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Press Articles 2005-2007

 For the New York Times review of Minstrel Show, click here >>

Tableaus of life and death in Long Branch
Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 10/2/07


Show a single image to several different audiences and you're often likely to get a wide range of reactions.

Kelcey Watson (left) and Spencer Scott Barros rehearse a scene from "Minstrel Show, or the Lynching of William Brown," now playing at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

That's been the case with the play on display at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch — a play in which the opening moments have drawn responses including gasps of horror, easy laughter and tense, fidgety silence.

Of course, when the image in question involves a pair of black actors in burnt-cork blackface, with painted-on white lips and the raggedy regalia of old-time minstrelsy, a reaction of some kind is pretty much in order. Before the production had completed a single dress rehearsal, a number of people in the greater Long Branch community reacted with displeasure to the show's promotional materials, resulting in posters and ads being withdrawn from circulation.

The show, however, does go on at NJ Rep — in this case, "Minstrel Show, or the Lynching of William Brown." Opening on the anniversary of the real-life incident referred to in the title, the intimate yet impactful play by Max Sparber receives a rare East Coast revival in the city that once hosted the largest Ku Klux Klan gathering in American history.

The lynching of "the Negro William Brown" — a rheumatism sufferer who was accused of molesting a 19-year-old white woman — took place not in the deep South but in 1919 Omaha, Neb. It was an event noted for its ferocity, its scale — as many as 5,000 white Omahans were said to have been involved — and the fact that the mob not only torched the county courthouse, but very nearly succeeded in lynching the mayor as well.

In Sparber's 1998 script, William Brown never appears on the stage, nor are the events of that late September night re-enacted by a cast of thousands. It's the wake of the riot, and there in the charred and battered Douglas County Courthouse (another detail-intensive piece of work by the talented set designer Quinn K. Stone), the playwright has appointed a pair of nameless, fictional characters to tell — "to teach" — a very real story.

Under the direction of Rob Urbanski, actors Spencer Scott Barros and Kelcey Watson play a pair of traveling minstrel showmen who, like many black performers of their day, make their living by rendering "tableaus of Negro life" in blackface. When the two men are detained (for purposes of testifying in the official "investigation") in the same cell that had been occupied by Brown, they review their experiences as witnesses to the terrible occurrences — and do some soul-searching as to the choices that they've made to survive in this time and place.

Despite the title, there actually is very little of a traditional "Mr. Bones"-style minstrel show on display. Having both done time at the "Parchment Farm" workhouse camp, the entertainers deliver a set of songs that originated in prison settings. We get a taste of what sort of show these characters would have put on for a black audience, including such proto-rap "toasts" as "The Signifying Monkey," along with "yahoo" songs (a format that poked fun at rural whites) and an "Amen Corner" skit involving a fiery brimstone preacher with a slick, craps-shooting congregant.

Although this marks the first time that director and cast have worked together, all three have a history with this "Show." Omaha native Watson co-starred in the play's first public showing at the Douglas Courthouse, and Urbanski has now visited this script six times.

Consequently, what could come off as preachy or didactic in lesser hands is instead invested with a mastery of the material that extends from the "complex syncopations" of the prison songs, to the voice artistry of the comic bits. Still, it's in the red meat of the story — the real-time retelling of the events leading up to the lynching and its appalling aftermath — that the actors operate on all cylinders, with their enthralling descriptions, characterizations and pantomimes abetted by Jill Nagle's lighting and the sound effects of Jessica Paz.

Given that the actors address the audience throughout, Sparber's play comes off more like a presentation than a dramatic work — a very compelling history lesson, in this case, and one (thanks to the dream-team assembled by NJ Rep) that should register well with school-age audiences and others who tend not to make a habit of the theater.

Minstrel Show or the Lynching of William Brown

A New Jersey Repertory Company presentation of a play in one act by Max Sparber.
Directed by Rob Urbinati.

With: Spencer S. Barros, Kelcey Watson.
Variety review By ROBERT L. DANIELS

Unsettling and compelling, Max Sparber's "Minstrel Show or the Lynching of William Brown" re-creates a harrowing true story about the 1919 lynching of a jailed black man, as seen through the eyes of a couple of fictional song-and-dance men. The season opener for New Jersey Repertory Company begins on a light note with a couple of knockabout minstrel comics singing "yahoo" songs from the cotton fields, then quickly turns into a graphic narrative of angry crowd hysteria.

In Omaha, Neb., amid the broken glass and debris of a ravaged county courthouse, two traveling African-American entertainers recount the mob violence they witnessed that ultimately took the lives of a half-dozen innocent spectators. Target of the collective fury was William Brown, who was accused of molesting a 19-year-old white girl.

The two-hander begins with Sho-Nuff (Kelcey Watson) and Yas-Yas (Spencer Scott Barros) illustrating the origins of the minstrel show, when white entertainers blackened their faces with burnt cork. Subsequently, even black artists had to coat themselves with shoe polish.

Through their narrative, the minstrel entertainers, who traveled the country singing and dancing in "coon shows" or "Tableaux of Negro Life,"
tell of their arrest for disturbing the peace and disorderly conduct, after a dozen hooded men beat several black members in their audience.

They witnessed the violence from their jail cell. Sho-Nuff graphically describes the mob mentality of the 5,000 rioters who stormed the Douglas County Courthouse, broke the windows and battered down the oak door to gain access to the unfortunate 40-year-old prisoner Brown, who was awaiting trial.

The "end men" are skillfully realized by Watson and Barros. One can very nearly see the mindless violence as described in Barros' chilling panoramic description of the lynching and murder. The narrative is given a sense of cinematic urgency in Rob Urbinati's taut, rhythmic staging of playwright Sparber's engrossing historical document, which resonates with unflinching horror.

The play continues to draw controversy as black members of the Long Branch community raised objections to the original poster and newspaper ad that showed cartoonish figures of minstrel performers standing near a hangman's noose. The vintage image of the entertainers was subsequently pulled from the ads.

Controversial Minstrel Show
Setting Off Sparks in Red Bank

Minstrel Show
Spencer Scott Barros and Kelcey Watson
Fact - In Omaha, Nebraska in September 1919, Agnes Loebeck, a 19-year-old white woman, reported that she was stuck up and then sexually molested by a black man while returning home with her boyfriend.  The following day, Will Brown, a 41-year-old packinghouse worker who was crippled with severe arthritis and lived with a white woman, was arrested as a suspect.  Loebeck tentatively identified this unlikely perpetrator as her attacker.  Brown was taken to the Douglas County Courthouse followed by a mob which had surrounded Loebeck's house.  Over the course of many hours, the white mob surrounding the courthouse grew to number an estimated 5,000 people.  The race riot precipitated by this mob was particularly ugly and resulted in the deaths of two white men among the mob, the attempted lynching of Omaha's mayor (who was cut down by police and barely escaped with his life), the setting afire of the courthouse, and the delivery of Brown to a celebratory mob which beat him mercilessly, shot him repeatedly (reportedly the actual cause of his death), strung his body up on a pole, and then set his body afire and tied it to a car which dragged it through the streets.

Fiction – On the evening that the mob was growing outside the courthouse, two black minstrel show actors were assaulted in an alley while trying to escape a dozen ruffians who had invaded their show and commenced to beat everyone in sight with baseball bats and wooden planks.  Police rousted the ruffians, but then proceeded to arrest the bloodied minstrels on charges of disturbing the peace and disorderly conduct.  Brought to the courthouse and placed in a cell with Will Brown, the minstrels became witness to the horrifying mob murder.  A few days later, these black men in cork blackface were rousted mid-performance and dragged back to the courthouse to testify before a committee investigating the riot.

As Minstrel Show, or The Lynching of Willie Brown begins, these minstrels, Sho-Nuff and Yas-Yas, are entering the hearing room at Douglas County Courthouse where the ad hoc committee is gathered to hear their testimony.  We, the audience, sit in place of the committee.   Understandably distrustful and cautious, Sho-Nuff and Yas-Yas try to distract us by performing bits and songs from their minstrel show act.  However, over the next 85 minutes, we will see them gain strength and self confidence as they remove the cork from their faces and increasingly less reluctantly relate from their perspective the harrowing Omaha riot of 1919.

It is certainly of value to recall this tragedy of our history (and this was only one of close to two dozen disgraceful race riots which occurred during this dreadful year in our racial history) and it is well and harrowingly told in this account by Max Sparber.  Still, these events are as powerfully and even more fully recounted in the available photographs and historic accounts of the era.  However, it is in the transformation of Sho-Nuff and Yas-Yas from self-demeaning traveling actors scuffling to make a living to proud men determined to be witnesses and teachers, educating their people as to the horrible events that they have seen that provides the inspiration and theatrical catharsis that gives Minstrel Show its distinction.

Although the actors' names appear without any notation of their roles in the program, the characters are identified by their minstrel show routine names in Max Sparber's script. These names should be restored as playwright Sparber's subtle distinctions between them do not prevent the minstrels from at first appearing to be interchangeable stock figures.  However, director Rob Urbinati and his fine cast, Spencer Scott Barros (Yas-Yas) and Kelcey Watson (Sho-Nuff), successfully convey their two distinct personalities.

Barros' Yas-Yas is clearly more confrontational and dissatisfied with his lot.  Very early on, he removes the cork from his face, and his body language displays a combativeness which exceeds that of his words.  Watson's Sho-Nuff has a touch more down home slurring dialect in his line readings, and, for a longer time, his body language remains obsequious.  When their narrative of the riot emerges, Yas-Yas does most of the witnessing at first.  However, when their story reaches the moment when Yas-Yas is knocked unconscious, the telling of the narrative falls to Sho-Nuff.  In witnessing to the committee, Watson's Sho-Nuff, who has finally removed the cork from his face, assumes a dignity and sense of purpose which stands as an early exemplar of the determination that marked the burgeoning civil rights movement of the 1950s and beyond.

Director Ron Urbinati directed the first production of Minstrel Show in 1998 in the rotunda of the Douglas County Courthouse, the actual scene of the events depicted in the play.  Quinn K. Stone's minimal set successfully sets the scene of the fire-distressed courthouse.  The evocative, ratty minstrel show costumes are by Patricia E. Doherty.  The sound design, complete with dramatic reverberation effects, is by Jessica Paz.

At the conclusion, Yas-Yas and Sho-Nuff decide that their act needs "refashioning." we witnesses to history ...

we want that history told ...

and we want it told right

Well, author Max Sparber, director Rob Urbinati and actors Spencer Scott Burros and Kelcey Watson are telling it right at Long Branch's New Jersey Rep. 

Sho nuff.

Two Plays Expose A History Of Violence

By Philip Dorian, The Two River Times

No one turned away the mob that stormed the Douglas County Courthouse in Omaha, Nebraska on September 28, 1919 and hanged William Brown. Considering that the raging throng numbered 5,000, it's doubtful even Atticus Finch could have prevailed. The Negro William Brown, to use the appellation that came to be attached to his name, had been accused - almost certainly wrongly - of raping a white woman. He and two other men, both white, were killed in the rampage. The courthouse and Brown's mutilated body were torched. It's an unfortunately familiar scenario.

Kelcy Watson (left) and Spencer Scott Borrows use a minstrel attitude to tell a harrowing tale.
Minstrel Show or The Lynching of William Brown, at New Jersey Repertory Company, is a detailed telling of the nearly ninety-year old incident. Is it old news or a timely reminder? Symbolic noose-hangings last year in Jena, Louisiana and last week in the Hempstead, Long Island, New York Police Station, where a black man was recently promoted to Deputy Chief, are your answers. That the recent nooses were not around necks is small comfort; would they be if the perpetrators thought they could get away with it?

Two actors, Kelcey Watson and Spencer Scott Barros, appear as minstrel performers who witness the Omaha lynching while being held in the courthouse on other charges. They are fictional creations of playwright Max Sparber, who uses the device to tell the otherwise factual story pieced together from contemporaneous accounts.

Appearing first in blackface (even black performers were forced to cork-up), Watson and Barros affect the subservient, shuffling attitude that was the African-American male's survival ruse. Old minstrel songs are interspersed through the 80-minute piece, setting a contrasting tone but hardly distracting from the tale. Gradually they drop the caricatures in order to tell the story in harrowing detail. Watson and Barros make the witness-bearing barely bearable.

Notwithstanding the worthiness of reaching the widest possible audience with this cautionary account, Minstrel Show isn't really a play. It's an instructional address, more tell than show. The author acknowledges as much; his characters aver several times that their intention is to teach the story, not just to tell it.

Theatrically viable plays can be instructive; The Laramie Project is one such. Considering the value of its lesson, the fact that Minstrel Show or The Lynching of William Brown is more lecture than dramatization might not matter.

Love Kills teaches little but is a worthy play about a different type of killing: random and psychopathic. Fact-based as well, it's about two young Mid­westerners whose killing spree in December 1957 and January '58 gripped the nation.

Charles Starkweather, 19, and 14-year old Caril Ann Fuhgate killed 11 people, including Caril Ann's mother, stepfather and baby sister. Their rampage has inspired several movies (Oliver Stone ran the body count to 50-plus in Natural Born Killers), a TV mini-series and many books. Starkweather is the subject of Bruce Springsteen's "Nebraska," and he's mentioned in Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire."

Charlie died in Nebraska's electric chair on June 25, 1959. Caril Ann served 18 years in prison. She was released in 1976 and lives now, at age 64, somewhere in Michigan. She refuses to discuss the case.

Last week the pair was the subject of an unlikely play at the New York Musical Festival. Love Kills tells its story via parallel couples: Starkweather (Eli Schneider) and Fuhgate (Marisa Rhodes) and Sheriff and Mrs. Karnoop (John Hickock and Deirdre O'Connell), who interrogated the killers after their capture. The four roles are impeccably cast and played. The kids are frighteningly unaware of anything but their perverse devotion to each other, and the Sheriff and his wife, while repulsed by the killings, cannot stifle compassion for their young prisoners.

A dozen intense, emo-rock songs effectively underscore the teenagers' infatuation and their wanton amorality. Composer Kyle Jarrow (music, lyrics and book): "Emo music and bands capture the angst and raw emotionalism of adolescence...this story of young love gone's loud, like a rock show come to life."

Seen on consecutive evenings, Love Kills and Minstrel Show combined for a crash course in intolerance and its attendant violence. And consider: If you were asked to pick the state in which the events of both actually took place, I bet Nebraska would be your 40-something guess. There's a lesson in there somewhere.

'Minstrel Show' targets racism

by Peter Filichia, Star-Ledger Staff
Sunday September 30, 2007, 11:06 PM
Spencer Scott Barros, standing, and Kelcey Watson in "Minstrel Show, or the Lynching of William Brown," playing at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

Needless to say, it's the second part of his title that Max Sparber wants us to notice.

The playwright didn't simply call his arresting drama "Minstrel Show," but "Minstrel Show, or The Lynching of William Brown."

True, every now and then, Spencer Scott Barros and Kelcey Watson, in portraying two early 20th-century African-American entertainers, do come out with an a capella riff or a few high-kicking steps. Most of the time, though, in the 85-minute play at New Jersey Repertory in Long Branch, these two accomplished actors face the audience and tell what their characters witnessed. And while they're fictional, Sparber is giving them his take on a true story that happened to one William Brown on a September night in Omaha in 1919.

Though the second part of the title tells us that Sparber has already divulged his ending, the play offers riveting and harrowing surprises. Better still, director Rob Urbinati's strong production creates a mood that makes an audience pay rapt attention.

Because Barros and Watson are two black minstrels, they must respectively endure the demeaning names of Yas-Yas and Sho-Nuff. Worse, though, in the regrettable tradition of the minstrel show, they wear blackface. How fascinating, though, to see that that make-up somehow makes them behave as caricatures. Once they take it off and thoroughly wipe their faces clean, they revert to become intelligent human beings

The story begins when they return to the Douglas County Courthouse, where Brown had been taken for allegedly raping Agnes Lobeck, a 19-year-old white laundry worker. Yas-Yas and Sho-Nuff were also brought there by the authorities as a cautionary measure.

As Yas-Yas dourly notes, "In Omaha, it's a crime for a Negro to be beaten in the street" -- leaving us to infer that once a black man is behind closed doors, it's unofficially acceptable for him to endure a merciless thrashing.

Both men point out that Brown was afflicted with terrible rheumatism, and each believes him incapable of forcing a healthy young woman into any compromising position. When the story gets too intense even for them, they interrupt themselves to recall a seemingly happy-go-lucky song of the era. Each tune's lyric, though, paints the black man as a scoundrel, thief or sexual wastrel.

The implication is that the average minstrel show's songlist informed its audiences that the black man was to be feared and certainly not trusted. Sparber reminds us that the amount of harm these so-called innocent songs dispensed may well have been considerable.

That's why, once the men finish a song and are proud of themselves for remembering the lyrics, they suddenly stop smiling.Â¥'Taint funny at all. Soon Sho-Nuff is telling a parable about a monkey, a lion and a sultan that has a much more compelling message about race relations.

It's at this point in the show, at the halfway mark, that all opportunities for laughter come to a stop. Sparber's play now concentrates on the lesson that hatred begets more hatred, and what began that night in Omaha was destined to be an unwieldy and unrelenting tragedy. Just when a theatergoer assumes that he's heard the worst part of the story, Sparber manages to find more atrocities.

They may have all been right there in Omaha city records, but Sparber, Urbinati, Barros and Watson have forged them into one compelling theater piece.

"Minstrel Show" at Long Branch theater
Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 09/28/07


It was the largest race riot in our nation's history, and it happened 88 years ago to this day.

On the night of Sept. 28, 1919, a mob of more than 4,000 white townspeople stormed the Douglas County Courthouse in Omaha, Neb., where a rheumatic black man by the name of William Brown was awaiting trial on charges of raping a white woman. Egged on by elements with ties to a discredited political machine boss, rioters set fire to the courthouse, stole firearms and seized Brown, hanging the 40-year-old man minutes later and setting fire to his corpse. Two other men, both white, would be killed by the rioting hordes that night — and the mayor would nearly join the death toll when he was captured and strung up from a traffic pole.

Perhaps you've seen the infamous photos of Brown's charred body surrounded by a smiling crowd of citizens, but if you're not familiar with this horrific incident, you're not alone.

The story of the 1919 Omaha riot is not generally taught in schools outside of Nebraska — in fact, it wasn't until he moved to Omaha that critic and playwright Max Sparber became acquainted with the event that continues to scar the collective memory of the Husker State.

Here on Sept. 28, 2007, New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch prepares to raise the curtain on a new revival of Sparber's two-actor play "Minstrel Show, or the Lynching of William Brown." It's a work that NJ Rep Executive Producer Gabor Barabas characterizes as a "very sensitive piece that deals with many issues."

The 1998 play has engendered its share of controversy since it was first performed in the very courthouse building that still bears the bullet holes from that night in 1919. The show's first full-stage performance in Omaha, a critical and popular success, drew harsh criticism from Nebraska state senator Ernie Chambers, who urged a boycott by all African-American citizens.

The play's appearance in Long Branch has not been without its own measure of conflict. Last week, members of the city's black community objected to the minstrel-performer imagery displayed on the play's advertising and promotional materials.

After meeting with members of the community, NJ Rep agreed to pull the offending materials — a vintage poster image featuring a pair of long-legged, blackface caricatures standing near a noose — from circulation. An invitation to view a rehearsal of the play was extended to anyone who may have issues about the script. In addition, each performance will be followed by a talk-back session among cast, crew and audience, a chance to "let go of some of that emotion" in the actor's words.

