regional stages for more than a decade, has his own unique way of plying his craft.

"My plays don't originate with ideas," he said over the phone from his home in New York State. "They originate with a single character that appears in my mind. Then the character begins to talk to me. Eventually, I begin to imagine that character interacting with other (imagined) characters. When the interactions seem realistic, I have the origin of a play."

Over the years, Folie has conjured up a catalog of plays that has been produced all over the United States, with at least four of them staged at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. These include "Slave Shack," "Naked by the River" and "An Unhappy Woman."

Folie attended Livingston College of Rutgers University, where he studied acting. He later moved to New York and became a professional actor. "But acting jobs were scarce, and I saw a future for myself in writing for the theater," he said.

While doing a regional acting stint in Oregon, a character appeared in Folie's mind -- and subsequently resulted in a play called "Mobsters," a science-fiction story about the Earth being invaded and occupied by sophisticated aliens who were unpredictably violent.

"I actually optioned 'Mobsters' to a Broadway producer," Folie said. "It remained under option for about two and a half years -- in which I rewrote it about 20 times, with the help of the play's director."

After another six months, the option -- and the project -- were dropped. Around 1990, other works of Folie's began to get produced both in New York and regionally. One of those plays is the story of a woman who is an ambitious political lobbyist. Due to an aching back, she goes to a chiropractor who just happens to be an Orthodox Jew. The story is about the unexpected impact the two people have on each other. Titled "The Adjustment," it will be presented by the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch through July 27.

The New Jersey Repertory Company's production of Mike Folie's "The Adjustment" features Liz Zazzi, Glen Ridge, and Philip F. Lynch, New York.
"Back in 1995 one day, in my imagination -- a female character started talking to me. I thought of just ignoring her, but she kept talking. At that time I was seeing a chiropractor who was an Orthodox Jew. He was suffering from Parkinson's Disease, yet he did not allow his condition to stand between him and his work or his religion. I took the mental image of this female character, and I made her a secular Jew, and created a condition in which the two meet. Then, my play began to take shape. The plot became the conflict that can arise between two people -- both of whom are of the Jewish faith -- but she is a secular Jew and he is Orthodox."

Folie, who is not Jewish, said he thinks the experience of seeing his play should be gratifying and thought-provoking, but the bottom line is that its audience should have a good time.

"My plays don't necessarily have messages," he said. "I hope and intend for my work to examine our society and raise questions about ourselves. Right now, there is a lot of tension and conflict between human beings and institutions. 'The Adjustment' asks questions to which there are no easy answers: How much of our humanness do we give up when we give our lives over to an institution? What do we give up by absenting ourselves from an institution?

"There is the suggestion that there has to be a balance between the demands of the institution and the person's individuality . . . but 'The Adjustment' is not telling anyone what is right. It just asks the questions -- in a realistic but comical way."

Appearing in "The Adjustment" are Liz Zazzi of Glen Ridge, last seen by NJ Rep audiences in "Naked by the River," Daniel Utset of Somerset; and Philip Lynch, of New York, who last appeared here in "Ends." "The Adjustment" is being directed by NJ Rep Artistic director Suzanne Barabas.

Published in the Asbury Park Press 5/01/03

Marie Antoinette in living color at NJ Rep


Through May 25
New Jersey Repertory Company's Lumia Theatre
179 Broadway, Long Branch
(732) 229-3166

It's refreshing, here in these tense times of the Freedom Fry, to encounter someone who serves to remind us just how intertwined the destinies of France and the American colonies were in the waning decades of the 18th century; how the two countries abetted and inspired each other along their very different paths to revolution and beyond. That the messenger is a made-up person in a stage play shouldn't detract from the history lesson, since a spoonful of stagecraft always helps to ease down that historical horse pill.

There's a lot of history going on just outside the palace parlors, terraces and opera houses that comprise the setting for "The Color of Flesh," a period drama by Joel Gross (placed in France in the years between 1774 and 1793) now in its world premiere run at New Jersey Repertory Company's Lumia Theatre in Long Branch. If the real action in this dialogue-heavy character piece (enough rioting, bedhopping, battling and beheading to fill a folio) seems always to be happening offstage -- and if the story unfolds at a pace that can diplomatically be called stately -- it's worth staying with the proceedings to watch a trio of talented players (under the direction of Robert Kalfin) enact a remarkable series of transformations. Besides, as the play spells out, history is made in the boudoir every bit as much as on the battlefield.

At the heart of the text is no less an icon than Marie Antoinette, foreign-born wife of King Louis XVI and a figure both revered and reviled inequal measure by her adopted subjects. As embodied by a young actress named Ursula Freundlich, this Marie is not the larger than life, let-'em-eat-cake diva in a B-52 bouffant that we've come to expect, but rather a frustrated and unhappy 19-year-old virgin trapped in an arranged marriage; as ill-equipped to govern her people as she is clueless about her role in the perpetuation of the royal lineage. Her only apparent confidante here is the real-life court painter Elisabeth Louise Vigee LeBrun, an ambitious commoner with a tart tongue whose confidence in her own beauty and talents are tempered by a tendency to mock the Queen and others in the plump aristocracy who sit for her glossy, flattering portraits.

Played by Margot Ebling with an edgy elegance and a look that suggests classic Vivien Leigh, the artist is seen at the play's outset with a decidely difficult subject -- one Alexis De Ligne (Jacob Garrett White, the guncrazy nihilist of NJ Rep's recent "Panama"), a foppish (and fictional) count in a powdered wig who presumes to know what's best for the peasantry. Playwright Gross can't resist putting some politically charged dialogue into the mouth of this prototype limousine liberal -- particularly a brief rant on the lopsided distribution of wealth and the disappearance of the middle class that's timelier than anything you'll currently see on the TV news -- but when the situation in the fledgling United States heats up, this passionate playboy flips his wig for a chance to join Lafayette's troops.

Ursula Freundlich and Jacob White in a scene from "The Color of Flesh," being presented by the New Jersey Repertory in Long Branch.
Having sold this story as a triangle -- although the complex interrelationships of our three characters would better be represented by the baroque geometry of some Spirograph figure -- the author finds his agent for change in De Ligne's departure for the New World, and subsequent return as a wounded and ultimately disenfranchised outsider. The terrors and turmoil that follow in the wake of the French Revolution will find the Count stripped of lands and legacy, ragged and hungry and appalled by all that's been wrought in the name of lofty ideals. Having suffered a nasty divorce and exile to a largely anonymous life in Austria, Elisabeth the low-born royalist agonizes over her artistic gifts and seethes over the loss of everything she strove for, even as she matures into a true and sincere ally of the deposed Antoinette.

Kept in a cell that's little worse than the glittering prison of her royal marriage, Marie has by play's end effected the most remarkable metamorphosis. Accepting in the face of her fate, the once superficial teen monarch seems a font of wisdom and serenity; never more regal than in the shadow of the guillotine.

Assisting the actors in realizing the shifting priorities of their characters are the exquisitely detailed costumes and makeup designs of Patricia Doherty; Fred Kinney's set is an appropriately blank canvas upon which the various settings are painted with a combination of slide projections and lighting designer Christopher Weston's shadowplay effects. Special attention should also be called to NJ Rep co-founder Gabor Barabas and his always illuminating introductory comments; the good Doctor's combination of motivational pep talk, audience warm-up and classic salespitch being all the reason you need to get to the theatre on time.

Fleshing out history

Colorful people emerge in pre-French Revolution love triangle

Tuesday, April 29, 2003

Star-Ledger Staff

It's not easy being Queen.

What's more difficult, though, is being a low-born woman who aspires to be the queen's friend, not to mention a nobleman's lover. More difficult still for this parvenu is watching the queen take a romantic interest in that same nobleman.

Nevertheless, Joel Gross makes the art of playwriting look easy with his new drama, "The Color of Flesh," currently at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. The three-character play is one of the season's best.

The queen in question is Marie Antoinette, the Austrian who arrived in France to wed Louis XVI in 1770, but stayed a virgin for seven years. The marriage is still unconsummated when Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun comes to court to paint the queen's portrait.

Elisabeth sees painting as her key to fame, fortune and romance -- which is where Count Alexis de Ligne comes in.

At first glance, the count seems to be a mere dandy, from his powdered wig down to his silver-buckled shoes. What makes him interesting is that he senses a revolution is fast approaching. Elisabeth, though, believes that even better days are ahead. "In a few years," she says brightly, "you'll hardly recognize Paris." She's right, but not for the reasons she thinks.

The effects will be felt by all three, but mostly, of course, by Marie Antoinette. Gross shrewdly characterizes the queen as a human being first and monarch second. Granted, at the beginning of the play, Marie treats Elisabeth as if she were a bug under a microscope, but soon she relaxes. They are both 19, which not only bonds them, but means each has a great deal of growing up to do. Alas, they'll have to grow up all too fast -- until they do, they can romp around like girlfriends.

Of course, loving the same man poses a problem. The queen worries that she's looking fat. But Alexis has his own agenda -- a much more important one -- that will take him away from both women. Though all three change, he's the one who transforms the most. Jacob Garrett White makes an impressive segue from fop to freedom fighter.

As Elisabeth, Margot Ebling is a cool social climber, at times a coquette with the count, but at others, unctuous and cavalier to keep him guessing. With Marie, she's expert at maneuvering her way around, ever aware that even a pawn can capture a queen.

Most astonishing is Ursula Freundlich as Marie Antoinette. She makes her into the real person that Gross created, showing that a queen can hoist her gown above her ankles and run around with glee. When she's losing an argument, however, she's not above pulling herself up, giving a haughty gaze, then, in a low voice, uttering a sharp word. An audience cannot help but feel her pain as she goes from carefree young woman to exiled royal.

Veteran director Robert Kalfin directs in a wonderful, freewheeling way that fills the characters with life, making them much more than emotionless paragraphs in history books. He infuses the evening with a great deal of eroticism, too.

What of the play's title? Elisabeth often mentions that she has trouble painting the precise color of flesh. When she finally thinks she's mastered it, the revolution is in full force, making her skill in portraiture hardly a priority among the nobles. "The Color of Flesh" is a not-so-hot title, but it surely is a white-hot play.

The Color of Flesh -a play by Joel Gross – a review by Maureen Nevin

How is a play born? In the case of the NJRep's latest production, "Color of Flesh", it was the work of a French woman painter, a portraitist welcomed by the court of the ill-fated King Louis XVI, who lit the path of playwright Joel Gross. Gross was drawn to the paintings of Elisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun and wondered, "What if?"  The result of that thought process is a wonderful vehicle that transports us to this pivotally exciting 20-year chapter in French – and American – history. (pictured Ursula Freundlich and Jacob Garrett White.)

Gross's mastery with characters, even those whose fame may have transformed them into cardboard parodies over time, emboldens them with life; by infusing them with their own quirks, self-doubts, desires, passions, moral quandaries, and jealousies – all the while imbued with a haunting melancholy. And, he does this without a false note. What could have fallen to cliché, even a line as dangerous as, "Let them eat cake," becomes a revelation of tragic insight in the hands of this craftsman.

Robert Kalfin, a member of the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers, directs this young cast – for Marie Antoinette was a young girl when joined in marriage to the King of France. Kalfin, using a series of images of French scenes and Le Brun's paintings, takes us through the characters' 20-year evolution with great deft. Through his direction, the characters' body postures even change over time, subtly revealing life's trials pressing down.

As for the cast, Margot Ebling is as absorbing as an artist struggling with her craft as she is as a commoner grappling with her social caste resentments, a yearning to climb out of her station, and the temptation to use her feminine gifts to do so. But Gross, who has written three roles that actors would kill for, demands far more – adding a passionate attraction between Jacob Garrett White (Alexis de Ligne) for Ebling, who rises as easily to that as she does the complex relationship Gross has also created for her with Ursula Freundlich, as Marie Antoinette.

Freundlich is fascinating as a flirtatious young girl passing through childish play to adolescent arrogance and sexual trepidation into a troubled mother and disillusioned aristocrat. When Freundlich struggles from her bed after giving birth to Louis's first heir, the viewer quickly forgets how young she is. Freundlich portrays the Austrian-born queen with a mature empathy for her sense of alienation, as she gradually gathers the duties of her royal position to her, ironically finally accepting the weight of her royal commitment in time to pay the ultimate price for it.   

And White supports both women equally well as a testosterone-driven philanderer with a nagging sense of social conscience and later as a liberator of the masses. White convincingly finesses the transition into war torn warrior, whose years of fierce battle test his conviction and maim his proud body. White's timing is a true gift. He also has that rare ability to project intense sensuality one moment and comedy the next. This is where his sense of timing serves him so well, just a turn of the head and a nod, a look, the audience is convulsed. Watch these three! 

Without preaching, Gross has reminded us of what a short way we have come, that power – whether on the throne or in the clutches of out of control masses – whenever imbalanced is a threat to our freedom. Gross has not only made the French Revolution come alive for us; he's revisited the question of equality at a time when insensitive deities - despotic corporations and government for the rich - seem destined to imperil human rights. This period play could not be more relevant.

Theatre Review
by Don Clarke
triCity Theatre Critic

Mark this one on the calendar. It is the best piece of theatre on the Shore for the 2002-2003 season. I say this even though the season is not yet over.

New Jersey Rep is once again featuring a new work, this time from the pen of Joel Gross, an accomplished author. "The Color of Flesh" is set in 18th century France, the play revolves around two real people and one imaginary character. Marie Antoinette (Ursula Freundlich) is caught in a love triangle. She believes her only true friend is Elisabeth Le Brun (Margot Ebling) - a painter. Le Brun, an actual person, rose form the working class to become a society painter - a tough act for a woman in the age of "Enlightenment". Le Brun is a schemer, trying to have it all, in a world where that entails getting political favors.

They both love Alexis le Comte de Ligne, an impoverished aristocrat with libertarian ideals. This is the imaginary character.

The costumes are lovely, and, sometimes lavish, but don't be fooled, this is not a stuffy period piece. This is a timeless story of love and politics. As occurred in real life, everyone uses Marie Antoinette. We watch her develop from a lonely, naive girl to a complex woman. Her painter friend, Le Brun, is a scheming manipulator, who ultimately discovers she has more integrity than she thought. Alexis is the classic liberal, full of good ideas, and relatively ineffectual.

Their uses of one another and interdependencies change through the years. The two friends constantly assess and attempt to influence Marie, and hence government policy. Marie is haughty, needy, and questions her place in the world. History unfolds around them. They may be merely puppets, not the movers and shakers they imagine themselves to be.

There is a foreign war - the American Revolution, and local turmoil - the French Revolution. There are parallels to today and to any other time. The play is a timely reminder that princes and presidents are humans, who are susceptible to many influences.

These characters breathe and live. One woman in front of me cried through part of the performance. We all sat on the edges of our seats as the inevitable, obvious conclusion was reached.

Robert Kalfin's direction makes the actors shine. I particularly enjoyed Margot Ebling's Le Brun. She portrayed the beautiful, willful, scheming, and ultimately loyal friend to perfection.

The Color of Flesh

The New Jersey Repertory Company presents the world premiere of "The Color of Flesh" at the Lumia Theatre in Long Branch.

by Shelley Treacy

Would you be willing to leave your homeland to fight for freedom? Would you risk your own life to save the one you love? The power and truth of live theater is once again demonstrated by this historic drama written by Joel Gross. Directed by veteran Broadway director Robert Kalfin, the NJ Rep launches a production that is high quality, compelling and very worthwhile.

Whether you are for or against US policies, this play brings to mind an opportunity for reflection and gratitude to those that have made great personal sacrifices in the past and present for equality, freedom and liberty.

Set in France from 1774 to 1793, "The Color of Flesh" chronicles a friendship between Marie Antoinette (Ursula Freundlich) and Elisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun (Margot Ebling) - a portrait artist and the queen's personal confidant. Over the backdrop of historical events during both the American and French Revolutions a fictional love triangle is created with the addition of Count Alexis de Ligne (Jacob Garrett White).

Throughout the play, the audience is guided through the various locations in France and time periods by the use of slides projected onto the back of a clean, minimalist set. The transformation is complete with period music at key intervals and beautiful 18th Century costumes designed by Patricia Doherty.

The play opens with a flirtatious exchange between Elisabeth and her unruly, portrait subject - the Count. Elisabeth, of the lower class and suppressed by her husband, aspires to become famous for painting royalty and aristocrats. Though engaged to be married, the radically, liberal Count's main aspiration is to bed all of the pretty women he encounters especially Elisabeth.

In hopes of winning Elisabeth's affection, the Count agrees to set up a portrait sitting with his fianc?e who is a cousin to Marie Antoinette. This portrait comes to the attention of the Queen and Elisabeth soon fulfills her dream of becoming a court painter. Conveniently, a scandal erupts and the Count soon finds himself without a fianc? and finally convinces Elisabeth to become his lover.

It is through the portrait sittings with Marie Antoinette that the friendship blossoms and the audience is given insight into the world of a lonely, young girl who has been married off for political diplomacy to a man she never met. Though he is King Louis XVI of France, he is much too old and repulsive to satisfy the young Marie Antoinette's desires or interests.

Her friendship with Elisabeth and eventual love affair with The Count enable the Queen to venture out into the world of her subjects in disguise and sets the stage for an intriguing love triangle. In the end it is the Count that displays the character of a true nobleman as he makes the most radical transformation. He left France to fight in the American Revolution a prissy boy, but returns an honorable man who finally marries Elisabeth before being tragically killed while trying to save the Queen after the monarchy falls during the French Revolution.

Through well-crafted dialogue, outstanding performances and a skilled production team, the audience is easily drawn into this historical triangle of the love between friends, the passion of lovers and the revolutions' of two countries.

Theater Review
By Robert F. Carroll


Marie Antoinette, the beautiful young queen of France doomed by the revolution that convulsed her country at the end of the 18th century, is center stage in "The Color of Flesh," a new play by Joel Gross now premiering at the New Jersey Repertory Company.

Sharing center stage with Marie is Elisabeth Le Brun, a contemporary artist who painted the queen's portrait many times, and a womanizing count, Alexis de Ligne. Together, and all gorgeously costumed, the superior cast construct a romantic tangle enticingly spun out by playwright Gross.

Marie Antoinette is Ursula Freundlich and Margot Ebling is LeBrun, the crafty artist, whose friendship with Marie deepens into love even as they both are attracted to--and seduced by--the court hanger-on, Count Alexis (Jacob Garrett White).

Freundlich and Ebling are two actresses at the top of their form. Freundlich maintains a queenly haughtiness, even as the revolution nears the walls of the castle. And even as Ebling, forever the pragmatist, foresees the impending tragedy chillingly foretold by the trip of Marie's husband, Louis XVI, to the guillotine.

Count Alexis is the liberal spirit of the French revolution, who quits the court for three years to campaign in America, which was embroiled in its own revolution. Playwright Gross manages to weave the politics of the times into this engrossing tale of romance under stress.

Robert Kalfin, veteran of many Broadway and Off-Broadway productions and founder of the experimental Chelsea Theater Center, which sparked the Off-Broadway movement directs.

The LINK News April 24 thru April 30, 2003
Theatre Review
'The Color of Flesh'
by Milt Bernstein

For its newest theatrical offering, New Jersey Repertory Company is presenting a first-ever production of a play about one of the most famous queens in history, Marie Antoinette of France.

The three-character work, titled "The Color of Flesh," and written by Joel Gross, also features a second woman, the artist named Elisabeth Le Brun, who as a court painter in the time of Marie Antoinette, painted her portrait many times.

Starting with these bare facts, the author of the play has imagined a close relationship to have developed between the two; and then added both passion and tension in introducing a young nobleman, a count, as lover of them both.

Using a single yet simple set, and with the help of a lighted screen at the back of the stage to record the passages of time and changes of place, the play recounts the saga of an innocent young princess, daughter of the ruler of Austria, who has been betrothed to the future king of France without ever even meeting him; and who is appalled by his person, and his personality, when she does.

Then, as she tries to live up to her role as a queen and give her husband an heir to the throne, she is finally caught in the turmoil of a country in the throes of revolution, brought on by the cruel and extreme indifference of royalty and aristocracy to the misery and poverty of a long-suffering people.

Through all this, the play depicts the artist Elisabeth as being the queen's closest confidante and friend on one side; and on the other, the socially-conscious nobleman receiving her love, but trying to warn her at the same time of the terrible danger facing her whole world if she cannot get the king to change the way the country is ruled.

The inexorable result of course, is the French Revolution and the ensuring Reign of Terror, culminating in the death of the king, Louis XVI, and of Marie Antoinette, as well as their children.

Thus, this eminently-worth-seeing play is a history lesson unfolded in the lives of three persons whose lives are intertwined.

The uniformly excellent portrayals of the three principals, are by Ursula Freundlich as Marie Antoinette, Margot Ebling as the artist Elisabeth Le Brun, and Jacob Garrett White as Count Alexis de Ligne. The director of the play, Robert Kalfin, has had a long and distinguished career of staging productions on New York City's own Broadway, Off-Broadway, in the U.S., Canada, Europe and elsewhere.

Baby plays and Mondays:
The show must go on at NJ Rep series

Published in the Asbury Park Press 4/18/03

Monday, Monday -- can't trust that day. No, as pages on the calendar go, this first clocking-in of the trad workweek just never caught on with creative types who put the muse into the mundane. Try driving around in search of an open restaurant or a live band on a typical post-weekend evening, as the radio spits out a soundtrack that says "I Don't Like Mondays" or "Rainy Days and Mondays Always Get Me Down."

Look a little closer, and you'll find that the drab foothills of the midweek hump actually play host to a pretty unique entertainment option that's Jersey Shore homegrown and sufficiently established as to have transcended best-kept-secret status. Now several seasons old and fervently supported by a cross-generational core of hipsters, New Jersey Repertory Company's ongoing series of Script-in-Hand Readings soldiers on just about every Monday evening at the troupe's Lumia Theatre in downtown Long Branch.

As the name suggests, these one-shot dramatic productions are performed with script very much in hand --

  • and without benefit of scenery and costumes

  • by a cast of professionals seated on the bare stage of the Lumia's smaller secondary performance space. The 7 p.m. readings are followed by "talk-back" sessions between actors, directors, playwrights and audience members --

  • a device often regarded as a crucial exponent in the evolution of these works in progress. Selected from scads of properties by literary manager and NJ Rep regular Kittson O'Neill, these "baby" plays" sometimes go on to become full-fledged mainstage productions at the Lumia (Joe Pintauro's "The Dead Boy" being one recent example), or are just as likely to mutate into an altogether different creature.

With the weather taking a turn for the warmer on the evening of April 14, a full house took in a tax-day texting of Gary Winter's "Golem," with Winter and director Hayley Finn joining the crowd for this darkly comic riff on the centuries-old Jewish legend of the avenging man of clay, and its curious impact on the sex life of a compulsive liar and career layabout (deftly played by David Neiman, himself the author of "The Viagra Monologues"). Things weren't quite so sunny on the previous Monday, when early April's freak snowstorm threatened to put a damper on a reading of Ken Prestininzi's "A Stronger Faith," even as the playwright and noted stage-screen actress Salome Jens flew in from Los Angeles expressly for this one-time performance.

Although it played to sparse attendance, the "Faith"-based initiative went on as planned -- and it was followed by what was described by NJ Rep co-founder SuzAnne Barabas as "a very lively question-and-answer session." Even the President's Day blizzard of a couple months back couldn't totally cheese the deal, with that evening's scheduled performance of Mary Fengar Gail's "Wormwood Chronicle" done as a table reading -- something just this side of a seance -- and a more fully realized rendition of the play rescheduled for May 5.

Having already stared down the worst of Mother Nature, Barabas cheerfully vouches that "when the floods come, we'll all be sitting on top of the table, delivering a floating performance."

The Script-in-Hand series continues on April 28 with playwright Vladimir Zelevinsky directing his own "Brief History of the Soviet Union," a time-tunnel tumble that promises a full "100 years in 100 minutes." The aforementioned "Wormwood" follows on May 5, with May 19 bringing the quasi-biographical "Darwin and Fitzroy" (by Joel Gross, author of current mainstage offering "The Color of Flesh"). Jim Henry's "The Seventh Monarch" will be read on June 30, and Mike Folie's "Lemonade" is slated for July 21 (concurrent with NJ Rep's run of Folie's "The Adjustment"). Other readings will be announced for July 14, as well as for a slew of dates in August, September, October and November.

Admission to the 7 p.m. events is free and seating is first come-first served; call (732) 229-3166 to reserve, or "just show up."

When art inspires art: Playwright describes birth of ideas

Published in the Asbury Park Press 4/18/03

Eighteenth-century Europe always has been an interesting subject to playwright Joel Gross, but it took an experience he had in an art museum to inspire him to write his latest work.

A play by Joel Gross
Presented by the New Jersey Repertory Company
179 Broadway, Long Branch
8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays through May 25
(732) 229-3166

"I don't usually go looking for a subject about which to write," Gross explained during an interview last week. "The subject just draws me to it."

That is exactly what happened a few years ago, when Gross visited an art museum in Pasadena, Calif.

"I saw this beautiful portrait of a Polish countess, and I noticed that it was painted by an 18th-century artist named Elisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun," said Gross. "I later found out that she was very important to the history of women in art."

Gross later discovered that Le Brun painted Marie Antoinette as a subject more frequently than anyone else, and that she was also exactly the same age as the infamous French queen.

"This really excited me," Gross said, "so I did some additional research on Le Brun, only to discover that Le Brun started life as a commoner, subsequently raising herself socially, through her expertise as an artist, to become a peer of the queen. Le Brun was also very beautiful, and that worked for her as well as against her."

Gross took the idea of Le Brun's friendship with Marie Antoinette, added a fictional character named Count Alexis De Ligne, then created a love triangle that is backdropped by the French revolution -- and voila! A play was born. It's called "The Color of Flesh," and it is receiving its world premiere at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch this weekend.

ED CURRY photo

Jacob Garrett White as Alexis and Margot Ebling as Elisa rehearse a clinch in the New Jersey Repertory Company's production of "The Color of Flesh," opening this weekend in Long Branch.
"Writing for the theater is very different than writing for the screen," Gross pointed out. "In movies, images drive the story, whereas on stage, words drive the story."

Once Gross realized he had a full, solid story to tell, his play made him think about its contemporary meanings, if any.

"In order to create the love triangle, I had to create a real, live character," Gross said. 'So, I made Count Alexis a limousine liberal -- in other words, he's a guy who never worked a day in his life, always enjoyed the pleasures of being rich and privileged, yet his heart and mind focus on the poor and hungry. Later in the play, when the revolution is over and so many people are devastated and wiped out (including the Count), Le Brun accuses him of being a radical -- because he advocated more power to the people.

"Today, we have a lot of people who advocate for the poor and homeless but don't have a really accurate idea of how to help them. More power may not be the answer. So, the play may make us think about the disparities between the rich and poor in our own time -- or at least make us aware of what's going on in our own society."

The play's bottom line is still a love story, the playwright insists.

"It covers a span of 19 years," Gross said. "It begins right before the French Revolution, and continues through the Revolution and afterward. Yet, this is not a play about politics and governments; it is a play about love and passion."

Love and passion are exactly what Gross feels in regard to working in theater. An accomplished novelist and screenwriter (with such films as "No Escape" and Blind Man's Bluff" to his credit), Gross said that staging a world premiere at the New Jersey Repertory Company has been a wonderful experience.

"When you write for the movies, they (the producers) don't care a thing about you or what you're trying to say as a writer. They just grab your script, toss out what they don't like, then give it to someone else to rewrite," he said. "But working in theater is so different. Even though this is my play, I am still in collaboration with a director. In other theaters where I have had a new play staged, if I got an idea, I was instructed to tell the director."

But here, my director, Bob Kalfin -- he's the sweetest man -- he has no ego attached to this. If, while rehearsing I get an idea, I can just tell the actor directly."

Gross also enjoys the commodious, homelike feeling of working in Long Branch.

"What we're doing here is what is usually done in New York -- that is, we are opening a brand new play for the first time," the playwright said. "But we're an hour and a half away from New York, and free of the pressures that you have there. This is a friendly, mutually supportive environment where we, the creative team and the actors live and breathe this play. It's an ideal place for a playwright to work on a world premiere."

Painter's affairs of state

Friday, April 11, 2003

Star-Ledger Staff

A trip to a museum has led to a play at a theater.

Two years ago, playwright Joel Gross went to the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, Calif., and found himself intrigued by the work of an 18th-century female portraitist. The visit resulted in "The Color of Flesh," which begins a world premiere run at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch on Thursday.

"I saw this beautiful portrait of a countess painted by Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun, a name that didn't exactly ring a bell to me," Gross said.

He was so enamored of the work he began researching Le Brun (1755-1842). Gross discovered Le Brun had painted more portraits of Marie Antoinette than any other painter of the era.

"With all the sittings they had, they had to have spent plenty of time together," Gross said of the painter and the doomed French queen. "If Marie continued to allow her to paint her, there must have been something approaching a friendship -- especially considering that they were exactly the same age."

Gross also discovered that in the mid-1770s, Le Brun was greatly regarded as a beauty, but far less admired as a painter. "She came from the lower class and was determined not to stay there," he says. "Everyone had suspicions of how she got as far as she did."

"The Color of Flesh" has Le Brun at 19 in a love affair with Count Alexis de Ligne, who is her entrée to the queen. "Marie was impressed with her," Gross says, "for Elisabeth had sexual experience and she had none -- even though she was already married to (the teenaged and sickly) Louis XVI."

Setting the play in the context of the liberté, egalité and fraternité of the French Revolution adds to the drama. "Elisabeth rues that she's the first in her family to have a servant -- and now comes the revolution," Gross says.

"The Color of Flesh" is Gross' first produced play. The Los Angeles-based writer concedes his Hollywood career hasn't been stellar. He wrote a 1992 TV movie called "Blind Man's Bluff," was one of three writers on the box office flop "No Escape" in 1994, and did an uncredited rewrite on the highly successful "The Mask of Zorro" in 1998.

He has had more success as a novelist. "The Books of Rachel," a fictional microcosm of 500 years of Jewish history, was a 1979 best seller. "I did a lot of historical fiction," he says. "I did the Irish and Americans, too, before I got to the French."

When Gross finished the play, he brought it to Dan Lauria, best known as Fred Savage's father on the television series "The Wonder Years" in the late'80s and early'90s, and a champion of new playwrights.

"Dan's the source of all sustenance of all L.A. playwrights," Gross says. "He gets wonderful people to do readings. One I had for this play starred Lou Diamond Phillips and Nancy Travis, and another had Julia Roberts and Elizabeth Shue in it."

The Long Branch production has three New York actors: Margot Ebling as Elisabeth, Ursula Freundlich as Marie, and Jacob White as Alexis.

After the readings in Los Angeles, Lauria suggested that veteran New York director Robert Kalfin should direct "The Color of Flesh." Kalfin cast Meryl Streep in her first Broadway lead in "Happy End" in 1977. He brought "Yentl" to Broadway, where Barbra Streisand saw it and bought the movie rights for herself. He was also artistic director of the Chelsea Theatre Center in New York from 1965 through 1982.

Kalfin read and liked "The Color of Flesh," and because he had heard about New Jersey Rep's policy of mounting new plays, brought it there. The director turns 70 during this production.

"My grandfather lived to 103, and my mother is 93," he says. "As long as there are plays as exciting as 'The Color of Flesh,' I'll never feel old."


Lumia offering teens a ticket on 'theatrexpress'
Program's aim is to give teens a place to tell their stories
By gloria stravelli
Staff Writer

CHRIS KELLY Actor Christopher Tomaino, of Tinton Falls, is head of a new theater arts program specifically for teens at the New Jersey Repertory Company, Long Branch.

Young people navigating the turbulent teen years don't have a voice in many art forms, and theater offers an outlet for creative expression and a place where teens can find affirmation of their experiences, according to local actor Christopher Tomaino.

"The arts in general, and theater specifically, is really one of the only places where their lives and their experiences are respected and interesting, and worthy of performance and celebration, because they are a great part of society, with all their ups and downs and craziness," said Tomaino, head of a new theater program for teens at Long Branch's New Jersey Repertory Company.

The Tinton Falls actor can draw on his own early interest in theater in shaping "theatrexpress," an intense, conservatory-like program geared to 13- to 18-year-olds.

"I first started doing theater when I was in high school. I secretly wanted to for many years, but I was a very shy kid. Not until I was 16 did I actually get up the nerve to do it," admitted the Tinton Falls actor.

"I loved theater as a kid. I loved the majesty and mystery of it. So I used to watch old black-and-white movies and musicals on TV. It became a slight obsession," quipped Tomaino. "I knew the lyrics to every musical ever written.

"You know you've found what you've been looking for all your life when you step into it," he said. "It feels like finally putting on the perfect pair of shoes that you can walk the rest of your life in."

Tomaino immersed himself in musical theater, appearing in community theater productions at The Barn at Thompson Park, where Angela Flynn Knox became his mentor, and at Brookdale Community College, where he currently teaches theater appreciation.

The Deal native didn't get a chance to try his hand at drama until completing studies at Monmouth University and beginning graduate school.

"I always wanted to do nonmusical things — to be challenged in that way," said Tomaino, who said his experience in graduate school provided a new focus.

"It was like living in this little house and loving it and opening the door and realizing all around were really great things, too," he explained. "I found another interest, and it was like feeling complete. Doing musical theater all those years was wonderful, but something was missing. Being classically trained, doing Shakespeare, was such a huge challenge, it was liberating."

Following grad school, Tomaino moved to New York and worked extensively in touring companies and off-Broadway productions.

When he noticed a call for actors placed by New Jersey Repertory founders Gabor and Suzanne Barabas, Tomaino was curious.

"I wrote to them and asked, 'Who are you?' he said. 'If you are a theater company in Monmouth County, I have to know you. I grew up here and have done theater all my life.'

"I've been in the company ever since," continued Tomaino, an original member of the theater company who was cast in NJ Rep's first staged reading of a play called Maggots.

He has subsequently performed in other readings in NJ Rep's popular "Script-in-Hand" series and in a production of the drama Octet.

On Friday, Tomaino will open as the lead in Winterizing the Summer House, the world premiere of a drama by Gino DiIorio at the Long Branch theater company's Lumia Theatre on Broadway.

His character, Stephen, is a photographer who's had a successful career in the resort community of Martha's Vineyard but hasn't gotten the recognition he desires.

"He's at a frustrating point in his career. He's had professional success, but he can't seem to get to the next level in his career," Tomaino explained. "He can't quite get into the commercial aspect of his work. He can't seem to sell photos in order to make a living off that."

The up-and-coming photographer, his young photo editor and his down-and-out mentor all converge on a summer house for a final season, as the house has been sold. Each brings dreams, memories and rivalries that are stirred up, and they struggle not to become mired in the passions and regrets of the past.

For Tomaino, who moved back to Monmouth County last year, it's a case of art imitating life.

"He doesn't have power over it, much like the acting gig. I left New York and moved back because after 12 years I wasn't getting where I wanted to be. My last job was understudy in one of worst off-Broadway plays ever written. I thought, This is not where I want to be. I should be doing better, more important work. I should be working with people better than me. I should still be struggling to understand what it's all about, and I'm not.

"My character is at a very similar place artistically; he's successful but he hasn't gotten recognition."

Returning to Monmouth County has given Tomaino the opportunity to take his own experience as a teen interested in theater and translate that into a new theater program for teens based at NJ Rep.

As director of education for the theater company, he is working out the details of theatrexpress, which will sponsor two six-week workshops from mid-February to March, and April to May, during which students will learn all aspects of performance including acting, voice and movement. Scholarships will be available to students in need of financial assistance, he said.

As a teacher at a high school in Somerset, Tomaino is in touch with the fact that teens do not have a voice that is represented in the theater community so the program will incorporate the opportunity to write their own material.

"I'm really fascinated with the point of view of teen-agers because they don't have a voice in the theatrical community," he explained. "As a teacher, I look at some of them and I think they have a really unique perspective on the world. They have a lot to say, and as I sit and watch them go through their lives I wonder what they are thinking.

"They're the group that, even though they want to be heard, they're very reluctant to speak. I really want to nurture their creative expression. I want them to perform their own and each others' written work."

With prodding from Gabor Barabas, Tomaino began to develop a concept for the program based on his own experience.

" 'What did you do when you were this age?' " Tomaino said Barabas asked him. "Nothing. I didn't have anything," Tomaino said he responded. " 'Barabas persisted: 'What would you have liked to have done?'

"In the back of my mind is the question of what kind of program would have really made me interested and excited and participatory. What would it be about for me?

"So that's kind of in the back of my mind as I go about putting this together," Tomaino observed.

"This program will be about their own personal journey, expressed through every tool — voice, body, mind — they have as actors. It will be an all-around exploratory thing," he said.

Future plans call for an intensive summer theater camp program for the same age group.

"I would love to bring in other theater artists to do mask workshops, stage combat, music, all that stuff," said Tomaino, who is currently exploring funding avenues.

In addition, NJ Rep has assembled a troupe of professional actors who perform theater for young people.

As part of Family Week, an event sponsored by the New Jersey Theater Alliance, the company will present an original rock musical for children titled The Grumpy Giant during the first week of March.

Tomaino can speak firsthand about the affirmative role theater can play in young people's lives.

"Their experience is important, and the theater is the place to express it. We hear about these tragedies involving kids who never said anything. This is the place they can come with their peers and share their experiences."

Theater Review
from The Two River Times
by Philip Dorian


Ideally, if a play's any good, you go in not knowing anything about the characters, and two hours later you know them intimately - better maybe than they know themselves. So it is with Winterizing the Summer House, a play by Gino DiIorio that succeeds splendidly as both drama and comedy in spite of its cumbersome title. In this smooth, intelligent play, siutations evolve naturally and the dialogue flows conversationally, revealing three characters who command you fondness. Until Steven, Abbi and John need to tell stuff to one another, there's no extraneous exposition. The subtle, insightful direction is barely perceptible; under Jacqueline Berger's astute hand, these people's motivations and actions seem inner directed. And the acting is superb. Comparing plays defies apple-to-applesness, but this play ranks among New Jersey Repertory Company's best.

College teacher and photographer Steven (Chris Tomaino) and his apprentice Abbi (Dana Benningfield) are wrapping up a summer of work on Martha's Vineyard, where he snapped and she developed photos of things, places and people. most notably consenting women on the nude beach. Only now, on the next-to-last day, do they even contemplate a possible romantic involvement. (That's a real stretch, considering the isolated setting, the collaborative nature of their work and the flat-out good looks on 'em both, but it's essential to the play).

John (John FitzGibbon), a former academic colleague of Steven's shows up unannounced, ostensibly for a social visit and some fishing. He's actually packing a ton of baggage (not suitcases) and a needy agenda. Scenes ensue among the three of them and alos between the three possible twosomes. So smooth are the segues and so slick is the acting, that none of the entrances and exits, carefully times as they may be, appears contrived.

Tomaino's role is the least flashy, but to say he contributes less than the others is like saying Dean Martin was less than half of that team. Steven is conflicted toward Abbi, conflicted toward John, and really conflicted toward Abbi and John. His integrity actually gets in his way, but straight arrow that the character might be, Tomaino explores layers of Steven well beyond th obvious. Benningfield is a sublime actor. She does more while listening than most do speaking, and more with a glance than most with a flourish. If Abbi is not both virtuous and eminently desirable, Winterizing doesn't work. Benningfield's Abbi is both, and the play definitely works.

FitzGibbon plays a character given to extremes: John is a boisterous alcoholic, subject ot mood swings, self-deception and occasional outbursts. In short, Mr. DiIorio's character John overacts. But Mrs. FitzGibbon's son John does not. The dissolute, aging academic is not exactly an original figure, but when craftily written and acted, as here, he's a venerable one. (His morning-after hangover - agin, not overacted - actually left me cotton-mouthed.)

Fred Kinney's set design is masterful. A perspective and a slight rake deepen the space, and this summer house comes with a deck and a ramp to the beach. The lighting design (Jeff Greenberg) not only capture the times of day perfectly, but we even sense approaching autumn.

The play is about emotional neediness, academic integrity and important stuff like that, but it doesn't stint on humor. These are intelligent people and their repartee, sometimes coarse, often sarcastic, scores a direct hit on your brain's funny bone. Small cast plays, especially full length ones, often rely on external devices to supplement their sparse population: Phone conversations, for example, or pivotal other characters who never appear. Not so with Winterizing. It all happens in-house and in near-real time, with other people mentioned only to flesh out DiIorio's trio.

Winterizing certainly isn't perfect; one can question some of the behavior, and the ending is vaguely unsatisfying - either too abrupt or too protracted, not sure which. But this is the play's first professional production, and there are inches (well, yards) to go before they sleep. Besides, how can you quibble about a play that shows you how to concoct a margarita right in your mouth? Now if DiIorio will only dump that title.

theatre review

Winterizing the Summer House

Escape the winter doldrums and enter a world of sex, sand and the fine arts at NJ Rep's Lumia Theatre in Long Branch. Compelling world premiere drama and photography exhibit not to be missed.

In Gino Dilorio's drama "Winterizing the Summer House", three characters explore their dreams, desires and memories during the final days of summer at Martha's Vineyard.

The play opens with Steven (Chris Tomaino), a struggling, ambitious photographer and academic, trying to finalize the selections for yet another submission to the Museum of Modern Art. He has embarked on this quest many times before with no success and thus has turned to a position at a local university as an opportunity for stability and recognition. This year the subjects of his latest photo series are from the local nude beach and during the opening scene he struggles with the decision of whether to include a portrait of a woman that has revoked her permission to use the photograph.

A local island girl, Abbi (Dana Benningfield) has spent the summer as his assistant and hopes to continue this position when Steven returns to school. This will be her chance to leave her small-town life behind and pursue her two greatest passions - photography and Steven. As the opening scene continues, Abbi has successful convinced Steven to join her for a romantic dinner - an agreement that was reached after a very passionate kiss.

As the couple prepare for a romantic evening together, their tryst is interrupted by the arrival of Steven's former mentor John (John FitzGibbon). John, a has-been novelist, with a roving eye for the co-eds and an affinity for fine wine, makes a boisterous entrance and is the catalyst for stirring up the past and bringing uncertainty to the union of Steven and Abbi. John will also challenge his friendship with Steven as he desperately seeks support for reclaiming his position at the university. The tension rises as Steven sorts out his feelings for Abbi and his obligation to John - a difficult task since Abbi is his young prot? and he disdains John's freewheeling lifestyle of booze and young women.

Directed by Jacqueline Berger, this cast has great chemistry and easily draws the audience into seductive encounters and intense moments as Steven, Abbi and John try to reconcile their relationships with past memories and present desires during the close of the summer season. Though categorized as a drama, "Winterizing the Summer House" has many humorous and entertaining moments. With set design by Fred Kinney, lighting design by Jeff Greenberg and sound design by Neal Arluck, this unique black-box stage has been transformed into the perfect beach cottage, complete with deck, sand and squawking seagulls.

As a companion to this world premiere production, audience members also have the opportunity to view the work of photographer Stephen DiRado. The "Beach People" series features a variety of local subjects enjoying the clothing-optional beaches at Martha's Vineyard. While the playwright Gino Dilorio insists that his friend DiRado is not actually the character Steven of the play, it is clear that the photographer and his work provided a strong inspiration. The exhibit provides a unique opportunity for the audience to develop their own parallels between the onstage performance and the actual photographs.

Review: 'House' finds a home in Long Branch

Published in the Asbury Park Press 2/04/03


"There's nothing more depressing than a beach house after Labor Day, "declares one of the trio of frustrated creative types in "Winterizing the Summer House," a drama in its world-premiere engagement at the New Jersey Repertory Company. Those of us who live for the off season might beg to differ, but for the people onstage at the Lumia Theatre in Long Branch, the waning days of summer are no day at the beach.

A play by Gino Dilorio
New Jersey Repertory's Lumia Theatre
179 Broadway, Long Branch
Performances through March 2
(732) 229-3166

In the Martha's Vineyard setting of Gino Dilorio's three-character mood piece, we are first introduced to Steve (Chris Tomaino), a young photographer and educator who's just received a big promotion in his academic career -- and who has spent the past few seasons attempting to capture the attention of the gallery world by snapping the habitues of the nearby nude beach. His assistant Abbi (Dana Benningfield) is a talented townie whose developing and printing skills have become indispensable to Steve -- and who appears to have developed something of a crush on the work-obsessed lensman. While these two NJ Rep mainstays navigate the shoals and shallows of their roles with dexterity, they'd probably be the first to admit that this cautiously cute couple just aren't the stuff of two compelling hours in and of themselves.

Into every swimsuit must come some sand, and as if on cue -- in fact, mere minutes into the play -- the cottage takes a turn for the cattywampus withthe unexpected arrival of John (John FitzGibbon), a down-on-his-luck novelist and former mentor of Steve's with a sweet tooth for the sauce and a bloodshot eye for the very young ladies. These career-killing pursuits have more or less brought the fallen faculty member to Steve's back-porch doorstep, and come to provide more than enough fuel for some interesting intrapersonal dynamics over the course of the evening.

The introduction of such a plot-complicating fly-in-the-ointment is just one of many time-tested theatrical conventions observed by Dilorio's script, which comes fully equipped with factory-standard devices ranging from boozy confessions and dredged-up secrets, right on down to the manner in which one of the characters chooses to make their escape from the vacation hotspot known ominously to many locals as The Rock.

So then, how to go about summarizing the "Winterizing?" Suffice to say that the three principals mix and match in some often devastating ways -- and if their problems still don't add up to a hill of beans, they at very least put three talented players through a brisk jog in the salt air. Standing out in the showiest role, FitzGibbon seems at first to channel the spirit(s) of Richard Burton in his gin-soaked Virginia Woolf glory, all jocular sarcasm barely masking a bottomless well of despair, dashed hopes and devastated relationships. As the lost weekend wears on, however, John the commanding character actor really sets up shop inside the stooped and sagging figure of John the piece of human driftwood, appearing so completely used up by play's end that it's almost amazing to see the guy standing up and smiling at curtain call.

It sort of makes sense, then, that the bright and lovely Abbi would feelsome attraction toward this red-eyed rascal, who in his own perverse way at least carries a whiff of the America beyond the place that she maintains is smothering her -- a freedom that doesn't seem to exist within the arms of the ever-hesitant hunk with the box camera. Steve is therefore made to feel like the odd man out; the artist driven by his search for some elusive image, yet perplexed by his inability to see and state the obvious.

Under the direction of Jacqueline Berger, the capable cast is aided enormously by Jeff Greenberg's richly textured and evocative lighting, as well as by a Fred Kinney set design that uses the Lumia stage's unusual depth-to-width aspects to create a three-layer shadowbox scene, which even features a strip of sandy shore that could qualify for an Army Corps beach replenishment project by the end of the show's run.

In a welcome bit of synergy, the theater is concurrently displaying some of photographer Stephen DiRado's "Beach People" series, featuring a smorgasbord of subjects snapped on the sands of the Vineyard's clothing-optional beaches. While playwright Dilorio has insisted that his friend Stephen is not actually the Steve of the play, the photographer and his work served as a profound inspiration for the drama, and savvy oglers will have a figurative field day discerning parallels between the images and specific events referenced onstage. Both play and exhibit continue Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through March 2.

Theme from A Summer Place

Published in the Asbury Park Press 1/31/03
Whether you're a summer-only resident of these parts -- or the most vehement of "bennies begone" banner-wavers, you've probably been touched at some point by the peculiar brand of melancholy that heralds the off-season at the Shore -- when porch furniture and kiddie rides disappear beneath sheets and tarpaulins; when the light turns to gold and the sea breezes turn steely.

Toon by Tom Chesek

A play by Gino Dilorio
New Jersey Repertory Company's Lumia Theatre
179 Broadway, Long Branch
8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays through Feb. 23
(732) 229-3166

Ray Bradbury nailed the vibe just right in his classic story "The Lake," and Woody Allen set one of his biggest cinematic bummers in a "September" populated by moody method actors. VH1 fans out there could even make reference to the breakup ballad "Seasons Change" by Expose, whose video featured those now-forgotten ladies of the '80s washing the boys of summer out of their hair as they put the beach house down for a long winter's nap.

Here on the verge of February, our thoughts begin to creak inexorably toward warmer weather. In the Martha's Vineyard of "Winterizing the Summer House" -- a new drama receiving its world premiere at the Lumia Theatre in Long Branch -- the New Jersey Repertory Company turns back the clock a bit, offering up characters who are desperate to squeeze the last few drops of life from the summer season, even as the things they value most in their own lives begin to slip through their fingers.

"The play isn't really about Martha's Vineyard -- it's about the summer place and what the summer place takes from you," said New York-based playwright Gino Dilorio, a Vineyard vacationer himself and frequent visitor to the Jersey Shore. "We go back to the beach in summer, we take our clothes off, go back to our origins, try to recapture our youth -- somehow, even as a kid, it always left me feeling hollow, when it was supposed to make me feel enriched and alive."


Dana Benningfield plays Abbi and John FitzGibbon is John in Gino DiIorio's "Winterizing the Summer House."
Completed in 2000 and performed previously at the Lumia as a script-in-hand reading in August 2001, Dilorio's three-character piece -- a top finalist in a number of play-writing competitions -- brings together Steven, a young photographer whose star is on the ascendant (Chris Tomaino of Tinton Falls), his dedicated photo editor Abbi (Dana Benningfield) and his washed-up mentor figure John (John FitzGibbon) for a few days of what was supposed to be a little late-season r'n'r. It isn't long before the house that once signified escape boils over with old rivalries, dashed hopes and hurt feelings.

Under the supervision of director Jacqueline Berger, the cast assembles a group of talents with some formidable NJ Rep credits from either side of the stage (Benningfield and her late husband Stewart Fisher ranked as charter members of the troupe, and Tomaino will soon be taking on the position of director of education for the company).

According to the playwright, "The characters find their lives weighted down by the popular summer haven that's not always favorably referred to as The Rock. "John is in kind of a spiral that he can't pull out of. Steven is on a different kind of spiral, further and further into his work -- all his relationships are seen through the camera. Abbi is in the middle of all this -- she feels the weight of the island; what the summer place is to everyone else, is really a ball and chain to her."

Still, Dilorio is quick to point out that "the play has a lot of humor, "But I'm not going to lie to you; these characters kind of crash into each other, and when that happens, there's going to be some tension," he said."

Featuring a set design by Fred Kinney, costumes by Pat Doherty and lighting and sound by Jeff Greenberg and Neal Arluck respectively, "Winterizing the Summer House" has its world-premiere opening tonight. Performances continue on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., along with Sunday matinees at 2 through Feb. 23 -- with a "keepin'-the-summer-alive" extension to March 16 well within the realm of possibility.

'Big Boys'

Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey offers a blisteringly funny exploration of the world of big business.
By: Stuart Duncan , TimeOFF

   Rich Orloff is clearly not a playwright to be saddled with reality. His new play Big Boys not only explores the world of big business, it takes a confident, firm grip on the absurdities therein. On the surface, it is a two-hour pas de deux between an egotistical, unethical and amoral boss and his mild-mannered, ethical and highly moral assistant. But not far below the surface, it is as blisteringly funny a screwball comedy as you will find.
   It is as if someone had taken David Mamet's real estate salesmen and marched them into a Laugh-In rehearsal, then strained the remainders through a Lenny Bruce monologue. The work, a co-production of the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch and Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey, is now at the latter's site in Madison through Jan. 26.
   The premise is simple: Norm (Michael Irvin) is applying for a job and meets with the boss, Victor (Al H. Mohrmann). Victor bullies him, humiliates him and then hires him. We then spend the next two perverse hours watching as Norm undergoes Victor's word and mind games, with an occasional fact tossed in mainly to confuse. "What does this company make?" Norm asks innocently. "I have no idea; I don't know. I don't know if I ever knew. Ask production," Victors blusters.
   Gradually Norm takes on the protective coloration he needs to be a successful, insensitive boor of an important executive. The laughs come faster and harder as the absurdities grow. The only question remaining is whether or not Norm will kill Victor for his desk chair and, if so, how?
   The actors have a fine time in their roles, clearly relishing each section of chicanery. Even Richard Currie's lighting design suggests the familiar Enron logo. John Pietrowski's direction is as wild and untrammeled as the script. Enjoy.

The boss has more fun in 'Big Boys'

Tuesday, January 14, 2003

Star-Ledger Staff

At Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey, big business meets the Marx Brothers' "Monkey Business" in Rich Orloff's "Big Boys."

The result is the silliest hit of the season. For those who assumed that theater of the absurd died in the '60s, here it is, alive and thriving in Madison.

Tyrannical boss Victor victimizes every employee he meets. But Norm needs a job, so he'll say whatever he must during the interview to get hired. Even when Victor announces that he'll call him Gustave, Norm can only meekly acquiesce to this outrageous demand.

Norm knows he has the experience and skills for the job, but that's not what interests Victor. This titan of industry believes that he can say or do anything he wants with an employee. He even pries into Norm's sex life, and soon Norm is stammering "I-I-I-I-I" more than Ricky Ricardo.

And so it goes, with Victor, leaning back in his leather chair, always feeling free to interrupt Norm and playing with him like a fly on a microscope slide. It's exaggerated comedy, but frequently funny, such as Victor's announcement that he has made himself Employee of the Month for life, or his phone calls to Santa Claus -- and God.

Orloff seemed to have Groucho in mind when he wrote Victor. Remember how Groucho would set up Margaret Dumont by feeding her an innocuous remark, and no matter how she answered, he'd suddenly and furiously imply that she'd just insulted him? Victor does the same with the never-can-win Norm. And like Harpo unleashing a barrage of silverware from his clothing, Norm pulls job reference after job reference from his jacket pocket.

How absurd does it get? When Victor says he has taped his conversations with Norm, he reveals a roll of Scotch tape on which he has written their remarks. Victor even insists on a penis-measuring contest.

Breathes there an employee with soul so dead that he hasn't wanted to be the boss himself? What if, Norm wonders, he adopted all of Victor's ruthless methods? Could this nice guy finish first? Must a boss always have the last word and last laugh?

Those intriguing questions give this play an added layer. Orloff dares to raise some serious issues-- whether or not Victor is ultimately the victim, or if Norm, doomed to be a paper tiger, could change his stripes. Orloff makes a strong statement about employee-boss dynamics by play's end.

Michael Irvin is perfectly cast as Norm, the prematurely bald, slightly overweight bundle of nerves who licks his lips to the quick. He sits rigidly with his hands clasped on his lap, eyes rarely looking up from his shoes, chin almost resting on his geeky bow-tie. His head movements suggest a turtle retreating into his shell, so much so that Irvin seems to be retracting his head into his ribcage. His voice goes falsetto-high when Victor says something inane, as he searches for the right word that won't offend the man who is, after all, the boss.

Al H. Mohrmann plays Victor in all his it's-good-to-be-the-king glory. He has a distinguished, presidential look and the demeanor of one who holds court with a home-court advantage. Director John Pietrowski has forged them into a good team.

During "Big Boys," Victor chuckles and says, "I have a firm grip on absurdity." So does Orloff, as this entertaining evening proves.


Al Mohrmann, left, and Michael Irvin play the only two characters in 'Big Boys.'

Capraesque comedy skewers office life

By Debra Scacciaferro, Daily Record


Corporate greed has always been a rich mother lode of inspiration for comedy playwrights. Rich Orloff's new comedy, "Big Boys," which opened at Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey in Madison last week, is one of the newest products of that inspiration.

The premise of pitting a nice-guy employee against a ruthless - and in this case, totally insane - boss isn't new. But it sure is topical. In the hands of actors Al H. Mohrman and Michael Irvin, who deftly dish out the playwright's dazzling comic arsenal of corporate patois under the taut direction of John Pietrowski, it sure is funnier than reading about the latest corporate scandal on the business pages.

To big boss Victor, "no" is a foreign word. "Illegal, unethical and immoral" are qualities to aspire to in this mad, mad world of 21st-century corporate mayhem.

He's made a mess of five marriages. The only one of his kids he hasn't committed to a mental institution won't tell him where he lives. He screams to his secretary sitting outside his door because he likes to. And he's more interested in getting all the little steel balls into the clown's eyes in his pocket puzzle than he is in his company's business.