According to the company's artistic director, SuzAnne Barabas, "We don't want anyone to feel pain over the image . . . our intent was to show the ugly face of racism, and to move beyond that."

"The play is not the issue," said Lorenzo "Bill" Dangler, president of the Greater Long Branch Chapter of the NAACP. He emphasized that those who opposed the poster "couldn't get past the blackface" of the stereotypes on display.


Bound as close as pages in a book, Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern forged a life together as dealers of rare volumes. As a candidate for dramatization, their story would appear to be a rather dusty collection of reminiscences -- and the thought of musicalization seems even more remote. However, in its world premiere from New Jersey Repertory Company, "Bookends" spins the women's memoir into a disarming musical narrative, braced by an infectiously sweet score and acted with refreshing vigor by an appealing cast.

The narrative, while crowded at times, spans eight decades, beginning as the antiquarians ponder retirement and recall pivotal moments in their long lives. As written by Katharine Houghton, both book and lyrics reveal the romanticism of youth, the determination of two impressionable Jewish girls who ponder the wonders of the past and worldly matters, the comfort of a lasting friendship, and "the women they were meant to be."

The pivotal roles are well structured with keenly contrasted performances. As the senior business companions, Susan G. Bob is wonderfully crusty as Leona, in contrast to Kathleen Goldpaugh's warm apple-pie Madeleine.

As their adventurous younger selves, credited with the discovery of some saucy Louisa May Alcott tomes, Jenny Vallancourt makes a worldly Leona and Robyn Kemp a girl-next-door Mady. Vallancourt returns to N.J. Rep following an acclaimed performance in D.W. Gregory's "October 1962" last fall. Here she offers a telling study of an eager student in a Strasbourg library under Nazi threat.

In an amusing turn as Leona's very married guide, Alan Souza defines "Fingerspitzengelfuhl" as a rare talent for intuitively telling if a book is really rare.

Set to music and lyrics by Dianne Adams and James McDowell, with additional lyrics by Houghton, the songs keenly illustrate life's most rewarding moments, its ironies and unfulfilled passion, and the bonding values of a lasting friendship.

"Waiting for Mr. Right" is a bright expectation of a sublime honeymoon, and there's exquisite longing in "Just Look at Him," urgently revealed by Vallancourt and reprised by a hopelessly smitten Eric Collins as "Just Look at Her." The bond between the girls is revealed in "I've Found a Friend," and there's a bright dash of irreverent humor in "Mary Magdalene's Blues," when a seductive Eileen Tepper queries, "Who do you think washed the dishes after the last supper?"

"Holmes and Watson" is a fanciful diversion, delightfully rendered by a quartet of sappy fictional gumshoes who reveal the pleasures of devouring a good thriller. Finale finds a young novice, brightly played by Pamela Bob in a knockout turn, who as heir to the literary legacy sings "There's Nothing New Under the Sun."

The score is admirably played by pianist Henry Aaronson with a plaintive lilt, but it's easy to imagine and hunger for a string section.

A few bookshelves serve as the setting, leaving the small stage to the large cast, which is required to play multiple roles that demand the attention of an alert audience. Ken Jenkins' acute staging works well within the somewhat cramped space but a more expansive production would help the show. "Bookends" has a promising future, its cinematic thrust suggesting a quaint musical film of the old school.


Curious tunefest has lighthearted touch
Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 07/26/07


From left: Eric Collins, Robyn Kemp and Robert Lewandowski star in "Bookends," now being staged by the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

"Dinosaurs! That's what we are," laments antiquarian book dealer Leona Rostenberg (Susan G. Bob) to her lifelong friend and business partner Mady Stern (Kathleen Goldpaugh).

The two real-life authors, editors and scholars (Rostenberg died in 2005 at age 96) are the subjects of "Bookends," Katharine Houghton's musical play now in its world premiere engagement at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

Still, brilliant and extraordinary as Leona may have been, her nonagenarian self is not beyond such generalizations as "Nobody reads anymore; kids don't read anymore" — this in a show that opened on the day that millions of young readers queued up for their fresh-baked loaf of "Harry Potter."

Literacy, in its most passionate and pulse-pounding form, is alive and well in "Bookends" — a very genuine labor of love for Houghton and some also-extraordinary collaborators. Between the formidable bookshelves of Charles Corcoran's set, moments in time exist like favorite volumes to be plucked from their place, sniffed and caressed and re-examined for those ever-elusive clues to enlightenment.

Houghton, the actress and playwright best known for "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?," took in the July 21 opening night performance from the aisle steps of NJ Rep's intimately scaled auditorium — while her husband, Ken Jenkins, watched from the exit hallway. Jenkins — whose affable, accessible presence stood in contrast to the curmudgeonly figure he cuts as Dr. Kelso in the TV series "Scrubs" — also was on hand as the director of this curious tunefest, a show which, with its 13 actors and onstage pianist, sets an all-time record for what NJ Rep founder Gabe Barabas refers to as "a postage stamp of a stage."

Fanciful yet nonfictional study

Taking its title from their shared memoirs, "Bookends" is a fanciful yet nonfictional study of two women who, by the time Houghton made their acquaintance, had entered their collective tenth decade of defying any and all expectations related to gender, culture or age. The characters are seen here as the respected scholars and authorities of later years, as well as their younger selves — with Robyn Kemp and Middletown's Jenny Vallancourt portraying Mady and Leona from their New York childhood in old-world German-Jewish families, to the establishment of their internationally renowned bibliophile business.

While the time-hopping portrait of two inseparable women might bring to mind the Bouviers of "Grey Gardens," these are hardly the dotty, self-absorbed dreamers of that recent fact-based musical — in fact, as Houghton suggests here, Rostenberg and Stern were literary detectives whose exploits eclipse those of the Nancy Drews and Miss Marples they often can't help but resemble.

Much of the show's running time concerns Leona's potentially hazardous trip to Nazi Germany in search of evidence that the printers of 16th-century Europe had a true intellectual interest in the books they produced — while Mady works the homefront in an effort to uncover the very proper Louisa May Alcott's secret life as the author of a series of salacious penny-dreadfuls.

Granted, very little of this reads like the stuff of a sprightly musical entertainment, but Houghton and composers Dianne Adams and James McDowell maintain a largely lighthearted touch with a decades-spanning saga — in which the conflict ranges from the girls' chafing at the rules and roles ordained by their old-world German-Jewish families, to the elder Leona's desire to put aside the business she worked so hard to build.

Songs spotlight a recurring theme

Sometimes corny, other times weighted with exposition and didacticism, the songs (Houghton also contributed lyrics) spotlight a recurring theme expressed variously as "Just Look at Him (Her, Us)." Some of the best material is given to secondary and even cameo characters — including "Numbers Make Sense" (performed by Matt Golden as Leona's practical brother Rusty), and a little ditty titled "Fingerspitzengefuhl," sung to Vallancourt by Alan Souza as a smitten fellow researcher.

Jenkins and choreographer Jennifer Paulson Lee have managed a minor miracle of motion within the odd shadow-box dimensions of NJ Rep's stage. The bizarre and colorful "Arab Astrologers" number makes great use of all available space, and "Lucy's Song" is a terrific tune that's as close as this modestly-sized musical gets to a high-kicking showstopper.

It's a show that's not built around the tuneful talents of the leads, and the younger Ms. Bob (working multiple roles, like most of the cast) is a standout in an ensemble that takes on the musical heavy lifting.

Pamela's mom Susan — a Rep regular remembered from last year's "Apostasy" — is an inspired choice as Leona; her sinusy delivery and dry comic instincts enlivening a woman who's come to feel like one of the brittle, age-old volumes that line her shelves. Goldpaugh, a fine stock-company player who starred alongside Bob in "Maggie Rose," is here assigned to the least interesting of the major parts. Her mature Mady is a person of unshowy intelligence and real virtue.

Vallancourt, meanwhile, adds another strong performance to a Rep career that began with her breathtaking work in "October 1962."

New Musical About Old Books
"Bookends” at New Jersey Rep

By Philip Dorian
The Two River Times

There's a musical about two 90-year old rare-book-collecting women? And some theater is actually charging money to see it? You've got to be kidding. Well, yes, someone - or ones - wrote just such a musical, and New Jersey Repertory Company is selling tickets to it. My advice is to buy one of those tickets and see Bookends. No kidding.

The pleasures of Bookends are many and varied. The acting is excellent, with exceptional leading performances backed by a talented ensemble.

Jenny Vallancourt (left) and Robyn Kemp play the young Leona and Maddy in Bookends.
The music is memorable, with twenty-plus numbers ranging from toe-tappers to tear-jerkers. And the story revolves around a deep and abiding love - between those two women and...books.

True: Leona Rostenberg (1909-2005) and Madeline Stern (1912- ) were rare-book scholars and dealers for over 50 years. Daughters of New York Jewish families, they met as teenagers and bonded through their mutual interest, bordering on obsession, in the authorship and printing history of old books. Neither woman ever married; their relationship endured and is brought to life with humor and pathos and songs that beg for a second hearing.

Stage and screen actor Katharine Houghton met Rostenberg and Stern while she was researching a performance piece on Louisa May Alcott. (A delightful thread through Bookends about the "Little Women” author could spawn a play of its own.) Houghton, best known for bringing Poitier to dinner with Tracy and Hepburn in 1967, wrote the show's book and collaborated on the lyrics with the composers Dianne Adams and James McDowell. Bookends, directed by Houghton's companion Ken Jenkins, is a collective labor of love.

Rostenberg and Stern are not household names, and 17th Century book publishing doesn't exactly inspire cocktail party banter, but ten minutes into Bookends, Leona, Mady and fine-grained leather bindings become fascinating subjects. The opening scene sets the tone with a living tintype in the women's library. "Old age is a bookend,” one of them says, and the scene flashes back to their youth in the 1920s - the other bookend.

Throughout the two-act play (that flies by), the older Leona (Susan G. Bob) and Madeline (Kathleen Goldpaugh) are mirrored by their younger selves (Jenny Vallancourt and Robyn Kemp, respectively), who discover their mutual passion and eventually go into business together. The play follows the young women as they research their topic, earn advanced degrees, reject ardent beaux and travel, eventually defying convention to live together.

The pairs of actors - Ms. Bob with Ms. Vallancourt and Ms. Goldpaugh with Ms. Kemp - are joined at the soul. They grow more and more alike through the show. Bob and Goldpaugh play old age with just the right mix of frailty and crankiness. Both accomplished veterans of many New Jersey Rep plays top themselves here. Vallancourt, a recent Middletown South grad, and Kemp carry the show musically, and a list of the highlights would fill this page. Their duets - there are six - are sung beautifully and are perfectly blended in words and music. Two titles, "I've Found a Friend” and "Unexpectedly You,” say it all.

Back-to-back duets with hopeful suitors - Vallancourt's with Eric Collins and Kemp's with Matt Golden - burst with youthful energy. (Golden plays a math nerd; he makes "Numbers Make Sense” really cool.)

Many in the cast of thirteen play several roles. Their relationships are never in doubt, and their deployment through the time-shifting scenes is a directorial triumph. Patricia E. Doherty's period costumes and Jill Nagle's mood-enhancing lighting design contribute mightily as well.

Eileen Tepper and Pamela Bob (Susan's daughter) make outstanding contributions. Aunt Annie (Tepper) joins Young Mady and her beau in a flawless counterpoint "Marry Me,” and Ms. Bob plays a young editor whose interest in old books is inspiring. "There's Nothing New Under the Sun,” she sings, but the song's inventive patter-lyrics disprove its title.

Composer Dianne Adams is Musical Director, and pianist Henry Aronson, on stage and playing virtually non-stop, is the orchestra. Aronson's playing fills the intimate NJ Rep auditorium and backs the singers impeccably.

The women's passion is not old literature, but the physical books that contain it, and after you see it, you'll tell your friends that someone actually wrote a musical about two 90-year old rare-book-collecting women. "Buy a ticket and see Bookends, you'll advise them. No kidding.


by Gary Wien

(LONG BRANCH, NJ) -- The world premiere of Bookends, a new musical by the team of Katherine Houghton (book and lyrics) and Dianne Adams and James McDowell (music and lyrics) broke new ground for the New Jersey Repertory Company. Not only did it continue its path of producing world class original productions, but it offered a field of over a dozen actors (far greater than their normal casting numbers) and even managed to have everybody on stage singing and dancing at the same time! That's something you rarely see in an intimate space of the size of the Lumia Theatre.

Bookends is based on the true story of Madeleine Stern and Leona Rostenberg who were famous rare book dealers that met as young girls and built a life-long friendship. As the play opens, the pair are now in their 90s and are completing their memoirs. Their lives were anything but dull. In an age where women were expected to simply be dutiful wives, these two resisted conventional notions and let their passion for books become their true love and watched as that romance took them around the world.

There was a bit of irony in seeing the premiere of Bookends on the same weekend as the final Harry Potter book was about to shatter all records for book sales. After all, one of the biggest fears that Leona Rostenberg had in the end was that nobody read books anymore. She was prepared to sell even the books that had the most sentimental value because she was tired of being a dinosaur. I get the feeling that both of them would get a good laugh at hearing how a book - in a period of time when nobody supposedly reads - could sell over eight million copies in a weekend!

Bookends is a musical and I'm not exactly a big fan of most musicals. For me, a musical works if you can take away the music and still have a play. Bookends would certainly work either way. The story of Leona and Madeleine will fascinate anybody who's ever picked up a book for enjoyment. It's a tale that writers will fall in love with as we know that it is people like Leona and Madeleine who have kept literature and physical books alive in an era when words could just as easily been moved to computers.

Yes, there are a few songs that I think the play could have done without, but a few like "Just Look At Us" are magical numbers. As with all NJ REP shows, the cast is phenomonal - especially the two young leads (Jenny Vallancourt as the Young Leona and Robyn Kemp as the Young Mady).

In the end, Bookends is a wonderful play about a beautiful story. It's a story about friendship, hope and dreams, and happy endings. Just like the best books are.

The LINK News July 26 thru August 1, 2007


'Bookends' supports talented cast in entertaining musical
by Milt Bernstein

Three cheers to New Jersey Rep for bringing this delightful new production to Long Branch's Broadway!

"Bookends" I sthe world premiere of a musical based on the lives of two very special real-life women, Madeleine Stern and Leona Rostenberg, who lived and worked in New York for the greater part of the last century. Their business, which they made a success of, was that of rare books dealers. To achieve their goal, they had to overcome the many rules and traditions of the families they were brought up in, and resist the offers of marriage that came their way.

This musical portrayal of their lives is a thoroughly winning and heart-warming production sure to win our admiration and affection.

The play switches back and forth from conversations between the two women as the nonagenarians they have become, and flashbacks to their eager youth; their meeting each other and beginning their lifelong friendship; and the subsequent challenges and difficulties they each encounter before they finally find the strength and resolve to live the lives they have chosen, in spite of convention.

The play is the brain-child of the well-known actress and playwright Katharine Houghton, who has been represented before at New Jersey Rep, and who happens to be the niece of the late, great Katharine Hepburn, and co-starred with her in the prize-winning film "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." Houghton wrote the musical's book and some of the lyrics to the many numbers. The rest of the lyrics and the lovely musical pieces were by Dianne Adams and James McDowell.

The large cast is headed by Susan G. Bob and Kathleen Goldpaugh, both veterans of previous NJ Rep productions, as the two elderly women, Leona and Madeleine; with Jenny Vallancourt and Robyn Kemp, radiating their exuberance touchingly, as young Leona and young Mady, respectively; and Eric Collins and Matt Golden as youthful suitors of the two young women.

Except for the parts of older and younger Leonas and Madeleines, everyone in the cast plays a variety of roles as well as being part of the ensemble numbers. Special note should be made of Pamela Bob (Susan's daughter) who sang and performed two spectacular numbers, one in each act; and Alan Souza, who portrays a married, father-of-six, official in Strasbourg, Germany, and tries to seduce young Leona in a hilarious number called "Fingerspitzengefuhl."

The play has been skillfully directed by Ken Jenkins. (He is also Dr. Kelso on the popular TV series "Scrubs.")

To quote Gabe Barabas, the executive producer at NJ Rep, "you no longer have to travel to Broadway in New York to see a new musical. You can go to Broadway in Long Branch."

Performances of this must-see show will continue through August 26.

A CurtainUp New Jersey Review

Old Age is just a bookend. — Mady

Robyn Kemp (front). Rear: Robert Lewandowski, Matt Golden, Eric Collins in Bookends.
(Photo: SuzAnne Barabas)
Two extraordinary single Jewish women, both obsessed by their love of old and rare books, forge a life-long friendship and a committed partnership. A charming new musical has made an appearance based on the memories of the celebrated antiquarians Madeleine Stern and Leona Rostenberg. Despite its literary undepinnings, this is far from being stolid, intellectual or dry and these in many ways enviable lives are seen through the frame created by book writer and contributing lyricist Katharine Houghton and composer/lyricists Dianne Adams & James McDowell.

The collaborators have fashioned a humorous, lively, adventurous and passionate musical that succeeds admirably in exalting without exhausting its feminist tract. Houghton, whose name will forever be linked to the classic film Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (starring her aunt Katharine Hepburn) in which she played the daughter, has also forged a notable career as a playwright and author. Take heart. The score that Adams and McDowell (The Wind in the Willows) have provided is neither rock or pop nor noticeably flavored with post modernist touches. It is, however, sprightly, sweet, occasionally quaint and conventional, but always unapologetically easy on the ears.

Now having its world premiere, Bookends episodically follows the unconventional careers of Stern and Rostenberg in a field noted for its domination by men. The musical also joyously embraces their devotion to their work and to the bond that grew stronger from the time they they first meet as young women in college in 1930 (Leona was a senior at NYU and Mady a freshman at Barnard) to the point when, in their 90s, we see them at work awaiting the final proofs of their memoirs.

The musical is structured as a flashback. This works efficiently to bring us back and forth and through time, each episode filling us in with more details of Leona's and Mady's dispositions and personalities. The show makes a point of illustrating the reasons they chose to spend a life together instead of with the men by whom they are courted. Seen at first in their dotage, the slightly crusty Leona (Susan G. Bob) and the more complacent Mady (Kathleen Goldpaugh) ponder their love affair with books while occupied with choosing the right pictures for their memoir.

The time is the present, the place their Manhattan apartment. A prelude, "Leona's Dream" (as played by on-stage pianist Henry Aronson), is the musical catalyst that transports us to the Bronx in 1918 and the respective homes of their German-Jewish immigrant parents and family members, including two assigned to portray a pair of cocker spaniels. That each family moves about and relates to each other independently in the opening scene while occupying the same space is a feat ingeniously engineered by director Ken Jenkins. Jenkins, who is married to Houghton, but is probably best known for his role as Dr. Bob Kelso on the hit NBC TV series Scrubs, accomplishes quite a feat with a large cast on a relatively small stage. But Jenkins' cleverness isn't defined by this or by his consistently inventive staging; also by the performances from an excellent cast, all of whom sing well— especially Jenny Vallancourt, as the young bespectacled, serious-minded Leona and Robyn Kemp, as the young and vivacious Mady.