"If I have to choose between truth and what I know," he tells Norm, "I'll always go with what I know. It's more dependable."

To nice-guy assistant Norm, "decency" is what sets him apart, and although he is often confounded by his new company's operating strategy, he still believes it will work out right in the end. He's got a new love life. He's moving up rapidly. The CEO is his personal mentor. And he believes he has a chance to set a new tone in the company.

Of course, Norm's badly mistaken. "Surely, sir, you didn't hire me to be a yes man," he tells Victor.

"Sure, I did," Victor says. "When I want integrity, I hire a PR firm."

By the time he realizes that Victor is a lunatic, it's too late. His life begins to fall apart as Victor takes an unhealthy interest in screwing up Norm's personal affairs.

Who emerges alive out of this claustrophobic situation seems at first a foregone conclusion. The irrepressible Victor is like a gleeful 5-year-old who never runs out of a new ploy. He trumps Norman's every ethical objection to corporate misdeeds with a madman's zeal and the Devil's logic. He has an unerring instinct for finding the vulnerabilities of his employees and adversaries. Like some schoolyard bully, Victor enjoys playing the role of corporate tyrant, running circles around poor, meek Norm until he begs for mercy.

By the end of the first act, this wretched and bewildered man is also begging Victor to teach him how to be everything he despises. By the time we meet Norm again in the second act, he seems every inch the spitting image of his boss - a bully in a fancy tie and pinstriped suit.

"I think I'm finally in touch with my inner 'Victor,'" he gloats.

This transformation of Norm is as harrowing as it is funny. Orloff may take his characters way over the top, but in doing so, he's revealed the cracks in the seams of America's current lust for material wealth and power. We all secretly want to be one of the big boys.

But Orloff, and director Pietrowski, (who told me he hates plays that leave you believing that human beings have no choices and no power) are not content to leave it there. They spend the rest of the second half of this play slyly turning the entire situation on its head.

In fact, despite first appearances, "Big Boys" has a lot in common with Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life," believing that in the end, goodness always triumphs over evil. While the very last moments of "Big Boys" fall disappointingly short of a totally satisfying Capra ending, they come darned close. So if you're in the mood to see the corporate tables turned, get a ticket to "Big Boys." It's only running through Jan. 26.

In the wake of a year marked by corporate collapse and white-collar scandals, Rick Orloff's "Big Boys" is well-timed. The scathing two-character comedy explores the unethical behavior of a greedy and corrupt CEO who badgers, bullies and harasses his nerdy new recruit. Lurking beneath the play's irreverent fun is an unnerving truth that is more than a bit scary.

The egomaniacal titan, Victor (Al H. Mohrmann), wears a suit to bed because he likes to make business decisions in his sleep. He offers his doctor a bribe to change the diagnosis of an impending heart attack, never uses his intercom because he prefers to shout and makes of his employees "spineless toads and servile lackeys." Mohrmann acts the tyrannical monster with bullish authority, accented by a fiercely penetrating gleam in his eye.

Norm (Michael Irvin) is a decent, bow-tied weasel who is quickly seduced by Victor's unscrupulous devices and immoral business tactics. Irvin plays him with quicksilver comic timing. Norm's disarming revolt and ultimate triumph over corruption gives the play its plot.

Orloff has deftly captured the surly vernacular and ruthless scheming of corporate bigwigs and their white-collar subordinates. His dialogue has a distinctive rhythm and boasts the kind of rapid-fire repartee with which Matthau and Lemmon would have had a field day.

John Pietrowski's clean and direct staging finds the actors circling each other like hunter and prey. The play is crisply paced and might fly better without an intermission.

Tech credits are slick and functional. A sharp lighting design illuminates the sterile simplicity of an icy office set. The play is a co-production of New Jersey Repertory in Long Branch, where it made its formal bow last December, and it most certainly has legs.

Drama Review: `Big Boys'

This article by Jack Florek was prepared for the January 8, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

You're just jealous because I have a firm grip on absurdity," quips Victor, the corporate head honcho in Rich Orloff's new comedy, "Big Boys." This is one of the few lines in the play that is not an exaggeration. Opening this week at Playwrights Theater of New Jersey in Madison, "Big Boys" is a whacked-out, well-crafted, two-person play depicting the sort of unbridled egotism pervading big corporations that audiences have come to expect in this post-Enron scandal era.

This world premiere is a Playwrights co-production with the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. After completing its month-long run in Long Branch the production has moved to PTNJ, 33 Green Village Road, where it opens Friday, January 10, and runs to Sunday, January 26.

Reading somewhat like a skewed 21st century version of "A Star is Born," "Big Boys" tells the story of Norm Waterbury (Michael Irvin), a twerp-ish corporate wannabe, who is applying for an executive job at a mega-corporation run by Victor Burlington (Al Mohrmann). But even before he is hired, Norm is already a fish out of water. Intent on maintaining his moral integrity and "helping mankind," Norm still hopes to make a big splash in the big ugly corporate world.

Norm gets the job and Victor, the quintessential emotionally abusive boss who enjoys firing his employees on a whim, puts his new charge through the ringer.

"Did you do any fornicating this weekend?" asks Victor. "Do you fantasize seeing me naked?" When Norm balks at the notion of unethical business practices and tries to quit, Victor locks the door from the inside. After Victor harangues him for losing his girlfriend and being disowned by his parents, Norm is reduced to tears. Now at his nadir, Norm allows Victor to build him up in his own image; he becomes an "asshole in training."

Alas Norm proves to be equal to the task, but on his own terms, and the play ends all saccharin sweet with a death and a moral twist. But "Big Boys" is more than its plot. Its charm lies in its heightened lunacy and the often witty dialogue between its two archetypical schnooks.

Michael Irvin and Al H. Mohrmann are both fine comic actors with excellent timing (The "I-like-you," "I-lick-you" exchange is particularly funny). To say that their performances are cartoonish in no way belittles their craftsmanship. Both actors understand that the play's emotions bear only a passing resemblance to real feelings and wisely whisk right on past.

Reminiscent of a youthful Wallace Shawn, Irvin pouts and waddles his way through the first half of the play, alternating between hopefulness, obstinacy, and utter confusion. Mohrmann as Victor is crass and thoroughly unlikable as he gleefully carves his subordinate up into emotional ribbons.

But while neither character, as written, is the sort of person one would like to sit next to on a crowded airplane, Irvin's and Mohrmann's performances are so mutually fine-tuned that the play remains a pleasure. Mohrmann manages to keep the audience on his side, in an almost Groucho Marx-like way, with his gleeful and impudent manner. ("Yeah, I sleep in a suit," he says. "I like to make business decisions in my sleep.") Irvin, whose character is the redoubtable victim, comes through in the end like a corporate Rocky Balboa.

John Pietrowski's direction is also a plus. With only two actors and the questionable subject matter it would be easy for things to crash and burn. But Pietrowski keeps the action natural in the midst of the craziness, tweaking the dialogue just enough that the audience never takes the story too seriously. The actors seem to be enjoying themselves throughout the show (a mark of a good director); the jokes are nicely paced -- quick, but not rushed; and the stage action is comfortably choreographed and evenly executed. The audience is never left in the lurch.

Yoshinori Tanokura's set design is austere but elegantly functional and contributes to the fun. (The half-dead potted tree set downstage of Victor's desk is a nice touch.) Patricia E. Doherty's costume designs are equally successful, conveying subtle shifts in character development and the passage of time with a quick change in tie color.

"Big Boys" is unpretentious, light-hearted, and very audience-friendly. I initially expected it to be a humorous variation of David Mamet's "Glengarry Glen Ross," but it is much funnier than that. The humiliations that Norm suffers in Rich Orloff's script are too broad to invite the audience into extensive bouts of empathy. There are frequent, funny, references to sexuality that some may find a tad offensive.

So even if you haven't been following the latest bit of corporate corruption, "Big Boys" is an enjoyable, light-hearted experience. John H. Patterson, business tycoon and founder of the National Cash Register Corporation, once said, "To succeed in business it is necessary to make others see things as you see them." The same could be said for live theater, and "Big Boys" fills that bill.

-- Jack Florek

Lots of exits and entrances on the theater scene

Sunday, December 29, 2002

Star-Ledger Staff

Heraclitus' 2,500-year-old statement that "The only constant is change" is a good one to describe the New Jersey professional theater scene in 2002.

After 18 years as artistic director of the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, Robert Johanson found his contract was not renewed by the board. He left in July -- five months before his longtime executive producer, Angelo Del Rossi, announced his impending retirement at the theater where he's worked since 1964.

Michael Stotts, the managing director of the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival in Madison before defecting to the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, leaves this week to become the managing director of the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven.

Meanwhile at the Shakespeare Festival, Frank Mack took Stotts' position, that had been vacant for nearly a year. The Community Theatre in Morristown hired Allison Perrine-Larena as executive director.

Mary Oleniczak, who headed the John Harms Center for the Arts in Englewood, was fired after only 15 months on the job, because the theater felt it needed to cut expenses. George Street laid off three staff members in an effort to trim 10 percent off its 2003-04 budget. Most significantly, The New Jersey State Council on the Arts cut most of its individual grants by 3 percent.

But there was one good burst of financial news: The New Jersey Shakespeare Festival in Madison received $1 million from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

Luna Stage, after a year-long delay, opened its handsome two-theater complex on Bloomfield Avenue in Montclair. Tri-State Actors Theatre, previously located in Branchville, bought a new theater in Sussex. The Women's Theater Company, an itinerant troupe, changed its venue from Playwrights Theatre in Madison to the Bickford Theatre in Morris Township. The McCarter Theatre in Princeton continued construction on its new Roger S. Berlind Theatre, a 350-seat space that will open in September.

McCarter had the most artistic success, for its productions of "Yellowman" and "Crowns" went on to successful off-Broadway runs. (The Paper Mill's production of "I'm Not Rappaport" flopped on Broadway.) McCarter's upcoming production of Stephen Deitz' "Fiction" was one of three winners of the Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays, which awarded $25,000 to the author and to the Princeton playhouse's production, which opens in March.

One theater re-opened under staggering odds. Crossroads Theatre of New Brunswick, which had been shuttered for two seasons, saw its 10-year lease on its building at 7 Livingston Ave. expire, and found that the New Brunswick Cultural Center decided to retake control of the theater. It would allow Crossroads to rent, however.

Leslie Edwards, the theater's executive director, was dismissed in May. Rhinold Ponder, the New Brunswick attorney who had been president of the board for two years, resigned, and Marguerite Mitchell-Ivey, a longtime AT&T executive, took his place. Tony Award-winning choreographer George Faison, who had previously been named acting artistic director, opened the theater in October with three low-budget productions. What will happen in 2003 is less certain.

The New Jersey Theatre Alliance augmented its Family Week with Spanish-language performances. The Alliance's January symposium, "A Theatre Community Responds to 9/11" held at Crossroads in January, was broadcast on National Public Radio in September.

Saddest of all was the sudden and unexpected death in September of Stewart Fisher, associate artistic director of New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. He died of heart failure at age 37.

Scene on Stage
By Philip Dorian
New Jersey Rep Company Exposes Corporate Corruption!
Laugh it off with "Big Boys"

Most people believe that life is a fairly solemn affair, an essentially earnest process with lighthearted moments along the way to leaven the tedium. But some believe, as do I, that life is a Marx Brothers movie, with occasional serious moments to move the plot along. Some such serious occurrences - national tragedy, personal loss - defy satire or parody, but most are fair game for the skilled wordsmith. Think about Dick Cheney's secret bunker or Hack Welch's divorce or the outrage over Eminen's rap and an editorial cartoon pops into your head.

There's nothing funny about the 1990's accounting felonies that led to the dot com crash, the Enron debacle or the collapse of the aggregated American 401k No? Tell that to Jay Leno and David Letterman. Tell it to Steve Breen. Tell it to Rich Orloff, whose play "Big Boys" is a ripping riff on corporate amorality and abuse of power. The two-character, two-act, not quite two-hour play is a veritable cartoon, and a damn clever one it is.

Norm Waterbury (Michael Irvin) shows up in the office of Victor Burlington (Al H. Mohrmann) seeking employment. Norm is a mouse; Victor a lion. Norm is pure pocket-protector; Victor is strictly go-for-the-throat, Norm is a straight arrow; Victor's a congenital crook. It's a match made in playwright heaven - they're a boardroom odd couple.

The first scene, The Interview, is a series of non-sequesters that somehow manage to establish Victor's goal: to break down Norm's (whom he calls derivatives of Gustav, an inanity that's somehow funny) uprightness and replace it with the venality necessary for corporate success. "You didn't hire me to be a yes-man, did you?" asks Gu (er, Norm) after a few months. The response, "Yes," says it all. Victor's lessons include Passing the Buck 101; Lying But Believing It; and Using a Fair Deal As a Decoy. (Readers who work in corporate environments are smiling now, right? Or maybe not.) Norm's 'conversion' is achieved; he's an empty shell by the first act curtain, ready to be reshaped in Victor's Machiavellian image. The second act of Orloff's play struggles to maintain the comic level; it's unduly repetitious, and the ending is unnecessarily attenuated. There is, however, one hilarious scene culminating in a sight gag that would be dismissed as absurd if it wasn't so outrageously funny.

The play's scenes, separated by blessedly brief blackouts, are set weeks apart. The actors accomplish quick costumes changes between scenes, but in a "this is so simple it just might work" category, the changes are limited to their neckwear. Well, costumer Patricia E. Doherty, it does work. So does the innovative lighting (Richard Currie) that changes patterns and shadows for each episode.

Irvin and Mohrmann are perfectly cast; they're as different in appearance as their characters are in temperament. The sturdy, imposing Mohrmann stands, literally, in direct opposition to the slight, balding Irvin, who cringes in the face of affronts, accentuating the contrast. Under the skilled direction of John Pietrowski, the two play off each other with faultlessly timed double takes and pregnant pauses that enhance punch lines. An effective comedy team, Messrs. Irvin and Mohrmann are truly on the same page, and Orloff's pages reap the benefit. Okay, so Mohrmann could start off somewhere south of bombast, giving him somewhere to go as Victor's corruption comes to a boil. (When he does tone it down, variety and nuance enhance this performance.) And in the play's final scene, Irvin could 86 the actorly self-indulgence and just get one with it. But where better than New Jersey Repertory Company to make adjustments.

This is a co-production, NJ Rep's first, with Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey. After its Long Branch run, "Big Boys" plays Madison, meaning a wider audience for a deserving play, extended employment for New Jersey theatre professionals and increased exposure for Long Branch's lower Broadway renaissance. It's a win-win-win situation.

Theater Review
By Milt Bernstein

The production of New Jersey Repertory Company which opened last weekend, "Big Boys," represents a first-time collaboration with a similar enterprise, the Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey. Under the arrangement made, the play will be offered here in Long Branch for four weeks, then followed by three weeks in Madison - thus widening the audience for new plays and playwrights, the goal of both companies.

The two-character play by Rich Orloff offered here should have an excellent chance at success, to judge from the audience reaction at the weekend's performances. Though billed as a comedy, and with many hilarious interchanges and plays on words of the two male characters, behind the biting words can be found some telling insights into the methods and the motivation of some business entrepreneurs.

The play follow the business adventure, and misadventures, of Norm, a mild-mannered and basically decent young man who wins the job following an uproarious interview with Victor, the explosive and completely unpredictable head of the firm. In one rib-tickling and mind-tingling episode after another, separated by blackouts lasting a few seconds, we follow the seemingly apparent conversion and corruption of Norm to the cynical and highly unscrupulous ways of his employer.

One of these scenes, in which Victor, out of the blue, starts mispronouncing ordinary words we are all familiar with, is a classic, a small gem, worth visiting the play for itself alone.

The performances by the two principals, Al H. Mohrmann and Michael Irvin, are outstanding. The very able direction is by John Pietrowski, artistic director of the Madison company; and the striking set of a contemporary office is by Yoshinori Tanokura.

All supporters of good legitimate theater on Broadway in Long Branch, as opposed to the long trip to Broadway in the Big Apples, should try not to miss this production.

What's Up
NJ Repertory
by Robert F. Carroll

Corporate life--and its inanities--gets a going over in "Big Boys," the latest original play enjoying a world premier at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

The big boys of this two-character comedy by Rich Orloff are Victor (Al Mohrmann) and Norm (Michael Irvin). Victor is interviewing Norm for what appears to be a top job in Victor's company. Victor is the epitome of the corporate biggie, a man who speaks in mindless corporate-ese that baffles Norm.

Mohrmann is hilarious, every inch the flamboyant, self-assured executive, especially when he's speaking nonsense, which is all the time. His only real inters is getting the little steel balls into the clown's eyes in his ever-handy pocket toy.

Toward the end of Act One Victor heightens the silliness by mispronouncing words, which further mystifies Norm, who's ready to ditch the whole idea of getting a job.

"You're nice", an outraged Victor yells at Norm in an outburst of camaraderie.

In Act Two there's a change in Norm, who whimpers, "Teach me all you know" to Victor. He's eventually hired to put the corporation's "Plan X" into play, a plan, of course, that's totally unworkable. And, of course, it works splendidly.

"Big Boys" is a raw--and witty--send-up of corporate people and policies. Playwright Orloff is fortunate in having a couple of Equity pros like Mohrmann and Irvin to wring the hilarity out of the gibberish, which Orloff describes as Abbott and Costello meets David Mamet.

The play, being co-produced by Playwrights Theatre at 33 Green Village Road, Madison, will open there Jan. 10. Playwrights Theatre artistic director John Pietrowski directs.

Big Boys

Richard Orloff's Big Boys is a funny look at the ridiculous, cruel, and heartless corporate machine. An excellent cast and set make this production a good choice for theatre goers.

by Eric Grissom

Being an asshole is a philosophy, or so Richard Orloff's absurdist comedy "Big Boys" will have you believe. The play which is currently in its run at the New Jersey Repertory Company's Lumia Theatre depicts the bizarre and seemingly ridiculous nature of coporate America, or rather, corporate white male America. The play uses a minimal cast and set superbly in demonstrating the corruption of ethics in the modern workplace.

The cast is made up of two characters. Al H. Mohrmann, who portrays the older executive "Victor", does a wonderful job of protraying the unjustly cruel and malicious CEO. His recently hired underling, an average nice fellow named "Norm" (Michael Irvin) is destined to be crushed under the treads of coporate doublespeak and absurd policies. Norm however slowly trades in his eithics for wealth and high class prostitutes. Michael Irvin does a fantastic job showing the evolution, or rather devolution of his nice normal "Norm" into the victorious "Victor".

Orloff does not limit himself solely to using language tricks with his character names- language is a very intricate part of this piece. Victor plays with language throughout- calling Norm every name but his own, changing the stress on letters with abandon and creating new words- all things become distorted. The truth in Orloff's world is always skewed for the benefit of the company, be it corporate mergers, business plans, or the very language they speak. There is no real truth here, only deviation of truth.

The set itself is wonderfully minimal. The only major consistent elements are a desk, chairs, and a plant. The walls are painted in a sky blue which further illustrates the lack of structure and gives the office set the appearence that it's floating somewhere off in the distance. The feeling creates a formlessness and lack of foundation for this particular company that goes perfectly well with the content of the piece. The Lighting Designer, Richard Currie has done an excellent job in adding depth to the nearly bare stage. Its truly a fantastic use of light and shadow.

Comparisons to the playwright David Mamet (American Buffalo, Glengarry Glen Ross) can be heard in the dialog right away. "Big Boys" has that same "bullet" style dialog. The staccato banter between his characters. "Big Boys" has that rythym at times, but where Mamet often features heartless characters existing in a hyper reality, Orloff's men exist within a ridiculously absurd one. Victor speaks on the phone with everyone from Santa Claus to God.

Orloff's piece works very well in that it can comment on the moral corruption of the business world, without taking itself too seriously. It is a very funny play indeed, and another testimant to the quality theatre the New Jersey Rep has to offer.


Asbury Park Press - Review by Tom Chesek

If you haven't made it over to New Jersey Repertory Company's Lumia Theatre in Long Branch for some time, you're in for some delightful surprises.

An exhibit of some extraordinary paintings by Gary Adamson graces the gallery room. The completion of the municipal repaving project has resulted in a vastly improved parking lot and the playhouse has a new access ramp at its entrance.

A newly refurbished, wheel-chair-friendly restroom is now open for business - and oh, yeah, there's a truly funny show going on right now.

That the entertainment gets subordinate billing to the toilet is no reflection upon its quality. It's just that a couple of hours spent in the giddily absurd world of "Big Boys" can wreak havoc with one's gyroscope of logic and priorities; even with the way a body processes sensory stimuli.

All of which serves to put us on the same page as Victor, the cheerfully oblivious, hopelessly self-absorbed president of your standard-issue evil corporation, whose office serves as the sole setting for Rich Orloff's two-character burlesque on business protocol and ethics.

Personified by NJ Rep mainstay Al H. Mohrmann and graced with a firm grip on the absurd as well as the madness of King George, the CEO is a paranoid player of head games who threatens Mom and Santa Clause over the phone (although God hangs up on him), carries on an uncomfortably fetishistic relationship with his potted plant and obsesses over everything from relative penis sizes to getting the little ball in the clowns' eye - all while failing to exhibit the slightest knowledge or interest in just what exactly his company does.

Into this den of illogic comes Norm (Michael Irvin), a bow-tied, eggheaded milquetoast whose upward freefall through the corporate ranks carries him from an interview in which his credentials are instantaneously deposited in the wastebasket - and leaves him sitting in the captain's seat by play's end.

Along the way, this weepily insecure character races from the nerve-jangled nebbishism of Gene Wilder as Leo Bloom to the watch-what-you-say wonkitude of Ari Fleischer, spun into the soft shoulder of self-doubt at every turn by the boss's 180 degree about-faces and literally homicidal harangues.

Playwright Orloff has pegged the show's tone as David Mamet meets Abbott and Costello, and he's right on the money here. The foul-mouthed, festering petri dish of the archetypal Mamet work-place ("Glengarry", "Speed the
Plow") is crossbred with the mastery of Bud and Lou at the pinnacle of their art - a place wherein language serves to exasperate rather than illuminate, and where questions of semantics can only reasonably be resolved in a slapstick strangulation or round-the-desk chase.

A co-production of NJ Rep and Madison-based Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey that replaced the comedy "Spain" on the schedule when that show's director died ("Spain" will be mounted as a script-in-hand reading on Dec. 2), "Big Boys" is directed by PTNJ's John Pietrowski as a series of hit-and-run blackouts, with a flair for physical high jinks and prop-driven laughs that pleasantly surprises in such a confined setting.

"Big Boys" continues through Dec. 22. It moves to the PTNJ theater in Madison for an early 2003 engagement, by which time its two masterful comic leads should have this down pat as "Who's on First."

Greed is good fun: NJ Rep premieres a comedy of corporate ill manners

Published in the Asbury Park Press 11/22/02

The whole haughty concept of corporate ethics might seem like the oxymoronic final frontier these days -- not to mention something less than a surefire laugh-getter for a general public still punchy from the latest round of 401 KO's.

A play by Rich Orloff
New Jersey Repertory Company Lumia Theatre
179 Broadway, Long Branch
Through Dec. 22
8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays
(732) 229-3166

For some of us, though, the current climate of gold-parachute grift is the stuff of the most deliciously vitriolic vaudeville.

For New York-based playwright Rich Orloff, it was a terminally tedious bus ride from Manhattan to Massachusetts that inspired him to take notepad to kneecap and compose "Big Boys," a new comedy previewing this week in its world premiere at New Jersey Repertory Company's Lumia Theatre in Long Branch.

Described by the author as an "over-the-top fable that comically explores ethics, and the luscious allure of ignoring them," Orloff's two-character boardroom burlesque takes a jauntily jaundiced look at what passes for professional protocol within a big, bloated and black-hearted business entity.

Although the play can trace its origins back to the boom times of the late 1990s, those looking for parallels "ripped screaming from today's headlines" will scarcely be discouraged here in a NJ Rep season that's been rife with such timely themes as sexually predatory clergy, hostage situations and hate-crime violence.

The play's point is driven home at the business end of a rubber chicken.
Composing his duet in a style which he triangulates as "David Mamet meets Abbott and Costello" -- suggesting a cross between the potty-mouthed powerplays of "Glengarry Glen Ross" and the amped-up arpeggios of "Who's On First" -- Orloff submits he "spent a lot of time on the wordplay," adding that "both of the characters use words to advance their goals."

Opening tonight following a pair of preview performances yesterday and running through Dec. 22, "Big Boys" (an award winner and finalist in a number of theater festivals and writing competitions) is the first co-production of New Jersey Repertory with Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey, at whose Madison playhouse the show continues with an engagement previewing on Jan. 9 and running through Jan. 26. It replaces the previously announced "Spain" on the Lumia schedule; that show having been canceled following the sudden death at age 37 of its director, NJ Rep veteran Stewart Fisher.

In recalling the contributions of Fisher (whose six productions at the Lumia included the company's inaugural show "Ends"), NJ Rep co-founder Gabor Barabas observed that the Seattle native "continually put his stamp on all of the works he directed, while making sure that the playwright's vision is realized on the stage."

Acknowledging that the company "couldn't do justice" to Fisher's vision of "Spain" without him -- while maintaining that they owed it to their subscribers not to remain dark through the end of the year -- Dr. Barabas contacted Playrights Theatre (then poised to stage "Big Boys" in February) with the suggestion that the two like-minded troupes form a partnership; auditioning actors together and dividing key jobs between talents associated with both of the organizations.

"This is a total collaboration -- our actors, their director and a mix of designers from both theaters, said NJ Rep artistic director SuzAnne Barabas. "(Playwrights Theatre) are definitely on the same page as us -- dedicated to new works, and not afraid to take chances." The cast features a now-familiar face at the Lumia -- Al Mohrmann, who co-starred this year as a suicidal senior citizen in the poignant "Till Morning Comes" and as an alcoholic layabout in the black comedy "Maggie Rose." This time he's the cynical executive, mentoring a rookie hire (Michael Irvin, seen in several script-in-hand reading presentations at the Lumia) under the direction of Playwrights Theatre artistic director John Pietrowski; all three will continue with the show when it moves to the Madison stage early next year. "The scope of the play is wider than just a jab at corporate ethics," Pietrowski observes. "It's about how the father-son dynamic manifests itself all through our society, from the boss taking the new employee under his wing to the ultimate 'split' between the two."

Explaining that the play's point is driven home at the business end of a rubber chicken, Orloff said, "It'll be nice if people leave the play thinking about its meaning, but my main hope is that they'll leave exhausted from laughing."

"I think a good laugh is almost as pleasurable as a good orgasm," he continues. "And, you don't have to wait as long until you can laugh again."

As SuzAnne Barabas sums up, "The play is just the thing we need in this post-Enron climate. "It's a corporate comedy about the big guys, the new guys, the other guys and everyone in-between."

Featuring set and costume designs respectively by NJ Rep veterans Yoshinori Tanokura and Patricia Doherty, and with lighting and sound supervised by Playwrights Theatre resident designers Richard Currie and Jeff Knapp, "Big Boys" kickstarts what both companies hope will be a frequent and fruitful collaborative relationship in the long run. For reservations and other information, call NJ Rep at (732) 229-3166 or Playwrights Theatre at (973) 514-1787.

New play written with a nod to Joe Papp

Friday, November 22, 2002

Star-Ledger Staff

Many playwrights were strongly influenced by New York Shakespeare Festival impresario Joseph Papp, and Rich Orloff is among them, even though he has only read about the man.

Orloff's play, "Big Boys," opening on Saturday at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, wouldn't have happened if Orloff had not read a biography of Papp on a 1996 bus trip to a yoga center in western Massachusetts. Orloff says he was feeling angry and hoping that reading "Joe Papp: An American Life," Helen Epstein's 1994 biography, might improve his mood.

"Reading about someone who was both a great man and jerk, I started planning a character who would be just as grandiose, fierce, passionate and egotistical, as well as lovable and fascinating," Orloff says. "Had I not been reading this book -- and angry -- and on a bus where I couldn't do anything else but read, I wouldn't have come up with the idea for 'Big Boys.'"

The story involves Victor, a corporate big shot, who abuses his assistant, Norm. "Victor has a passion for life, while nice, eager-to-please Norm is miserable with his life," Orloff says. "It deals with ethics and the values we have in the corporate world. Where do you draw the line with some of the deals that people are making today?"

Orloff says he relates more to Norm -- "not just because I've almost always been an assistant, but because I like to think I'm the nice guy, too."

Like most playwrights, he has endured a number of day jobs. "I've added figures, proof-read, worked in a secretarial pool, delivered documents, dug up sugar beets, and even unloaded leisure suits from Romania," he says.

He has had many bosses, one of whom he invited to a reading of "Big Boys."

"Afterwards, he said to me, 'You know, when I started out, I worked for a guy like that,'" Orloff says. "I didn't think he would recognize himself, but for him to so not recognize himself was surprising."

After that reading, Orloff started sending "Big Boys" around. He entered the tri-state play writing contest that Theatrefest in Montclair holds each winter.

"The script didn't win, but John Pietrowski (artistic director) at Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey was a judge who liked it, and said he'd do it," Orloff says. "Was he surprised when I told him that a reader at his theater had already rejected it."

Last month, Stewart Fisher, a director at New Jersey Rep, died in the midst of preparing a production that would have opened last weekend. Artistic director SuzAnne Barabas suddenly needed something to offer her subscribers, heard about "Big Boys," read it, and offered to co-produce with Playwrights Theatre.

So after "Big Boys" concludes its Long Branch run on Dec. 22, it will resume performances on Jan. 10 at Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey in Madison for an additional two weeks.

"I'm a big fan of Kaufman and Hart," Orloff says, referring to the successful play writing team. "I've heard many stories about what they endured out of town, and wished that one day I could take a play on the road. Now I can.

"Though," he says, "it would have been nice to have Joe Papp there, too."

Theater groups applaud behind-the-scenes players

Wednesday, November 13, 2002

Star-Ledger Staff

For the last 13 years, every New Jersey professional playhouse participated in the annual "Applause Awards" bestowed by the New Jersey Theatre Alliance, the consortium of professional theaters.

"But," says John McEwen, the alliance's executive director, "we now have 22 theaters. If each gave an award, the ceremony would last five hours."

McEwen decided that half the theaters would present this year, and the other half next year. At a 2 1/2-hour ceremony held at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick Monday night, a select 11 dispensed framed certificates.

Applause Awards aren't given to a best actor or best director. Instead, a theater "applauds" the corporation or person who's helped most in the past year.

Two Madison theaters commemorated individuals on their boards. Jeanne Barrett was acknowledged by the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival, and Melverne Cooke was cited by Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey.

Others praised employees, such as the Paper Mill Playhouse's Mickey McNany-Damian, who heads the Junior Players at the Millburn theater. She pointed out, in a witty parody of a rhymed children's book, that the program has grown in 18 years from eight students to 592.

Volunteers such as Art and Joan Barron, who contribute to Surflight Theatre in Beach Haven, as well as Dick Blofson -NT ) and Scotia MacRae, who donate time and energy to Passage Theatre Company of Trenton, were also cited.

Eric Hafen, artistic director of the Bickford Theatre in Morris Township, honored Ellie Nice, who founded a guild that raises funds and increases the subscriber base.

Michael Stotts, managing director for the George Street Playhouse, applauded John Risley, owner of the Northstar Cafe in New Brunswick for providing food for opening night parties. "He comes to our assistance any time we call," said Stotts, "and we call frequently."

Said Risley, "But we benefit from people coming to George Street. This is an extra honor I didn't expect."

Stephen L. Fredericks, executive director of the Growing Stage in Netcong, a children's theater, waxed rhapsodic over Marcia Lawrence, the volunteer box office manager. He said that she must "listen to parents" and "attend runny noses" while maintaining "a sincere and understanding glazed smile on her face." Only after a minute's worth of tribute did he divulge that Lawrence was also his mother-in-law.

Similarly, Jane Mandel, artistic director of Luna Stage in Montclair, cited her husband, Frankie Faison (the only actor to appear in all four Hannibal Lecter films) as the "star of stage, screen and our parking lot." Mandel and managing director Charlotte McKim recalled his unloading trucks, removing garbage and conducting acting workshops.

Mandel also mentioned that the previous night, an actor scheduled to open this weekend in Luna's production of "Voice of Good Hope," could not go on. "Frankie stepped in, and will now spend his waking hours learning the part."

A bemused Faison gave his wife a quick glance and said, "But in most of these things, I have no choice."

Two theaters praised donations from local businesses. Gabor Barabas, executive producer of New Jersey Repertory Theatre in Long Branch, gave his award to Todd Katz of Siperstein's, a chain of home decorating stores. "We've smeared our walls with his paint so many times that our theater is now half the size it used to be," joked Barabas.

Katz added that Barabas originally told him "he just needed a little paint" for his 62-seat theater. He then glanced at the 375-seat George Street facility. "If he's looking to move to a space this size, I'm a little worried."

Lenny Bart, artistic director of 12 Miles West Theatre Company in Montclair, praised Michael Fried for providing an eye-catching brochure that helped double attendance. "He only admonishes me when I don't call him for help."

The evening's centerpiece was the Star Award, presented to the person who has made the most outstanding contribution to the professional theater scene. Barbara Futon Morn, now executive director of the New Jersey Cultural Trust, received the honor.

First, Paper Mill education director Susan Speidel, alliance associate Dee Bill and others paid tribute in song, singing lyrics by El White, who morphed the Beach Boys' hit "Barbara Ann" into "Barbara Morn." Another song poked fun at her 16-year relationship that finally culminated in a marriage this summer. Then another, augmented by a slide show, that displayed the myriad of hairstyles that Morn has worn during her 19-year stint on the New Jersey arts scene.

In her speech that followed, Morn returned the favor by praising the alliance, as well as "the opportunity to have witnessed so many New Jersey theaters in all stages of their development."

Though he didn't receive an award of his own, Stotts was applauded throughout the evening, as many offered him a fond goodbye before he leaves George Street in December to assume the managing directorship of the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Conn.

Fisher dies

Thursday, September 26, 2002

Stewart Fisher, the associate artistic director of the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, died suddenly Sunday from heart failure. He was 37.

Fisher collapsed while holding auditions for the next New Jersey Rep production, "Spain" by Jim Knable.

At New Jersey Rep, Stewart directed "Ends," the company's inaugural production, in 1999. He also staged "Adult Fiction," "The Girl with the High Rouge," "Naked By the River" and "Slave Shack." He was a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, and lived in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Fisher was married to Dana Benningfield, New Jersey Repertory's literary director and a member of the company's acting troupe, who was last seen in "The Laramie Project."

Funeral arrangements were private. A memorial will be held at the theater at a later date.

As a result, the production of "Spain" that had been scheduled for Oct. 31-Nov. 24 has been canceled. "We would not be able to do justice to the play, to Stewart or to Stewart's vision right now," said artistic director SuzAnne Barabas.

Published in the Asbury Park Press 9/25/02

Stewart Fisher, 37, assistant artistic director of the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, died suddenly Sunday, according to theater publicist Debbie Mura.

According to Mura, Stewart, Brooklyn, had been conducting final auditions for the NJ Rep's upcoming production of Jim Knable's "Spain" when he collapsed and died at his New York studio. An actress and an NJ Rep company member had performed CPR to no avail, according to Mura, who said the theater has decided not to pursue the production that would have opened in Long Branch on Oct. 25.

"We would not be able to do justice to the play, to Stewart or to Stewart's vision right now," explained Artistic Director SuzAnne Barabas.

Funeral arrangements as of yesterday had not been announced. Stewart's parents live in Seattle, Mura said.

At NJ Rep, Stewart had directed the company's inaugural production, "Ends" by David Alex; "Adult Fiction" by Brian Mori; "The Girl with the High Rouge" by Vincent Sessa; "Naked by the River" and "Slave Shack" by Michael Folie and many staged readings.

A memorial will be held at the theater at a later date, according to Mura.

Co-founder of N.J. Rep new director of arts council

VERONICA YANKOWSKI Dr. Gabor Barabas, co-founder of the New Jersey Repertory Company, Long Branch, will head the newly formed Long Branch Arts Council.

By gloria stravelli

Staff Writer

To support its emerging arts district, the city of Long Branch has created a Long Branch Arts Council and has named Dr. Gabor Barabas as director of the new arts organization.

Created by ordinance, the arts council will have five members appointed by the mayor and council to serve three-year terms. The council's mission will be to support performing and visual artists and help locate venues where they can pursue their art.

Barabas, a West Long Branch physician and co-founder of N.J. Repertory Company in Long Branch, will serve a one-year term on the council, which actually succeeds a defunct arts group that once played a limited role in the cultural life of the city. As director of the arts council, Barabas said he sees his role as "fostering, very powerfully, the idea that Long Branch is a wonderful environment for the arts.

"I would like to make certain that all the arts are represented," he noted "and there comes a time where there is an annual festival of the arts in Long Branch."

Long Branch Mayor Adam Schneider said the role of the arts group will be to engage the community and enrich the lives of residents.

"It will promote and expand the role of the arts in our community, and get people who live in Long Branch involved in either seeing or participating in various forms of the performing and visual arts," said Schneider.

In addition, he said, the arts council will have an educational component, provide a place for performing or creating art, and help community arts organizations get funding in the form of grants.

Schneider said the city will support the inception of the arts council, provide funds for it, "then get out of the way."

He said funding is still being discussed at the City Council level.

"It could have a small budget because it's an entity of the city," he said. "We've had some discussions," adding there are currently no plans for a home for the group.

The mayor noted that Long Branch had an arts council from 1998-2000, but the all-volunteer group had dwindled into inactivity.

When Barabas approached him with the idea of reviving an arts council, he said, he supported the concept.

"It's really exciting, said Schneider, noting that the arts council will reinforce plans to develop an arts district in downtown Long Branch on Broadway.

Plans for a contemporary visual arts center in downtown Broadway are moving forward, he said, and N.J. Rep has established a reputation for presenting quality theater.

"It all reflects very well on the city," he said. "We're not as expensive as some other areas in Monmouth County, and the arts will bring in other economic benefits like restaurants, cafes and people coming into town.

"Plus it has its own benefit," he noted. "Art is supposed to help you look at the world differently, be it theater, painting or sculpture. Once you do that, it never goes back. To me that's a big benefit to the town," he added.

Barabas said he sees the arts council's primary role as nurturing local artists.

"I want to make sure we tap into the local talent because there are many talented artists in the area," he said. "I want to make certain we encourage their work and assist in their growth and identify an audience for their work.

"A festival would just be icing on the cake," he said. "It's more the day-to-day work, the encouragement and support we want to provide, as well as attract audiences and artists."

A neurologist, Barabas has a private pediatric neurology practice, and is head of pediatric neurology for Monmouth Medical Center, a position he shares with his brother, Ronald.

"I think at this time I have the best sense of how to plant strong roots for the organization," Barabas said of his role in fostering the new group. "It's a privilege to be the one who has the opportunity to resurrect it and place it on a strong footing, and then someone else will take over, then someone else, then someone else."

Co-founder of N.J. Rep with his wife, Suzanne, Barabas said he worked to promote the idea of reviving an arts council, believing the timing is right.

"When our theater made Long Branch its home five years ago, I reached out to other arts organizations. At the time there was a greater Long Branch Arts Council that had been active, but over the years had fallen by the wayside," he said.

Barabas sees reviving the arts council as being in concert with the theater company's mission. In addition to developing new plays, the company seeks to play a vital role in the redevelopment of Long Branch, he explained.

"On the basis of that mission, I approached the mayor and city administrator to ask them whether it wasn't time to resurrect the Long Branch Arts Council, especially given all the activity now taking place in Long Branch," he said.

"I felt this was a time where a council would be important, given the anticipated influx of arts organizations like the planned Shore Institute of the Contemporary Arts," he explained. "There are many individuals and organizations in the area involved with visual arts, poetry, literature, performing arts, music and dance, where it would be important for there to be a coordinating body to help foster these activities."

City officials were very receptive to the idea, he noted.

Barabas disclosed that N.J. Rep recently acquired a 100-year-old building located on Broadway a block away from the Lumia Theatre at 179 Broadway.

The company will need to raise about $350,000 to renovate the structure, he said.

"It's a very derelict-looking building nicknamed 'the Alamo' by residents in the area," he said, adding plans call for an art gallery, space for community arts organizations, and a central box office in the space.

"We're trying to play a role in galvanizing the arts," he explained.

The theater company's present building, the Lumia Theatre, was donated to N.J. Rep in 1997 by David and Margaret Lumia whose business had outgrown the space.

"They wanted to give something back to the community," Barabas explained, "and they wanted to donate the building to a nonprofit that could do the most to help revitalize the area."

The Lumias donated the building to N.J. Rep which raised $250,000 to renovate the facade and create two performance spaces. The project was a harbinger of things to come.

"It was the first major facade to be redone in the area in decades," Barabas noted.

N.J. Rep's audiences represent a cross-section from throughout New Jersey and beyond, he said.

According to Barabas, between 8-10 percent of its audience is drawn from New York City, and the theater's reputation has grown beyond the region. "Some of our plays are now being produced throughout the country," he said, adding that about 1,000 scripts per season are submitted to the theater company.

A poet and playwright, Barabas has written plays presented at N.J. Rep, and has produced the professional premieres of several works at the theater. He is a member of the Dramatists Guild.

The arts council, he said, will directly affect artists and performers by providing a city-sponsored entity to support their work, and will have a major impact for the city and its residents.

"It will have a tremendous impact on the businesses and restaurants in the area," he said, "and I think it will help to identify Long Branch as an exciting environment for people from surrounding communities.

"Broadway has always been the main artery, the heart and soul of the city," he added.

According to Barabas, the arts council will have a strong educational component and will undertake a major outreach to children, adolescents and young adults aimed at helping them achieve their artistic potential and at educating future audiences.

Barabas came to the United States in 1956 at age 7 when his parents fled the Hungarian Revolution. His involvement with the theater came as a result of his wife's theater background, he said. While Barabas was attending medical school at the University of Cincinnati in 1970, he and his wife co-founded Cincinnati Repertory Company, which grew into a major children's theater touring company. After graduation, Barabas was a resident in pediatrics and neurology at Children's Hospital in Philadelphia where the Barabases founded American Repertory Theater, which presented avant garde works. They also started a children's luncheon theater.

He relocated to New Jersey to take a position as head of pediatric neurology at Rutgers Medical School, now the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in New Brunswick.

While at UMDNJ, Barabas was frequently invited to the area to lecture and see patients. In 1983, he accepted a position as head of child neurology at Monmouth Medical Center.

Five years ago he said, the Barabases decided to "produce plays the way we'd always wanted, which was to do new works."

The couple began looking for theater space first in nearby Red Bank but decided instead on Long Branch.

"Not only could we make an artistic contribution, but a substantial social contribution as well, because the community had no theater, no organized arts group," he said.

"This was an ideal environment. We were not going into an affluent area, but it was to be a catalyst to jump-start things."

Founding the theater company has not been without its challenges, he said. "It's been quite a struggle," he acknowledged. "We certainly have succeeded tremendously from the artistic standpoint, but only the community can judge whether we've succeeded from the social standpoint."

Maggie Rose reviewed by eric grissom

Truth be told, you can't keep a good woman down, even if they've been electrocuted and pumped full of embalming fluid.

Michigan based playwright Kim Carney's Maggie Rose concerns the resurrection of a much put upon mother, Maggie Rose, and the media frenzy that ensues as a result of it. Maggie's a trailer park resident who earns her keep cleaning other people's homes. The idea of Maggie taking care of other people is not limited to her occupation however, as it simply further illustrates her full servitude to those surrounding her. Her overbearing mother (Susan G. Bob), and spoiled daughter (Kittson O'Neill) start the first act attempting to write the eulogy for their departed Maggie. Unfortunately they are unable to come up with anything more then generic niceties. They did however have no problem rifling through her meager positions and diving up the goods. Not soon thereafter, Maggie's boyfriend Jerry (Al H. Mohrmann), a drunkard and cheater, arrives and learns the news of her demise.

The real story begins however when Maggie returns home as if nothing happened. This is no hallucination, Maggie's risin'. After the initial shock of seeing the walking dead subside, people immediately return to taking advantage of Maggie, and exploiting this new found miracle. The mother begins her consistent belittling, the daughter uses Maggie as a surrogate mother to her army of unruly children, and Jerry once again reverts to his drinking and "Make me a sandwich and give me like twenty bucks" lifestyle. Maggie has once again become the object of everyone else's needs. This time it becomes even more intense, as news of her resurrection spreads like wild fire. The cause, no doubt, can be attributed to her high strung former boss turned agent, Mr. DeLuca (Ames Adamson). When he sees Maggie is still alive, he immediately envisions the financial prospects of having a real life savior to parade around. Book deals, movies, talk shows, Maggie Rose T-Shirts, in Mr. De Luca's words - she can be "bigger then Disney". Religious fanatics and the media soon begin beating down the door of her trailer hoping for a chance to get an interview with the miraculous Maggie Rose, or maybe some of her underwear.

The play does not concern itself with the resurrection in and of itself, but rather with the effects of the event. The mindless commercialization of spirituality, and the emptiness that exists behind that veil. Maggie skirts the attention, and wishes very much to go back to the way things were. Unfortunately, this is no longer a possibility, and it is up to Maggie herself to re claim her life, or her second one anyway.

The acting overall is superb. Susan Bob's cigarette riddled voice has fantastic comedic timing. Kittson O'Neill could easily take her portrayal of Dawn to any number of talk shows and fit right in. Al H. Mohrmann has the unfortunate task of playing a drunk. Playing drunks, be it on film or at the theatre, is never an easy task. It is too often over played, and over acted. Mohrmann shows some restraint here. Although they are portions of the performance where the drunken dialog gets a bit too cartoony, it never gets to the point of being annoying. Ames Adamson, who has the outrageous role of Mr. Deluca, takes this undertaker turned hollywood agent to the absurdly ridiculous. His performance is over the top, but it works. The preacher, Father Billey played by Tom McNelly, delivers a stellar performance as the quiet preacher with a lame arm. A sharp contrast to the spasmodic style of Admson, McNelly's deadpan deliver garners some of the shows biggest laughs. Finally, Maggie Rose herself, played by Kathleen Goldpaugh, has one of the hardest jobs in the piece. It is quite difficult for any actor or actress to shine when her cast mates all of have such outrageous characters. Maggie is definitely the "straight guy" in this comedy troupe, but her subtlety and reluctance at being America's new savior is wonderfully portrayed. She is the perfect vehicle for Kim Carney's vision.

The play itself is well written, there are a few moments when jokes tend to be a bit predictable, but overall a funny production. The allusions to Jesus Christ throughout- her mother named Virginia, the three days before she "rose", the selflessness of her actions, all play out nicely. There's even a nice monologue by Kathleen Goldpaugh that is very much reminiscent of Jesus' final hours on the cross. Despite some of the heavy religious and spiritual tones of the play, it remains a very funny and entertaining production.

The New Jersey Repertory Company continues to provide New Jersey with amazing theatre, and Maggie Rose is a true testimant to that.

Maggie Rose At New Jersey Rep Proves
You Can't keep A Good Woman Down
Two River Times Review by Philip Dorian

SpacerThere is a funny play at the center of Kim Carney's Maggie Rose at New Jersey Repertory Company. When the layers of moralistic religiosity fall away, the play is very amusing. Ms. Carney is a gifted writer of character and situation comedy, and her play, blessed here with a skilled ensemble cast and expert direction, is at times even hilarious. If some of it is repetitious and overwritten, that is easy to fix. It is, after all, still a "work in progress," in the NJ Rep tradition.

SpacerMaggie Rose suffered a shocking death while cleaning an electrical socket (in the local funeral parlor, no less) with a wet rag. Several days later, Maggie's mother Virginia (Susan G. Bob) is struggling to write a eulogy while Maggie's daughter Dawn (Kittson O'Neill) is looting her late mother's closet. Jerry (Al H. Mohrmann), Maggie's erstwhile hanger-on, is in his usual alcoholic haze. The three are lamenting the passing, when what to their wondering eyes should appear, but Maggie herself, alive and still here.

Kittson O'Neill (left), Ames Adamson and Kathleen Goldpaugh in a scene from Maggie Rose at New Jersey Repertory Company, Long Branch.
Kittson O'Neill (left), Ames Adamson and Kathleen Gold-
paugh in a scene from Maggie Rose at the NewJersey
Repertory Company, Long Branch..

Photo: Scott Longfield

SpacerEveryone except Maggie knew she was dead; she'd even been embalmed. After the expected double- and triple-takes (Ms. O'Neill's reaction, a combination of wonder and fear, is priceless), they settle into acceptance and try to figure out "the dead thing." Is it, as the addled funeral director (Ames Adamson) believes, a "Second Coming"? No one can figure it out, and therein lies the best feature of this original play: No one does figure it out. Maggie simply rose, is all.

SpacerThe play is structured like a wheel, with Maggie at the hub. Everything happens to her, around her, or because of her, and Kathleen Goldpaugh couldn't be better as the reluctant center of attention. Maggie had been a passive, put upon soul; she emerges, reborn, with a mind of her own, making decisions she had avoided before. (Wouldn't we all welcome a similar opportunity!) Ms. Goldpaugh plays Maggie's wonderment wonderfully; she's most engaging. Susan G. Bob, she of the nasal intonation, uses that quality to advantage as Maggie's snappish mother. She undercuts the action with wry sarcasm, delivered with exquisite timing. Ms. O'Neill, a size 10 (8?) stuffed into Mom's size 6 dress, finds the middle ground between alluring and blowsy. Her trailer park ingenue is perfection.

Spacer The way to play a drunk is to play a drunk who's trying not to appear drunk, and Mr. Mohrmann's performance is a master class. Throughout, he's just barely in control of his faculties, if not his facilities. It's a fine, controlled comedic performance. Less controlled is Mr. Adamson, whose antics are boisterously entertaining. He becomes a cross between a desperate show-biz agent and an over-the-top evangelist, with a smidgen of Paul Lynde tossed in. What the actor demonstrated in last month's Panama is confirmed here: If you're casting for outrageous, call Adamson.

SpacerSome of Ms. Carney's sharpest comedy is abetted in grand style by the subtle playing of Tom McNelly as Reverend Billey, the local preacher whose deformed right hand becomes the object of the most laugh-provoking scene in recent memory. His inability to shuffle cards or play a band instrument may be obvious jokes, but they're so slickly written and cannily delivered, that even this PC observer slapped his knee. And I for one will never again see "air quotes" without smiling at the image of Rev. Billey's half-handed effort. The miracle-healing exchange between McNelly and Goldpaugh is an absolute gem. Rounding out the cast, Raymond Schmoll plays a bit part sensitively.

SpacerOne hopes that director SuzAnne Barabas will have a hand in pruning the script (the first act bogs down midpoint), but her styling of the play and its characters needs no tinkering. Under her guidance, the women are believable as a three-generation family; even their differences aid the illusion. And the men's actor-leashes are just the right lengths. Scenic designer Valerie Green continues the NJ Rep tradition of admirable settings, even if the decor does suggest a standard higher than your average trailer park.

SpacerThere's an overlong and unnecessary coda, in which Maggie hears The Word and turns introspective and forgiving. Ironically, her conversion costs the play the "spiritually uplifting" quality that's claimed for it. What really was uplifting and gratifying was the former doormat's assertive rejection of her loutish boyfriend, her carping mother, and her selfish daughter. "Good for you," we thought, knowing they'd remain in her life, but on her terms. Then God tells Maggie to forgive and forget, and she gets all warm blooded on us. But her new found Religion is a Lifetime Channel resolution that takes the bite out of Maggie Rose and Maggie Rose. She was more lovable with embalming fluid in her veins. And much more bloody funny.

Black comedy manic and funny

Published in the Asbury Park Press 8/13/02

Here's an interesting twist for all of those who seek the miraculous within the most mundane of things: a truly miraculous event treated in the most mundane of manners.

presented by the New Jersey Repertory Company at the Lumia Theatre, Long Branch
WHEN:8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays (through Sept. 15)
TICKETS, INFO:$30. (732)229-3166.

In "Maggie Rose," the comedy currently enjoying its East Coast premiere at New Jersey Repertory Company's Lumia Theatre in Long Branch, a recently deceased cleaning woman who has been certifiably stone cold dead (and even embalmed) for days sits up in her coffin and returns to her trailer in Bath, Michigan, in a futile attempt to resume her anonymous life.

Her grasping loved ones and opportunistic neighbors have other designs on her reclaimed time, however, and it's not long before the modest mobile home is the focal point for everything from talk-show bidding wars to spiritual pilgrimages.

The play as written by Michigan-based Kim Carney doesn't delve too deep as far as the whys and wherefores of this Midwest miracle; its chosen targets (media feeding frenzies, faith healing for dollars, Oprah worship) are plump pushovers and the whole thing operates largely at the level of an OK sitcom. It's up to the actors (under the direction of SuzAnne Barabas) to put this featherweight black comedy across, and this founding light of the NJ Rep company has assembled a cast (led by Kathleen Goldpaugh as the overwhelmed and underappreciated title character) with the goods -- and the good looks -- to pull it off, without necessarily resorting to stereotypes. In fact, if Ms. Goldpaugh's portrayal tends to sidestep our ideal of a trailer-trash queen, it may be due to the notion that the conflicted and conscience-driven Maggie is less of a self-promoting exhibitionist than her real-life Springer-land counterparts.


The cast of "Maggie Rose" includes (from left) Ames Adamson, Susan G. Bob, Kathleen Goldpaugh and Kittson O'Neill.
It all takes place within a fully paneled and knick-knacked set design by Valerie Green that's sufficiently rich in detail to elicit a few chuckles even before the first player appears (although perhaps a Stroh's beer sign would have completed the picture). The actors use the doors, windows and beaded curtains to great comic effect, while lighting and sound directors Jeff Greenberg and Merek Royce Press conjure up the encroaching world outside with a facility that never betrays the fact that this crew lost nearly a week of tech rehearsal time during the Long Branch power outages.

Also seemingly part of the furniture in the Rose trailer -- and engaged in the redistribution of the late Maggie's appliances as the play opens -- are the unholy threesome of Maggie-mom Virginia (Susan G. Bob), daughter Dawn (Kittson O'Neill) and alcoholic lout boyfriend Jerry (Al H. Mohrmann, a long way from his sympathetic ALS sufferer in 'Till Morning Comes").

While this trio of NJ Rep regulars have an infectious amount of fun with their broadly written parts, playwright Carney appears to have reserved the show's biggest moments for the characters of Reverend Billey and mortician Mr. DeLuca. As respectively portrayed by Tom McNelly and Ames Adamson (who proved his mastery of physical schtick five times over with his turn in the recent "Panama"), these frustrated, barely functional pillars of the community get to faint, grovel, go into seizures and deliver a hilarious pair of comic confessions -- all to hang their pathetic needs upon the shoulders of the reluctant miracle woman.

There are times, however, when the play looks to be on the verge of succumbing to the same disease that's afflicted nearly every sitcom since Mary Tyler Moore; when our central character is forced to play eyeball-rolling straight woman to a supporting cast of assorted mixed nuts. Then lo and behold, the author grants Maggie a dialogue of sorts with the ever-inscrutable God (and an encounter with a kindly neighbor played by Raymond Schmoll) that allows Goldpaugh to claim her rightful place at the heart of the tale.

It's a cornfed affirmation of faith that makes for a sweet ending to this cynical story, and it's undoubtedly the most moving soliloquy you'll see this year from a performer with her butt in a birdbath.


A Very Lively Maggie Rose
Theatre Review

LONG BRANCH - Once again eschewing drama for comedy during these humid summer months, the New Jersey Repertory Company is currently staging the East Coast premiere of the comedy "Maggie Rose".

It's a as light as air, crowd pleasing soufflé of a play that will satisfy audience members - but won't spoil their dinners. When it's all over, you'll remember having a great time.

The title character of "Maggie Rose" must deal with a peculiar dilemma - she's died and come back to life, and she struggles to understand why.