While much is made of the blossoming and fulfilling relationship between Leona and Mady, there is no attempt to insinuate that their relationship is a sexual one, except perhaps in a scene in which Leona's traditional and distressed Papa (Howard Pinhas)and Mama (Amie Bermowitz), upon hearing that the women want to live together, sing "What Will People Think?" There are several scenes in which the young Leona and Mady are both courted and pursued by ardent young men. Leona may worry "Will I be alone?" and Mady may wonder "Will I be well known?", but we are given ample examples that they are determined not to obey the rules and conventions preferred by their families.

Bookends shares its spoken libretto and musical language spontaneously and there is a nice ebb and flow between the two that only occasionally takes a break from what might be called a fantasy moment. Leona isn't above letting us know she wouldn't have minded an affair with Byron or Keats. Their dreamy contemplations about being "lonely and blue" or "Waiting for Mr. Right," is a reasonable response to the kind of women men expected and exemplified in two contrastingly styled songs that define women they know as either a flirty showgirl or as a submissive housefrau.

Except for Leona and Mady, the musical's performers are called upon to double, which they do with infectious aplomb. Eric Colllins is a standout as Leona's earnest and patient beau Carl who just cannot understand when the love of his life calls "the old world's a prison." Leona hears "destiny calling" as surely as Mady. Despite the insistence by her mathematician beau Rusty (Matt Golden), that "Numbers Make Sense," Mady is really ignited by realizing she has found a life-long friend.

In one of the musical's more adventuring scenes, Leona has gone bravely to Strasbourg, Germany in 1939 to dig through the archives and complete a master thesis on Mary Magdelene and get her PHD amidst the ardent if inappropriate attentions paid to her by Mr. Ritter (Alan Souza), a married man with six children. It is Ritter who discovers that Leona has "Fingerspitzengefuhl," a gift that deserves the delightful song it prompts. Pamela Bob is terrific as Deborah, the woman who brings the proofs of their memoir and eventually stays to work for them.

It was Houghton's own investigation into the life and work of Louisa May Alcott that led her to meet both Stern and Rostenberg. It was their discovery and uncovering in 1942 of Alcott's literary secret life as a writer of pulp fiction under the pseudonym of A. M Barnard that became part of the plot. There is considerable pleasure in watching Leona and Mady as intrepid investigators much in the same way as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, the team that also humorously find their way into one of the many winning songs that provide purely diverting moments from two exceptional lives.

Bookends, with its large cast and female empowering theme is sure to have a future.

The musical is not to be confused with the play Bookends by M.J. Feely that recently received its world premiere in Philadelphia.

Actress was born, bred and well read for the part
Friday, July 20, 2007
Star-Ledger Staff


Some teens who graduated from high school in June are still searching for a summer job. Jenny Vallancourt learned what hers would be months ago.

After getting her diploma from Middletown High School South -- and before heading off to Barnard College this fall -- the Red Bank resident knew she'd be starring in a musical. She's playing rare-book dealer Leona Rostenberg in "Bookends," which has its world premiere Friday night at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

The musical is based on the same-titled autobiography written by Rostenberg with her professional partner, Madeleine B. Stern.

"They met when they were kids," says Vallancourt. "They were constantly discouraged by their families. 'You're only a woman,' they were told. 'You can't open a business. You should just get married and let your husband work.' They wanted more than that, and had to work together to achieve it."

The two stayed friends until Rostenberg died in 2005 at 96. Stern is now 95. "I play Leona from the ages of 10 to 30," says the 18-year-old Vallancourt. "She's smart but shy, but funny, too."

That would describe Vallancourt as well. Like Rostenberg, she's an inveterate reader. She's just started "The Blind Assassin," her third Margaret Atwood novel. "I love reading before I go to sleep," she says. "I feel it's got to be better for me to read than watch movies or TV."

Vallancourt got the part after one quick audition and call-back. "My mother called me when I was in gym class to tell me the news," says the teen, beaming but blushing, too.

Vallancourt's history with New Jersey Repertory Company certainly didn't hurt. She took acting classes there, and was cast in last winter's premiere of "October 1962." As Jean, a teen who senses that her parents' marriage is in terrible trouble, she gave one of the most dynamic performances of the season.

For someone so young, Vallancourt has had a great deal of experience.

"I didn't even think I could audition for 'Bookends' because I was busy doing 'Chess' at my school," she says. It was one of many leads she had there -- when she wasn't working in community theater in Matawan, Shrewsbury and Sandy Hook. She's done more than two dozen shows in those towns.

If that weren't enough, Vallancourt is already a produced playwright. Last year, the Young Playwrights Festival in Madison staged "Birdhouse in Your Soul," her 10-minute play.

"It's about two brothers," she says. "The 17-year-old has to baby-sit the 12-year-old. The younger one is creative, and the older one is normal," she adds, hooking her fingers into quotation marks to show she isn't quite on the side of conventionality. "The older one is jealous that his brother is the free one."

It's not autobiographical, for Vallancourt is the oldest of three girls.

"I was assigned two kids in class to act the play, so I thought about what they were like, and that's what made me write the way I did," she says, showing the instincts of a professional playwright.

Asked when it all started for her, Vallancourt says, "'Beauty and the Beast,' when I was real young. I loved the movie, then my grandmother took me to see it on Broadway. Pretty soon after, I was doing my own version in my backyard."

That the musical is about a girl who loved books isn't lost on her. "That's a pretty good sign for 'Bookends,' isn't it?" she asks, smiling.



"Scrubs" star directs musical in Long Branch

Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 07/20/07


All in all, it's a great time to be Ken Jenkins. With more than a half century of dedicated endeavor in all aspects of his craft, the veteran actor/producer/director has become something of a teen idol, thanks to his co-starring role as Dr. Bob Kelso in the NBC comedy "Scrubs." The quirky, hospital-set ensemble show is followed by a fervent fanbase that Jenkins figures to center around "medical students, surgeons — and 13- to 15-year-olds."

"Teenagers run up and introduce themselves, sticking out their hand, all very proper," the 66-year-old star says with a laugh. "At my age, for kids to think I'm cool is really something."

While the self-described "old character man" has nothing but praise for the series that first aired in 2001 — observing that "the acting and the writing have grown better and better" — the boards of the legitimate stage have remained his primary beat. It's an ongoing passion that brings Jenkins to the Jersey Shore this weekend as director of "Bookends," a new musical play now in its world premiere engagement at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

A song-filled study of the extraordinary relationship between two very remarkable real-life women, "Bookends" is a project that's grown out of another extraordinary relationship of long standing — that of Jenkins and his wife of 37 years, the actress and playwright Katharine Houghton.

Married since 1970, Jenkins and Houghton were first teamed in the roles of "loving adversaries" Kate and Petruchio in "The Taming of the Shrew" and went on to play everything from brother and sister (in "The Glass Menagerie") to father and daughter (in "Major Barbara").

With the formation of their own Pilgrim Repertory Company, the couple brought classical theater and "ragtag bits of Shakespeare" to remote rural communities, facilities for the hearing-impaired, and other places that were as far off-Broadway as could be imagined.

"Some kids in rural Kentucky had a better innate understanding of Shakespeare than we did," recalls Jenkins of his days in what Houghton calls "arts missionary work." "If you listened, you could hear leftover bits of Elizabethan accents in the way they spoke."

Best known for her role in the provocative, Academy Award-winning film "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" — a classic in which she starred alongside Spencer Tracy, Sidney Poitier and her aunt Katharine Hepburn — Houghton is an acclaimed author whose portfolio boasts an eclectic olio of short playlets, full-length works, translations and even one-woman presentations on cultural and literary topics.

It was while doing research for a piece on Louisa May Alcott that Houghton was introduced to a pair of antiquarian book dealers named Madeleine "Mady" Stern and Leona Rostenberg. Friends since childhood, the two women defied the conventional expectations of their old-world German-Jewish families to become highly educated experts on a variety of subjects, traveling the world and building a successful business in an ultra-specialized field. Drawn to Mady and Leona's warmth, energy and passion for life, Houghton befriended the pair as they entered their tenth decades — and somewhere, somehow, the concept for a musical was born.

"What those two did just makes your jaw drop," says Jenkins of the play's protagonists, whom he had the privilege of knowing personally. "I'm in awe of what they accomplished as women in a man's world."

While the subject matter might seem an oddball choice for a musical, Jenkins sees their shared saga as a very uplifting, human story of triumph, set against the changing cultural landscape of a tumultuous and eventful century.

"They were the most intellectually active people each other had ever known," the director says of Mady and Leona (who has since passed away). "Their lives were like a string of jewels . . . they're like Shakespearean characters."

Portraying Mady and Leona as adults are a couple of NJ Rep company regulars, Susan G. Bob and Kathleen Goldpaugh. Also on hand in the large ensemble is one of the youngest members of the stock company, Jenny Vallancourt, who excelled in last year's "October 1962" and appears here as Mady in flashbacks. Dianne Adams and James McDowell composed the music and lyrics in collaboration with Houghton, with Adams serving as musical director and Jennifer Paulson Lee handling the choreography.

Director Jenkins, for his part, seems ecstatic to be spending his series hiatus on this obvious labor of love, enthusing that audiences "will be proud of their humanity when they see this show . . . you'll laugh, cry, go home and talk about it and decide that being human is a good thing after all."

American Theatre Magazine, Front and Center
Early on, Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern realized they would have to choose between beaux and books. rejecting the wife-and-mother path that was expected of German-Jewish girls in 1930s Manhattan, they joined forces to become prominent dealers of antiquarian volumes.

Actor and playwright Katharine Houghton befriended Rostenberg and Stern in the 1980s when she sought their expertise on Louisa May Alcott, about whom she was writing a solo play. “I became very involved in their world,” Houghton says. “They were the most well-educated people I’d ever met.” The pair’s memoirs, journals and sheer force of personality are the basis for Houghton’s first full-length musical, written with composers Dianne Adams and James McDowell. Bookends premieres July 19Aug. 26 at New Jersey Repertory Company, directed by Ken Jenkins.

Spunky nonagenarians who collect fragile tomes and speak half a dozen languages are hardly your typical musical-theatre heroines. That’s exactly the point, says Houghton: “They were expected to have a conventional lifethe drama is that they didn’t.”

Both Stern (still vital at 95) and Rostenberg (who died two years ago) participated in the show’s development. The plot hinges on a present-day argument between the womenplayed by actresses in their fifties, says Houghton, “because that’s the kind of energy they have”about whether to retire. The debate is punctuated with scenes of their younger selves navigating tricky affairs of business and the heart.

At times, the exotic topics the women have studied in booksfrom Arab astrologers to Mary Magdalenecome alive in whimsical song-and-dance sequences to comment on their life choices. But Houghton selected her composers above all for their ability to set inner monologues to music that tugs at the emotions. “It really wouldn’t matter if it were about rare books or something else,” says Houghton. “It’s about having a passion and finding a way to realize it.” Nicole Estvanik


by Gary Wien

NJ Repertory Company in Long Branch presents another world premiere play this month. This time around it's a musical called BOOKENDS written by the playwright/actress Katharine Houghton.

Katharine Houghton is best known for her role as Joanna "Joey" Drayton, the Caucasian ingenue with an African-American fiance, whom she brings home to meet her parents, in the 1967 film Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.

Her list of other films include Ethan Frome, Mr. North, The Night We Never Met, Billy Bathgate, The Gardener and Let it Be You. Katharine has appeared on Broadway in Our Town, The Front Page and A Very Rich Woman. Her regional theatre credits include roles in over fifty productions. Her play Buddha, was published in Best Short Plays of 1988. Other plays that have been produced include Merlin, The Merry Month of May, Mortal Friends, On the Shadyside, The Right Number and Phone Play. Her newest play, Only Angels, is in development in New York.

Houghton was named after her maternal grandmother Katharine Hepburn.

Tell me a little about BOOKENDS, What is the play about?
BOOKENDS is a musical for anyone of any age who has ever had a raging dream to do something or be someone unusual and who has been told it is impossible. The songs derive from the passions of all the warring hearts and competing agendas - each one sure of what it means to live life fully. No one is right, no one is wrong, but the secret of life is to find your own unique path and travel it with joyful perseverance.

The story, which is true but not about me, revolves around two women, Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern. Two plots intertwine. One concerns the women in old age, the other concerns their youth. The problem of the seniors - one wants to quit their almost 60 year business in antiquarian books, the other doesn't. Their argument invokes scenes from their past that are relevant to their present situation, and by reliving those scenes of their salad days, it sets the stage for their ultimate solution. This is not a play concerned with nostalgia.

BOOKENDS seems pretty ambitious - it has a relatively large cast for a musical that revolves around two girls. Do the other actors have significant roles or are they more for the soundtrack?
The musical is madly ambitious and we are all insane to try it, especially with only 3 weeks of rehearsal and 1 week of tech, but we felt it was worth a go. It has a cast of 14, all wonderful singers and actors. Except for the older and younger Madys & Leonas, everyone plays a variety of important roles and everyone has at least one terrific song, as well as being part of several wonderful ensemble numbers.

What led you decide to make this a musical?
I decided to make this story a musical because I've known Madeleine and Leona well for over 20 years and I've always felt that their story was a story for our time. Women are still trying to find their way in a man's world and these two women did it with glory. They came of age in the 30s in my beloved Manhattan, but the challenges and put-downs they experienced are still felt by women today. An example: well respected director Emily Mann, currently based in Princeton, NJ, I believe, was told by her professors at Harvard in 1974 that she could never direct for professional theatre or film because she was a woman, that she would have to confine her efforts to children's theatre. Fortunately she was not deterred.

By making BOOKENDS a musical instead of a play it allows me to use the songs to reveal secret thoughts and feelings in a way that I hope will be entertaining as well as affecting.

I am hoping that a musical about charming, humorous, conquering women will have an audience - an audience of both women and the men who love them.

Have you written a musical before?
In the 80s when I was doing a lot of writing for the fabulous Downstairs Theatre Bar at the Westbank Cafe on 42nd St. I wrote a one act musical based on an O'Henry short story called The Merry Month Of May. Other than that I've written only plays and screenplays

Finally, it's always wonderful when you have a film like Guess Who's Coming To Dinner? on your resume but I was wondering if it ever bothered you that your best known film was your first?
I suppose if I'd done nothing after Guess Who's Coming To Dinner, it would be a sort of thorn in my side that it is for most people my best known work. But after that film I spent 15 years in the wonderful regional theatres of America playing over 50 leading roles in classical drama.

Also, with Ken Jenkins, who is directing BOOKENDS and who is currently best known for his six seasons on NBC's cult hit comedy, "Scrubs", playing Dr. Kelso, I ran a theatre company for 13 years called Pilgrim Repertory Co. We toured several works all around, especially to places that didn't have the opportunity to see live theatre. We called it our "Arts Missionary Work." Ken wrote a pastiche called Shakespeare For Lovers And Others, which was one of our most popular productions. We made all our own sets, costumes, props etc. as well as acting all the parts. It was colossal good fun.

I guess that was just my destiny. And hanging out with all those brilliant writers, from Shakespeare and Shaw to Williams and O'Neill, no doubt had some small effect on my playwrighting.

A template for the new woman
Playwright celebrates two extraordinary friends in 'Bookends'

Katharine Houghton
Katharine Houghton has had the honor of knowing some extraordinary women in her time, many of them no further away than her own formidable family tree.

For instance, her grandmother, the ardent suffragist and philanthropist Katharine Houghton Hepburn, was instrumental in founding Planned Parenthood with Margaret Sanger in the 1950s.

And then there was her aunt, the dynamic, iconic Katharine Hepburn, alongside whom she starred in 1967's Best Picture, "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" Although she has expressed some disappointment over the excising of a key scene (in which her character, "Joey," defends her relationship with her black fiancé to her supposedly liberal dad), Houghton remains "very proud" of that movie debut, one in which she kept pace with such screen heavyweights as Aunt Kate, Spencer Tracy, Sidney Poitier and director Stanley Kramer.

While she has remained intermittently visible on film (most recently in "Kinsey" starring Liam Neeson, with whom she also appeared in "Ethan Frome"), it's on the stage that Houghton the actress has turned in her most acclaimed work, with a lauded performance in the 1969 "Scent of Flowers," and a portfolio of leads in classics by the likes of Shakespeare ("Taming of the Shrew," "The Merchant of Venice"), Chekhov ("Uncle Vanya," "The Seagull") and Ibsen ("A Doll's House").

A scene from "Bookends," written by Katharine Houghton.
As Houghton relates in a recent e-mail interview:

"I kept getting offered fabulous roles in the burgeoning regional theaters, and so I decamped from Hollywood to play over 50 leading roles in the classics.

"It was my destiny, I think, to be a stage, rather than a film, actress, if there is such a thing as destiny."

Along the way, the actress evolved into the playwright, having penned numerous award-winning shorts and full-length plays, among them "Merlin," "Mortal Friends," a translation of Anouilh's "Antigone," and "Best Kept Secret," an autobiographical study of a 1960s love affair with a Soviet artist.

The author shared her "Secret" on the stage of New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch with a 2001 reading and, beginning this weekend, Houghton returns to NJ Rep for the fully staged, world premiere engagement of "Bookends," her first long-form musical endeavor and a labor of love that has its roots in an extraordinary relationship.

Featuring songs by the composing team of Dianne Adams and James McDowell, "Bookends" is a melodic meditation on the long professional partnership and enduring friendship of two real-life women, Madeleine "Mady" Stern and the late Leona Rostenberg.

Houghton made the acquaintance of the noted rare-book dealers while researching her own narrated presentation on the life and work of "Little Women" author Louisa May Alcott, and immediately became intrigued by these energetic, educated New York originals, then approaching their 90s and marking more than a half-century of shared business and adventures.

While an all-singing, all-dancing musical about elderly antiquarian booksellers might seem at first like something out of Max Bialystock's playbook, Houghton sets the action at various times in her subjects' lives, from their days growing up in strict German-Jewish families to their debates over retirement.

A colossal (by local professional standards) cast of 14 is headed by Rep regulars Susan G. Bob and Kathleen Goldpaugh as the adult Mady and Leona, and features Jenny Vallancourt, a young performer who made a big impression in NJ Rep's "October 1962" earlier this season.

"If you had known Mady and Leona in their 90-year-old prime, you would understand why we are not playing them as old ladies," Houghton explains. "They were ageless, unique, and to play them as old ladies would be a travesty.

"I was less interested in my relationship with the ladies and more interested in their lives as a template for the 'new woman,' a creature Mother Nature has been striving to create since Mary Wollstonecraft blasted the old female paradigms," the author continues. "We're not there yet, but we've made progress, and Rostenberg and Stern are a major example of these advancements."

Directing "Bookends" is a man with whom Houghton has maintained her own long-term personal and professional partnership, Ken Jenkins, Houghton's husband of 37 years and a newly minted household name, thanks to his role as Dr. Bob Kelso on the hit NBC TV series "Scrubs."

While the 66-year-old actor has plenty of good things to say about the popular vehicle that's garnered him instant recognition from teenage fans, "Bookends" remains a project with which he has been personally engaged from the outset, and the latest chapter in an ongoing collaboration that has taken the two dedicated stage pros to some pretty amazing places.

As Houghton says of Jenkins, whom she first met and worked with when she was 23, "He taught me everything I know about acting in the old days, and any young actor who works with him is bound to benefit from his almost 50 years of nonstop experience in the theater.

"Ken directed my first play, and we have acted together on many occasions - brother and sister in 'The Glass Menagerie,' father and daughter in 'Major Barbara,' loving adversaries in 'The Taming of the Shrew,' and on and on."