Additionally, she must handle a thieving tart of a daughter, a trailer park version of Joan Crawford for a mother, an alcoholic, unemployed, cheatin' lug of a boyfriend and an obnoxious, money hungry Ritalin-deprived loony of an employer.

Is it any wonder that the first act ends with Maggie holding a knife to her throat?

Luckily for her (and the audience) Reverend Billey shows up as the second act opens and manages to talk her down.

Meanwhile, the carnival outside her motor home grows; news has leaked of her return from the dead. Religious fanatics, news people, and celebrity seekers join her dysfunctional extended family in tormenting Maggie.

How does she come to terms with all that happened to her and all that is swirling around her?

Who cares? It's the journey not the destination that's important here. Hitting 1st, 2nd and third bases provides the thrills and laughs. Home plate is an after-thought.

NJ Rep veteran Kathleen Goldpaugh hits all the right notes as Maggie - think of Sally Field as Norma Rae minus that pesky union business.

Al H. Mohrmann is an entertaining scamp as Maggie's boyfriend Jerry (and anyone who caught his earlier appearance on this stage in "Till Morning Comes" will be doubly impressed with his performance here), and Susan G. Bob creates a wonderful caricature as her raspy, brittle mom. Kittson O'Neill as daughter Dawn earns extra points for stomping around the stage in precarious wedges without falling over, as well as her portrayal.

In his debut at NJ Rep, Tom McNelly as Rev. Billey turns in a finely comedic and touching performance that will make you want to go home and say a bedtime prayer that he's cast again and again at NJ Rep.

And, as he was in June's production of "Panama", Ames Adamson as Mr. DeLuca is a physical and a comedic force of nature you can't take your eyes off.

Which brings us to another force of nature - a certain surprise storm a few Fridays ago that inflicted much damage on the area.

Because of that storm, and the resulting power loss to much of Long Branch, the schedule of performances for "Maggie Rose" had to be tinkered with. So it would be remiss not to note the technical crew of this production.

Not surprisingly, the sound and lighting at a NJ Rep production is as top rate as the acting and material selected. Indeed, because of its very quality, it's easy to overlook. Sound effects and lighting cues are never missed and always appropriate.

The sets have always been marvels, as is the case with this production, and the costuming perfect (reference those shoes on Kittson above).

Need a break from all your worries? Forget Cheers! Seek Maggie out.

The Coaster

NJ Repertory Company "Maggie Rose": Life (and laughs) After Death by Robert F. Carroll

Advance publicity for Kim Carney's "Maggie Rose" prepared audiences for a spiritually uplifting play at the New Jersey Repertory Company premiere last weekend.

What audiences saw was a witty soap opera of a play that presents life after death at not too different, but certainly funnier -- maybe even more uplifting -- than mortal existence.

Kathleen Goldpaugh is the bewildered Maggie of this wry comedy, a woman who surprises everybody, mostly herself, by strolling back into her trailer home three days after her death.

Maggie might even have welcomed death, dragged down in life as she was by a drunken lout of a boyfriend, Jerry; a self-centered daughter, Dawn, and a sarcastic crone of a mother, Virginia.

A cleaning woman in life, Maggie can't get used to the idea of being dead, or being alive either. Momma (Susan Bob), daughter (Kittson O'Neill) and boyfriend (Al Mohrmann) cope pretty well, though, after the initial shock. They even return Maggie's hair dryer, TV, mixer and a few other possessions distributed after her demise. And Jerry even proposes.

Maggie's death really derails Mr. DeLuca (Ames Adamson), the local undertaker, who is at first rendered speechless by the presumed miracle. But then he springs back -- at least the pitch-man in him springs back -- after realizing that life-after-death, as he notes, can be "bigger than Disney". The conniving Adamson, who can raise groveling to high art, all but steals the show -- which isn't easy given the professionalism of this superb cast.

Bob, as the persnickety momma, filters death through her own crabbed view of life. Young Dawn eventually takes her mom's death, and rebirth, in stride. So does Jerry, who believes death and resurrection shouldn't interrupt drinking, concupiscence or cashing in on a sure thing.

Tom McNelly adds a hilarious touch as the local pastor, Rev. Billey, prepared to offer comfort to a woman, Maggie, who isn't really sure of her death, her rebirth, or anything else, but certainly doesn't care for any discussion about God. Lovable Maggie herself ruminates on her strange situation in a touching monologue that brings down the curtain.

Director SuzAnne Barabas suggest that the play has a lot to say about the culture of celebrity and everybody's grab for a piece of the action. But rarely has a writer made the grabbing so entertaining, and "Maggie Rose" is immensely entertaining.

The LINK News August 15, 2002
By Milt Bernstein
"MAGGIE ROSE" Combines Mystery and Humor

Long Branch - "Maggie Rose", the new play by Kim Carney being offered by the NJ Repertory, here on Broadway, is a marvelous combination of suspense and humor. It is a mystery of life (and death) wrapped up and served inside an uproarious family picture gallery of characters.

The play, originally presented in Ann Arbor, Michigan, is having its East Coast and New Jersey premiere here; and it is a good enough one, in this writer's opinion, to be seen and taken up by lots of other discerning producers in the area, not excluding New York.

The story revolves around the lady of the title who it is believed, has died in an accident; but who turns up again several days later undeniably alive; and the complications that ensue are fast, furious, and extremely funny.

The title character is beautifully played by Kathleen Goldpaugh, who has been featured in several previous NJ Rep productions, and she is greatly supported by the rest of the cast, which include Kittson O'Neill as her voluptuous but demanding daughter, Susan G. Bob as her acid-tongued mother, Al H. Mohrmann as her one-idea-pants-connected boyfriend, Ames Adamson as an opportunistic funeral director, and Tom McNelly as a well-meaning young minister.

SuzAnne Barabas, a co-founder of the theatre group, directed most skillfully; and the scenery, lighting, costuming and sound were all first-rate.

This not-to-be-missed production will be here for five more weekends.

The (other) rising: NJ Rep premieres 'spiritually uplifting' comedy

Published in the Asbury Park Press 8/09/02

Like so many other things these days, the resurrection business ain't quite what it used to be. Once the exclusive province of our cherished religious icons, life after death now looks to be within the grasp of anybody with the will and the wherewithal to plunk down cold cash on a little place just a few tubes down from Ted Williams.

A play by Kim Carney
New Jersey Repertory Company
Lumia Theatre
179 Broadway, Long Branch
8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays
(732) 229-3166

Meanwhile, megalomaniacal multi-billionaires seek to clone themselves into perpetuity; departed celebs return to pitch diet soda and dustbusters -- and TV's chatty channeler John Edward pulls back the veil of communion with the afterlife, revealing something with all the mystique of a bonus-minutes wireless plan.

How fitting, then, that Michigan-based playwright Kim Carney has chosen the decidedly downmarket but durably all-American setting of a Midwest trailer park for her resurrection comedy "Maggie Rose," now in its East Coast premiere run at New Jersey Repertory Company's Lumia Theatre on downtown Broadway in Long Branch.

"I don't want anyone to get the wrong idea -- this play is spiritually uplifting and very funny," insists director and NJ Rep co-founder SuzAnne Barabas. "We've done quite a few 'dark' plays this season, and a couple of our patrons were worried when they saw the word 'death' in the press release."

Taking a funnel-cloud to the most twisted elements of everything from "Cinderella" to "It's a Wonderful Life" and dropping it square in the middle of Heartland Hell, the play -- which saw its debut in Ann Arbor as the most recent of Carney's produced works -- stars Kathleen Goldpaugh in the title role of Margaret Jane Rose, a long-suffering cleaning woman of "somewhat limited intellectual capabilities" and resolute ordinariness; a woman who has sacrificed all for the sake of her critical crone of a mother, her self-centered slattern of a daughter and her philandering fink of a boyfriend. Having exhibited the patience of Job in life, the recently deceased (courtesy of a mishap involving a wet rag and a wall socket) Maggie is rather inexplicably rewarded with a chance at a similarly Biblical second coming, returning unceremoniously back to this vale of woe at the rather inconvenient moment when her loathsomely ungrateful "loved ones" set about to divvy up her worldly goods.

Ames Adamson grovels as Kathleen Goldpaugh tries to get a grip in "Maggie Rose," opening this weekend at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.
While Mom (Susan G. Bob), daughter Dawn (Kittson O'Neill, seen most recently in the "Tomorrow's Promise" young playwrights' program at the Lumia) and boyfriend Jerry (Al Mohrmann, co-star of NJ Rep's 2002 production of ³Till Morning Comes²) are less than thrilled at first with the prospect of Maggie's re-entry into their lives, opportunity soon knocks in the form of the many profiteers, pilgrims and parasites who undertake the trek to the Rose trailer once word of the miraculous resurrection gets out. While Maggie herself would prefer nothing more than to fade back into a life of anonymity, the greasy grifters and star-struck stalkers (represented by supporting players John FitzGibbon, Tom McNelly, Raymond Schmoll and Ames Adamson of the recent "Panama") have other ideas, ranging from appearances on the talk-show circuit to the sale of her used undies.

"The play certainly has lot to say about the whole culture of celebrity in our time," observes Barabas. "Maggie doesn't want her 15 minutes of fame, but everybody around her wants a piece of the action, and even the preacher is looking for something."

Still, the director suggests that there is more to these characters than is readily apparent -- and that even "sweet, simple Maggie" is no pillar of virtue. "In the end, there is goodness in all of them -- and (this cast) is committed to the characters they play; they have to be real".


NJ Rep's "Panama" Brings the Mayhem

How's this for a classy evening at the legitimate stage: start with a purely materialistic quest, centered around a completely self-absorbed lout who murders his doctor mere seconds into the first act. Throw in a Jesus Christ look-alike and a pair of natural-born killer wannabe's. Add a bit of simulated oral and some brashly brandished semiautomatic weapons, then salt liberally with language that would make Jay and Silent Bob blanch and fumble for the thesaurus.

Like, who says live theater can't compete with the cream of popular culture?

With "Panama," the new play now in its world premiere engagement at Long Branch's Lumia Theatre, the folks at New Jersey Repertory Company let their hair down in a big way, blowing off the pent-up steam of a season that's heretofore concentrated on such heavy fare as "The Laramie Project" and "The Dead Boy." Having proven themselves in the genre of issue-driven drama with the recently staged "Slave Shack," playwright Michael T. Folie and director Stewart Fisher have returned to lower Broadway with a comedy of ill manners that's seemingly hell-bent on confounding the senses while offending all sensibilities. It's a comedy that just might win you over with its peculiar brand of cheerfully mounted mayhem, provided you approach it in the right frame of mind.

All epic quests have got to have their hero, and in "Panama" the central role of Man - a sort of berserk Bob Vila whose panic over the prospect of eventual mortality causes him to embark upon a selfish sojourn in search of a near-mythic eternal-life treatment - is embodied to polo-shirted perfection by Gary Lamadore. While his bellyaching and impulsiveness are on a par with plenty of dysfunctional Fox-TV dads, his Wife (Maura O'Brien) seems to have been beamed back from some forgotten 50's sitcom. The two exist on separate channels in more ways than one; their soulless, sexless marriage is kept on life support primarily through the total sublimation of her own desires - although it doesn't take her long to discover how to get what she wants with the help of a Glock.

Hitting the road in hopes of extorting cash from his Grandma (Ian August, striking just the right drag note between Terry Jones and Dame Edna) and Grandpa (Neal Arluck) - a pair of plaid-clad perverts who spend their Arizona days rehearsing Beckett in Rubbermaid trash cans - Man and Wife stop to pick up a couple of nihilistic nitwits (Jacob White, Rozie Bacchi) who seem to have seen the Brad Pitt thrill-kill flick "Kalifornia" a few dozen times too many. Soon this multigenerational Mansonesque clan is bound for the coast; killing scores of cops, humping each other like baboons and turning such quaint concepts as faith, family, monogamy and Disney into so much roadkill in their wake.

As the ersatz Christ figure, it's up to Brian O'Halloran (the legendary Dante of Kevin Smith's "Clerks") to salvage a few scraps of dignity from the proceedings, even when the role calls for him to lug scenery and clean up after this most motley of crews. The remaining five characters are portrayed by a rubber-faced and fully poseable action figure named Ames Adamson; the manically mugging Mr. A affects both lightning-fast costume changes and wonderfully atrocious accents to the point where he seems a thing more of pen-and-ink than flesh-and-blood.

Described by its author as a cross between Monty Python and Samuel Beckett, Folie's play doesn't so much wear its influences on its sleeve as it has them tattooed on its skin: characters quote old Python bits chapter and verse, and the dour absurdist playwright Beckett is name-checked so often that he becomes virtually another player in the story (the action even climaxes at the Beckett-soaked Happy Days Theme Park). Thus, it's no accident that "Panama" (despite not getting anywhere near Central America, the play does offer up a logical justification for the title) gleefully tosses off the highbrow references while going for the lowbrow jugular.

Yoshinori Tanokura's spare set design allows this wild ride to cover thousands of miles largely through sideshow posters and wooden chairs; Merek Royce Press sets up the scenes with music cues ranging from the jagged carnival songs of Tom Waits to the theme from "Mannix."


reviewed by Dan Johnson,

Panama tells the story of a middle aged Man, played by Gary Lamadore, who is told by his Doctor, acted by Ames Adamson, that he is going to die. This is not to say he has learned he has a terminal disease, but rather he has just learned that humans, and he in particular, are mortal. After apparently killing the bearer of this bad news, the man go homes to his Wife, played by Maura O'Brien, and begin their adventure across the country. On their way, they pick up two hitchhikers, Young Woman performed by Rozie Bacchi and Young Man by Jacob Garrett White, and learn of a scientist in California who, for a large sum of money, will give you eternal life. Since the Man doesn't have the money, he decides to detour to visit an old couple who may or may not be his parents, the Grannie played by Ian August and Grandpa by Neal Arluck. Soon the grandparents join in the road trip which leaves mayhem and destruction in its wake, and in which they find a dentist who bears a striking resemblance to Jesus Christ, played by Brian O'Halloran, at every turn.

With its many references to the playwright Samuel Beckett, including a Disney owned Beckett theme park, this play derives most of its humor and poignancy from its surreal (I hesitate to call it absurdist) plot and characters. While the play feels a bit as though the production is over the top in the beginning of the first act, it soon becomes clear that this is in fact its intention. From the well crafted lighting and set designs, to the outrageousness of the characters and dialog, this wonderfully talented ensemble of performers give everything they have to their audience. While the point of the play may be to poke at the absurdity of the quest for youth, the desire for immortality, and the fear of age and death, it is the entertainment provided by this production that lingers rather than any philosophical insight.

Each member of this ensemble deserves recognition for their fine work, as each character and actor depends so heavily and completely on the other to form a cohesive and wildly engaging piece of theater. While Mr. Lamadore and Ms. O'Brien are the central figures in this story, and their performances are funny and well delivered, it is the performance of Mr. August that eventually steals the hearts of the audience. Playing the somewhat crotchety and often irrepressible Granny, Mr. August performs and mugs with a comedic brilliance. He even goes so far as to stick around after the curtain and improv with the audience in character, much to their delight.

Another performance of special note is that of Mr. Adamson, who serves as all of the minor, though memorable, characters along the way, including the Doctor, the hayseed Cop, and flamboyantly funny Theatre Director, an archetypical Hollywood Producer, and a German mad Scientist, whose mannerisms and quirks both amuse and disturb. Mr. Adamson's appearances on stage tend to reinvigorate an already electric cast.

I am pleased to say that the New Jersey Repertory Company continues to deliver the highest caliber theater. If the spirit and professionalism of this and previous productions are any indication, I can wholeheartedly recommend any of their upcoming shows. I am sure that not only will you not be disappointed, you will plan on the spot to attend again and again.

TriCity News
Theatre Review

LONG BRANCH - Since January, the New Jersey Repertory Company has presented a succession of engrossing and thoughtful dramas.

January brought "The Laramie Project", an examination of the town in Wyoming where the gay college student Matthew Shepard was brutally murdered. "Till Morning Comes" presented the audience with an aging couple coming to terms with assisted suicide. The hostage drama "Slave Shack" caught racial strife in its sights. And the ever so timely "The Dead Boy" concerned itself with faith and forbidden love and sex in the Catholic Church.

So it was time for a laugh.

And it would be nice to write that "Panama". the current production by NJ Rep in the Solomon Dwek stage provides a bit of lightness.

But it's even nicer to write that "Panama" provides a riotous, side splitting, rolling in the aisles evening of theatrical fun that will leave a smile on your face for hours afterward.

The action starts quickly in this two-act play.

A middle-aged man discovers from his doctor that he is in fine physical shape and will probably live another 35 years - until about 80 years of age or more.

But this guy definitely sees the glass as half empty, not half full; he suddenly realizes that, yes, like everyone else on the planet HE TOO WILL EVENTUALLY DIE!

From there, a road trip ensues that whisks the characters, and the audience, along in hysterical fashion in this expertly directed (by Stewart Fisher) production.

The man and his wife acquire in short order a pair of hitchhikers on the way to his parent's house in Arizona. A Gen-X fast-talking but dim-witted pair who convince the man that eternal life can be had - found in California for the right amount of dough.

Next stop is the parents home, where the plan is to grab the old couple's life savings and continue on to California. But Mom and Dad are more than game (and full of life) to hop on board this madcap express to check things out for themselves. Besides, the dough the son wanted is tied up in a theme park in Disneyland. Don't ask - just hang on!

Another murder occurs. Didn't mention the first, you're wondering? Don't worry - there wasn't any need. In fact, all the killings are tasteful murders that serve to move the plot along nicely. You won't mind a bit.

Well, until the director is killed. Because Ames Adamson's second (!) appearance in "Panama" will have you screaming with laughter. Not to worry, though; Adamson will be back in other incarnations with equal impact. To let you know more now would spoil the fun.

And while "Panama" is GREAT fun, it always carries a message.

As the Gen-X dude explains, "Panama" is where the past of the warm and safe Pacific Ocean meets the cold and unknown Atlantic Ocean. The point at which real living occurs. The secret of eternal life.

But that realization wraps up the tale, and between the theory of "Panama" and the ending is a lot of life in this wonderful play - life best experienced than reviewed. So just make plans to go on this road trip!

As is almost expected at this point from a NJ Rep presentation, the production is perfectly cast and faultlessly acted; a great ensemble cast. Set designer Yoshinori Tanokura does wonders with the limited performance space, and Merek Royce Press's music and sound is just the right mix along with Michael Reese's lighting. Patricia E. Doherty's costumes are the perfect complement to each character.

The world premiere comedy was written by Middletown resident Michael T. Folie - a TriCity treasure.

Panama: The Ultimate Road Trip

by Robert F. Carroll for The Coaster

Each press kit handed out by the management of the New Jersey Repertory Company for last weekend's premiere of "Panama" included a toothbrush.

The implication was that "Panama" left a viewer with a mouth that had to be washed out. Which is pretty much the case, since the play abounds in four-letter words.

Which doesn't necessarily make it a bad play. "Panama" is mostly funny, even when it tries too hard for laughs. A tour de farce, sort of.

The plot, by Michael T. Folie, has at its center an everyman named Man (Gary Lamadore), unhinged because he suddenly realizes he's going to die (in about 35 years). But he's heard of someone in California who has a secret, life-prolonging elixir. So Man and Wife set off on a manic cross country road trip.

On the road they pick up two young hitchhikers (Young Man, Young Woman), stop in to visit a couple who may be Man's parents (Grandpa, Grannie), get shot at by cops in a helicopter and finally confront the nutty Scientist, who may have the secret of life but seems to be missing a few of his buttons.

Ames Adamson, who plays the mad -- and madly funny -- Scientist, plus a Hollywood producer who seems interested in Man's quest, a doctor, a hilarious posturing sheriff, a ditzy theater director and a few other odd-balls, makes "Panama", with Adamson, something you don't want to miss.

Maura O'Brien is the slightly off-centered Wife who discovers that shooting at police helicopters can be fun. Otherwise she has her hands full keeping conversations going in the proper setting -- women on the left, men on the right.

Neal Arluck is the grizzled Grandpa and Ian August his nosy -- and cross dressing -- mate, Grannie. Jacob Garrett White and Rozie Bacchi are the young hitchhikers. Appearing from time to time, in appropriate robe and sash, is a hirsute Jesus Christ (Brian O'Halloran), who apparently, but for no apparent reason, is a dentist.

When the "Panama" characters finally reach the west coast they find a Walt Disney-like theme park, modeled on those Samuel Beckett laugh-riot comedies, "Waiting for Godot", "Happy Days" and "Endgame".

A writer once said Beckett, in his plays, "combines slapstick comedy with the search for meaning in an apparently meaningless and absurd existence." Which is what playwright Folie seems to be up to.


by Madeline Schulman and Milt Bernstein for The Link

LONG BRANCH - In "Panama", the hilarious, surreal comedy by Mike Folie, now playing at the New Jersey Repertory, a middle-aged man (Gary Lamadore), shocked to learn he will not live forever, takes his wife (Maura O'Brien) on a road trip. Along the way they pick up a moronic young couple (Jacob Garrett White and Rozie Bacchi) and the middle-aged man's parents (Neal Arluck and Ian August, hilarious in old lady drag), setting up rich comedic confrontations between three generations and two genders.

Braided into this story are Samuel Beckett, Walt Disney, sex and guns. The amazing versatile Ames Anderson shows up in several roles. They all end abruptly, but the audience has the joy of anticipating his next appearance. Another running joke is the dentist (Brian O'Halloran), whose resemblance to Jesus Christ drives him to find the best career for a saviour look-alike.

The direction sparkles, especially when the six travelers are shifting around in a car during a high speed chase (with helicopters!). The dialog also sparkles. Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers fight over the Beatles versus Kurt Cobain, the grand-parents try in vain to explain to the youngsters that the electricity coming out of the wall is not free, and the old man meditates on which is more boring and depressing. the plays of Beckett or 18 holes of golf.

Warning: in the midst of the hilarity, "Panama" contains a lot of raw language. The only other warning necessary: as funny as it is, "Panama" will make you think.

Our man in 'Panama' Jersey guy at heart

Friday, June 21, 2002

Star-Ledger Staff

Since the time he played a guy who had to work on his day off, actor Brian O'Halloran hasn't had many days off from his work.

For after he starred as Dante Hicks in Kevin Smith's 1994 cult film, "Clerks," O'Halloran has had a steady stream of offers. That includes one from New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, where he opens in "Panama" this weekend.

This time, his character is hardly a put-upon clerk at a Monmouth County convenience store. Instead, in Michael T. Folie's new comedy, he's a dentist who bears such a strong resemblance to Jesus Christ that his patients begin to believe that he's the Messiah.

O'Halloran became involved with New Jersey Rep two years ago when he was introduced to Gabor and SuzAnne Barabas, who run the playhouse. He's appeared there in two other Folie plays: "A World I Never Made," in which he portrayed a drug dealer who's selling his wares to a policeman's daughter, and "An Unhappy Woman," in which his character searches for all the remaining happy women in the world.

When he read "Panama," though, he was interested in tackling another character that had five different roles. "I figured I'd be right for that since I'm a multiple personality myself," he jokes.

But director Stewart A. Fisher saw him for the lead.

"I don't think I particularly look like Jesus," says the performer. "I'm very un-Jesus-like. I guess I should be more like him, considering that my name is actually Brian Christopher -- Patrick, if you include my Confirmation name -- O'Halloran."

With a moniker like that, it's not surprising to find that his family hails from Galway Bay. They immigrated to the Bronx in 1965, where Brian was born in 1969. The family moved to Palisades Park, then to Old Bridge, where O'Halloran still resides.

At Cedar Ridge High School in Old Bridge, he auditioned for the school musical on a whim and landed the title role in "Snoopy." After he was graduated in 1987, he took some acting courses in Middlesex County College, but eventually became, fittingly enough, a clerk at Shop-Rite.

"I was there three years," he says, "and all my friends got tired of me going to movies and saying, 'Oh, I could have done that role much better.'"

So one of them dragged him to the First Avenue Playhouse in Atlantic Highlands to audition for "Dracula." O'Halloran had the last laugh, for he came away with the role of Renfield, the obsessed insect-eater.

"I was then a rat in 'Charlotte's Web,' and the bad guy in 'Wait Until Dark' at the Aberdeen Repertory Theater in Matawan," he says. "So this Jesus figure in 'Panama' is quite a change of pace."

But the leap from community theater came once he auditioned for Smith in 1992. O'Halloran says he did a piece from "Wait Until Dark," causing Smith to release the original actor for Dante and choose him instead.

"I never thought when we were doing it at all it would amount to anything," he admits of the $27,500 production. "I figured people would be turned off by its sexually explicit toilet humor and immaturity. But it caught an audience, first at the New York Film Festival in fall of '93, and then at Sundance in January '94."

O'Halloran worked with the Red Bank director three more times -- "though he hasn't called me for his newest project, 'Jersey Girl,'" he says ruefully. In "Mallrats" (1995), he played a game show contestant. In "Chasing Amy," two years later, he and Matt Damon portrayed MTV executives. And in 1999's "Dogma," he was a news reporter.

This year, he had the lead in the film "Vulgar," as a clown for hire whose life becomes a torment after he is sexually assaulted by three male party-goers.

"Quite a different situation from what I'm playing now," he says. "Now I get to put a sign outside my dentist's office that says 'Jesus Saves -- Teeth.'

On the road again

Published in the Asbury Park Press 6/21/02


The road story: Is there any other type of tale that so stirs the American soul? Sure, you can trace its origins back to the seafaring odysseys of the classical Greeks and even hitch it to the westward-ho spirit of the Conestoga settlers, but it took the collusive collaboration of Messrs. Ford and Firestone -- along with whoever mapped out the U.S. interstate highway system -- to shift the whole genre into overdrive.

A play by Michael T. Folie
Opens at 8 p.m. Friday
New Jersey Repertory Company
179 Broadway, Long Branch
Performances through July 28
$30, with discounts available
(732) 229-3166

Let those British-penned characters seek their destinies inside the labyrinths of some musty Elsinore or Hogwarts; here in America, we find our epiphanies in the eagle at the end of a Trans Am's hood. It starts on the pages of such children's stories as "The Wizard of Oz" and "The Phantom Tollbooth"; picks up speed in classic films like "The Grapes of Wrath" and "Easy Rider"; runs through literary works from Kerouac ("On the Road") to Stephen King ("The Stand") into TV land ("Route 66," "Highway to Heaven") and points beyond. Even our quadrennial presidential chad-chase is only interesting when viewed as a madcap sequel to "The Gumball Rally."

Live theater, on the other hand, is seldom the medium of choice for creators with their own take on the lore and lure of the Road. Unless they're working with the hydraulics budget of a Lloyd Webber extravaganza, the whole daunting process of presenting multiple set pieces and scene segues is enough to drive most theatrical producers back to the stuffy confines of the drawing-room.

Leave it to the Long Branch-based New Jersey Repertory Company, then, to defy convention in its presentation tonight of a new, "roadworthy" comedy called "Panama."

Roadworthy, perhaps, but not necessarily road-tested. Like so many of the shows mounted at NJ Rep's Lumia Theatre on downtown Broadway in Long Branch, this is an honest-to-goodness world premiere, one written by Michael T. Folie and directed by Stewart Fisher, the same dynamically creative duo responsible for both the 2001 season comedy "Naked By the River" and the recently produced drama "Slave Shack."

Described by its author as a "chaotic road trip that's a bizarre hybrid of Samuel Beckett and Monty Python," Folie's latest work concerns Man's obsession with his own mortality, Man's struggle against arbitrary social mores -- even Man's quest for the secret of eternal life.

If that sounds a bit arch, it's only because the main character happens to be a middle-age guy by the name of Man.

Shaken to the core when his doctor informs him that he can only expect to "live another 35 years at least;" stirred to action by the notion that death is not merely an eventuality but could actually come "at any time" (shades of current events!), our man Man embarks upon the mother of all mid-life crises; hitting that mythical road in search of the elusive fountain of youth, and collecting a case load of curious characters along the way.

Owning up to the fact that staging such a sprawling saga presents more than its share of logistical problems, playwright Folie credits director Fisher and set designer Yoshinori Tanokura (who recently worked on "Tomorrow's Promise" teen-age playwright program at the Lumia) with meeting those challenges in a way that reflects the show's zany spirit.

"The play is not, by any means, a naturalistic play . . . it's very presentational and blatantly theatrical," the former Middletown resident (now playwright-in-residence for the NJ Rep troupe) insists. "('Panama') requires the actors to be very big, and yet still play their roles with absolute seriousness and conviction."

Returning to the Lumia stage in the role of Jesus Christ (or, rather, an unemployed dentist who happens to look a lot like Jesus Christ) is Brian O'Halloran, cult-fave star of such Kevin Smith/View Askew films as "Clerks" and the recently released "Vulgar." While the presence of the Middlesex County native probably serves to peddle a few tickets, longtime NJ Rep observers can vouch that this expert character actor (who co-starred in the company's production of Folie's "An Unhappy Woman") is possessed of a range that extends way beyond the walls of the fabled Quick-Stop; he's joined in the cast by Neal Arluck, Ian August, Rozie Bacchi, Gary Lamadore, Maura O'Brien, Jacob White and Ames Adamson, who takes on no less than five distinct characters, "most of them with a kind of manic glee." According to Folie, " 'Panama' attempts to tackle some of the big questions of life and death and the meaning of life, but these questions are too serious to be serious about."

"We can "think ourselves into all kinds of preening platitudes and intellectual nonsense," the playwright continues, "but laughter is always immediate and genuine."

A CurtainUp Review
David Lohrey

You're in perfect health. There's no reason you can't live another 30 or 40 years ---Doctor

Then what? ---Man
New Jersey Repertory Company, in case it is new to you, is one of those rare breeds: a theatre that produces new work. The great experiment known as regional theatre never really delivered what its visionary founders promised. Multi-million dollars facilities ensured that only revivals could keep the endowed seats filled, so that playwrights have had to hustle to find homes for their work. Michael T. Folie has found a loyal following down in Long branch, New Jersey. Panama is receiving its world premiere there this summer, although it has received numerous development readings, including the one I saw in Dallas, Texas two years ago.

Folie is part of what I see as a new wave of contemporary theatre and film artists whose principle concern, whatever their chosen genre, seems to be the simultaneous inventiveness and self-destructiveness of modern Americans. One sees this in the plays of David Lindsey-Abaire and in the recent film Sunshine State by John Sayles. These artists are alert to the implications of turning all history, tradition, and culture into a heritage-based theme park called America. Folie's newest work sees our society, indeed mankind itself, as perched on a slim strip of land between the opposing oceans of the past and the future. This panama of reality is where his play takes place. The play's surface is mad-cap, but its meanings run deep.

The play doesn't so much start as it ignites, with what is for me a terribly clever exchange between Man (Gary Lamadore) and his Doctor (Ames Adamson). Doctor declares the middle-aged Man in perfect condition and tells him that there is no reason why he shouldn't live another 30 years, maybe 40. To this, Man responds first by panicking. Then, he strangles the Doctor. Finally, he takes his Wife (Maura O'Brien) and embarks on a car trip across the country to find his parents and the meaning of life.

This car trip quickly includes a young couple (Jacob Garrett White and Rozie Bacchi) and Man's parents (Neal Arluck and Ian August). Together they leave the parents' Arizona retirement home and head for the Samuel Beckett Happy Day's Theme Park. Each has his own personal quest, but Man remains the leader who learns along the way what the knowledge of certain death can mean for life. Among his lessons is the realization that without death life is meaningless. Before hearing the doctor's diagnosis of perfect health and certain death, Man's life had been pointless. Mortality makes Man happy. The play's metaphysics holds the plot together.

The production works, but only some of the time. It troubled me that Man and Grandpa were the same age, both middle-aged and both silver gray on top. Grannie (Ian August), on the other hand, is played as 70+ by a young man in drag. Man is 60's generation hip, while his Wife is 1950s prudish, and dresses like an Iowa farmwoman. The youngsters are Gen-X stereotypes.

The very able Ames Adamson plays numerous parts. He is a perfect Cop, a brilliant Hollywood Producer, but his Theatre Director is over the top. Indeed, his costume was so exaggerated as to lack definition. Jesus Christ (Brian O'Halloran) makes his numerous appearances, but never with obvious purpose or meaning. In so many small ways, the play's subtle humor and acute intelligence are pulled out of focus by the heavy-handed troopers under the direction of Stewart Fisher. The set design seems far more gratuitous than the play's profanity and violence, which seem tame by today's standards. Nonetheless, Folie should be pleased to have found a home for his considerable talent. The story he tells may seem slight, but by the end of the evening all of your assumptions have been undermined. Think of it as Philosophy 101 on laughing gas.

Growing New Jersey Rep

If you think that the possibility of making a success of a mom-'n-pop business is waning, if not over, you haven't been to the New Jersey Repertory Theater in Long Branch. Here in the Lumia Theater, in the not very beautiful downtown district, SuzAnne and Gabor Barabas are busy putting their professional theater company on the map.

Four years ago, the Barabases, who have been married for 34 years, decided it was time to take the plunge, to make their long-germinating dream of operating their own theater come true. For them, making a significant and worthwhile mark on the community in which they had lived for almost 20 years was important unfinished business.

To that end Suzanne and Gabor, the artistic and executive director respectively, chose to inaugurate their theater in March, 1999, with the world premiere of an untested socio-political drama, "Ends," by David Alex.

The response following the opening night performance was mostly positive. The play, in which a white Vietnam veteran seeks refuge from a storm in the secluded cabin of an African-American man, served to support the mission of this upstart company. Despite the vagaries of developing and presenting new work, the couple's mission -- to present new plays with diverse themes -- has not been compromised.

Unique from the very start -- it is the only professional theater in the state that produces plays year round -- NJ Rep has been drawing audiences from around the state and beyond. Because they have a reputation for presenting bold, edgy, and adventurous plays, mostly world premieres, they represent the nucleus of a new day and a hoped-for new era in this once classy vacation area. In a town that can boast it was once the summer home of seven presidents -- Garfield, Grant, Arthur, Harrison, Hayes, Mckinley, and Wilson -- and where the Church of the Presidents remains one of the few attractions for visitors, the Barabases have found a place to follow through on their shared commitment to the theater.

While one may assume that every theater-crazed person from performer to producer hopes to land on Broadway, it is a reality for the Barabases whose Lumia Theater is located at 179 Broadway -- in Long Branch. At a cost of $250,000, they turned an empty industrial building into a comfortable and functional theater that supports two separate stages, a small lobby cafe, and a comfortable lounge. With ample free parking in an adjacent lot, patrons enter from the back of the theater. Named for David Lumia, who closed the deal to donate the vacant building to the Barabases' non-profit organization on New Year's Eve, 1997, the Lumia Theater has been given an eye-catching Art Deco facade.

As I arrived for a Sunday matinee performance of "Till Morning Comes," a new play by Mark NcNease, about yet another controversial subject, assisted suicide, Gabor, in casual attire, his longish gray hair neatly pulled back in a pony tail, was assisting a handicapped audience member through the lobby. SuzAnne, smiling and animated, was working the box office, all the while finding time to lean forward for a kiss or a warm hug from a patron or two. Yes, it's Mom and Pop running the show just as they did more than 30 years ago as co-founders of the Cincinnati Repertory Company, and later the American Repertory Theater of Philadelphia.

"We are embarking on our fifth season," Gabor announces to the patrons who have filled the majority of the intimate theater's 70 seats (a smaller, second stage seats 55). The loyal audience laughs knowingly after as he thanks them for the support they have shown for what he calls "our relentless nosedive to oblivion." But as grandly foolhardy a venture as running a theater is, the Barabases are of one mind -- and several professions.

"Originally I had no involvement in theater. I was going to medical school in Cincinnati while SuzAnne was studying acting with Lee Strasberg in New York," says Gabor, who recalls how he yanked her out of her home in Brooklyn and took her with him to Cincinnati -- "the middle of nowhere." It wasn't such a shock to SuzAnne who says, "We actually met at a Halloween party when we were teenagers and started dating."

Gabor was seven when his family fled the 1956 Hungarian uprising and settled in Waterbury, Connecticut. SuzAnne was born and raised in Brooklyn; Gabor moved with his family to Brooklyn when he was 13.

Transplanted to Cincinnati, SuzAnne decided to start a theater company and as Gabor puts it, "recruited me under duress." Between 1970 and 1974, even with Gabor dividing his time at the theater with his medical profession, they developed the Cincinnati Rep into a vital community theater. When Gabor went to Philadelphia in 1975 to do his neurology residency, it was only natural that they would start their next and more daring, although still not professional, venture, the American Repertory Theater.

At ART, the Barabases began to sneak less familiar classics of Strindberg and Genet into their seasons of more popular plays. "When we left five years later, the company still had money in the bank. But because of the travails and pain, we vowed we would never produce again," Gabor recalls saying at the time. Those famous last words wouldn't stick either for SuzAnne or Gabor, who would mutually arrive at the realization that, for them, theater was not only an artistic, but also a social undertaking. It is this commitment that led them to look for a venue in what was once a vibrant town but had become a depressed area. "Our mission brought us here."

No feeling of depression exists, however, as we sit in the theater's comfortable lounge following the Sunday matinee. An almost childlike enthusiasm is present in both of them as we talk of the various challenges and future plans they have for their theater. Parents and grandparents they may be, but the commitment they have made to New Jersey Rep is rather like caring for a four-year-old child.

What SuzAnne and Gabor say excites them most is the nurturing of new work. "Someone has to step up to the plate and it's us," says Gabor, stressing the help the can provide playwrights who have difficulty getting their work produced. A novel approach is their method of casting plays from a core group of 100 actors, all of whom auditioned for the Barabases during their first year of operation. This and networking by each play's director eliminates the need for a salaried casting director.

"Watching the budget is important," says Gabor, who allows that after he and SuzAnne provided the seed money, the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, the Dodge Foundation, and other philanthropic and state organizations have answered the call. The Dodge Foundation has most recently funded a project at New Jersey Repertory called "Tomorrow's Project." It calls for thousands of students to explore their feelings coming out of the September 11 attacks through dramatic writing.

Ultimately short plays by six of students, guided by a playwright mentor, comprised an evening of theater that was presented free to the public in May. Two professional videographers, who have been following the students throughout the process, from the interviews to the workshops, hope to produce a feature documentary on the project.

While the annual budget, according to Gabor, is about $350,000, he says if he and Suzanne added and collected on their time it would be in the vicinity of $600,000. Watching their home become a dormitory for actors prompted Gabor and SuzAnne to purchase, as a limited liability corporation, a residence for out-of-town actors, as well as the purchase of a building one block away for constructing and storing sets.

Expectedly the cost of operations is increasing and they acknowledge the need to broaden their support base. The fact that a theater may fill every seat every night and not come to paying all the operating expenses doesn't come as a surprise to those in the industry. As is true of all regional theaters, the writing of grant proposals and the opportunity for expansion to bring in more revenue is always an issue.

"We are now working actively to acquire a building across the street, not to replace what we have but to add a 250-seat theater," says Gabor, who will be working with the theater's 10-member board of trustees, advisory board, marketing and fund raisers.

"We were nuts from the very first year, when we did 30 readings of new plays," says Gabor. Open to the public, the free readings have remained a Monday night staple. Not quite unwittingly, SuzAnne and Gabor know they have helped the local community, that hadn't seen anything flower in the neighborhood in the past 50 years, or so. "It helped psychologically to have something new in what had become a blighted area," says Gabor.

A graphic artist who designs many of the theater's posters, SuzAnne says she is pleased that a group of 100 area artists is planning to set up a working studio nearby, no doubt encouraged by the increased activity generated by the theater. Considering the small seating capacity, the theater's current subscriber base of 200 is not insignificant and has proven a boost to local restaurants, including Joe & Maggie's, voted one of the Jersey shore's five top restaurants by the New York Times.

SuzAnne, who went to Brooklyn College and graduated from Villanova with a concentration in theater in 1978, has directed a half dozen of the plays at New Jersey Rep. During the past four years she is credited as co-author and lyricist of several plays and musicals. She is also the co-author (with Gabor) of "Gunsmoke: The Complete History and Analysis of the Legendary Broadcast Series." She happily fetches this big book ("It's in its second printing," Gabor announces proudly) off the shelf in her office for this former fan to see.

Because SuzAnne is an actress and knows what it means to be buffeted by the politics of the profession, she says she wanted to create, with Gabor, an environment that is more than anything else protective of the creative process.

"The most frustrating thing about producing new work is convincing the public that what we have is worth their time," admits SuzAnne, as she acknowledges that her own tastes run toward themes that deal with sex and death. "We may produce a farce, but don't ask me to read one. We give them to our readers."

Gabor, who received his BA from New York University and his medical degree from the University of Cincinnati, trained for five years at Children's Hospital (University of Pennsylvania) in Philadelphia. It was in 1978 that Gabor came to Rutgers Medical School to run their division of pediatric neurology. Gabor is the child neurologist at Monmouth Medical Center, a post he shares with his brother Ronald, with whom he also has a private practice.

If Gabor speaks modestly about his medical career, he is equally self-effacing about his not inconsiderable artistic side. This includes a canon of poetry that has appeared in various literary journals, and his published collection of poems "Russian Chronicles." The author of several plays presented at NJ Rep, Gabor also produced "On Golden Pond," with Kim Hunter (during the first season) and "Memoir" (a play about Sarah Bernhardt) with Salome Jens and "Best Kept Secrets," with Katherine Houghton.

The next production, opening Friday, June 21, is the world premiere of "Panama," by Michael T. Folie, author of "An Unhappy Woman," "Naked By the River," and "Slave Shack" (another premiere presented by the company in April). "Panama" is described as a bizarre comedy that is a combination of the ultimate road trip and a middle-aged crisis. Its characters seek to discover the secret of eternal life, while refuting social norms and moral and ethical standards. Folie demonstrates a command of several types of comedy here, with elements reminiscent of both Samuel Beckett and Monty Python. "Panama" plays through July 14.

The season continues with the New Jersey premiere of "Maggie Rose" by Kim Carney," Beginning August 8 and running to September 8. This is followed by yet another world premiere, "Winterizing the Summer House" by Gino Dilorio. Clearly the couple's commitment to serving up a banquet of new work is humming along.

"We want to establish an institution with a strong enough infrastructure that it will go on without us. Our egos are not wrapped up in this. When we walk away, and we will some day," says Gabor, "we expect that the theater will continue on its course." Despite the fact that SuzAnne tells me that attendance has doubled in four years, I take this as a reference to that "relentless nosedive to oblivion."

-- Simon Saltzman

This page is published by

RBR students selected for playwriting project

Karen Berkowitz

A Little Silver student is among the six young playwrights chosen to participate in Tomorrow's Promise, a project sponsored by the New Jersey Repertory Company.

Karen Berkowitz, a student at Red Bank Regional High School, Little Silver, has been selected to participate in "Tomorrow's Promise,'' a studentwriting, playwriting project created by the Long Branch theater company in response to the events of Sept. 11. The project is funded by a grant from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

Meera Patel, Little Silver, also an RBR student, was selected as an alternate.

The playwriting project began in late fall when N.J. Rep put out a call for writing samples from high school students and said six would be selected to write short plays exploring themes related to Sept. 11.

Meera Patel

Project Administrator Kathleen Goldpaugh scheduled interviews with more than 20 young writers during which they met with the project committee and discussed their writing, world events and their reasons for wanting to participate in the project.

In addition to Goldpaugh, committee members include mentor playwright Michael T. Folie, director/actor Jim Donovan, project facilitator Aaron Vieira, N.J. Rep assistant artistic director Stewart Fisher, N.J. Rep Executive Producer Gabor Barabas.

Following the interview process, the committee chose the six young playwrights.

Along with Karen and Meera, the young playwrights selected are Daniel Adler of Marlboro, Shennell Barnes of Newark, Tom Bruett of Manasquan, Aileen Deng of Marlboro, and Matthew Hirsch of Marlboro. Christine Grimaldi of Marlboro also was chosen as an alternate.

The six teens will meet with Folie and other project staff from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. each Saturday for 13 weeks in a writer's workshop. Each student will develop a 10-minute theatrical piece or short play, and the collection of six plays will be performed together under the umbrella title, Tomorrow's Promise.

The students will be given artistic freedom to approach the broad topic from any angle, and their topics can range from prejudice and hatred to the hopes and dreams that hinge upon tomorrow's promise.

The plays will be directed by Donovan and will be performed by company members.

In its performance stage, N.J. Rep anticipates drawing a multigenerational group of students, teachers and parents. Performances will be followed by town meeting-like forums.

Performances of Tomorrow's Promise will be presented free of charge at 7 p.m. May 26, 27, 28 and 29 in N.J. Repertory's Dwek Studio. Seating in this 50-seat theater space is limited, and reservations are required.

After the initial run, the production will be available to tour area high schools, starting with the schools of the student authors.

The Play’s The Thing:
Teen Playwrights Explore Impact of 9/11


By Kerri Danskin

LONG BRANCH — Over 13 weeks, six New Jersey students (including Karen Berkowitz of Little Silver) honed their playwrighting skills with the help of New Jersey Repertory Company as part of the Tomorrow's Promise program. Last week, the students had the opportunity to see their plays performed by professional actors on the NJ Rep Stage.

The program was designed to give students a medium in which they could respond to the September 11 terrorist attacks. Each of the six plays touched on the themes of loss, guilt, and personal connections.

Project facilitator Aaron Vieira said that the program consisted of three phases. The first was teambuilding, in which the writers got to know each other and participated in exercises and games. Next they worked on script development. Vieira was proud to say that each of the writers “reached their artistic goals” during this phase by working with mentor playwright Michael T. Folie. Finally, the writers had the chance to work with the professional
cast of four actors: Jim Donovan, Eric Walton, Kittson O’Neill, and Susan Kerner. There were changes made in the scripts during this phase, as the entire group worked together.

The one act plays were performed from May 26 to May 29.

Daniel Adler of Marlboro wrote a play called The Brothers which studied the raw emotion of two brothers, one a teenager and one a young adult, who hear the news about the World Trade Center attacks and fear that their parents may have been killed. In just a few minutes, the play takes the audience through a wide range of emotions. It is impressively intense for a young writer.

Shenell Barnes’ piece, which is untitled, follows the interaction between high school students on and following September 11. It covers racial tension and strong feelings of loss in students whose parents were killed. Barnes
uses poetry throughout the script, giving each of the student characters a soliloquy. Barnes is from Newark.

Little Silver’s Karen Berkowitz wrote a play titled Unfamiliar Faces which portrays an unusual situation in which a 9-11 widow is faced with the introduction of her husband’s illegitimate daughter, about whom she never knew. This play is impressive for its complexity. The characters express loneliness, shame and guilt, but finally agree to communicate. She said it was important to her to show that, “the people who died (on September 11) were not perfect,” but that they were still very much loved by their friends and families.

Tom Bruett of Manasquan wrote a surprisingly humorous play called One Step At A… about an estranged brother and sister who are unexpectedly reunited as a result of September 11. The audience responded with laughter to the witty, if sometimes irreverent humor Bruett injected in his script.

Matthew Hirsch’s play, The Mistakes of Life also covers the unexpected reunion of an estranged brother and sister. The characters show their devotion to each other and commitment to their families throughout the difficult time. Hirsch is from Marlboro.

Marlboro Township resident Aileen Deng’s play titled Two Steps to the Left studied the conflict between a man who was blinded during the terrorist attacks and his devoted wife. The play explored commitment through difficult times and the complex levels of devotion of which people are capable.

The audience was asked to contribute feedback following each performance. Tuesday night, one audience member complimented the young writers on “how much insight they had into adult problems.” Another said that the actors showed “extreme versatility,” and “actually delivered the people,” as opposed to just reading the characters’ lines.

Berkowitz said that the program was “like working with a bunch of friends.”

Barnes said that seeing her play performed by professional actors was, “a really good experience.”

O’Neill, whose various roles throughout the program varied widely said that working with the young writers was, “fascinating, a real privilege.”

Published June 7, 2002

Impressions & memorials

Published in the Asbury Park Press 5/26/02

Sept. 11 has become a common point of reference in a diverse nation, and the need to express something -- from the anguish of loss to the many small victories that make up the reassuring hum of life going on -- remains even after the last truckload of rubble has been carted away. Beginning with an exhibition of artworks and continuing with a special theatrical presentation opening today, the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch is offering a unique forum for a group that may not always have been heard amid the pundits and politicians: the voices of New Jersey teen-agers.

"Tomorrow's Promise" is the umbrella title for both the multimedia art exhibition and its accompanying presentation of six short plays, featured at NJ Rep's Lumia Theatre. Coordinated by Kathleen Goldpaugh, project administrator, and realized through a grant by the Morristown-based Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, the project represents the culmination of a process that began when high school students from around the state were invited to submit their written impressions on the events of last September, when terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center in New York.

After reading the submissions, Goldpaugh invited nearly two dozen young writers to the Lumia Theatre to meet face-to-face with her project committee, a panel that includes NJ Rep Executive Producer Gabor Barabas, Assistant Artistic Director Stewart Fisher and Project Facilitator Aaron Vieira. After many hours of discussions with the students on topics ranging from their own creative processes to their personal take on world events, the committee selected six finalists with whom they would develop a finished theatrical presentation. Two alternate entrants were also selected, with all but one of the eight students attending schools in Monmouth County.

Beginning in late February, the selected writers met each Saturday morning with the project's Mentor Playwright Michael T. Folie to workshop and fine-tune the six featured pieces, each of which clocks in at approximately 10 minutes in length. Actor-director Jim Donovan, a prominent player with the Holmdel Theatre Company as well as NJ Rep, began rehearsals with a cast that also includes company members Susan Kerner, Eric Walton and Kittson O'Neill.

"All of the stories are about anger, loss and forgiveness," said Folie, "about picking up the pieces and going on after a tragedy."

In April, the scope of the project was expanded when Goldpaugh and NJ Rep-affiliated professional artist Marian Akana of Tinton Falls invited student artists of high school age to submit visual media pieces that reflect their responses to the events of 9/11. Selected submissions are being exhibited now at the Lumia Theatre's gallery and will remain on display through the conclusion of the play's run on Wednesday.

"In some ways, writing a short piece is harder than writing a longer one, because you have to be so concise and economical," said playwright Folie, whose works produced at NJ Rep include the recent drama "Slave Shack" and the forthcoming comedy "Panama." Short pieces work best when you have vibrant characters with strong needs, and all of these short plays have that going for them.

"What's interesting is that only two of the plays are explicitly about the events of Sept. 11 -- and one piece doesn't mention 9/11 at all," Folie continued. Yet all of the stories are about anger, loss and forgiveness; about picking up the pieces and going on after a tragedy.

The six writers and their featured works are as follows:

"THE BROTHERS" by Daniel Adler, Marlboro:

In this play concerning a pair of siblings whose parents both work at the World Trade Center, the older son (Jim Donovan) tries to shield his younger brother (Eric Walton) from the full impact of the tragic events." 'Tomorrow's Promise' was a wonderful opportunity to express my feelings tothe world," Adler says. "I've greatly benefited from working with such an excellent group of actors and writers. The entire experience is the highlight of my high school career."

UNTITLED PLAY by Shennell Barnes, Newark:

Described by Donovan as poetic, surreal and ethereal, this non-traditional piece utilizes all four cast members, playing nine different characters in a series of nine brief scenes set in the days immediately before and after 9/11. The story features a Muslim character and deals in part with discrimination against Muslims in the aftermath of the attacks, with scene transitions punctuated by voice-overs and prerecorded musical segues. "Shennell's characters often break into poetry, and I love that," Folie adds. "The play is warm and human and brutally powerful in places."

"UNFAMILIAR FACE" by Karen Berkowitz, Little Silver:

At the funeral service of a Pennsylvania plane crash victim, the man's widow encounters a young woman with a surprising connection to her late husband.

"I'm in the creative writing program at Red Bank Regional, but I never really thought I'd make it a career," the author observes. I'm sort of sad that the workshops have ended. Everyone involved has been so supportive; it's like being with friends."

"ONE STEP AT A . . ." by Tom Bruett, Manasquan:

Another portrait of the relationship between a pair of siblings, this time a brother and sister (Walton, Kerner) who have reluctantly been reunited as a result of 9/11. The play uses touches of humor to lighten its themes of familial conflicts and the struggle for acceptance, "but the message of my piece is that the world doesn't stop," Bruett insists. "No matter what trouble you are going through, people are still people and life willcontinue, good or bad."

THE MISTAKES OF LIFE by Matthew Hirsch, Marlboro:

Also centered around a brother-sister conflict and incorporating a long-held secret, this piece takes place ten years in the future, at a memorial to the victims of 9/11. According to Folie, "What's impressive about Matt's play is that most of the events being discussed have taken place in the past, and yet he's managed to find a way to make the conflict immediate and gripping."

"TWO STEPS TO THE LEFT" by Aileen Deng, Marlboro:

The one play of the evening that doesn't mention 9/11 is a study of a recently blinded man and his wife (Donovan, O'Neill) as they prepare for a wedding. "This is another great dramatic situation, because weddings bring out these repressed feelings in people," says Folie. "We end the evening with this play because of its positive message about coping, and about progressing forward against obstacles and personal hardship."


Dead Boy

reviewed by Dan Johnson

Never having been to a New Jersey Repertory Company production, I was not sure what to expect, though I hoped for little more than entertaining professional regional theater. What I got was more than I could have expected, from all aspects of this emotionally startling and passionately performed production of Joe Pintauro's "The Dead Boy". From the beautiful and ornate scenic design, effective and enveloping sound and light designs, to the performances of these five talented and experienced men, any question as to the quality presented by this company was quelled.

There have been many reviews recently concerning this play, some of them focusing on the subject matter's relationship to today's headlines. Though this piece does indeed seem a timely one, concerning emotional and physical relationship between a catholic priest and a boy in his care, I think it is a disservice to this company to focus too heavily on such a narrow view, as such situations have allegedly occurred in the church for ages. But this depth and dimension is rarely seen, especially when one gleans what he knows of these matters from sound bites and headlines.

The play opens with Father Angelo Rosetti, played charmingly by Mr. Burt Edwards. I say "charming" advisedly; the character of Rosetti occupies a space both within and outside the narrative structure of the play itself, and begins the performance by introducing the characters and the setting. We are drawn into the performance through his wide and inviting smile, as much as by the well-crafted words he uses. He becomes a point of reference as the plot quickly unfolds before us, providing us with the details of the relationships between him and the other priests in the rectory.

The dignified and seemingly austere Cardinal Hamilton, played with vitality and nuance by Mr. Leonard Auclair, is introduced as he dons the vestments of his position. Though his countenance is the portrait of a hard working and stately cardinal, we next see the character slightly intoxicated, played with a subtle slur in his voice and hinted giddiness, as his dialog deftly moves between backhanded compliments and sincere compassion.

It is in his moments with Mr. Auclair that the catalyst of action in this play finds some of his best moments. Mr. Ken Wiesinger plays the all too eager ex-seminarian, turned reporter Tony McGuire. At first it seemed to me that Mr. Wiesinger's performance felt a little less than genuine, and I was troubled by the seeming incongruity between his and the others' performances. But I feel assured now that this is precisely what Mr. Weisinger intended. McGuire is surrounded by men he admired while he was in the seminary, and though he pretends, both to himself as well as to the men around him, to be fully confident of his abilities, his insecurities make themselves known in subtle ways. The verbal sparring between the Cardinal and Tony is a treat to behold, in the opening scenes when the audience has only a vague understanding of the true dynamics at play, as well as in the second act, when tensions are running higher and the stakes have been made more obvious.

These actors provide the structure and support which allows the two central characters to explore and reveal the depth of the central relationships of the piece. Mr. Cary Woodworth plays a young street hustler named Will Draper. The character's past is a bruise of incest and abuse, though through the affection and guidance of Father Robert Sheridan he is protected and nurtured. Mr. Anthony Newfield brilliantly and passionately plays the Father at the center of a child sex abuse scandal, after the young Will tells the McGuire that Sheridan abused him when he was younger. The full nature of the relationship between Sheridan and Will is revealed piece by piece, as the other relationships are uncovered and explored.