An important early project for Houghton and Jenkins was their formation of Pilgrim Repertory Company, a federally funded traveling troupe that brought live theater to Appalachia and other rural areas underserved by arts organizations, an endeavor she likens to "arts missionary work."

"We performed in log cabins, in fields and forests, in insane asylums; 'Richard III' was a great favorite in the latter," Houghton recalls. "It was thrilling … a trial by fire."

Having determined that her "Bookends" project might work well in musical form, Houghton "found my sound" and forged a new and productive partnership when she happened to attend a Broadway adaptation of the children's classic "The Wind in the Willows" scored by the team of Adams and McDowell.

"I didn't want the music to be rock, pop or too intellectual," explains the playwright, who contributed lyrics in addition to the show's book. "I wanted the music to seduce the heart and amuse the soul."

Ladies' Lives Revealed in New Musical, Bookends, Directed By "Scrubs" Star Jenkins

By Kenneth Jones 20 Jun 2007

Ken Jenkins

Bookends, a new musical by Katharine Houghton, Dianne Adams and James McDowell, will make its world premiere in a staging by The New Jersey Repertory Company July 19.

Ken Jenkins, the actor widely known as the senior doctor on TV's "Scrubs," will direct the show, which concerns nonagenarian ladies — and longtime friends — who look back on their lives. The librettist and co-lyricist Houghton is the admired actress who played the daughter in the film, "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," among many roles in her career. (She is also Katharine Hepburn's niece.)

Music and co-lyrics are by Dianne Adams and James McDowell. Music direction is by Adams.

According to NJ Rep, "Bookends is the story of Madeleine Stern and Leona Rostenberg, celebrated rare book dealers, who met as young girls and forged a life-long friendship. Both in their 90s when the play opens, the women are compiling their memoirs. Flashbacks to their youth reveal them as two outspoken girls growing up in conventional families in Manhattan in the 1930s, where they are expected to marry, have children, and live close to home. But obsessed by their unusual passion for old and rare books, they resist convention to follow their dream, one that takes them on adventures all over the world and reveals to them 2,000 years of human folly, wisdom, mystery and serendipity. Based on a true story, this hauntingly beautiful musical will stay with you forever."

The cast will include Pamela Bob, Susan G. Bob, Eric Collins, Matt Golden, Kathleen Goldpaugh, Robyn Kemp, Robert Lewandowski, Howard Pinhasik, Alan Souza, Eileen Tepper, Amie Bermowitz, Jenny Vallancourt and Rebecca Weiner.

Gabor Barabas, the executive producer at New Jersey Rep, stated, "We selected Bookends from a submission of over a thousand scripts that we receive each year not only because a new musical is a rare creation, but because we were drawn to the lushness of the music, and to the humor, dramatic tension, and beauty of the play. Bookends will provide local audiences with the rare opportunity of witnessing the birth of a musical. And keep in mind, you no longer have to travel to Broadway in New York to see a new musical. You can go to Broadway in Long Branch."

The creative team includes Henry Aronson (piano), Rose Riccardi (stage manager), Jennifer Paulson Lee (choreographer), Charles Corcoran (scenic design), Jill Nagle (lighting design), Patricia E. Doherty (costume design), Jessica Parks (properties), Jessica Paz (sound design) and Quinn K. Stone (technical director).

No secrets in N.J. Repertory's New Year's comedy




Remember Y2K?

It crosses the minds of all six characters who are celebrating New Year's Eve 1999 in "Place Setting." Jack Canfora's funny and fascinating play, at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch , soon shows that these people had nothing to fear.

Not from a computer meltdown, anyway. They certainly have plenty to worry about as secret after secret is revealed. They pile on so high that the play rivals a soap opera for the sheer number of complications.

What separates "Place Setting" from daytime TV, though, is that Canfora has wonderfully incisive wit -- and he tells the truth about how 21st century men and women view relationships and marriages.

Andrea and Greg are the evening's hosts. Laura, Andrea's sister, has brought her terribly pretentious German filmmaker boyfriend, Richard. He's furious that Laura has taken him out of the city and to -- horrors! -- the New Jersey suburbs. (Many plays have Jersey jokes. This one has Jersey insults.)

Also on hand are Lenny -- Greg's brother -- and his longtime girlfriend, Charlotte. Andrea surmised Lenny would buy Charlotte an engagement ring for Christmas; that didn't happen, but Charlotte doesn't seem concerned.

When the audience discovers why, the play kicks into high gear. Evan Bergman's skillful and secure direction is one reason, but Canfora left nothing to chance. He's full of fresh-sounding lines for his characters: "Your marriage is a china shop waiting for a bull." "I have an empty feeling in the pit of my stomach whenever I do the right thing." "I look at the best moments of my life and realize that none of them were good for me."

Plenty of truths emerge in the two-hour play because "in vodka veritas.''

The second act, which takes place the morning after, is slower in feel, as hangovers take their toll. Canfora keeps the dialogue clear-eyed as he examines the ramifications of lust in one's heart (and other places). He doesn't flinch from pointing out that spouses are disappointed by those they marry, because day-to-day life forces one to know a mate far too well.

Canfora's in the play, too, and makes an affable Greg. Carol Todd gives an exceptionally unmannered performance as Andrea, the model homemaker. (Jessica Parks gives her handsome set on which to ply her trade.) Todd is magnificent when she offers a startlingly different point of view on loyalty in marriage.

As Laura, Kristen Moser does beautifully with a speech in which she learns that if she gets a tattoo, laser surgery can remove it easily and without scarring. Just like marriage, she realizes; nothing is permanent these days.

Peter Macklin has the right insufferable qualities for Richard, and adds a pungent accent. Lenny is a character who must run through a gantlet of emotions, and David Bishins succeeds at every signpost. Guenia Lemos impressively captures Charlotte 's many amoral qualities.

En route, there's some talk about New Year's resolutions. Theatergoers who didn't make any should resolve now to see "Place Setting."

Place Setting at NJ Repertory is worth a visit to Long Branch
Theater: NJ Repertory Company, Lumia Theatre, 179 Broadway, Long Branch, NJ
Show Title: Place Setting by Jack Canfora

Opened: June 2, 2007
Seen: June 10, 2007
Reviewer: Peter Kelston
Submitted: June 12, 2007

Jack Canfora’s engaging, sharp-witted play about three adult couples in troubled relationships is given a very pleasing production at New Jersey Repertory’s comfortable theater, not far from the beach in Long Branch, NJ. It is well-written, well-acted, smartly paced and very entertaining.

It takes place in the kitchen in the upscale, suburban NJ home of Andrea, an overbearing, proudly competent housewife (Carol Todd) and her sharp-tongued, cynical husband Greg (Mr. Canfora). It is New Year’s Eve 1999, a time to reflect on the past and talk about the future while dealing with the unfulfilled present.

Sitting around the kitchen table before the other guests arrive for the New Year’s Eve party are Andrea’s sister Laura (Kristen Moser) and her boyfriend Richard (Peter Macklin) who live together in New York City; Greg’s brother Lenny (David Bishins) and his girlfriend of two years, the sexy, exotic Charlotte (Guenia Lemos).

They tease each other and trade witty, cutting barbs – many with literary and pop-cultural references, as well as share New Year’s Resolutions as they help with the party preparations. Andrea asks Charlotte if she and Lenny have discussed marriage, and offers to help plan the wedding. All is quite convivial.

But long-simmering antipathies soon emerge. Laura objects to Andrea’s bossiness. Greg shows his disaffection for Richard, a pontificating, German documentary filmmaker who disdains anything that is not part of a hip cultural scene, especially anything having to do with New Jersey.

As the party guests begin to arrive (in the unseen living room) Andrea and the others go to greet them, returning to take out plates of hors d’oeuvres and other party fare. Wine needs to be brought in from from the garage. All the activity, multiple exits and entrances, quick exchanges of dialog seem very natural under the sure hand of director Evan Bergman.

The plot thickens when Greg and Charlotte are left alone to clean up the kitchen. They have been feeling strongly attracted to each other, but they have yet to act on their feelings. That they might be interrupted at any moment by someone re-entering the kitchen creates tension, but Canfora does not lapse into melodrama. Instead, and to his credit, his characters deal with their entanglements in naturalist ways that don’t feel at all contrived.

These are people the playwright knows and with whom he is comfortable. The place provides a familiar socioeconomic context. There is rarely a word that doesn’t ring true (save for Richard’s German accent). The set (by Jessica Parks) makes the comfort believeable.

This play was a pleasure to see. Well-worth the drive from NY to Long Branch.

Place Setting Eavesdrops on a New Year's Eve Family Dinner

Table Setting, the world premiere comedy-drama at New Jersey Rep, is set on December 31, 1999. The setting is the kitchen and dining room of the comfortable, middle class New Jersey home of Greg and his wife, Andrea. The acerbic Greg, who had ambitions to be a writer, is an ad writer. Less sharp, but pleasanter Andrea is a distractingly fussy housewife (I've heard that last word objected to by one who said that it wrongly one as being married to a house. If that is true, then it aptly describes Andrea).

Two other couples are with them for a family dinner prior to the expected arrival of additional guests. Greg's close, less acerbic brother Lenny is accompanied by his sharp-looking girlfriend Charlotte. Lenny identifies himself as being in "human resources," and Charlotte is an assistant editor. Andrea's sister Laura, an East Village, counter-culture type, has brought along her new boyfriend Richard, a pretentious, pompously assured purveyor of misinformation who identifies himself as an independent film director.

It appears apparent from this set-up that feuds and crises will comprise the entire play. And, in that respect, author Jack Canfora delivers that which is expected. The major crisis is that Charlotte is in the process of seducing the sorely tempted Greg into leaving Andrea. Matters are further complicated when Lenny proposes to Charlotte and takes her evasion of an answer as a "yes".

Table Setting boasts sharp, crisp, and richly humorous dialogue. Its story and recognizable characters engage our interest and emotions throughout (even though most of the characters are supremely selfish).

There is much food for thought here, largely concerning the complex nature of marital relationships. Author Canfora seems to suggest that settling for less than everything that one wants in a marriage is terribly sad, and that all marital issues need be confronted and worked out.

Author Jack Canfora portrays Greg with a boyish likeability. Canfora has given himself the lion's share of the play's barbed one liners (after all, Greg is an acerbic wise guy), and his comic timing and phrasing make the most of them. Carol Todd brings a great deal of honesty and nuance. Her Andrea is properly a mite annoying, yet gains sympathy for her determined actions. (The motivation for her launching a missile at Lenny is unclear and does undermine our sympathy for her. However, I think that it is the author who has some work to do here.)

David Bishins as Lenny runs the table believably, delivering a full range of emotional colors. Guenia Lemos performs with a easy and likeable sensuality. Given that Charlotte is most coldly selfish (to Greg – "Your brothers going to be betrayed and your wife broken, and it doesn't matter"), Lemos has to perform with tremendous appeal to enable us to accept Greg's temptation. Lemos has one especially clever line, "Your marriage is like a china shop, waiting for a bull." Kristen Moser has a likeable, slightly ditzy take on Laura, and Peter Macklin is deadpan funny as Richard. I couldn't quite identify his accent, but that may have been intentional for this phony filmmaker.

Director Evan Bergman has kept a lively pace, directed traffic well, and elicited fine performances all around. The richly detailed (with a fully loaded kitchen), and most attractive and playable set is by Jessica Parks. The excellent costumes by Patricia E. Doherty are especially effective in conveying the differing styles of the women and are flattering to boot.

Place Setting is neither unconventional nor particularly original, but it does provide witty, involving and thought provoking entertainment.

Jack Canfora’s Place Setting

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella;

New Jersey Rep has taken another chance, and it has paid off in an incisive and penetrating new play written by Jack Canfora.

Set on the eve of the new millennium (the much-ballyhoo’d 1999 into 2000, not the real new millennium for those geeks who care), Place Setting focuses on a dinner party and it’s aftermath. The bash is tossed by a freakishly controlling Andrea (Carol Todd) and her henpecked husband Greg (the playwright Jack Canfora). Andrea’s spunky and verbose sister Laura (Kristen Moser) is in attendance with her pretentious German filmmaker-wannabe beau Richard (a hilarious Peter Maclin). Rounding out the ‘table’ are Greg’s sweet but dull brother Lenny (David Bishins) and his stunning girlfriend Charlotte (Guenia Lemos).

As the witty barbs fly, we become privy to the fact that Greg and Charlotte are secretly in love. This revelation is the springboard for the rest of the play’s action.

Nicely directed by Evan Bergman, Place Setting cleverly manages to touch on some very important and universal themes such as the need for passion in one’s life vs. the allure of complacency and stagnation. Fears are exposed, marital and otherwise and Canfora balances the comedy and drama with ease. And his love of film comes through as well, which made this critic gleeful.

Kristin Moser stands out in a stellar cast. Her Laura is filled with anger, resentment and longing (and we can understand why she is so bitter once we spend a bit of time with her sister Andrea!) Moser is killer with comedy yet handles the more poignant and dramatic moments with equal conviction. She basically steals every scene she is in. Someone get this gal a sitcom!

The Andrea character is difficult to stomach, partly because she’s a calculating and manipulative bitch, partly because she’s trying to hold on to something the audience feels she has no right having. Todd does a fine job with her and even manages to eke out some sympathy from us.

Canfora wears both hats quite impressively. I had no idea that the funny and charismatic actor onstage had also written the play. There’s nothing showy about his performance.

Lemos’ Charlotte is a feisty, desperate figure who craves love and passion. The play, unfortunately, does her a great disservice by making her disappear completely in Act Two, yet tosses out quite damaging character dialogue that Charlotte is never allowed to address. Consequently, Lemos’ rich performance is undercut once we are led to believe she’s a vamp.

My only complaint is with the very final moment of the play where Andrea does something so very against her character, it pulled me out. Otherwise the play and the production rocks!

Kudos again to New Jersey Repertory Company for continuing to present exciting new work in a state where theatre companies are usually reviving Godspell for the seven thousandth time and wondering why they have no patrons!

Couples Share a Tense New Year's Eve in World Premiere of Place Setting in NJ

By Kenneth Jones
31 May 2007

The New Jersey Repertory Company, the Long Branch, NJ, troupe devoted to new works, presents the world premiere of Jack Canfora's New Year's Eve-set comic drama Place Setting May 31-June 24.

The play offers "three couples on New Year's Eve of the millennium, as they struggle to balance the lives they have with the lives they so desperately want," according to NJ Rep. Set in the suburban New Jersey home of Andrea and Greg, "they are joined for dinner by Greg's sharp-tongued brother, his sexy girlfriend, Andrea's spirited sister, and her German filmmaker boyfriend."

Directed by Evan Bergman and co-produced by Adam Weinstock, Place Setting will feature David Bishens, Guenia Lemos, Peter Macklin, Kristen Moser, Carol Todd and Jack Canfora.

Place Setting "poses the compelling question of what to do when one's responsibilities and happiness are at irreconcilable odds."

"I think it's a fundamental tension most of us wrestle with to some degree, even if we're not always aware of it," stated Canfora, who also portrays one of Place Setting's central characters. "These characters are all keenly conscious of that struggle, which leads some of them to desperation. I think the drama and the humor of the play both come out of the desperation that people face when they feel their immediate choices are going to impact the rest of their lives."

Performances are Thursdays, Fridays at 8 PM, Saturdays at 3 PM & 8 PM, Sundays at 2 PM.

Opening night is June 2. NJ Rep performs at 179 Broadway in Long Branch, NJ.

Tickets are $35 with discounts for seniors, groups, students (18-25). Opening night is $40. Previews are $25.

For more information, visit

David Bishins and Kristen Moser in the world premiere of Jack Canfora's Place Setting.
photo by SuzAnne Barabas



"Place Setting" is comedy for a new millennium
Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 06/6/07


Love and Murder
(STAFF PHOTO: ADENA STEVENS) Carol Todd (left) plays Andrea and Kristen Moser is Laura in Jack Canfora's "Place Setting," being staged by the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

DEC. 31, 1999: the night of the Millennium Bug. You remember it: Planes were going to fall from the sky; markets would crash and take every desktop Dell with them. Clubs and restaurants sat empty as Americans bunkered down at home, counting down their post-apocalyptic fate.

It's an altogether different but equally insidious virus that invades the suburban New Jersey household of Andrea (Carol Todd) and Greg (Jack Canfora) in "Place Setting," Canfora's seriocomic ensemble piece currently in its world premiere engagement at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. Fortified by ample stocks of wine and vodka, the tag-team bugaboos of brutal honesty and lapsed inhibitions wreak havoc on this New Year's Eve get-together — with guilt, despair and self-delusion pushing back from the other side.

If actor-playwright Canfora's script never quite parties like it's 1999 (these characters are too numbingly civilized to go all Sam Shepard on the set), it does hark back to a point in time — America's Last Age of Innocence? — when we seemingly had nothing to fear but a VCR-clock meltdown. While the play's six characters laugh off the millennial hysteria, the unspoken suggestion that life as we know it could end at midnight causes these people to behave in some interesting ways.

Invited into Andrea and Greg's tasteful kitchen and dining room are Greg's brother Lenny (David Bishins) and his smart and sexy girlfriend Charlotte (Guenia Lemos), as well as Andrea's sharp-tongued sister Laura (Kristen Moser) and her date, a German documentary filmmaker named Richard (Peter Macklin). While the characters manage to keep up the small talk in the early minutes of the play, it's when the party moves to the offstage living room that the fun begins, with the kitchen becoming the setting for a series of furtive trysts, desperate advances, teary confessions and barely-bottled hatreds.

The accomplished director Evan Bergman stages the opening moments of the first act as a sequence of stills frozen in flashbulbs, and the able cast of players (many of them new to NJ Rep's stage) accomplish a great deal within what is after all merely an extended snapshot from the lives of some very unhappy people. Only Macklin, with his artsy hairdo and freely dispensed Euro-contempt, seems out of sync in a virtually thankless part — why the self-important Richard needed to be German is hard to fathom, when the whole "downtown-vs.-suburbia" thing offers more than enough opportunity for conflict in the first place.

Playwright Canfora gives actor Canfora many of the script's funniest lines — not because Jack is an applause hog, but because his Greg is a frustrated guy who often floats a joke when a heartfelt word would have sufficed. He and brother Lenny know all the best lines from the movies, while their own ongoing interpersonal drama seems stuck in the silent era — and Greg performs his role as supportive spouse to Andrea as if reading from cue cards.

It's the seductive Charlotte who makes her face-time with Greg count ("I feel like I have to crash into people to feel I know them") — and Lemos brings an energy to her limited-time part that promises big things for the Brazilian-born pepperpot. Meanwhile, it's Lenny who is actually much more apt to spill his guts to Andrea ("I sound like I'm in a Merchant-Ivory movie . . . let me be a little more Scorsese about this") — an odd choice of confidante, as the mistress of the house is all about keeping it tidy.

Last seen here in the provocative "Whores," Carol Todd positions herself at the center of this production, by virtue of a solid performance as a woman to whom even domestic upheaval must occur on a clearly delineated timetable, and under a coded sort of etiquette. As outfitted down to the last tucked-away mixing bowl by Jessica Parks, Andrea's precisely-ordered kitchen is an extension of her own mechanisms for survival in an uncertain world — a place where there's but one way to load the dishwasher, and where a successful dinner means "everything comes out at the same time" (and boy, does it ever).

As the embittered Laura proclaims, "It's the new millennium . . . we're entitled to a few new rules."