But it is the relationship between Sheridan and the Young Priest, also portrayed by Mr. Woodworth, which provides the moments in which Mr. Newfield's restrained passion and inverted energy come to life. It is not made clear exactly who this young beatific priest is, only that no one sees him but Sheridan. The transformation in Mr. Woodworth between the characters of Will and the Young Priest are seamless and startling, though it is the transformation in Newfield's Sheridan which compels the audience. Not the transformation of the character through the course of the play, so much as the deft and instantaneous change in Sheridan's eyes and physicality when the Young Priest appears. Truly one of the most memorable and searing moments of the entire evening is found in just such an instant. Any further discussion of this may deprive the audience of its impact; indeed, the plot itself belongs to the audience to discover.

I would be remiss if I did not again mention the brilliant technical designs in this production. The lighting effects showcased Mr. Kirk Bookman's extensive experience, both in the effects themselves, as well as their self-referential placement upon the stage. As I mentioned previously, the play is presented as a play, and the lights are clearly visible parts of the set itself, keeping this aspect in the audience's mind throughout the performance, and complimenting the scenic design, created by Mr. Jeremy C. Doucette. From the authentic (looking, at least) priest's garbs, to the ambient sound musical interludes, every aspect of this production is first rate. One must assume that Mr. William Martin's direction must be equally peerless, as there is no other way that a story of such depth and technical merit could be executed so superbly without talented and studious direction.

I am pleased to say that although New York's promise of theatrical treasures is only a short trip away, Monmouth county's regional theater gives its residents a reason to stay close to home.


The death of innocence

Published in the Asbury Park Press 5/08/02

At first glance, Joe Pintauro's "The Dead Boy" seems ripped from headlines about recent complaints of priestly pedophilia. In fact, the play being staged at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch is loosely based on the Covenant House scandal more than a decade ago involving the Rev. Bruce Ritter, a priest who specialized in rescuing boys he found living on the streets of Manhattan.

The play by Joe Pintauro is being staged at the New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch
WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays
TICKETS: $30; discounts available to students, senior citizens and groups
INFORMATION: (732) 229-31661

According to director William Martin, rather than being about sexual scandal and pedophilia, "The Dead Boy" is a love story about forbidden passion that, according to the tenets of the church, is not allowed to exist.

The richly textured set design of Jeremy C. Douchette, with lighting by Kirk Bookman and sound by Merek Royce Press, creates the feeling of a spiritual as well as emotional cloister, a male nunnery that seems the perfect backdrop for miracles, immaculate conceptions, secrecy and lies.

The story revolves around the Rev. Robert Sheridan, a Catholic priest played with charisma by Anthony Newfield. Sheridan has built a successful ministry around rescuing runaways -- or "dead boys," homeless teens that come to his shelter for help.

He is accused of sexually molesting one of those boys, Will Draper. Newcomer Cary Woodworth brings real enthusiastic zeal to the role of Draper, a street kid who tells his story to a local reporter.

Draper also tells his story to Sheridan's boss, Cardinal Hamilton, played with sardonic flair by Leonard Auclair. He is the embodiment of the spiritual leader with secular savvy. The Cardinal's solution? Bribe the boy to recant his story.

"The Dead Boy" is an examination not so much of pedophilia as of the overall religious culture of the Roman Catholic Church -- a culture whose sexuality, according to Pintauro, is "fundamentally flawed."


Ken Wiesinger (right) plays the Tony McGuire, a reporter who questions Anthony Newfield, who plays priest Robert Sheridan, in "The Dead Boy," now playing at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.
One disturbing aspect of the play is that love stories generally exist between equals. When one of the lovers is a homeless minor and the other an authority figure who represents God via the church and papal infallibility, it is difficult not to feel someone is being exploited -- even in this case where the "victim" is both jaded and to some degree the initiator of the intimacy.

Burt Edwards is the Rev. Angelo Rosetti, a kind of master of ceremonies who narrates the story in circus ringmaster style. He is both enchanting and chilling as the Greek chorus who soliloquizes this tale of doom. Comically, he doubles as the Cardinal's butler/houseboy.

Ken Wiesinger provides a credible counterpoint to Cardinal Hamilton as Tony McGuire, the reporter to whom Draper confides. Once a devout Catholic, his reaction to what he perceives as the inadequacies of the Catholic Church and of Sheridan is to convert to Buddhism.

This production of "The Dead Boy" directed by William Martin features an all-male cast, with few references, if any, to women. A female presence in some capacity might have added a sense of redemption to a story that seems almost punitive in nature.

Whether you see the play as a loss of innocence, an abuse of power or an ill-fated love story, "The Dead Boy" is a modern-day Gothic drama every bit as tragic as the sensational headline stories about the Catholic Church that have been coinciding with its debut.

Scandal takes center stage

Wednesday, May 08, 2002

Star-Ledger Staff

Talk about timely: Here's New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch presenting "The Dead Boy," a play about a priest who may or may not have molested a young man. Meanwhile, his fellow clerics and the cardinal wonder if -- or how -- the incident should be covered up.

Are Gabor and SuzAnne Barabas, respectively the executive producer and artistic director of the troupe, jumping on a sensationalist bandwagon by mounting this play? In all fairness, they chose Joe Pintauro's drama more than a year ago.

They selected it for the best of reasons, too. It's potent theater.

Though the play is now having its East Coast premiere, Pintauro wrote it in 1991, shortly after the scandal in which Father Bruce Ritter of Covenant House was accused of molesting some of the boys he had saved from homelessness. Here, it's Father Robert Sheridan, head of Rescue House, who cares for teenage drifter Will Draper and genuinely helps get him back on his feet.

Now, though, reporter Tony McGuire -- who used to be one of Sheridan's parishioners and once admired the priest -- must investigate Draper's claims that Sheridan molested him. Or is the priest telling the truth when he unstintingly states, "I am a celibate, unattainable male object, and he is a hustler"?

That last word may sound shocking coming from a priest. But Pintauro, who was once a priest himself, unveils a rectory where its inhabitants not only enjoy the cannolis delivered by doting Italian parishioners, but also more-than-occasional stiff drinks. That's often when more secrets are revealed about each of them.

A seduction scene that involves full-frontal male nudity might seem gratuitous, but its purpose is to identify the sexual aggressor. Director William Martin stages it without lewdness. His pacing of the play is excellent, so his last-minute decision to add an intermission was a disruptive mistake.

Anthony Newfield gives Father Sheridan a dollop of charisma. More charm would have been welcome, but Newfield brings a guilty, brooding look to the role; his way of speaking indicates that he desperately hopes that what he says will be believed. Yet he seems totally confident when he flippantly points out that it was St. Paul, not Jesus, who said that homosexuality was a sin -- which the priest blithely attributes to Paul's own insecurities.

As the cardinal, Leonard Auclair works up a strong burst of steam when he rails at McGuire, "Thousands of kids he rescues from chaos. You are more dangerous to those kids for wanting to take him away." He adds the stentorian tones of higher-ups, often adding a few extra syllables to words like "Rome- mmmmmmmme" for importance. He's especially effective in his scenes with the able Ken Wiesinger, who plays the conflicted reporter.

Reed-thin Cary Woodworth, as Will, is a fascinating mixture of street smarts and neuroses. He induces chills when he rubs himself around and against Sheridan, at first like a snake, but finally like an infant. Yet in one scene, when he goes to confession, he sounds genuinely contrite when he says, "Father, my sins are going to gross you out."

Indeed they might. But Pintauro's play doesn't shy away from unpleasant realities, and joins the ever-growing list of New Jersey Rep's impressive and adventurous productions.

THE DEAD BOY: Scandal in the Rectory
The Coaster
Review by Robert F. Carroll
"The Dead Boy", a dramatic tale of sex in the rectory, is the New Jersey Repertory Company's venture into an area recently explored (exploited?) at great length by the media.

The play, by Joe Pintauro, had its inspiration in the sex scandal that engulfed the Rev. Bruce Ritter and the shelter for homeless boys he established in Manhattan some years ago. It was first staged almost four years ago and was workshopped in London twice since then. But its relevance has been echoed in the recent day-by-day news coverage of sexual abuse allegations leveled against the Catholic clergy.

Author Pintauro said his story focuses on the individual's struggles with love, truth and, in the case of an aggressive reporter, the lust for headlines. It's unfortunate, he said, that it's become "so apropos to the scandals."

At the center of the Pintauro play is Father Robert Sheridan (sympathetically played by Anthony Newfield), director of a parish program that ministers to poor youths, who is accused of sexually abusing teenager Will Draper (Cary Woodworth). Draper's allegations have alerted the reporter, Tony McGuire (Ken Wiesinger), to the possibility of a front-page story, and he pursues Draper and Father Sheridan relentlessly.

Playwright Pintauro adds a ghostly presence to "The Dead Boy" when he introduces Father Sheridan as a young priest (portrayed also by Woodworth) with his own pedophiliac problems.

Cardinal Hamilton (Leonard Auclair) is Father Sheridan's superior, perplexed by the accusation and the reporter's inquisitiveness. Burt Edwards as Father Rosetti, a parish curate determined to keep his chin up despite the ecclesiastical wreckage piling up around the parish.

Edwards adds some light vaudevillian touches to the proceedings by, among other things, introducing the action -- and popping in at the curtain -- in top hat, can and striped jacket.

Gabor Barabas and wife SuzAnne, who run New Jersey Rep, are to be applauded for taking a chance on a work with such immediacy and such risks. But if they choose to gamble on the new and untried with scripts, they never take a chance on actors. The five stage veterans they've signed on for "The Dead Boy" are as good as casts get.

Jeremy Doucette is NJ Rep's scenic designer and he's produced a stunning set for "The Dead Boy", accurate down to the votive lamps and the rich scarlet interior. William Martin, active in more than 200 productions on and off Broadway, directed "The Dead Boy".

The Link
Review by Madeline Schulman

Long Branch - Playgoers attending Joe Pintauro's "The Dead Boy" see a cross made out of red carpet pointing to the recumbent body of a young man. The cross is part of a clever set, including holy pictures on the theater walls, which transforms the small auditorium into a rectory and church. Burt Edwards, playing Father Angelo Rosetti (but dressed for the moment in lay clothes), steps out of character to tell the audience about the characters in the play and to reassure his listeners that the recumbent young man is not dead, just a fine actor.

What follows could be fresh out of any newspaper, magazine or website. Father Robert Sheridan (Anthony Newfield) has been accused by young hustler Will Draper (Cary Woodworth) of sexual misconduct, and reporter Tony McGuire (Ken Wiesinger) is pursuing the story, to the dismay of Father Rosetti and Cardinal Hamilton (Leonard Auclair). Much is ambiguous at first. It cannot be told when the men are lying to each other, or even to themselves. Doubt is thrown on Tony's motives in exposing Father Sheridan; both Willy and Sheridan accuse the divorced Tony of homosexual longings. Father Sheridan has done much good in the community. If the charges against him bring him down, what becomes of the shelter he has established for abused young runaways? A further mystery is the ghostly, idealistic young priest (also played by Mr. Woodworth) whom Father Sheridan sees - and could well be his alter ego.

Mr. Pintauro resolves many questions in the second act. The tragic, timely story is very well acted, especially by Newfield and Edwards. Newfield's Father Sheridan is the most complex character and carries the greatest psychic burden; and Ecwards deftly provides what comic relief there is. In one scene he tells his priestly brothers that he has rented two animal movies he is looking forward to viewing - "Free Willy" and "Reservoir Dogs".

"The Dead Boy" is recommended to all theater-goers as an engrossing, thought-provoking drama which entertains with sharp dialogue and stretches the mind with the issues raised of right and wrong, justice and injustice, guilt and innocence. Once more New Jersey Repertory has shown that difficult subject matter can be transformed into a fine evening of theatre.


Tri-City News

Long Branch - It's impossible to watch the New Jersey Repertory Company's production of "The Dead Boy", which opened last week at the Long Branch theater, without divorcing thoughts of the Catholic priest pedophilia scandal all over the news these days.

"The Dead Boy" was written by Joe Pintauro and is a drama about a priest who runs a shelter for runaways and is accused of sexual impropriety. It echoes the real-life scandal that forced Father Bruce Ritter to abandon his position as head of Covenant House in New York City several years back. Indeed, the drama was penned some years ago, and even went through some refinements after a NJ Rep Script in Hand reading.

It's appearance on NJ Rep's main stage now is pure coincidence, but no surprise. That's because timely, thought-provoking (and mostly original) theater is this company's forte, and expert execution thereof it's strength.

And "The Dead Boy" is no exception.

It is a well-crafted, sturdy and engaging work that will make you think, feel and reflect. While it's subject matter may be all too timely, the drama, and love story are timeless. Whether it is a reflection of the writer's ability, or the fact that the play has been refined over time and by benefit of the aforementioned script in hand reading, "The Dead Boy" has a completed, polished feel that some of NJ Rep's previous presentation have lacked. (Though all have been exciting evening of theater.)

Helping to draw the audience into the action on stage and away from the headlines is the introduction by Burt Edwards who portrays the accused priest's mentor (and Cardinal's valet) in a jewel of a performance.

Once settled in, we quickly learn of the accusations, which may or may not be published in the media regarding Father Sheridan and his relationship with a teenage male hustler.

Ken Wiesinger portrays the former seminary student under Sheridan, now a reporter who will wrestle with his own memory and internal conflict, as well as a Cardinal, on the way to his decision as to whether or not to publish the allegations against the priest. Wiesinger starts off slow in the role, but grows magnificently throughout the performance.

Commanding from the moment he comes onstage is Leonard Auclair as the Cardinal. This complex character, deliciously performed, is by turns spiritual and pragmatic, but oddly reassuring (especially given the failures of his real life counterparts). He challenges the reporter to uncover the truth about Father Sheridan and about his own faith in no-nonsense terms.

The emotional heart of "The Dead Boy" belongs to Sheridan, and Anthony Newfield makes the most of this rich character. By turns seen throughout the play as a figure of hope or despair, this well drawn, by playwright and actor, portrayal of a priest in love and agony is one of the most three-dimensional portraits of such a character you'll see anywhere.

As his doppelganger and object of affection, Cary Woodworth brings a haunting, sometimes desperate presence to the roles of both the hustler and the dead boy of the title.

When all is said and done, and the audience is directed to leave the scene by Edwards, the headlines have faded from your memory - replaced by the substance of this enlightening drama.

No Art Imitates Life In “The Dead Boy”
By Kerri Danskin

SpacerThis week’s opening of New Jersey Repertory Company’s latest production, “The Dead Boy,” by Joe Pintauro, could hardly be more timely. The play centers on a scandal involving a high profile Catholic priest who is accused of engaging in sexual activity with a minor.

Spacer The topic has been all over the news since January, engaging people’s horror and curiosity and threatening the worldwide stability of the Catholic church.


Martin said that he wants the audience to be able to, in some way, separate the play from the current situation in the Catholic church.

Spacer“The Dead Boy”, however, is not a play about a scandal, said director Bill Martin. “It’s a love story,” he said. “A love that, by our system, in this case the church, is not allowed to exist.” The producers began work on staging the play as far back as October of 2001.

Spacer“The Dead Boy” covers the story of the scandal from all possible angles, Martin said, not allowing the audience to find out the truth about the allegations until the very end.

SpacerAlong the way, the faith of each of the six characters is tested in some way, giving the audience a glimpse into each individual’s personal life.

SpacerDespite the fact that current events may mean a larger audience for a play with this subject matter, Martin said that the current situation is not entirely advantageous.

Spacer“We have to be careful that we are not following current events,” he said, noting that he and Pintauro have worked together in changing the script several times since the play was cast early this winter.

SpacerMartin said that he wants the audience to be able to, in some way, separate the play from the current situation in the Catholic church. He hopes that once people see the play, “they can see that human beings are involved,” in the actual allegations against the church, “and that truth must be looked at through the eyes of human existence.”

SpacerThe play also examines whether celibacy is truly possible. “Can a person be loveless, live a loveless life, without touch?” asked Martin.

SpacerAll of the characters in the play are connected, he said, by their connections to spirituality, which vary greatly.

SpacerThrough the character of a journalist, the play examines the power of the media in situations of a scandalous nature. The journalist in the play demonstrates that sometimes journalists are not motivated purely by the desire to report the truth, said Martin. “Media reporting of what is supposed to be the truth is shaded by personal experience,” Martin said.

SpacerThe power of the Catholic church is also touched upon in “The Dead Boy,” he said. “People want to know what really goes on in the confessional.” There is an interest or curiosity in most people that makes them want to know other people’s secrets, said Martin, especially the secrets of the clergy.

SpacerThe New Jersey Repertory Company will offer a preview of “The Dead Boy” this Thursday at 2 and 8 p.m., with an official opening on Friday night at 8. The play will be shown Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through June 9.

SpacerTickets cost $30. Discounts are available for students, seniors and groups. The May 2 matinee preview is specially priced at $20 per ticket.

SpacerPintauro also wrote “Raft of the Medusa”, a play that was produced by the NJ Repertory Company last year.

SpacerMartin has been directing for 30 years. His credits include “The Lieutenant,” a play that ran on Broadway in 1975 and received several Tony nominations. He also worked with Edward Albee on “Sea Scape.” He directed the play “Memoir” for the NJ Repetory Company in 2000.

Breathing life into 'Dead Boy'

Published in the Asbury Park Press 5/03/02

Timing can be a tricky thing, whenever the carefully crafted little universes of dramatic fiction butt up against the messy inconveniences of current events. For every bosom-swelling triumph such as Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" (credited by some with turning the tide against the paranoia paradise that was McCarthyite America) there seem to be twice as many cases of nervous execs putting the kibosh on even so innocuous an offender as the recent Tim Allen movie "Big Trouble," with its potentially upsetting terrorist shenanigans.


The Reporter (Ken Wiesinger) questions a young wheelchair-bound priest (Cary Woodworth) in "The Dead Boy," opening tonight at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

Credit the folks at New Jersey Repertory, then, with sticking to their plan, here in the midst of a 2002 season that's already seen the Long Branch-based professional company present a study of a real-life hate crime murder, a meditation upon assisted suicide and a dialogue on racism couched in terms of a hostage drama (none of them a likely candidate for feel-good romp of the year, despite their many distinct rays of light.) Just when you might have been expecting a bit more escapist fare, along comes Joe Pintauro's "The Dead Boy," a five (or six) character piece detailing the events that occur when a prominent, beloved priest stands accused of sexually molesting a teen-age boy.

Did somebody say "ripped screaming from today's headlines?" Before charging the producers with having slapped together an exploitative rush-job, however, theatergoers should know that this drama has appeared on the NJ Rep season schedule for some time; indeed, the play (a 1998 selection of the Eugene O'Neill Festival) has a rich history that goes back nearly a decade, and has showcased the talents of performers from Ian McKellen (in a London production) to Calista Flockhart (in a workshop presentation that predated the show's all-male casting). It's even been seen in Long Branch before, when NJ Rep presented it last October as one of the troupe's script in hand series of Monday evening readings.

That said, "The Dead Boy" on view now through June 2 at the Lumia Theatre on downtown Broadway in Long Branch is a somewhat different corpus than the work in progress seen by earlier audiences. In a textbook example of the NJ Rep modus operandi, a particularly enthusiastic question-and-answer session with the 2001 audience inspired a rethinking of certain facets of the dramatic focus; just as other stagings have facilitated further fine-tuning of the story's thrust. The gratifying message to all true believers in the give-and-take of the creative process is that this "Dead Boy" is very much a living, breathing entity.

According to director Bill Martin, the original version "suddenly seemed dated. . . the input from the question/answer sessions raised some valid questions, and the play is now not so much about pedophilia as the ways that authority figures are supposed to act, or how and why the press seizes upon these stories as they do."²

Described as "Gothic" in subject and in style by author Pintauro (whose "Raft of the Medusa" became one of the most successful productions in New Jersey Repertory history); "The Dead Boy" was originally inspired by the story of Covenant House founder Father Bruce Ritter and the maelstrom of press coverage that followed in its wake; the title derives from a Village Voice article on the homeless "dead boys" who became guests of the Manhattan shelter and counseling center. However, the play diverges from the facts of the Ritter case in order to focus not only upon the character of the charismatic and revered Father Sheridan (portrayed by Anthony Newfield, who previously starred in the NJ Rep production of "Best Kept Secret"), but also the dogged journalist Tony McGuire (acted by Ken Wiesinger, who directed "The Laramie Project" to great acclaim at the Lumia this past February).

Addressing the reporter's singular zeal in pursuing the besieged cleric's story, both the playwright and director hint that there's something of the personal vendetta behind the McGuire character's stated quest for the truth; something that stands to make for a compelling dramatic twist.

"The reporter's personal history is one of idealization turning to disillusionment; of anger turning to heartbreak," Pintauro notes, observing that as an ex-seminarian turned Buddhist, the character's motivations are often internalized to the point where much of what is shown to the audience is at the discretion of the actor.

Explaining that he wrote the play to "reveal the interior lives of all the people involved" in an intense situation that concerns "men who are forced to live with each other," the playwright admits to the use of an unorthodox but time-tested device to convey a crucial part of his story.

"Shakespeare of course used ghosts to reveal major plot points, to set characters off on their course of action and even start wars," Pintauro adds with a laugh. "So why can't I have a ghost walk out on stage?"

The ghost refers to the novel casting of Cary Woodworth as both accuser and accused, in that the actor appears not only as the young man who was allegedly accosted by the clergyman, but as the priest himself, in a flashback to his early seminary days. As an expression of what the director describes as Sheridan's being "torn between what he was and what he's become; with the boy reminding himself of his own lost faith and innocence," it affords the audience a perspective available neither to the reporter nor to Sheridan's Cardinal (Leonard Auclair) and mentor (Burt Edwards, repeating his role from the 2001 reading).

The play's the thing ... For teens to explore the tragedy of Sept. 11 through their words

Published in the Asbury Park Press 4/16/02

The events of Sept. 11 are never far from anyone's mind.

They are quickly recalled by a picture, a word, a sound.

For a group of area teens, the events of that day and the fallout since have provided a springboard to help themselves -- and the community -- heal.

"Tomorrow's Promise" is a student play-writing project developed by the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. The program is being funded by a $25,000 grant from the Morristown-based Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

"This was an opportunity to allow young people to explore the impact of Sept. 11," said the program's mentor playwright, Michael T. Folie. "Although they may talk about it, they have a lot to say."

The project began in late fall when the theater announced it was collecting writing samples from students around the state. After reading the samples, 20 young writers were invited to the theater to discuss their writing, world events and reasons for wanting to participate. From there, the project's interview committee selected the six playwrights: Daniel Adler, 17, Marlboro; Shennell Barnes, xx, Newark; Karen Berkowitz, 15, Little Silver; Tom Bruett, 17, Manasquan: Aileen Deng, 16, Marlboro, and Matthew Hirsch, 17, Marlboro.

"New Jersey has some very talented and articulate young playwrights," Folie said. "Their insight is remarkable and they have some very emotional stories to share.

Since Feb. 23, the group has been meeting for four hours each Saturday with project facilitator Aaron Vieira, director/actor Jim Donovan, Folie and actors Susan Kerner, Kittson O'Neill and Eric Walton at the theater.

What began as random thoughts just under two months ago, has been transformed into six 10-minute plays, each brought to life by the actors. Although there is still fine-tuning to be done, each of the plays offers a range of emotions -- sadness, despair, compassion, laughter, loss and ultimately, hope for the future.

"It's so much more than I expected," said Bruett, a junior at Manasquan High School. "I thought it would be just us learning a little how to write . . . but it's so much more than that. It's very professional."

While Tom wanted to use the events of Sept. 11 as a backdrop, he set his play, tentatively titled "One Step At A. . .," months after the tragedy and focused on a conversation between a brother and sister.

"I wanted people to think that more happened from Sept. 11 than just the things they thought," Bruett said. "There are emotions there, and it may be hard, but life still goes on. You can't just get caught up in things; you have to keep going."

For Adler, a junior at Marlboro High School, the program provided an outlet for expressing some of the helplessness he felt on Sept. 11.

"I was in school and heard about it early on," Adler recounted. "It was so horribly sad, seeing the images on television and watching students trying to contact their parents on cell phones and, most times, not being able to get through."

Building on those feelings, Adler has written "The Brothers," the story of siblings watching the events of Sept. 11 unfolding on television, knowing that their parents work at the World Trade Center.

The playwriting experience has been completely different from the English assignments he's used to, Adler pointed out.

"Dialogue is hard," he admitted.

And yet, his words are powerful, brought to life by the actors reading the roles.

"They're making me look good," Adler said of the actors. "In my head I hear them one way, but when the actors read them, it's a totally different experience. It's like, 'Wow, I wrote that.' "

A movie and writing buff, Hirsch thought the playwriting program would be a wonderful experience. It hasn't let him down.

"It's provided me with opportunities I probably wouldn't have had," the junior at Marlboro High School admitted. "And it's been very professional all the way. Everyone -- the actors, director, mentor playwright -- is so generous with their help."

Since the plays started to take shape, there have been critiquing sessions during some part of the day. For Hirsch, it's been an opportunity to hear professional views on what's not working -- and what is.

"The goal has always been to make the work better," he said, "and when you hear your words being spoken, you understand what works, what needs to be fixed and what needs to be edited out."

His play, "The Mistakes of Life," focuses on the facts that the heroes of 9-11 were only human -- that while one of his characters had problems, it didn't diminish what he did.

"Obviously it's nerve-racking, watching the actors bring your words to life," Hirsch said, "but each week it's a little less so. It's still a little uncomfortable and a little weird, but it's definitely something that has made me a better writer as well."

While Deng's play, "Two Steps To the Left" doesn't directly reference Sept. 11, it does touch on the emotion intrinsically tied to that day -- sadness, loss, anger and hope.

A sophomore at Marlboro High School, Deng said the events of 9-11 are imprinted on her mind.

"This country paid a terrible price," she said, "but we have to keep going."

Originally, the idea for her play featured a woman who found out her husband was blinded on Sept. 11. But through the writing and critiquing process, the focus changed.

"The feeling was that it was too tragic," Deng admitted. "So we reworked it . . . and it's definitely better."

Although the husband is still blind, the scene is now set in a hotel room as the couple prepares to attend a friend's wedding. No mention is made of the events of Sept. 11.

And while there is that wide range of emotions, the play ends on a hopeful note -- a promise of tomorrow.

"I think we all need to feel hopeful," Deng said, "but it's that hope that keeps us going."


New Play

Jack Blake was a senior executive vice president - until he made that racist remark about blacks. As a result, he's about to "become retired", which, as his speechwriter Janice Churchill reminds him, means that "You'll be nothing." Her remark may sound severe, but Janice is black and is long sick of the way the world victimizes her race. That's how Mike Folie's "Slave Shack" begins, but there'll be many an adventure before it concludes. The new play at New Jersey Repertory Company stars John Lombardi as the veep who supervised 37,000 people in 52 countries, but now has trouble managing himself--before he turns out to be more racist than he might have believed. Tammi Clayton portrays Janice with the ice and ire of one who's endured the brunt of white men victimizing her - though no one has done anything as harrowing as what Jack plans now. As the pompous executive who's to take Jack's place, Kurt Elftmann has a yellow tie to match the yellow streak that runs down his back. There's a startling conclusion, too, in Stewart Fisher's taut production.

When humanity meets the bottom line

Published in the Asbury Park Press 4/10/02

"American Indians wouldn't have been slaves, they'd have killed themselves first or waited until they were asleep and slit their slavemasters' throats," says Jack Blake, a Caucasian corporate executive, to Janice Churchill, his African-American speech writer as she sits shackled to a couch in "Slave Shack."

The play by Michael T. Folie is at the the New Jersey Repertory Company's Lumia Theatre, 179 Broadway, Long Branch
PERFORMANCES: 8 p.m. Thursdays, Friday and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays through April 21
TICKETS: $30 with discounts available
INFORMATION: (732) 229-3166

Dubbed a "hostage drama," Michael T. Folie's world-premiere, two-act play at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch tells the story of a corporate executive being forced to resign from the company he built in the wake of a racial scandal and his plans to take revenge on those around him.

Blake, forcefully played by John Lombardi, is a kind of corporate Willie Loman who has built his career and his empire on greed, ruthlessness and self-interest, only to be supplanted in the end by his most avid disciples.