A CurtainUp Review
Place Setting

But there it is — I admit there's been damage done here, obviously. I'm admitting responsibility.—Greg Someday someone will have to explain to me why people decided that that was such a big deal.— Lenny

It is New Years Eve 1999. Families and friends are gathered to celebrate the end on one millennium and the start of another. The big question on most everyone's mind is not necessarily whether computers will malfunction, but whether their clock radio, TV, or automatic coffee maker will freak out.

In Jack Canfora's cleverly constructed and smartly written domestic comedy/drama Place Setting, the lives of three couples in their 30 somethings are more inclined to go awry than the technology around them. Canfora's characters have been variously positioned to segue into the morning after the night before with a maximum of discomfort, stress and anxiety.

Andrea (Carol Todd) and Greg (Jack Cantora, yes, the play's author) are throwing a New Years Eve dinner party in their suburban home to welcome in the New Year. Andrea has worked frenetically to prepare an elegant dinner for her slightly younger sister Laura (Kristen Moser), Greg's slightly older brother Lenny (David Bishins) and their respective dates. The meal has been a success. But it doesn't take long for Laura's beau Richard (Peter Macklin) to begin displaying his true colors as an intolerably condescending, smug and obnoxious German documentary film maker ("Suburbia. It does things to people. They should hang a sign outside of the Lincoln tunnel — Welcome to New Jersey — suicide is a technicality").

It seems that Laura, an emotionally volatile woman, has a history of picking the wrong man. Then there is picking the wrong women issue. It only takes a few minutes alone with Greg in the kitchen for Lenny's absolutely gorgeous girl friend Charlotte (Guenia Lemos) to lust after her host, whose carnal interest in her is also apparently rife with history.

Of course, Andrea's attempt to run a smooth, convivial and conflict free dinner party for those closest and dearest to her is bound to run amok considering that she has previously discovered an incriminating letter written by her husband to Charlotte and now feels obliged to share it with Lenny. Lenny, however, has already asked Charlotte to marry him. There is a bit of the Alan Ayckbourne style afoot as the convolutions of the evening and following morning becomes springboards for a potential marital breakup and grievous romantic betrayals.

Richard's disdain for the others and his growing disaffection for Laura escalate with the same intensity as does Charlotte's attempt to get Greg to leave his wife. It wouldn't be cricket to reveal more of the plot, except to say that the plot is fueled by Andrea's announcement that she is going to have a baby, Laura's inclination to go out and get a tattoo and also be more than a sister-in-law to Greg, and Lenny's revelation that his fiancée has a history (there's that word again). The theme could be summed up as "you always hurt the one you love."

Canfora, who skillfully embraces both acting and writing, may not leave any of the characters unscarred or unscathed, but we are certainly kept alert and empathetic to their quandaries. This is especially true of Andrea, as played with stoic resolve by Todd. Canfora credibly expresses Greg's notable lack of character in the face of his gullibility. Bishins is excellent as the humiliated but love-sick Lenny. Moser makes the most of her role as the unsettled Laura. As Richard, Macklin achieves his goal to be reviled and conversely Lemos, as Charlotte, has no competition when it comes to being magnetically seductive.

Director Evan Bergman, whose most recent credit is Off Broadway's Machiavelli, keeps a firm grip on the slender threads that bridge the interplay between the comical and the poignant as well as on the well executed timing of exiting and re-entering characters that lose little time exposing their transparency as well as their transgressions. Designer Jessica Parks has designed the kitchen area so that the properties don't get in the way of the improprieties. This world premiere may not have the dramatic heft necessary for the Big Apple, but it is sure to please the audiences at the New Jersey Rep. and other regional theaters.



by Gary Wien

(LONG BRANCH, NJ) -- Summer theater at the Jersey Shore used to mean another round of Broadway musical revivals, but that was before NJ Repertory Theatre made Broadway in Long Branch a place where new works were introduced year round - including the summer season. The company's latest play is "Place Setting" by Jack Canfora, which is making its world premiere after a series of readings.

The comedy/drama revolves around three couples spending New Year's Eve together at the dawn of the new millennium in a typical suburban New Jersey house. The idea of being in the suburbs is very important to the plot. The house is the home of Andrea and Greg who are joined by Greg's brother Lenny and his girlfriend Charlotte as well as Andrea's sister Laura and her German filmmaker boyfriend Richard.

Richard, played by Peter Macklin, is one of the most irritating characters you will ever see. He's an "artist" who despises everything about the suburbs and puts down people at every chance. You can practically hear the audience grown after the first time he "corrects" someone at the dinner table. His corrections would continue all night and cause tension between the guests who want to remain polite, but find it harder and harder to do so.

Greg, played by Jack Canfora who also wrote the play, works as an ad writer but has never given up on his dream to be a real writer of fiction. Richard's subtle attacks on him lead to an instead hatred of his dinner guest while his brother's girlfriend (played by Guenia Lemos who previously starred in NJ Rep's "Love & Murder") causes him a conflict of an entirely different version.

The play largely centers around the idea of dreams and being trapped - whether in a job, a relationship, or simply... the suburbs. "Place Setting" is often hilarious but it is also much more than a situational comedy. There are some really heavy themes - adultery, revenge, depression - at play here as well. The blend leads to an entirely entertaining new work, which should hit home to many people in the audience (whether the play's content deals with them or someone they know).

Speaking of the audience, it was very refreshing to see about 3/4 of the audience raise their hands when Gabor Barabas asked, in his pre-show talk, how many people were visiting NJ Rep for the first time.

The play is full of wonderful one-liners throughout and the brothers often recite lines and scenes from their favorite movies like "The Godfather". This is most definitely a contemporary play and feels almost like an updated version of what might have happened if the characters in an 80s film like "St. Elmo's Fire" got together to celebrate New Year's Eve a decade later.

Canfora does a great job of transferring the idea of suburbia - a place where everything looks nice but nobody's ever really happy because deep down something is seriously wrong - with the character of Andrea (played by Carol Todd). She is the ultimate hostess nightmare and a poster child for Suburbia. Even though she knows her husband hasn't been happy in their marriage and suspects him of cheating on her, she manages to go along every day as the model suburban wife pretending that nothing is wrong.

"Don't blame me if you feel the need to bend down and pray three times a day in the direction of the nearest Home Depot," said Richard during a fight with Laura. "In the words of John Lennon, it ain't me babe!"

"IT WAS BOB DYLAN!" his girlfriend corrects him. God you're nasty when you're drunk."

"And you're boring when I'm sober," he retorted.            

Lenny (played by David Bishins) is the sort of person who knows Suburbia isn't all that it should be but recognizes it's values as well. At one point when Richard says that growing up in the suburbs has restricted Laura's ability to full express herself, Lenny responds, "But, in defense, there's always plenty of ample parking".

His girlfriend is almost the opposite of him. The sexy Charlotte is like the girl that doesn't belong in Suburbia but doesn't resent being there either. She's the type that leads a boyfriend to constantly worry and for good reason.

Laura (played by Kristen Moser) is a wonderful character. She's the type that never seemed to fit in with her family and finds ways to keep screwing up her life, but she never gives up. "I look back on the best moments of my life and none of them were good for me," she says.

In the end, Lenny pretty much sums up the night. "I never thought I'd say this... but, so far, I miss the 90s."

"Place Setting" has a very quick, fluid movement to it. Premieres generally feel like the beginning of a play's life and show hints of places where changes will be made, but this time around the play feels as though it's already been through that stage. It's not only ready for prime time now, but it's not difficult to imagine it moving on to that other Broadway someday. Congrats to NJ Rep for once again proving that great theatre need not take the summer months off.


"Love and Murder" make a passionate pair at New Jersey Repertory

Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 04/20/07


The funniest thing about "Love and Murder," the play by Arthur Giron currently in its world-premiere engagement at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, isn't its outlandish, overripe, naughty/nasty take on human nature. It's how much this mutant melodrama appears to have been ripped screaming from the author's own background.

The esteemed author and professor is able to spin even the most leaden of life experiences into dramatic gold. With "Love and Murder," Giron riffs upon his 1960s gig as a social worker in a way-upstate New York village — a place that, thanks to its proximity to an Indian reservation, an army base and the Canada border, was pretty much an inbred little island unto itself.

Inspired by that unnamed real-world hamlet, Giron's fictional Indian River is a cold and isolated place where TV signals don't penetrate, many of the locals sport a sixth finger and folks tend not to die (since the ground is usually too frozen to bury them). Held up by the federal government as an example of good old American values, it's the kind of town where the men join fraternal lodges and the women, discouraged by the town fathers from congregating, are forced to get their hair done at the local brothel. As more than one character declares, it's a place "where men were born to kill, and women were born to be killed by them."

It's also a "sister city" to a village in Guatemala, from which a young lady named Helen (Brazilian-born actress Guenia Lemos in her NJ Rep debut) comes to live as an exchange student at the home of upstanding citizen Dr. Tuttle (John FitzGibbon) and his wife, Tex (Liz Zazzi) — staying on as a maid (and virtual slave) to Mrs. Tuttle, an aspiring singer whose showbiz dreams hinge upon a deadly revue called "Songs of All Nations." She's soon joined as a resident guest in the household by "Blackie" Swamp Cree (Dan Domingues), an alarmingly ambitious young cop of Mohawk ancestry who's hired as a local officer by the village elder Doc — and whose presence as agent provocateur and all-around "naked savage" sends the Tuttle teapot to boiling.

One look at Harry Feiner's stylized set design should tell you that we're not on solid American soil here — reducing the Tuttle home to sheets of washed-out colors and plush-pile carpeted speedbumps, it suggests a house built from the fuzzy details of half-recalled dreams; a borderland dimension that seems strangely appropriate to this place beyond laws, where the characters behave as though they've had pencils pushed into the parts of their brains that govern inhibitions.

Even so, very little is as it first appears in Indian River. It quickly becomes evident that the oily Doc Tuttle is not only not a real doctor, but most likely not even a real Tuttle. Blackie has apparently been impersonating an officer, and Tex's labored impersonation of a faithful wife is in its death throes. As for the innocent, exploited, virtuous Helen, you've got to believe Tex when she describes the guest worker as "an unreal being" from a time "before rules was invented."

FitzGibbon is the perfect choice to embody the quack doctor.

Working once again with "The Best Man" director Peter Bennett, Domingues takes a bold turn that leaves him standing revealed — particularly in a humiliatingly impromptu physical exam by the sadistic Doc. Not to be put out of a job by Blackie and his birthday suit, costumer Patricia Doherty turns in some of her finest work, including Helen's sexy spin on a Scout uniform — and a hilarious Doc Tuttle lodge get-up that looks to have been pre-owned by Oliver Hardy.

Zazzi is an agile pro who does her bewigged and Dollywooded best in a generally shrill and unsympathetic part — and Lemos makes Helen's transition from semi-invisible servant to savvy seductress a smooth and engaging journey (let's see more of her).

Enjoy "Love and Murder" for what it is: an entertaining sideshow, acted with guts and gusto and starring a bunch of human oddities who, to paraphrase Blackie, recognize no borders.

Complex Love and Murder at New Jersey Rep

Love and Murder
Guenia Lemos and Liz Zazzi
There is currently deception afoot at every turn at the New Jersey Rep.  It begins well before the curtain rises.  It starts with the world premiere play's pulp title Love and Murder and the theatre's promotional description of it, to wit: "When two men vie for the same women, there's more duplicity than meets the eye as lives hang in the balance in this serio-comic murder mystery set in an upstate New York bordertown."  Surely, a light, fun tricky mystery awaits us.  Or so we have been led to believe.

All the plot elements for such a mystery are in place here, and we are nicely misdirected from a tricky and clever surprise ending.  However, author Arthur Giron and his accomplices in this endeavor have something more unconventional in mind.  There are clues to this in the opening monologue delivered by Native American Deputy Sheriff Thomas Swamp Cree (who is most often addressed to as "Blackie"). The first scene following the monologue reveals an odd set for the home of a rich, small town power broker and his wife.  It is designed as a series of overlapping hangings of large, grey, I would think Indian rugs or blankets.  You, my sharp readers, would probably by this point have discerned that something thematically complex has been set in motion. However, although I found this design very unsettling, I must admit that it took me a while longer to realize that Love and Murder is a mythological, anthropological fable set in a fantasyland existing outside of time and space.

The stated location is Jefferson County in the far northwest corner of New York.  The time is 1967.  For the past four or five years, middle-aged Dr. Tuttle, who previously had not had any romantic relationships, has been married to former singer Tex, a fading, over the hill, flashy, bleached blonde.  Tex only married the stolid Tuttle for the shelter of his money.  Their maid Helen, a Mayan from Guatemala, had been an exchange student, but has remained illegally in New York.  Blackie makes love to Tex ("my tribe doesn't recognize borders").  When Tuttle discovers that Tex has been telling Helen that she saves her salary for her in a bank account, but has actually been spending it frivolously on herself, Tuttle becomes angry at Tex for her mistreatment of Helen.  Tex responds by informing Tuttle that she truly despises him.  Helen seduces Tuttle, who finds succor in the arms.  She becomes pregnant.  Tuttle now loves Helen, and is determined to protect her and their unborn child. Absurdist humor abounds in the form of odd occurrences. One example is when the intoxicated Tuttle dresses in a fancy dress uniform and flagellates himself for his assignation with Helen.

Most crucially, we are not in any real time or place.  We are in a time warp which has preserved the natural laws which existed before European presence in the Americas.  Author Arthur Giron posits a primal side of nature which will always seek that the land be restored to its native population.  All of this is quite stimulating and engages the intellect.  It also inherently reduces the taut suspense and easy pleasure for which conventional light mysteries strive.

The ominous mood created by director Peter Bennett employs sound and lighting most effectively.  Liz Zazzi (Tex) daringly throws caution to the wind to present us with a ripley entertaining, over the top floozy.  John FitzGibbon convincingly details Tuttle's transition from pompous bully to loving incipient father and ...."  Well, therein lies the tale, and we wouldn't want to give it away.

Guenia Lamos strongly projects Helen's anger and sincerity.  Whether or not Helen deserves our belief, Lamos appropriately makes certain that she gets it.  Dan Domingues (Blackie) efficiently conveys the smooth veneer of Blackie.

The complex mixture of elements does not always blend together smoothly.  Still, in all, Love and Murder is an intriguing blend of absurdist humor, mystery and anthropologic philosophy which will hold your interest throughout.


by Gary Wien

(LONG BRANCH, NJ) -- Arthur Giron's "Love and Murder" starts off with one of the most captivating openings I've ever seen. Dan Domingues as Blackie reveals that a murder has been committed in Upstage New York and the description and language used grabs your attention immediately. The play never relinguishes its grip on you until long after the play is finished. It's a wonderfully clever "who done it?" with enough twists and turns that you'll be scratching your head as to who the murderer truly is and how it played out.

"Love and Murder" is the latest world premiere at New Jersey Repertory Company. The play features a wonderful cast including Domingues, John FitzGibbon, Guenia Lemos, and Liz Tazzi.

"If you prayed more you wouldn't be so ugly," says Tex (Liz Zazzi). "Men do not like women who are athiests."

Tex (a small time singer who thinks of herself as a minor star) gives that advice to her maid (Helen), an illegal immigrant who has been working for her for the last few years without pay. Tex is constantly worried about her leaving, so she hides mail sent to her.

We are soon introduced to Thomas "Blackie" Swamp Cree, an Indian who was formerly a police officer. He brags about coming from a town where he put 600 kids behind bars under false pretenses, a move that brought him national attention. He's a "cop without a conscience."

Blackie is hoping to be hired as a cop in town and tried to impress Tex's husband (Dr. Tuttle) who is one of the people involved in the town council. Dr. Tuttle taunts Blackie with racist slurs and tries to humilate him by putting him through a full physical with both ladies present in the room. As Blackie stands there naked, Dr. Tuttle points a magnifying glass in front of Blackie's privates and "examines" him. He then dismisses Blackie as unfit and forces him to leave the house without his clothes since he is no longer employed as an officer and shouldn't be wearing the uniform.

Blackmail provides the Indian with the opening for the job and he joins the local police force. Meanwhile, a letter providing news that Helen's father had passed away changes things dramatically within the household. Dr. Tuttle becomes aware of how much his wife had kept secrets from him and kept Helen from the things she was owed.

"You are a thief and a liar, my dear," said Dr. Tuttle as his world unravels around him.

"You think any woman in their right mind could ever love you," replied Tex.

Suddenly everything becomes clear to the doctor. "And I thought we had a perfect life," he says quietly. "I wish I believed in divorce, but I don't."

The house becomes even more complicated when Helen reveals that the real reason she has stayed all these years was to serve the doctor - the man she loves.

"I have helped bring down governments, I have helped kill presidents... A little scandal in Indian River is nothing to me," the maid says.

And scandal there is. Blood, murder, cover-ups and investigations soon follow. The house is full of secrets and questions about what is love and what does it mean to be a man; what is religion and what is true salvation? Playwright Arthur Giron has penned a very exciting and entertaining play that should go on from here to a healthy future on additional stages.

Dan Domingues shows he is as talented as he is daring; Guenia Lemos has a commanding presence on the stage; John FitzGibbon is wonderful as the meak doctor; and Liz Zazzi rounds out an excellent cast as the singer who never made it to the big time.

This play is highly recommended!



Passions run high at NJ Repertory premiere

Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 04/13/07


To playwright Arthur Giron, "Love and Murder" is a light whodunit that's rooted in some very serious themes — the lot of the illegal immigrant, social isolation and the titular crime of passion.

Since taking a leave of absence from a career as a speechwriter for David Rockefeller some 40 years ago, the 70-year-old Manhattanite (a founding member of New York City's esteemed Ensemble Studio Theatre) has crafted nearly 20 full-length plays, several of them touching upon issues that resonate with his own origins in Guatemala. His 2006 script "The Coffee Trees" is, in fact, a version of Chekhov's "Cherry Orchard" transplanted to Guatemala. With "Love and Murder," now entering its world-premiere engagement at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, the veteran author and educator manages to revisit his Central American turf, by way of the United States/Canada border.

As Giron explains it, "Many years ago, I did social work in a village in upstate New York, where the play takes place . . . as it turned out, they were "sister cities' with a village in Guatemala."

Noting that the people of the upstate hamlet prided themselves on their "old-style American values" — attitudes not too far removed from those of rural Guatemalan enclaves that frowned upon village women congregating in public places, or even drinking coffee — Giron plucked the germ of an idea from the cool Canadian air.

In "Love and Murder," a beautiful young Guatemalan woman named Helen (Guenia Lemos) comes to live as an exchange student at the home of one Dr. Tuttle (John FitzGibbon), the town's most prominent citizen and a man mired in a largely loveless marriage with flamboyant cabaret singer Tex (Liz Zazzi).

The passion part comes into play when the student stays on illegally as maid in the doctor's household. As for the crime, well, let's just say the situation escalates to the point where it necessitates the introduction of Blackie (Dan Domingues), a cop from the neighboring Indian reservation.

It's an entertaining tale told with a dash of mystery and a dollop of music — but, in between its playful plot points, the script has much to say about some issues that the author takes very seriously, such as "America's exploitation of Third World countries" and "the limits that we tend to put on ourselves."

"Many people still tend to isolate themselves, and (the play) is set in an isolated place, with four very passionate people," the playwright observes. "It's a place where there's no sun, and all there is to do is have sex and go crazy."

In Giron's world, "Love and Murder" are two sides of the same highly charged coin, with the whole concept of "living on the borderline" exerting a major influence on the proceedings.

"The Mohawk reservation in the area where the play is set exists partly in the United States, and partly in Canada," Giron explains. "And the character of the wife, who's a Dolly Parton type with an act called "Songs of All Nations,' comes from El Paso, which is a border situation also."

The show is being directed by Peter Bennett.


by Gary Wien

Arthur Giron is one of the top contemporary playwrights in the country. His plays are performed continuously throughout America. He was awarded the Los Angeles Critics Drama-League Prize for "Outstanding Achievement in Playwriting" for his play, "Becoming Memories". A former Head of the Graduate Playwriting Program at Carnegie Mellon University, he has taught workshops across the land. His latest play is called "Love and Murder" and it will be premiering in April at NJ Rep.

We spoke to Mr. Giron about his play, what inspires him, and the new theatre in his life.

Tell me about Love and Murder.
One of the characters is a Latino woman who's an illegal alien maid. In the movie version it would be Selma Hayek. We have a very beautiful Brazilian woman acting the role. She comes to America as an exchange student but stays on illegally in the house of the richest man in the village in upstate New York and he falls in love with her. Eventually the lady she works for is murdered and that brings about Blackie, an Indian cop. And to this day no one has guessed who the killer is! Isn't that great?

The truth is that the illegal immigrant maid is taken advantage of by the lady she works for. For me, it's a big thing the way the third world countries are taken advantage of. I carry within me enormous rage about a lot of things. I read somewhere that you said you write out of pain and a question, is that still your inspiration?

If you were studying with me I would say throw away all of those books on structure. What it is is the question you are asking. For example, Hamlet wants to know who killed my father and then that detective question gives the shape. He's looking for the answer and that's the structure.

A very good example is "A Chorus Line" - who's going to get the job? In the first 5 minutes they're all saying "I need this job, I need this job" so the audience buys into the question which is who is going to get the job.

So I feel from a suspense point of view that I have a question I want to know that's personal. For example, I have a play about the Boy Scouts where I ask the question "what is a man?" The question in the play is "is this kid going to make it in the woods all night?" But I am writing out of something that's happening to me today that I don't know the answer to and so I then write the play to try to find out what the answer is.

What was the question asked in this play?
When it begins we know there's been a murder, so there's the 'who did it' question but I'm asking questions such as 'what is more important? an artistic life or a happy family life?' Also the question of 'what is our responsibility to those who have less than we do?'

I'm tormented by what we see every day in the news. As a nation, we need to do more than we know so a good part of the play has to do with an older couple and a younger couple. I would like people to start thinking about the responsibility they have to those who are coming after us and the younger generation. One of the two younger people in the play is a Mayan Indian so what about these brown people? What do we owe them and how do we relate to them?

It's a plea for understanding. Can we understand? What can we do to increase our understanding?

When a playwright has had as many productions as you have had, what gets you excited for yet another opening night? You've been through all the jitters, the reviews, etc. What gets you excited now?
This is what happens... you fall in love with your characters. I think that one of my jobs is to give a voice to people who don't have one.

I like to have people voicing certain ideas and that's why I do this - to do what other people are not doing. What's so exciting is that we're going to hear voices that as far as I know aren't talking anywhere.

I'm trying to get at the truth. Many years ago, I was hijacked to Havana in the first plane that was hijacked. It was a news blackout because it was about Cuba. I sold my story significantly to Canada but in the United States the news that went out was a lie. It was not what happened to us. What happened was the guy took the plane to Cuba but the newspapers said he was an Algerian Freedom Fighter. He wasn't.

I lost my faith in the press that day. You're not going to get the truth in the papers. You're not going to get the truth in tv. I give you information that goes into your heart so there are things I need to talk about that I'm not hearing. That's part of seeing a play for the first time. It's getting out there these new thoughts. But I also want it to be entertaining, so this play is funny and sensual too. It's all about how you do it artistically to get the information through.

You were a founding member of The Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York, which has produced over 3,000 new plays in its 36 years. Earlier today you were at a ceremony involving the company's new theatre but it was a bit bittersweet wasn't it?
The sad thing about today was that our Artistic Director, Kurt Dempster, died about a month ago. So it was extremely sad to go into this beautiful new space and he's not going to be there. Of course we kept on saying that we've got to call the theatre the Kurt Dempster Theatre. It's got to take his name because he's the one.

When we first started Mayor John Lindsay gave us the space we had on West 52nd Street for a dollar a year. Of course that's all changed now. That whole neighborhood is going gentrified and all that. Suddenly all that land is very valuable. But, in the meantime, the city has been building us a theatre which we're going to have to figure out how we're going to pay for it because they'll give us the space but it's going to cost us a lot more money.

There's more duplicity than meets the eye as lives hang in the balance in this serio-comic murder mystery set in an isolated upstate New York border town. Directed by Peter Bennett, the play stars Dan Domingues, John FitzGibbon, Guenia Lemos and Liz Zazzi.

Love and Murder follows the lives of Dr. Tuttle, the most prominent member of a community still stuck in the 1950's, and that of his wife, Tex, an aspiring singer. Their relationship appears to be stable on the surface but dark passions and frustrations seethe beneath, ready to be unleashed at any moment. The catalysts for the inevitable crisis are Helen, the couple's illegal South American maid, for whom Tuttle harbors a repressed desire, and Blackie, a Cree Indian policeman with a dark past.



Shows go from Shore tryouts to New York City

Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 03/30/07


Shore-area audiences who weren't fortunate enough to have caught Athol Fugard's drama "Exits and Entrances" when it played Long Branch last spring now have another chance: The South African playwright's acclaimed duet is making its long-awaited New York debut in a limited-run, off-Broadway engagement.

A snapshot portrait of the real-life Afrikaans actor Andre Huguenet and the societal sea changes that likely hastened his booze-soaked decline, "Exits" injects an autobiographical element in the person of an earnest young writer — an unnamed stand-in for the young Fugard — who befriends the fast-fading thespian. In a review from May 2006, Press readers learned that "to see it is to be provided with a direct glimpse into the creative process of one of the world's greatest living playwrights."

Best known for "Master Harold . . . and the Boys," Fugard wrote "Exits" expressly for director Stephen Sachs and his L.A.-based Fountain Theatre, working closely with Sachs and his cast (Morlan Higgins as Huguenet, William Dennis Hurley as The Playwright) as the director and actors premiered the show on the West Coast and fine-tuned it at engagements across the country — including a memorable few weeks at Monmouth County's own New Jersey Repertory Company.

Higgins, Hurley and Sachs are all on board once more as "Exits and Entrances" continues a New York run that opened officially on Wednesday and lasts until April 28. A production of Primary Stages, the play is being presented at 59E59 Theaters (59 E. 59th St., natch). Tickets ($60) can be reserved by calling (212) 840-9705.


Michael Nathanson (left), Ian August and Stephanie Thompson star in "tempOdyssey," now being staged by the New Jersey Repertory Company.
File this NJ Rep offering under oddities
Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 02/27/07

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While it probably doesn't appear in the troupe's mission statement, it's actually become something of a policy for New Jersey Repertory Company: cheerfully delving into the surreal and playing with any preconceptions of what a nice, suburban stage company should be doing to earn its subscription dollars.

The latest vehicle for NJ Rep's impish impulses is a little play now playing at their Long Branch main stage by the name of "tempOdyssey," an almost unclassifiable work that's set, strangely enough, in a room full of file cabinets. It's part of a "rolling world premiere" event, staged in cahoots with other affiliated members of the National New Play Network.

The script by Texas-based Dan Dietz places a young temp by the name of Genevieve (Stephanie Thompson) in the downtown Seattle suites of Ithaca Tech Solutions, a place where scientists create weapons of mass destruction and edgy micro-managers work to destroy the psyches of their beleaguered employees.

Branded as "Jane" by her co-workers since, well, all female temps are named Jane, Genny has escaped her family's Georgia chicken farm to "shake the grits out of my ears," lose her drawl and disappear into a hopefully uneventful career as a temporary receptionist.

As portrayed with barely contained manic energy by Michael Nathanson (seen very recently in NJ Rep's "Don't Hug Me"), "Jim" is a temp of a different stripe, a thieving slacker who carries an executive access card — and who knows where the permanent records are kept. Having learned from a master of inter-office intrigue (an almost Jedi-like elder temp named Fran), "Jim"
takes early control of the proceedings, showing Genny the view from the top floors and introducing her to the nearly mythical "Johnson File" — as well as the doomsday device known only as "Jane's Revenge."

Little Genny, as it happens, is a one-woman doomsday scenario in and of herself — a woman for whom death is "what I have to give." Gifted with a facility for choking chickens — a skill that's been at the heart of her relationship with her fowl-farmer dad (David Sitler) — the neck-twisting specialist has come to believe that her very touch brings death and/or despair to all those who get close to her. It's a trait that further manifests itself in an obsession with black holes, and by the time that our terrible temp gets hold of "Jane's Revenge," all hell seems poised to break loose.

Phasing in and out of her Appalachian accent, making an alarmingly smooth transition from put-upon protagonist to downright scary Goddess of Death, Thompson holds her own with the lighting and sound designs of Jill Nagle and Jessica Paz, whose swirling, pulsing projections of worlds in collision and other deep-space phenomena turn Jo Winiarski's blandly sinister file-room set into a jarring theme-park ride.

Cosmic concepts

Anyone who caught "Tilt Angel," the previous Dietz offering at NJ Rep, should know what kind of unexpected to expect — bracingly funny dialogue, eye-popping effects and a script that grapples with some cosmic concepts even as it delivers the gut-level laughs.

Carrying built-in parallels to the original "Odyssey" as well as trace elements of "The Wizard of Oz" and countless half-recalled late-night horror shows, "tempOdyssey" feeds off the NJ Rep team's flair for challenging material with an energy that flags only in the play's final moments.


by Gary Wien

(LONG BRANCH, NJ) -- The surreal mind of playwright Dan Dietz returns to NJ Rep's stage in the "rolling world premiere" of tempOdyssey, a play that is premiering in several theatres around the country at the same time as part of the National New Play Network.

tempOdyssey follows Little Genny, a woman who fled her Georgian past as a chicken choker to move to Seattle and is now embarking on her first day as a temp in an office unlike any other temp job she's ever had. Genny gets a sense of how crazy her new employer is from the very first minute she enters the office and is "trained" by the receptionist she is replacing. It's the woman's last day and she prepares Genny by reciting the office rules such as "one bathroom break in the morning, one in the afternoon - don't leave your desk unattended otherwise or you're fired." Genny laughs but soon realizes the woman is serious.

Once left alone, the phones start ringing like crazy and Genny tries frantically to not only learn how the phone system works but to learn what the name of the company is. Meanwhile another temp named Jim enters the picture and tries to start a conversation but Jenny tries to avoid him.

"I can't talk right now, I'm working" she says. "My mistake," said Jim. "I thought you were temping."

The play's first act is a wonderfully creative blend of sound and lighting effects to emulate the "big bang" and "black holes" which play major roles in the play since the company she temps for makes a product that has a small chance of creating a black hole by mistake.

tempOdyssey is a hilarious look at inner office politics and the art of temporary workers. Genny likes being able to work from place to place without ever being tied down to any one particular place. Jim feels the same way even though he's worked for the same company for over two years. The company constantly tries to get him to sign on permanently but he refuses.

"The CEO calls me 'the hold out - the one with balls" explains Jim.

Jim tells Genny that he was trained by a temp named Fran - a woman who was a temp worker for about 30 years - how to be the ultimate temp... how to be immortal. His main advice to her is that temps can do anything there as long as they don't break anything. Unfortunately, she has a history of breaking things and her streak of bad luck or doing bad things continues whenever she gets close to someone.

In Dan Dietz tradition, the play is surreal throughout with moments of pure surrealism lifting it to a plane almost unimaginable. The first act uses the sound and lighting to pull off the extra surrealism while the second act (which largely seems to take place in Genny's mind) seems to be a bit of a letdown without the visual effects. It's not necessary that the second act is weak, it's somewhat a letdown largely because the first act is so wonderfully written that it's hard to keep going at such a high level. Nevertheless, this play is well worth seeing for the first act alone. There are parts that are simply mind blowing and laugh out loud funny.

tempOdyssey stars Ian August, Andrea Gallo, Michael Nathanson, David Sitler and Stephanie Thompson. As usual, NJ Rep has comprised a truly outstanding cast of actors. Stephanie Thompson as Genny and Michael Nathanson as Jim (aka Dead Body Boy) are truly amazing and Ian August is hilarious as the Scientist (one of many roles he plays).

The set was designed by Jo Winiarski, lights by Jill Nagle, costumes by Patricia E. Doherty, properties by Jessica Parks, and sound and projections by Jessica Paz.

More than just another office place comedy, tempOdyssey tries to merge its story of the quest for meaning of life with Homer's Odyssey. While it may not always work, it does make you think. It also makes you wonder just what other crazy stories are bouncing around in the head of Dan Dietz. One thing's for sure, he's an original.

Discover The Meaning Of Life At New Jersey Rep

Michael Nathanson and Stephanie Thopmson in tempOdyssey.

Or maybe not…

By Philip Dorian, The Two River Times

Don't look for an explanation of tempOdyssey here. Opinion, sure; but as for explanation, you're on your own. Much of Dan Dietz's play at New Jersey Repertory Company is baffling. The beginning, with gobbledytalk about black holes and science gone awry, left me perplexed. So did the metaphysical ending. Then there was everything in between. There's no linear plot. No regular boy-girl romance, no "good guys v. bad guys," not even a king who dies at the end. The play swerves, seemingly randomly, from idea to idea and mood to mood.

Supposedly the playwright sees a symbiosis between office temp work and The Odyssey, the Greek epic poem traditionally ascribed to Homer. Playwright Dietz might see it, but I don't, and it's way too late to check with Homer.

So why did I like tempOdyssey so much? I asked one of the actors. "It's like an abstract painting," Michael Nathanson said, "not just a picture of something. It's got shapes and colors that grab your attention and appeal to you even if you don't know exactly why." I came home and gazed for a while at an abstract watercolor that I've cherished for years. Mike had nailed it. Rather than telling a story, tempOdyssey just happens in front of you, like a piece of music - or an abstract painting.

It helps that the play is so deliciously acted, especially by my lay-analyst Nathanson and by the beguiling Stephanie Thompson, who plays Genny, as in Genevieve, aka Little Genny. She's a former "chicken choker" (stay tuned), now office temp. Nathanson plays Dead Body Boy (now that's abstract), a.k.a. Jim, another temp in the same company, who's been there so long he "could find [his] desk in the dark."

Genny is a recent transplant to Seattle from her family's farm in Georgia, where she earned her alliterative occupational tag via her unique method of killing chickens by spinning their necks 720 degrees. (For the geometrically challenged, that's twice around.) Problem was, she couldn't confine her talent to feathered cluckers. You wouldn't want Little Genny to consider you a pain in the neck, if you get my drift.

Genny shows up at a bomb manufacturing company (wouldn't you know it), where she's given hasty instruction by the blustery CEO (Ian August), which involves mainly barking that two-word obscene phrase into the phone. She and Dead Body Boy, who's not actually dead - yet - riff on the advantages of being temporary. Lines like "Temps do everything for you except be yours," and "As long as you don't break anything you're okay," might indicate that Dietz's play is a metaphor for the odyssey (small "o") of life. Let's just go with that.

Forays into Genny's memory bank, flashbacks to her farm origins, are alternately eerie and funny. Genny's father is hardly the nurturing type; David Sitler plays papa very well, and Andrea Gallo is the rustic mama. Gallo, like Mr. August, excels in other cameo roles as well. August's astrophysicist is properly pompous, and Gallo's temp-from-the-past is the picture of irritating efficiency.

Jim and Genny are a quirky pair, to say the least, and Nathanson and Thompson match them quirk for quirk. He's an uninhibited actor whose limber-limbed, rubber-necked clown scene is a comic gem (although the bit barely sidesteps ridicule of certain handicaps). Genny is a character of extremes, from girlish innocence to intense malevolence, and Thompson, whose poise and swan neck recall Audrey Hepburn, brings it all home. Some of the Jim & Genny scenes are romantic, some confrontational, some actually disturbing (the first act curtain's a doozy); Nathanson and Thompson are in sync with each other in every one.

Plaudits to director Sturgis Warner for the ensemble work and the nimble pace, and Jill Nagle gets a major shout-out for her superb lighting design. Altogether, the tech design and execution complement tempOdyssey perfectly. Like the play itself, the various effects come out of nowhere, but somehow the shapes and colors fit just right.

Make of Dead Body Boy and Genny et al what you will; they and their play are fun to watch. It's ‘Office Temp Meets Carrie' at New Jersey Rep.



NJ Rep promotes a uniquely American voice

Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 02/23/07


You might say temporary workers are invisible Americans: that teeming gray area of the nation's workforce, a shadowy caste whose voices remain silent even as their legions swell. But in a country where the hobo, the outlaw and the gigolo have been celebrated in story and song, who sings the praises of the always-punctual, ever-efficient, non-wavemaking temp?

Dan Dietz knows a thing or two about temping, having done the time-sheet deal both full-time and every summer throughout his stint in grad school. As the Austin, Texas-based playwright sees it, to temp is to walk the razor's edge.

"On the one hand, you have no clout . . . your opinion counts for nothing," says Dietz of the temp's lot in life. "And yet, there's this incredible freedom . . . I knew I wanted to write about this sort of experience."

For Dietz, the germ of an idea began to take shape during one of those temp summers, a time in which he whiled away his downtime hours with a re-reading of Homer's classic "The Odyssey" — along with a little casual research into the topic of black holes. By the time the budding dramatist took part in a "hothouse" writers' workshop in Seattle — an event in which writers were expected to produce plays within a corporate conference-center environment — the artist had found his cubicle-bound muse.

The result? "tempOdyssey," a dark comedy about a Seattle office temp named Little Genny, who comes to believe that she is the Goddess of Death, dispatched to this godforsaken basement file room as part of some epic quest for the meaning of life itself.

Having tested there as a script-in-hand reading, the play comes to the stage of New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch for a four-week run that begins this weekend.

Produced in conjunction with National New Play Network, a loose alliance of nonprofit stage companies of which NJ Rep is a member, "tempOdyssey" is a "rolling world premiere," a work that's being presented by more than one New Play Network affiliate within the same season (the script has already been staged at member playhouses in Denver, Indianapolis and Washington).

The show also marks a return to the NJ Rep mainstage for Dietz and his uniquely skewed perspective on American life. The company previously spotlighted Dietz's jaw-droppingly surreal comedy-drama "Tilt Angel," in which a young shut-in (Ian August) travels to the afterlife via a monstrously oversized telephone; a missing mom (Andrea Gallo) is reincarnated as a sentient tree and a giant skeletal hand emerges from the most frightening backyard garden ever devised.

Although something of an underperformer at box office, Dietz's take on family bonds earned raves in these pages and established the author as a talent to watch.

Joined by Michael Nathanson, David Sitler and Stephanie Thompson under the direction of Sturgis Warner, August and Gallo return to Dietz-land in "tempOdyssey" a study in what happens when a "temp who wants only to be anonymous meets up with a temp who wants to take risks," in a place where the mundane becomes the mythic.

"We all tell ourselves little myths about ourselves to get through the day," Dietz observes. "What happens if that myth becomes so exaggerated that it takes over, and you become disconnected?"