The play takes place in Blake's corporate office, where set designer Julia Hahn's Sahara/African motifs lend a sense of agelessness to the room.

Though it turns out the racial scandal is bogus, this doesn't suggest that Blake is any less a bigot.

Blake has a particular fondness for denigrating black people, especially in the presence of Churchill, the speech writer hired to help tie up the loose ends of his frazzled career in a farewell speech.


John Lombardi and Tammi Clayton portray a corporate executive and speech writer embroiled in a racial conflict in "Slave Shack" at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.
Blake fears and despises Churchill, perhaps because as a person of African descent and the descendant of slaves, she represents all the humanity he has stolen and starved to achieve his corporate goals. "You writing my farewell speech," Blake sneers. "That's the ultimate insult."

Suspecting that Churchill (effectively played by Tammi Clayton) has played some role in creating the bogus scandal, Blake plans to force her confession and take his revenge. But Blake is a man at odds with himself. He keeps a pistol in his desk drawer and suffers from the kind of paranoia that thrives in cutthroat climates.

He languishes in rage and self-pity, unable to cope with the shortcomings of a life dedicated solely to the pursuit of power and money to the exclusion of his own humanity. He entertains thoughts of violence and suicide until, in a desperate moment, he suddenly lashes out. The situation deteriorates into a kidnapping.

At gunpoint, Blake handcuffs the young black woman to his couch, creating a scene chillingly reminiscent of slavery. Once he succeeds in making her his prisoner, he ironically lets down his guard, confiding the tragic details of his empty life.

But Churchill, a young single mother, makes it clear that while suicide might seem like a viable option to Blake, she has everything to live for. Unlike her abductor, Churchill has a love in her life, and she has made it her priority. As Churchill sits shackled in terror, Blake kneels at her side grasping at reality.

"Just let me touch your hair," Blake beseeches his prisoner as he tries desperately to recapture the one moment in his life when he allowed himself to be human: It was in Africa with a 12-year-old prostitute, a slave given to him as a gift for one night.

Lombardi is a multilayered Jack Blake, bringing caged fury to a character teetering on the brink in an impressive performance that provides the impetus for this production. Clayton is a deceptively self-contained powerhouse as the put-upon speech writer.

Kurt Elftmann, as Warren Barrington, Blake's successor and the man who engineers his early retirement, provides an amusing blend of jocular venom as the proverbial Brutus.

At times riveting, the play as directed by Stewart Fisher might have been more effective without the physical intrusion of a third character and with a bit more development of the two principals. (This notwithstanding the spirited cameo at play's end by newcomer Ashley Sharee McMahon, 10, of Long Branch as Jasmine Churchill, Janice's daughter.)

"Slave Shack" is a play about choices and their consequences. It suggests that power is a relative and fleeting thing not nearly so permanent or perpetual as love.

'Fabulous shades of gray': Long Branch troupe stages world-premiere racial drama

Published in the Asbury Park Press 4/05/02

The Long Branch-based New Jersey Repertory Company has more or less made it a mission to shake up the sensibilities of audiences raised on nostalgia-soaked musical revivals, one-liner sit-coms and meshuggenah weddings. Tonight, the troupe puts the sneeze back into the seasonal bloom of spring theater with the opening of a new drama that might even serve to challenge the expectations of NJ Rep's own famously supportive core audience.

By Michael T. Folie
New Jersey Repertory Company Lumia Theatre, 179 Broadway, Long Branch
Opens at 8 p.m. Friday; performances through April 21
(732) 229-3166

Known primarily as a nimble craftsman of fast-paced laughs, former Middletown resident Michael T. Folie returns to the Lumia Theatre on downtown Broadway for the world premiere of "Slave Shack," the third of his works to be produced by NJ Rep. Theatergoers who laughed along with the well-received Folie comedies "An Unhappy Woman" and "Naked by the River" may be thrown for a loop this time around, as the nationally produced playwright takes a detour onto considerably rougher terrain. As staged by the company's associate artistic director Stewart Fisher, "Slave Shack" is a confrontational character piece charged with racial tensions; a story that plays out as a hostage drama in real time, even as it plays with the audience's notions of exactly where the power dynamic lies in this situation.

In the person of John Lombardi (previously seen in NJ Rep's "Harry and Thelma"), corporate executive Jack Blake is the kind of business superstar who regularly graces magazine covers; a self-made sort who has almost single-handedly built the international division of one of the world's largest companies. Now, however, this old-school titan of industry sees himself in the uncharacteristic role of victim. Eclipsed professionally by a slick rising star (Kurt Elftmann) and under pressure to tender his resignation in the wake of a racially tinged scandal, the hard-bitten Blake reaches his meltdown point when he encounters the speech writer who has been commissioned to craft his farewell address -- an African-American woman, portrayed by Tammi Clayton in her first fully staged NJ Rep production.

Neither based upon nor inspired by any real-life circumstances, "Slave Shack" draws much of its energy from the author's own experiences as a veteran speech writer -- a background that was put to effective use when it came time to evoke the rarefied, glass-tower milieu of the play's central character.

"I know that world, I know the way these people talk to each other," Folie says of Blake's Fortune-500 environment. "It got me thinking about what could happen in that situation, where one person seemingly holds all the power, while feeling powerless at the same time.

"When people are pushed to extremes, they say what they need to survive," the playwright continues. "The characters are forced to deal with each other, since they can't just walk away and leave."


Tammi Clayton and John Lombardi rehearse a scene from "Slave Shack," opening tonight at the New Jersey Repertory's Lumia Theatre in Long Branch.
According to director Fisher, one of the play's primary strengths lies in its refusal to paint things in stark, black-and-white terms -- even in the context of presenting what appears at first to be a black-and-white story.

"The speech writer comes in with her own fair share of baggage, and (Tammi Clayton) brings a certain ferocity to the character," says Fisher, who previously helmed "Naked by the River" at the Lumia. "She's someone who doesn't put up with a lot of crap, and by the end, she's becoming as pragmatic as Jack."

Hinting that the plot of "Slave Shack' evolves into something of a complete role reversal, Fisher notes that "very rarely is anything black and white in this world . . . it's all a lot of fabulous, highly murky shades of gray."

In addition to the three major cast members, "Slave Shack" serves up a fresh new face to NJ Rep audiences: 10-year old Ashley Sharee McMahon of Long Branch in a small but pivotal role. This is the first live theater experience for Ashley, a fourth grader at West End Elementary School who answered an open casting call for the part. While she admits to a certain amount of nervousness over her impending stage debut, her director praises his young charge as a "frighteningly honest" performer who "introduces a dynamic of innocence and purity" into the tense proceedings.

Whatever the tension level, however, Folie (whose comedy "Panama" is scheduled to be produced this June at the Lumia) insists his drama is not without its flashes of the patented Folie wit.

"I never know what (my plays) are going to be at first," says the playwright in reference to his creative process. "I have a sign up over my desk that says 'JUST WRITE THE PLAY' . . . and I guess that I just can't not write funny lines sometimes."

Featuring a set design by Julia Hahn, costumes by Patricia E. Doherty and lighting and sound design by Michael Reese and Merek Royce Press, respectively, "Slave Shack" opens at 8 tonight, with additional performances at 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through April 21. Tickets, priced at $30 with discounts available to seniors, students and groups, are available from the box office by calling (732) 229-3166.

  • GOTTA WORK THE ROOM: You'd think a night at the theater would be the perfect forum for busy professionals to meet, greet and just "network" -- but when you factor in less-than-timely arrivals, seating arrangements and the fact that swapping business cards is generally frowned upon during heavy death scenes and such, it's a connection that is often as not unconsummated. Now the people at New Jersey Repertory Company, working in cahoots with the neighboring Off Broadway Cocktail Lounge, have initiated a series of pre-show networking events presented in conjunction with the Thursday sneak preview performances of their next several productions. The pre-show format "eliminates the need to contrive those dreaded ice-breaking conversations," according to the theater's publicity, with networking participants treated to 30 minutes of refreshments and relaxed conversation, a chance to win two free theater tickets and the opportunity to bring their thawed talk to the aforementioned Fourth Avenue jazz and blues club, where NJ Rep patrons are admitted free of charge. Future networking parties are scheduled for May 2, June 20, Aug. 8, Sept. 26 and Nov 14; all at 7:30 p.m. The price for pre-show event and sneak preview show is just $20 (that's $10 less than normal ticket price), and interested professionals are urged to reserve by calling (732) 229-3166, as space is limited side.

From One Couple On The Regional Theater Stage
A New Play Premieres at New Jersey Repertory

Ho hum; another play about a debilitating, incurable disease and the toll it takes on the sufferer and those around him. Shades of Wit. Well, not ho hum. Mark McNease's Till Morning Comes, world-premiering at New Jersey Repertory Company, might not match Wit's Pulitzer, but it is a literate, uplifting and altogether satisfying play. It is a love story about a couple with a traditional past (high school sweethearts), simple pleasures (square dancing and blender milk shakes) and no future.

Al Mohrmann and Marnie Andrews play the married couple coping with the ravages of ALS in ÒTill Morning ComesÓ at New Jersey Repertory Company.
Al Mohrmann and Marnie Andrews play the
married couple coping with the ravages of
ALS in "Till Morning Comes" at
New Jersey Repertory Company.

There are only two actors on stage, but a third presence is felt throughout the tightly written, intermissionless 80-minute play. The scourge of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, is very much a part of Fred and Evelyn's "family," a fact made more poignant because the thirty-year married couple have no children. ALS is an incurable disease of unknown cause leading to eventual complete paralysis of the voluntary muscles. Lou Gehrig, The Iron Horse, died from it in 1941 at age 38. In Till Morning Comes, Fred is in its advanced stages. Wheelchair bound, he is virtually lifeless from the neck down.

So what keeps this play from becoming a total downer? For one, Fred and Evelyn have already come to grips with his affliction; we don't go through discovery with them. And although Fred's paralysis is obvious from the start, the two banter about other matters in a routine, even humorous fashion before there's any reference to ALS. Even then they're offhand about it. Evelyn is casual about moving Fred's chair around the room, and she's distracted while serving him a shake. (Can the careless feeding of an invalid be funny and tasteful? Believe it, yes.)

For another, their loving relationship and common values are made warmly apparent in many ways. Take the costuming. She's in a full, ruffled, country-western dress and he's wearing a neatly buttoned western shirt and string tie. Both sport western boots, and Fred's hair is neatly combed. It's evident, although never mentioned, that she would have had to dress and groom him so carefully; and in a detail of infinite eloquence, the decorative patches on Fred's shirt are made from the same homespun material as Evelyn's dress. (Two costumes total, but perfection by designer Patricia E. Doherty.)

Then there's the acting. Al and Marnie play Fred and Evelyn, and Al Mohrmann and Marnie Andrews couldn't be better. Directed with insight and attention to detail by SuzAnne Barabas, the two are as harmonious a pair as the couple they portray. In their playing, Fred's incapacity and Evelyn's unselfish compassion and her eagerness to keep his helplessness from driving them both to despair are never in doubt. Mr. McNease has written a broad range of emotions into the short play, and both actors surround every one.

Mr. Mohrmann's physical control is remarkable. Using only his face and his voice, he leaves no doubt about the proud ex-postman's once sturdy posture. By contrast, Evelyn is hyper, and Ms. Andrews is marvelous. She moves about the homey set (a triumph of design by Jeremy C. Doucette) with nervous energy to spare, and she chatters compulsively because "it's better than the silence that's waiting for me". Idly touching Fred's shoulder, caressing his inert hands, pushing his glasses back up the bridge of his nose, it's clear that Evelyn cares deeply for her mate - and that she longs for the now-impossible intimacy they once shared.

Till Morning Comes is more than a character study. There's a story here that unfolds as naturally as can be and reaches a distinct conclusion. Depending on one's attitudes toward death and dying, the ending of the couple's story is either satisfying or shattering. Either way, Fred and Evelyn's may not be the perfect marriage; but, ALS discounted, maybe it is.

"Till Morning Comes" at New Jersey Repertory's Lumia Theatre, 179 Broadway, Long Branch through March 17. Performances Thursday - Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday 3 p.m. Ticket reservations ($30): 732-229-3166.

Imitation of life

Published in the Asbury Park Press 2/22/02
Theater Writer

"Till Morning Comes," a play opening this weekend at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, was sparked by the death of Mark A. McNease's mother just three months after his parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.

New Jersey Repertory Company
179 Broadway, Long Branch
8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays through March 24
(732) 229-3166

"I wanted to capture their relationship, the commitment two people in love have for each another," he said from his office in Manhattan. "Theirs was a 50-year love affair."

To tell their story, McNease crafted a two-character drama about a couple married for 30 years who suddenly have to face a serious illness. The result, "Till Morning Comes," is McNease's sixth play to be produced and his first on the East Coast.

In his play, McNease decided to drop the couple's age to their 60s and focus on their last 90 minutes together. The husband has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly named Lou Gehrig's disease after the baseball legend who abruptly retired in 1939 after being diagnosed with it.

In "Till Morning Comes" the husband, with only a few years to live, asks his wife to help him die with dignity. That helped McNease to provide a structure and dramatic framework that operates in real time.

McNease said he also suffered a personal loss when his partner of eight years died in 1991.

"That certainly gave me an understanding of the depth of love two people being together have," he said.


H. Morhmann, North Plainfield, and Marnie Andrews, Jersey City, portray a longtime married couple who must face up to serious illness in Mark A. McNease's "Till Morning Comes" at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.
Despite the theme of the play, McNease does not necessarily condone assisted suicide.

"For them, their decision is made out of love and is right for them," he noted. "I know people are against it, but I'm writing about two specific people and what happens when the person you love completely wants you to help them die."

Unlike many writers of plays, McNease, 43, is not interested in becoming a full-time playwright.

He is not new to writing. He started around age 12, devoting himself to poetry for 10 years. At age 22 he began writing short stories that he sold to various magazines. He didn't turn his attention to the stage until 1987.

"All my writing (poetry and short stories) had a spoken quality to it and I've been told I have a good ear for dialogue," he said. "After a number of short stories I realize my language should be coming out of a character's mouth.

"I wrote more for the ear than the eye, so I took a workshop in play writing," he added.

Now he looks at his writing as a hobby, not a career. It wasn't always that way.

Last season he earned a regional Emmy Award for writing and producing a Wisconsin TV program for children. He also spent five years with the Children's Television Workshop's "Sesame Street," helping to launch the show in places such as Poland, China, South Africa, Egypt, Mexico, Canada, Spain, Germany and, most notably, he said, in Israel and Palestine as a co-production.

For the past six months, McNease has worked at Reuters news agency as assistant to the executive vice president who oversees markets in the United States, Canada and Latin America.

McNease said he "loves" his non-writing job.

"I discovered I don't like writing to make a living," he explained. "I write because I have a story to tell . . . without having the pressure of writing to support myself . . . and if I get a few hundred dollars for it, great."

from the Asbury Park Press

Published on February 22, 2002

Lessons from Laramie

Published in the Asbury Park Press 1/18/02
Theater Writer

Ken Wiesinger believes "The Laramie Project," a play he's directing about the 1998 murder of gay student Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyo., is the contemporary version of Thornton Wilder's 1938 Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Our Town."

By the New Jersey Repertory Company
179 Broadway, Long Branch
Opens at 8 p.m. Friday; continues at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays amd 2 p.m. Sundays through Feb. 10
(732) 229-3166

In "Our Town," a narrator introduces the audience to the various residents of Grover's Corners, N.H., in May 1901. The stage is nearly empty, except for a few chairs, and as the three-act play progresses, the audience learns a lot about average New Englanders in an average American town -- what they think, how they behave, who lives and who dies.

For "The Laramie Project," now receiving its state premiere at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, Moises Kaufman and members of his Tectonic Theater Project spent more than 18 months and took six trips to Laramie to conduct more than 200 interviews with its residents.

They talked about the murder of a 21-year-old University of Wyoming student who was severely beaten after meeting and leaving the Fireside Lounge with Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson on Oct. 7, 1998. Shepard's unrecognizable body was found the next day tied to a fence in the prairie outside Laramie. It took him several days to die in the hospital.

What they heard was turned into a docudrama with eight actors in multiple roles portraying residents. There are minimal props. A few chairs. Glasses, a scarf or a coat, plus body language and vocabularly signify a change in character. Like narrators, the characters mostly speak directly to the audience.

"In part, both of these plays are about the people in these towns and how they deal with the effects of a great tragedy," Wiesinger said. In "Our Town," it was the death of Emily, a young bride who died in childbirth.

From left: Lea Eckert of New York and Duane Noch of Middletown rehearse a scene from "The Laramie Project," opening today at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.
Shepard is not a character in the play, but he is described and remembered from different angles by friends, teachers and acquaintances, including a bartender (one of the last people to see Shepard alive), a lesbian university professor, a Muslim woman, a grandmother of one of Shepard's killers, Shepard's father -- who talks about how much he will miss his son -- and a hospital spokesman who breaks down when he announces Shepard died.

The local production of "Laramie" took on more resonance after Sept. 11, Wiesinger said, because "candlelight vigils, people coming together and bonding together, talk of revenge, hatred and disbelief that these things could happen in our town, our state and our country" were the same things that happened following Shepard's murder.

"The parallels are eerie," Wiesinger said. "Do we hate the (terrorists) who did this, and what can we learn about ourselves and about what made them do this?

"This brings us back to the play," he continued. "What made these two kids kill this other kid and how do we respond to how it happened."

Shepard's murder became a rallying point for supporters of hate crimes legislation nationwide.

"We're really trying to tell the story efficiently," Wiesinger explained. "We start with the stage full or props and costumes, a table and eight chairs.

"By the end of the play everything is gone . . . but the people," he said. "All artifice has been stripped away and we are left with the words of the people."

And those words often are funny.

"When people examine themselves humor often comes out of that in the most unexpected places," Wiesinger said. "There is so much humor in the beginning of play . . . it reels you in slowly."

It isn't until the end of Act I that the play pulls the rug out from underneath the audience. That is when Shepard's body is discovered by Reggie Fluty, who says:

"He was covered in, like I said, partially dry blood and . . . the only place that he did not have any blood on him, on his face, was what appeared to be where he had been crying."

EDITOR'S NOTE: Following the Feb. 7 performance, the gay community is invited to attend a discussion and reception with Cathy Renna of GLADD, Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, on "Lessons From Laramie."

Anatomy of a hate crime: Theater troupe portrays community's response to murder of a gay student in its midst



Long Branch, N.J., is scrutinizing Laramie, Wyo. -- and the result is a powerful evening in the theater.

New Jersey Repertory Company is presenting "The Laramie Project," a stage piece named for the Wyoming city where three years ago Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay student, was beaten and left for dead by two tough townies.

Five days later, Shepard died. The incident not only made the international news, but prompted Moises Kaufman and his Tectonic Theatre Company to travel to Laramie and interview the townspeople in an attempt to discover why this hate crime happened. They then distilled the interviews into a three-act, 21/2-hour theater piece. Eight actors would portray six dozen people, from the interviewers themselves to the citizens of Laramie, whose real names are used.

So theatergoers meet Reggie Fluty, the female police officer who found Shepard hanging on a fence, took him down, and later discovered that his blood was HIV-positive. Actress Kendal Ridgeway uses her strong face effectively in showing increasing horror as she learns that doing her job may have led to an AIDS infection.

There's Harry Woods, a 52-year-old homosexual from Laramie, whose broken leg keeps him from attending the memorial parade for Shepard, held on the same day as the homecoming game for the University of Wyoming. David Volin is heart-wrenching as he notes with pride that more people showed up for a gay kid than for the Cowboys football team.

Among the 11 characters played vividly by Lea Eckert is Romaine Patterson, a friend of Shepard who decides that she and her friends will don angel costumes and encircle a man with a "God hates fags" T-shirt -- "to completely block him." Of Susan Kerner's nine portrayals, the most effective is Zubaida Ula, a Muslim who has met with discrimination of another sort in the wilds of Laramie.

One of the most fascinating disclosures comes from Jedadiah Schultz, a University of Wyoming drama student (played with the right undergraduate eagerness by Alberto Bonilla). The lad mentions that his parents refused to watch him play a homosexual in "Angels in America," but they had no problem with his depicting the murderous Macbeth. "Why?" he asks, his face revealing utter bewilderment.

Matthew Shepard's story told onstage at NJ Repertory
by Gretchen C. Van Benthuysen
Asbury Park Press 1/23/02

"The Laramie Project" is making a powerful New Jersey debut at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch through Feb 10.

Eight skilled actors portray more than 80 people, most of them residents of Laramie, Wyo., with some connection to Matthew Shepard, the 21-year-old Wyoming University student beaten in 1998 and left to die on a prairie fence because he was gay.

As stage under Ken Wiesinger's steady direction in the Rep's 52-seat Dwek Studio, the audience immediately is drawn into the story as related to Moises Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project in multiple interviews over 18 months.

The actors often speak directly to the audience, making themselves impossible to ignore - but then, who would want to ignore such a talented cast? Although the audience knows the ending, as the 2 1/2 hour play unfolds it contains a certain amount of suspense and mystery. It is also loaded with moments of humor and pathos.

Actors briefly introduce characters to eliminate confusion and to keep the momentum rolling. The characters include a lesbian university teacher who, at the job interview, was asked what her husband did for a living, and a high-school student whose parents attended every show he was in but refused to see his university auditions for the Pulitzer Prize-winning, gay-themed play, "Angels in America".

The bartender at the Fireside Lounge remembers Shepard as a polite, clean-cut, intelligent and well-mannered man who tipped well. He remembers Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson - the pair who lured Shepard to his death by offering to give him a ride home - as low-life scum.

In the second act, the police-woman who tried to resuscitate Shepard finds out he was HIV positive and begins taking drugs to combat the disease. Yet, she said, she doesn't know if she would have done anything differently if she'd known in advance.

The actors - Dana Benningfield, Alberto Bonilla, Lea Eckert, Susan Kerner, Duane Noch, Kendal Ridgeway, David Volin and Eric Walton - give superior performances as they slip in and out of various characters with the use of a coat, glasses, head scarf, accents and body language.

Julia Hahn's set design, Rose Riccardi's lights and Melody Stone's costumes nicely support this excellent production.

Diverse Entertainment At Area Theaters

by Philip Dorian, Two River Times

Quoting from New Jersey Repertory Company’s press release for The Laramie Project:

“In October 1998, a 21-year old student at the University of Wyoming was severely beaten and left to die, tied to a fence in the middle of the prairie outside Laramie. His bloody, bruised and battered body was not discovered until the next day, and he died several days later in an area hospital. His name was Matthew Shepard, and he was the victim of this assault because he was gay.”

The Laramie Project isn’t just about the horrific murder. Written from an extensive series of interviews, the play is about the town of Laramie, its citizens, and their attitudes toward the incident. On a larger scale, the play is about any one of us, about our feelings regarding violence, sexual orientation and the sanctity of life itself. If that sounds grandiose, so be it. When the play is as well performed as it is at NJ Rep, it’s not grandiose at all, just grand.

A month after the killing, playwright Moises Kaufman and members of his acting company traveled to Laramie. After six visits, they compiled a word-collage from portions of 200 + interviews. Every segment of Laramie is represented: Police officers, clergy, politicians, gay and lesbian activists, University students, professors and administrators. There’s a tavern owner, a bartender, the physician who treated Matthew and the hordes of media who descended on the town, bringing the term “hate crime” into international focus.

Eight actors play all the roles. The original off-Broadway production, two years ago, featured playwright Kaufman and his associates as themselves and their subjects. While the technique and the character revelations were gripping, there were flaws that left me less than enthusiastic. The play itself is overwritten in its middle section, and the cast, the actual writers, were unduly full of themselves. The former problem remains; but the latter, a smug cast Attitude, is nowhere to be found in Long Branch.

On the contrary, the NJ Rep actors project a sincere humility. They enhance the work and deepen it by shedding all artifice and by just being these Wyoming folk. Theirs is the essence of internalized acting, without a trace of affectation. Remarkably, they flesh out even the peripheral characters. One identifies with everyone depicted. And while the heart overflows with grief for Matthew Shepard and his family, there’s anguish enough to go around, extending even to the two young men eventually convicted of the murder. Too, there are touches of humor, evolving naturally out of the characters. (When asked her reaction to her negative HIV test, the first-on-scene police officer reports that the first thing she did was French kiss her husband.)

Sensitively directed by Ken Wiesinger, and performed on a nearly bare stage (a row of straight chairs is resourcefully deployed), the eight actors are Dana Benningfield, Alberto Bonilla, Lea Eckert, Susan Kerner, Duane Noch, Kendal Ridgeway, David Volin and Eric Walton. (I am grateful for alphabetical order.)

As for the problems with the play itself, suffice to say it’s got some redundancies and some passages that slow the pace. Its three acts should be and could be pruned and condensed into two. As it plays now in Long Branch, it’s significantly shorter than it was off-Broadway. Or so, to NJ Rep’s credit, it seems.

Review: 'The Laramie Project'

This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the January 30, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper.

The outstanding documentary drama, "The Laramie Project," is getting a first-rate, in-your-face production by the New Jersey Repertory Theater. The play -- a series of dramatic interviews that arose from the horrifying events surrounding the fatal 1998 beating of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student, in Laramie, Wyoming -- is recreated by eight excellent actors, each of whom bring a realistic resonance and stirring emotional truth to the compelling text.

"The Laramie Project" imparts no subjective ideology or opinions. What it does do, with confidence and theatrical expertise, is configure the opinions and attitudes of a cross-section of ordinary people, citizens of Laramie, population 26,687, into a riveting and enlightening event.

The young man on a bicycle who discovers Shepard's brutalized body; the sheriff's deputy who arrives on the scene and inadvertently comes in contact the still-breathing, blood-soaked, H.I.V.-infected victim who had been tied to a fence; a lesbian waitress; the bartender who was the last person to see Shepard; and a gay university professor, are just some of the people whose statements and responses to the tragedy define a town and its ethos. Even the positions of the anti-gay preacher and protester, and a more conciliatory Roman Catholic priest, are represented without reproach. Neither Shepard, or the theater student whose parents could not bring themselves to see his performance in "Angels in America," nor his killers, Russell A. Henderson and Aaron J. McKinney (whose grandmother has her say here) are the main focus. But, they remain foremost as symbols in this exploration into the nature and nurturing of hate.

Members of Moises Kaufman's Tectonic Theater Company (the acting company that brought such powerful journalistic flair to "Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde") traveled to Laramie on six different occasions to interview over 200 people, the 60 of whom made it into the text. These are now being played by eight fine actors, members of the New Jersey Repertory Company.

It is hard to draw a line to separate the excellence of the performances from the arresting nature of the text. What matters is that none of the actors betray or condescend to the diverse and idiosyncratic natures of their subjects. This is one of the play's, as well as this production's, distinction, under the direction of Ken Wiesinger.

In the light of the original visits, in the midst of what had become a media frenzy, Tectonic Theater members were able to extract from the guardedly open interviewees what life was, is, and will possibly never be the same again in this corner of America. The present company -- Dana Benningfield, Alberto Bonilla, Lea Eckert, Susan Kerner, Duane Noch, Kendal Ridgeway, David Volin, and Eric Walton -- although not a part of the writing assignment, commands equal awe and admiration for their portrayals.

Designer Julia Hahn's somber setting, with only a row of wooden chairs, a few hooks for coats, makes a statement appropriately in tone with the openness and directness of the project wherein the actors, often performing multiple roles, are either seated or standing.

After an exposition in which the actors explain their mission and intent, the story unfolds without pretension but with journalistic persistence. We can deduce how the values of old-fashioned homogenous simplicity in this once prime pasture and prairie town has been unsettled by an encroaching world of arts and letters, have and have-nots, outsiders and strangers. Considering that the company has not attempted to embellish or distort the words of the actual people involved, there is a consistent honesty to the text. This honesty, which is occasionally flecked with heart-breaking emotional content, allows us to see the people of Laramie in the light of their own perceptions about normalcy and decency. There is even splashes of humor woven into the interviewees' instinctive distrust of the Project, something not lost by either the original writers or the actors at NJ Rep. If you have not ventured down to see the work of this adventurous four year-old professional company, this is a good time to start.

-- Simon Saltzman