While the playwright (who will soon be punching the clock as a faculty member at Florida State University) professes a certain admiration for the traditional American work ethic, he also marvels at such currents as the erosion of employer-employee loyalty — and the fact that "being promoted" at one's workplace often achieves the same result as being fired; namely, you get to spend more time at home.

"Work was always an escape for many people; a way to hide from the rest of the world," Dietz continues. "But, as we all eventually find out in life, everything is temp."


New Jersey Repertory Company drops a dramatic bombshell
Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 01/9/07


Juliet Kapanjie (left) and Kittson O'Neill appear in a scene from New Jersey Repertory Company's production of "October 1962," now being staged in Long Branch.

Is it too early to proclaim the Shore area's best play of 2007?

For their first mainstage offering of the year, the people of New Jersey Repertory Company have dropped something of a quiet bombshell — a production that sets the bar high for everything to follow. In "October 1962," the drama by D.W. Gregory now in its world premiere engagement at the company's Long Branch playhouse, family secrets and neighborhood tensions approach critical mass in the days immediately before and during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

It's a play in which Fidel Castro and President John F. Kennedy are conspicuous in their absence; it's a play that gives center stage to a smaller-scale (but no less lethal) crisis that starts when a young man returns to his family home after serving a prison stretch for manslaughter.

Playwright Gregory, who previously refracted several decades of American history through the prism of a Midwest farm family in "The Good Daughter," here frames this tense atom-age interlude within the modestly middle-class home shared by small-town businessman Dave Timmons (James Patrick Earley), wife Laura (Kittson O'Neill) and their daughters Jean (Jenny Vallancourt of Middletown) and Nancy (Juliet Kapanjie of Perrineville).

The Timmons household is a place where curtains are drawn against prying eyes, where a door-chain equals extra security and where the outside world (as represented by Walter Cronkite) is allowed access only at the appointed hour. It's also a household under siege, from the rattling of skeletons within as much as from the ratcheting up of tension in the community.

A decent man and a good neighbor, Mr. Timmons grants a job to the much-despised ex-con, who evidently strangled a young child when he himself was barely a teen. It's just a matter of days before threats start flying, mysterious "meetings" begin to occur and the rumor mill lurches into gear, helped in no small measure by Laura.

The author has allowed that her script bears traces of both "The Donna Reed Show" and its fellow 1962 television classic "The Twilight Zone" — the former in its unstated motif of conflicts resolved by an apparently infallible mom and dad, the latter in its recurring theme of suburban streets brought to chaos by fear and panic over bogeymen real and imagined.

Laura is a bit too friendly with the bottle, Dave makes far too many unexplained trips outside the home, and the entire household seems to operate under the credo "the less said about it, the better."

By contrast, the Timmons daughters are spirited rays of sunlight — sociable, community-minded and inquisitive to the point of playing "reporter" with strangely attractive, motorcycle-riding Tommy, a Boo Radley of sorts who remains unseen onstage. Borrowing their dad's binoculars and keeping a journal, the girls — who are not above dabbling in lies and secrets themselves — raise unanswered questions (Did he really kill the boy?) and stir up currents far darker than anything Nancy Drew ever encountered.

Under director Matthew Arbour's sure hand, the world of "October 1962" gains scale and dimension. In his company debut, Earley finds a satisfying balance between TV-dad authority and unsettling otherness; the versatile O'Neill adds another finely etched characterization to a broad NJ Rep portfolio.

No special allowances need be made for the youngest cast members — with their naturalistic, un-stagey styles and honest interactions, newcomers Vallancourt and Kapanjie rise to the challenges of their complex roles.

October 1962

A New Jersey Repertory Company presentation of a play in two acts by D.W. Gregory.
Directed by Matthew Arbour.
New Jersey Rep kicks off the New Year with D.W. Gregory's unnerving new drama
"October 1962." The date may be remembered as a cautious moment in time when President Kennedy challenged the Soviet Union's placement of threatening missiles on Cuban soil. Gregory parallels this brief but tense week in history with a small-town family crisis that may not be as harrowing, but holds similar menace.

The drama hinges upon the curious Timmons sisters, two young Catholic schoolgirls who fashion themselves into investigative reporters. The girls appear to harbor an obsessive grip on a teenage neighbor and former convict, the unseen Tom Nably, who murdered a 7-year-old boy some years before and has returned to a yellow house in the community. As a noble gesture, the girl's father provides employment for the young man, which causes quite a stir in the family.

Curtains are drawn and lights are dimmed as the community trembles with fear. But the Timmons household appears to hold even darker secrets as the older daughter reveals dim memories of a parent's indiscretion.

Just as the inherent fear of the Russian medium-range ballistic missiles was quickly dismissed, a frightening Halloween domestic nightmare erupts and disappears.

While the ominous Tom never makes an appearance, playwright Gregory has invested the drama with a cinematic feel, inserting visions of him buying rope and tape at the grocery store and looking at knives at the local hardware. There's a decided Hitchcockian fabric to the steely narrative, and director Matthew Arbour has touched the aud's nerve ends with a loping, even pace that builds to an alarming revelation.

Performances are tidy but could increase the sense of panic and intensity. Played with the appropriate calculated naivety by Jenny Vallancourt and Juliet Kapanjie, the girls fail to heighten the morbid curiosity of the situation. James Patrick Earley, as the father who harbors a dark secret, gives a well-modulated perf, and Kittson O'Neill provides an earnest account of the wife who appears to dismiss a shady secret with a few shots of vodka.

Carrie Mossman's set offers a reasonably tidy suburban living and dining area that serves the action comfortably, as does Jill Nagle's chilly lighting.

'October 1962' takes a family to the brink

Monday, January 08, 2007
Star-Ledger Staff


Where were you in '62?

Those who were alive and aware certainly can remember where they were for one month of it: The 31-day period on which playwright D.W. Gregory concentrates in her powerful new play, "October 1962."

While the world wondered if President Kennedy could force the Soviets into removing its missiles from Cuba, the Timmons family was going through its own Armageddon.

One can tell that David (James Patrick Earley) and Laura (Kittson O'Neill) are not a happy couple, even before she opens a bottle of vodka. Never mind that her daughters, the teenage Jean (Jenny Vallancourt) and the pre-teen Nancy (Juliet Kapanjie), are right there when she takes her modest first drink -- and her larger second one.

Gregory gets the audience to sympathize with David, who seems to still love his wife, always trying to find the right words that will stop her from drinking. Laura, though, rarely greets him with anything more than an "Oh. There you are."

Laura does screw the cap back on the bottle to take a stand against David's most recent decision. Some years ago, Tom Nabely, a 13-year-old neighbor, killed a 7-year-old boy. Laura is furious not only that Tom has been released from prison, but also that David has magnanimously hired him to work at his office.

Meanwhile, Jean has turned into a veritable Nancy Drew, peeking through curtains and eavesdropping at the drop of a word. Her object is simply to write a good romance novel based on the incident. What starts out as a lark turns dark. When she examines the recesses of her soul and her memory, she learns why she wanted to write this book in the first place.

Gregory makes "October 1962" one of those all-too-rare accomplished plays where theatergoers are sure they can guess what really happened, only to find that the playwright has led them down the wrong path of the maze. Her keeping Tom Nabely off-stage also makes an audience wonder if the man is as bad as Laura says, or reformed, as David insists.

The script is skillfully directed by Matthew Arbour, who accomplishes a few remarkable things here. He makes the tension between Earley and O'Neill unbearable in the first scene, yet escalates it to steadily increasing heights. In ensuring that Earley plays the victimized and brave husband while O'Neill conveys the ravages of alcoholism, he manages to mask the many revelations to come.

Granted, Gregory astutely gives Jean and Nancy the type of taunting often heard between siblings. ("Get a brain, will you?") Yet Arbour provides the chemistry for Vallancourt and Kapanjie to seem genuinely like sisters. While Kapanjie's elocution could be better, she has the lovely insouciance of a tween, and is a delight in maintaining a sunny disposition as her sister can no longer justify having one.

Hence, it's ultimately Vallancourt's play, and she wisely gets the final bow -- and a tidal wave of applause for all she's achieved. She beautifully calibrates her descent from optimism and innocence to a far sadder fate. Only the stoniest of theatergoers won't weep for her.

"October 1962" provides an excellent welcome to 2007. The first professional New Jersey theater production of the year sets a high standard for those yet to come.

A CurtainUp Review
October 1962

You don't make any sense. First you say not to worry. . . then you say we can't go to school alone. It's just like with the missiles. You want to pretend nothing is going on. But we know what's going on. We're not stupid. Why can't you just TELL US! (quick beat) Oh NEVER MIND! I DON'T CARE!— Jean to her parents.

(L to R) Juliet Kapanjie as Nancy and Jenny Vallancourt as Jean
(Photo: SuzAnne Barabas)
Don't try to deceive a child, as they know and see more than you think. That's one of the more prominent messages dramatized in D.W. Gregory's absorbing play now having its world premiere at the New Jersey Repertory Company. The title, October 1962, brings us back forty-five years to another still vivid (for some) time of anxiety and fear, the not so cold war, when the US was facing the possibility of a missile attack launched from Cuba by the Russians.

But the play only uses that time as a background for a scenario in which the people in a small town, specifically the Timmons family, are provoked by uncertainty and prompted to act often rashly in response to a perceived menace or danger. Fourteen year old Jean Timmons (Jenny Vallancourt) and her younger eleven year-old sister Nancy (Juliet Kapanjie) certainly know the drill. That is they know what they have been told to do if an atomic bomb should be dropped while they were in school, like hiding under their desks. But these are pretty clever girls and they quickly come to the conclusion, no matter what they have been told by the adults, that they would be just as dead sitting at their desks.

Undoubtedly a fan of the Nancy Drew mysteries, Jean envisions herself as part detective and part novelist as she peers through the window of the dining room using her father's binoculars. She reports what she sees going on outside the window in an engagingly descriptive manner to Nancy, who writes down her words in a diary. Apparently a young man who lived down the block has returned to his home after serving a sentence, for manslaughter of a seven year old when he was only thirteen. Jean's curiosity is peaked when she sees the young man, now old enough to drive a motorcycle, and who she only vaguely remembers as a child, in the company of their father David (James Patrick Earley).

Here is where Gregory's play begins to percolate. Apparently the townspeople are up in arms not only over the reappearance of the young man who they feel is a threat to the community and to the safety of their children but also by the fact that David has offered the young man a job in his business. His wife Laura (Kittson O'Neill) is more than irate with David's presumably generous action, which she is sure will jeopardize their standing in the community. Laura's response, as is quickly perceived, is fueled by something yet unseen, untold, or understood —as well as by the number of times she tips the gin bottle that sits readily available on a side stable.

The turn of the dramatic events, at least what transpires within the Timmons' home, is most cleverly entrusted to the girls. This provides a refreshing perspective to memories of incidents that are recalled, family secrets that are exhumed, and relationships that are tested. It takes a bit of courage to entrust so much of the play's dynamics to two very young actresses, but Miss Vallencourt responds beautifully to the challenge and is quite wonderful as the audacious undeterred detective determined to make sense of a mystery and family matters too long cloaked in denial and subterfuge. Miss Kapanjie is an unwittingly delightful accomplice, and also amusingly displays all the irritating qualities of a little sister.

Under Matthew Arbour's purposefully restrained direction, the play's darker and progressively unsettling revelations begin to surface early in Earley's tense performance as the husband who is drawn defensively and unalterably into a no-way-out situation. O'Neill's is excellent as the brittle emotionally drained wife who is forced to come to terms with a grim reality. The chief pleasure of a play that inevitably casts a long and dark shadow, however, is Gregory's insightful depiction of a child's logic and the ability that children have to persevere and to withstand all the evidence to the contrary. Despite warnings, Jean and Nancy do affect meetings with the boy (never seen). The play makes a clear enough analogy between the way that people are inclined to react in the face of fear and the way the townspeople and the family in this play respond to what they perceive as a very real and present danger.

Previously, Gregory made a big impact at N.J. Rep with her play The Good Daughter, which earned her a Pulitzer Prize nomination. Audiences will find that October 1962 packs a wallop and sustains our interest. Gregory, who also writes plays specifically for young actors, has certainly created two vivid roles for these two young actresses. Perhaps more importantly her play subtly draws parallels between the political climate in 1962 and today, and how adults are likely to unwittingly become catalysts of fear mongers. All technical credits are commendable from Carrie Mossman’s modest living room setting, Patricia E. Doherty’s costumes, particularly the Halloween get-ups for the girls, and Jill Nagle’s lighting.

Political Allegory Scores Strongly as Ripe, Suspenseful Melodrama

October 1962
Juliet Kapanjie
and Jenny Vallancourt

New Jersey Repertory has a real treat in store for its audiences in its world premiere production of D. W. Gregory's ominous and suspenseful mystery October, 1962. This engrossing and scary play makes for a thoroughly entertaining ride not unlike that provided by the finest amusement park roller coaster.

It is not coincidental that D.W. Gregory has set her play during October, 1962, when the world appeared to be on the brink of a nuclear conflagration after President Kennedy learned that the Soviet Union was deploying nuclear missiles aimed at the United States in Cuba.

October, 1962 is seen through the eyes of two precocious parochial school girls, 14-year-old Jean and, to a lesser extent, her 11-year-old sister, Nan. The entire action takes place in the decorous, conservatively furnished house occupied by the sisters and their parents, David and Laura Timmons. There is clearly a great deal of tension and edginess in the marital relationship.

Armed with a pair of binoculars, and a notebook and pencil, the girls peek out from their window in order to observe and chronicle the return to their street of Tommy, a young man who has just been released after spending many years in a mental hospital. It seems that while a child himself, Tommy had been committed to the hospital after being convicted of deliberately killing a seven-year-old boy. Jean and Laura are surprised to observe that their father David has driven Tommy home from the hospital.

To his wife Laura's chagrin, David has given Tommy a job in his plant in order to facilitate his reintegration into the community. We are led to believe that the tension between Laura and David likely stems from his having had an affair with Tommy's mother. Jean is convinced that Tommy is innocent of the long ago murder, and she seeks out Tommy in order to explore his feelings. Despite David's admonition to Tommy to avoid contact with them, Tommy lingers with his daughters. Driven by paranoia and fear, the townsfolk interpret Tommy's every observed behavior in a fearful light. Laura even fabricates a story about his behavior. However, we cannot help but worry as to whether Jean and Nan are placing themselves in serious jeopardy.

All of this builds to a terrifically tense and emotion laden scene during which their parents discover that Jean has been spending time with Tommy. Nan turns on her older sister in order to deflect her parents' wrath away from herself. The interaction of the parents and their children rings fiercely true. And, it is chillingly apparent that there is something more afoot when David lashes out at Jean, "You've been watching me. Spying on me ... What is it you're trying to find out?."

Author Gregory has a lot more in mind here than mystery melodrama. Gregory is placing the blame for the Cuban missile crisis, and, more relevantly at the moment, for the Iraqi War, on American aggression and paranoia. The Timmons are pointedly Catholic not to add specificity to the characters, but rather to accuse the Church of hypocrisy and deceit in the face of pedophile clergy. The extent to which October, 1962 succeeds as an allegory of the guilt, manipulation and paranoia of the American body politic will vary with the mindset which each viewer brings to the theatre. The more skepticism with which one views America's role on the international stage, the more one will be inclined to accept her analogies. Some will embrace Gregory's dark view of America as an paranoid, overbearing and morally challenged nation. Others will find her observations as naive in regard to the reality of the dangers which our nation faces. However, no one will be bored. For those of us so inclined, there is plenty of fodder here to provide the basis for lively and enlightening discussion wherever our views fall along the political spectrum.

Director Matthew Arbour has managed to meld his actors into a first rate ensemble. There is a strong sense of family among the four principals. Both James Patrick Earley and Kittson O'Neill solidly project a complex maze of emotions as the all too human and self-absorbed parents. It may be too kind to say that David and Laura are less than admirable, but they do love their children and are fighting to save their home and family. Unfortunately, Juliet Kapanjie's natural, unmannered performance as Nan is undermined by poor enunciation. Nevertheless, October, 1962 marks a notable professional debut for the 10-year-old fifth grader. Jenny Vallancourt is a natural in the pivotal role of Jean. Starting out in the manner of a juvenile mystery book amateur detective, her Jean grows in intensity and maturity as she delves more and more deeply into dark and scary corners. Ultimately, Vallancourt powerfully conveys the hysteria which overcomes Jean as her parents desperately attempt to shield her from the ultimate dark family secret.

Carrie Mossman has designed a richly detailed, realistic set depicting several areas of the Timmons' home on the NJ Rep's narrow stage. Patricia E. Doherty's costumes are unobtrusively evocative of the period.

In October, 1962, author D.W. Gregory explores major political themes, and integrates them into the whole without sacrificing any of the pleasure provided by one of the most entertaining suspense plays to come down the pike in quite some time.



World-premiere drama spotlights young actresses

Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 01/5/07


Whether you lived through it or simply learned about it in history class, October 1962 represents the front line of the Cold War: a time of backyard bomb shelters, "duck and cover" drills and a Civil Defense warden on every block. Even to a generation that's been personally scarred by terror on the home front, the Cuban Missile Crisis remains The Day the Hotline Got Hot — the point where the usual game of brinksmanship truly brought us to the brink.

That said, don't expect to see President Kennedy or Premier Khrushchev onstage during "October 1962," the drama making its world premiere this weekend at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. In the script by D.W. Gregory (whose play "The Good Daughter" was a stand-out production at NJ Rep), the nationwide anxiety over those missiles of October is relegated to the background: not completely out of mind, but just enough of a presence to imbue the author's tale of small-town fear and domestic discord with an extra layer of tension.

"I felt that the Cuban Missile Crisis was a good backdrop; a point of high anxiety in our history," explains the playwright noted for her reality-based "Radium Girls" of a few seasons back. "There are certain parallels to our current politics, such as how we deal with a perceived threat."

The drama's emotional ordnance comes into play when a young man, having been released from prison after serving a sentence for his part in a murder, returns to the community he once called home. When a local businessman (James Patrick Earley) decides to give the ex-convict a job, he does more than rattle the townsfolk, he drives a wedge between himself and his wife (NJ Rep mainstay Kittson O'Neill), whose concerns range from their family's standing in the community to the safety of their impressionable young daughters.

Co-starring in the cast (under the direction of Matthew Arbour) as the youngest members of the family are a pair of newcomers to the NJ Rep company, each with roots in the Shore area. Jenny Vallancourt of Red Bank appears as the eldest daughter, while her little sister is portrayed by Perrineville resident Juliet Kapanjie.

"I love to act; I've been doing it for a very long time," explains 10-year-old Juliet, a fifth grader at the Ranney School in Tinton Falls (a "school full of celebrities" that boasts Kirsten Dunst among its alumni). "I contacted (NJ Rep) about an audition, and they e-mailed me the script . . . I thought it was so interesting after I read it, I wanted to know more about it."

Juliet was previously seen by Shore audiences in the Phoenix Productions revival of "The Wiz" at Red Bank's Count Basie Theatre in 2005, when, under the direction of her dance teacher, she appeared as a Munchkin. With "October 1962," the aspiring movie actress found herself involved in a very different sort of production — a heavily dramatic, character-driven ensemble piece. During rehearsals, director Arbour "really helped me a lot," she recalles. "We sat and talked about what this family is like."

According to Juliet, "The characters are very much involved with the story of the boy . . . at the same time, they're worried about the missiles. It's interesting how they overlap."

As playwright Gregory maintains, "The bigger issues in this play are refracted through the experiences of this one family. There's a burbling strain of secrets, of terror, under the surface of their ordinary existence."

Drawing a distinction between the paranoia panorama of 1962 and our general distancing from today's clear and present dangers, the playwright asserts that "here in our so-called War on Terror, there's no call for sacrifice; no home front — whereas the Cold War was nothing but home front."

'October 1962': metaphor for the country and times
Millstone youth makes professional stage debut
Staff Writer

Juliet Kapanjie, 10, of the Perrineville section of Millstone, has a lead role in the New Jersey Repertory Company's production of "October 1962."
MILLSTONE - A 10-year-old township resident has risen to the challenge of taking on a complex role in a psychological suspense story.

Juliet Kapanjie, of the Perrineville section of Millstone, is making her debut performance this month on the professional stage in the New Jersey Repertory Company's production of "October 1962" in Long Branch.

For its first main-stage offering of the year, the world premiere of the play written by D.W. Gregory is set during the Cuban missile crisis. The story is about the re-emergence of a man who has just been released from prison after serving a term for killing a child. His presence in the small town where Juliet's character Nancy lives becomes unnerving to an already skittish community dealing with the fright of the times during the Cuban missile crisis. Most townspeople consider the man a "ticking time bomb," and it looks as if it won't be long before he acts again. Nancy's family, however, decides not to judge him.

Kittson O'Neill (l-r), Juliet Kapanjie and James Patrick Early appear in a scene from NJ Rep's production of "October 1962," now being staged in Long Branch.
The playwright has also said the story is a metaphor for the United States and how jingoistic and war-happy so many people in the country were after 9/11.

Juliet, a fifth-grader at the Ranney School in Tinton Falls and an aspiring movie actress, said that when she read a copy of the play prior to the audition she found it quite interesting and wanted to know more.

In 2005, Juliet appeared as a Munchkin in Phoenix Productions' "The Wiz" at the Count Basie Theatre in downtown Red Bank. Unlike her first role, which wasn't very trying, according to Juliet, her part in "October 1962" is quite challenging.

"It is a difficult part," she said. "My character's name is Nancy, and she asks a lot of questions."

Juliet's mother, Candice Pluchino Steven, said that when the family found out that Juliet had gotten the part, it came as a complete surprise.

"It was really thrilling," her mother said. "I'm proud of my daughter's talents."

Candice called "October 1962" an ambitious play for a 10-year-old.

"It's about turmoil in a small town," her mother said. "There's gossip and fear within the town that gets everyone going."

According to Candice, Juliet's part works to balance the dramatic production with lighthearted comedy and the overall innocence of a child. Since her character is younger than the rest of the people in the play, she doesn't fully understand what's going on all of the time and the dangers involved in living where and when she does.

The preparation for learning her part was extensive. Once Juliet got the role, she practiced her lines at home from early September through October. Rehearsals at the theater began in December, often lasting for eight hours at a time, but Juliet said she enjoyed every minute of them.

"I love acting," she said. "It's really fun getting to perform in front of people on stage."

The play runs for two hours. Since there are only four people in the entire production, each character plays an integral part and has numerous lines.

Juliet's performance demands a lot of emotion from her, requiring the 10-year-old to act scared, upset and also quizzical, which is why her mother considers it "a tough, tough role."

"There's no second take," Juliet said. "It's live, not like in a movie where you can do things over and over."

Juliet's mother said that while her daughter is taking her stardom in stride, she herself is still in shock.

"At the first performance, I didn't breathe," her mother said.

Juliet said the play's director, Matthew Arbour, and the other actors, James Patrick Earley, Kittson O'Neill and Jenny Vallancourt, all helped her during rehearsals. She also takes an actor's improvisation class at the Actors Playground School of Theatre in Eatontown.

Juliet studies improvisation with Ralph Colombino. Juliet said she's learned from the class "to just do what I want during improvisation, to just be natural and to go out there."

Besides acting, Juliet is a serious student of ballet and the dance arts. She takes dance classes at the American Repertory Ballet's (ARB) Princeton Ballet School in Princeton.

A CurtainUp Interview With D. W. Gregory

By Lucy Ann Dunlap

The following E-Mail Chat with D.W. Gregory took place prior to the opening of her new play October 1962, premiering at the New Jersey Repertory Theatre in Long Branch where it will be reviewed by Simon Saltzman. This world premiere, set during the Cuban missile crisis about the return to town of a convicted child killer and how it affects a particular family is the eighth full-length play by this writer, now known as D. W. Gregory, ho earlier in her career wrote under her maiden name, Dolores Whiskeyman. The Good Daughter, premiered in 2003 also at NJ Rep and was subsequently nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.

Gregory has won a number of awards, including a National Endowment for the Arts grant for the production in May 2000 for Radium Girls at Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey. The Newark Star-Ledger named it the Best New Play of that season. It and a number of her full-length and short plays have been published by Dramatic Publishing Co., and scenes from a number of them have been included in anthologies.

In addition to writing, Gregory is a teaching artist selected by the Maryland Arts Council to teach playwriting in the state's public schools. The Imagination Stage in Maryland commissioned her to write plays for young people. Penny Candy, her comedy for young actors, was produced at their Academy. She earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in playwriting from the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. and her bachelor's degree from Seton Hall University in New Jersey. She lives in Silver Springs, Maryland with her husband Paul, a bluegrass musician.

Q: What prompted you to write October 1962?

A: This play has two sources of inspiration. The first was a newspaper article I clipped about 10 years or more ago about how a small town dealt with a man who'd been released from prison after serving a full 12-year term for rape and kidnapping and how frightened people were just by the fact that he was there among them. He began to act very strangely — going to McDonald's, sitting in a booth and staring at young women, remarking on their appearance, that kind of thing. Very unnerving to an already skittish community. In the article the prison psychiatrist said he was convinced that the man was a "ticking time bomb" and that it was only a matter of time before he acted again — but until the man actually committed a crime, there was nothing anyone in the town could do about him, because he had served his time and he was free.

What do you do in that situation? I saw a drama in it, and I tucked it away in a clip file. And then I forgot about it.
When the Iraq War started, I remembered that story and pulled it out again. And thought about it: What if you're convinced of a danger you can't prove? What do you do? And so I began to think about what was going on at the time, about how shaken the nation was after 9-11 and how jingoistic and war-happy so many people were.

I began to think about some of these geopolitical issues on a domestic scale. We know what happens when a superpower gives in to paranoia and panic. What if we look at these problems in a more contained setting, refracted through the lens of a single family? And so the play began to take shape early in 2004 and I worked on it, off and on over the next year and a half in between other projects.

Q: Does it have any particular relevance in relation to the present day political climate?

A: Absolutely. The play could stand on its own, I guess, as a psychological suspense story — but I think it's really a metaphor for our country and our times.

Q: Two of your plays are titled, The Good Daughter and Are you the "good daughter," the "good girl?"

A: Not any more.

Q: Which of your plays are drawn from your life? Which are primarily research driven? A: It's difficult to delineate, because even the most heavily researched plays sometimes tap my personal experiences. I can definitely relate to Grace Fryer, the character in Radium Girls who moves from trusting authority to realizing that she'd been hoodwinked by people who were supposed to be looking out for her. The silent contract in that culture, in which women are expected to be supportive and sweet and unchallenging of male authority, is that in exchange for all this sweetness and subservience, the men in charge will look out for them. In this case, the men poisoned the girls — certainly not intentionally, but clearly with great negligence. And when they were confronted with the facts, they did everything they could to cover it up and put off dealing with the inevitable. That's a pattern I can relate to in my own life. I've certainly had direct experience with authority figures who turned out to be corrupt — and it's a pattern we see played out over and over and over again, most recently in the U.S. Congress and the White House -- where our leaders are more concerned about covering up their own mistakes than in finding out how to prevent the next disaster.

I have written plays that are clearly personal stories. Years ago I wrote a play called The Truth About Charlie that was really about my own family. Besides a workshop at Playwrights Theatere that play never got a production, but it's the most personal thing I've written, if by personal you mean based on true life experience. Somewhere I've read that every playwright's rite of passage is the "family play" that exorcises their personal demons. But that early play didn't exorcise any demons for me. It was a rather sanitized, sentimental view of a blue collar household wrestling with alcoholism, religious intolerance, poverty, and ultimately, the grandfather's infidelity to his wife and the impact that it had on his sons. It's all grim material presented in the shape of a sweet family comedy. Maybe that made it palatable. Maybe it made it unproducible. More likely that was also because it has six kids. At any rate, it went in the drawer. However, when I wrote The Good Girl Is Gone about six or seven years later I went back to the same material and this time, instead of a Kauffman and Hart type comedy, I wrote something much more raw and fractured — a five-character, surrealistic piece that careens from past to present to past. In the end it deals with the same questions: Why do the actions of a parent in the past continue to poison the relationships of the children in the present? Why must the sins of the fathers be passed on to any generation? That's a universal mystery, I think, upon which all psychotherapy is based.

Q: Which have proved to be the better received of your plays and whyhy do you think that is so?

A: Depends who's receiving it. Radium Girls got universally positive reviews when it premiered at Playwrights Theatre, and it did very well at the box office. Since then it has been published and has gotten a lot of productions — all of them amateur productions in high schools or colleges. Couldn't get a single professional company to consider doing it. The Good Daughter got very good notices (with one or two exceptions) when it was produced at NJ Rep. It was again a sell-out show, and again, I couldn't get any other theaters interested in it. But then neither of these plays is particularly easy to do. Radium Girls is this large-cast, sprawling Brechtian spectacle — which, by the way, got a fantastic production in London this October— and The Good Daughter is an epic story that skates on the edge of melodrama. It's not a melodrama -- but if you don't play it right, it will be, and I think a lot of theaters are afraid of that. Audiences aren't, though. They ate up both plays.

Q: What have you learned from teaching young people in the playwriting workshops?

A: I've learned to be more conscious of the choices I make in my own writing. That you can't teach talent; you can only teach technique. And that the kiss of death for any writer in any setting is to be defensive of your work. It's a strange thing, but while you need to be able to defend your choices, you should never be defensive about them because that puts up a barrier between you and your audience and denies you an opportunity to learn more about your work. But over and over again I see a lot of young writers get very upset if their work is not well received or not understood. So I urge them to think in terms of effectiveness in writing. It's not about whether the work is good or bad. It's about whether it works . . .. what they want the audience to receive. . .what they want the audience to think or feel or understand? And if the audience doesn't receive it as hoped for, analyze the work and try to figure out why. And then try to figure out what the fix is to get the reaction you want. That makes it less personal for the students and makes the point that writing isn't just about self-expression but about conscious choices and applying specific techniques towards desired ends. So the lesson I take away from all of this is to do that. No matter how personal the source of the material might be — to set all that aside and focus as dispassionately as possible on the structure of the play.



A shotgun wedding brings a hit musical comedy to NJ Rep

Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 12/8/06


Outside it's a positively Plutonian 78 degrees below zero … cold even for far-north Bunyan Bay, Minn. Inside Gunner Johnson's bar, things are heating up from the conflicts between two couples: Gunner and his wife Clara (a former Winter Carnival Bunyan Queen), who are split between moving to Florida and staying in their hellaciously frigid hometown, along with pretty waitress Bernice, who aspires to a singing career against the wishes of her fiancee Kanute. Enter slick salesman Aarvid Gisselsen, who's got just the thing to boost business and patch up punctured romances … the LS 562 karaoke machine ("not a karaoke machine, but a lifestyle system''), a black box that lights up and spews out the songs of one Sven Jorgenson, local composer of such peculiarly provincial ditties as "I'm a Walleye Woman in a Crappie Town'' and "I Wanna Go to the Mall of America.''

An award-winning smash that's been described as " "Fargo' meets "The Music Man' without the blood or trombones,'' Paul and Phil Olson's musical romp "Don't Hug Me'' brings a frosty blast of Bunyan Bay to the Jersey Shore. It's the first-ever
holiday season offering for the Long Branch-based New Jersey Repertory Company, and it's produced in collaboration with Shotgun Productions of Manhattan. Gail Winar, who helmed "Beyond Gravity'' for NJ Rep last year and supervised one of this
play's first readings, returns to the material with a cast that includes Clark Carmichael, John Little, Cortnie Loren Miller, Michael Nathanson and Darcie Siciliano.

This holiday musical is a departure for NJ Rep in more ways than one. It's a light confection from a company known more for the edgy and experimental (the troupe's last mainstage production was the Death Row monologue "Speed Queen''), and an engagement that adds a few more scheduled performances to the mix, including a special New Year's Eve encore that boasts an after-show party.

Although Minnesota-born playwright-lyricist Phil Olson makes his home in the decidedly balmier precincts of Southern California these days, the drawn-out winters, Midwestern accents and Scandinavian values of his home state continue to
inspire his popular stage works. Witness his first produced play, "KOLD Radio, Whitefish Bay'' (a show originally titled "Krappie Talk'').

"Don't Hug Me'' had its original premiere in 2003 at L.A.'s Whitefire Theatre LA … a six-week stand that was famously held over for six months by popular demand. Since published by Samuel French, Inc., the little show that the Los Angeles Times called "a hokey-jokey, karaoke crowd pleaser'' has now been booked in close to 40 different cities in North America … and is well on its way to becoming a franchise along the lines of "Greater Tuna,'' "Forever Plaid'' and the mighty "Nunsense.'' It's even spawned a sequel: "A Don't Hug Me Christmas Carol,'' now entering its world-premiere engagement in L.A. (with a concurrent run in four other cities) featuring, for a limited time, Phil Olson himself as Gunner in the West Coast staging.

"I put the Christmas show together pretty much at the urging of the theater owners who didn't want to do "A Tuna Christmas' again,'' Olson explained from his L.A. home. "Three of the five venues booked the show before I even wrote it.''

Phil's choice of collaborator makes for another fascinating fun-fact. Brother Paul Olson … a kidney specialist whose day job is Chief of Nephrology at Allina Clinic in Shakopee, Minn. - finds himself now a published composer who, in Phil's words, is "having a blast doing this . . . he's even going to perform in the Minnesota production of "Christmas Carol'.''

"He's always been a musician; he plays a lot of instruments and uses a computer composition program called Finale,'' the author said of his older sibling. "I would try to write songs by humming into a tape recorder . . . finally he said, "just let me write the music.' '' Thus were born such regionally resonant anthems as "The Bunyan Yodel'' and "Upside Down in My Pickup Truck.''

Much as his old state-mates come in for a gentle ribbing, Phil Olson said, "I love Minnesotans . . . I don't want to offend them or treat them like the characters in (the Coen Brothers film) "Fargo.' ''

"I did a reading of the original script in the town of Ely in northern Minnesota (the show was in fact first titled "The Merchant of Ely'), and the audience thought it was a valentine to the area . . . they realize that you're laughing with, and not at, the characters.''

As for stepping into the shoes of his own character creation, the playwright is prone to confess that "as an actor, I'm a good understudy . . I would always cast good Equity actors before I would cast myself.''

"Besides, actors and directors always get nervous whenever I'm around.''


"Feeling Minnesota" in Long Branch
Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 12/12/06


A frost-brewed frolic from the land of competitive curling, "Don't Hug Me" makes its Jersey Shore debut in a production that breaks down all resistance with its score of engagingly silly songs, as well as a cheerfully-rendered message of dreams fulfilled and love reaffirmed — all via the magic of karaoke. It's a rare non-"Scrooge" local stage offering this time of year, and it's an offbeat show for a number of other reasons, not the least of which is where you'll find it.

A runaway hit in its original L.A. production, "Don't Hug Me" comes to New Jersey Repertory Company's playhouse in downtown Long Branch with a proven coast-to-coast track record and a budding franchise to boot (the holiday sequel "A Don't Hug Me Christmas Carol" premiered in five U.S. cities this month). That's unusual enough for NJ Rep, a company that prides itself on developing and premiering completely new works. But in this, its first collaboration with Manhattan-based Shotgun Productions, the troupe veers as close as it will ever come to "Nunsense" territory.

Of course, it's hardly fair to characterize NJ Rep as a bunch of gloomy Gusses. Its home stages have long been the setting for some memorable comedies, including the recent "Tour de Farce" and "The Best Man." "Don't Hug Me" follows in the tradition of "Best" with a lively presentation that doesn't gloss over the hard work and heart that went into its creation.

Less than zero

Pitched as a cross between the icy-cold comic film "Fargo" and the classic slice of Americana "The Music Man," the musical comedy (book and lyrics by Phil Olson, music by Peter Olson) takes place in the northern Minnesota hamlet of Bunyan Bay, during a cold snap in which the mercury gets down to minus 78 degrees — and the customer base at The Bunyan bar doesn't manage to get much above zero.

Beneath the earflaps and flannels, some dramatic flashpoints are heating up: Tavern owner Gunner (John Little) wants to chuck it all for a new life in the swampier climes of sunny Florida — a prospect that rates a chilly reception from his wife and business partner Clara (Darcie Siciliano). Meanwhile, their amply-endowed employee Bernice (Cortnie Loren Miller) seems pleasantly resigned to a rather uneventful future with her hometown-honcho fiancee Kanute (Clark Carmichael).

This being the off-season, the Music Man who comes to town is not Professor Harold Hill but one Aarvid Gisselsen (Michael Nathanson), a traveling salesman towing a formidable black box identified as the LSS 562. The "lifestyle system" karaoke machine boasts "comfort zone enhancement," song-title voice activation and an almost mystical ability to improve both bar business and the romantic relationships of those who take hold of its wireless microphone.

It's also programmed with more than 80 songs ostensibly penned by local hero Sven Yorgenson, a chameleonic songsmith whose goofy pastiches of pop styles (from Lawrence Welk to black metal) become the vehicles by which these characters express their deepest desires and durable fantasies.

The LSS 562 is the creation of scenic designer and tech director Quinn K. Stone, who has transformed the normally spartan setting of NJ Rep's black-box performance space into a dead-on evocation of Gunner's Bunyan bar. To paraphrase a line from a song by '90s grunge band Soundgarden, the play (conceived by a native Minnesotan turned SoCal transplant) is "dressing Minnesota" but "feeling California" — a study in broad Scandinavian inflections and "Fargo" accents, delivered by a cast (under Gail Winar's direction) with the manic dexterity of a Sunset Strip improv troupe.

Smorgasbord of styles

Belting out songs such as "I Wanna Go to the Mall of America" and "My Smorgasbord of Love" in a stylistic spread that ranges from John Denver and Barry Manilow to Tito Puente and Madonna, the actors each get a moment to shine — with standout solos from Little (the poignant "Last Night I Dreamed"), Miller (the va-voom "He Wore a Purple Tux") and Carmichael (the energetic Elvis workout "You're My Woman.") Choreographer Amy Uhl makes the most of a razor-thin space between the performers and the front row.

A warm and inviting place to duck into on a nippy night, "Don't Hug Me" runs through Dec. 31.

Don't Hug Me:
Cheery Musical For The Winter Season

Don't Hug me
John Little and Clark Carmichael
Don't Hug Me, the intimate musical comedy from Minnesota by way of Los Angeles, has been making its way about the country pleasing audiences since its 2003 West Coast premiere. It has now arrived at the usually more serious minded New Jersey Rep as a bauble for the joyous holiday season. And while it breaks no new ground, it proves to be a clever and agreeable fun evening in the theatre. This is quite an accomplishment when one considers that the gags are truly terrible (which seems to be the point) and the story centers on a karaoke machine and its ability to change lives.

We find ourselves in the Bunyan, a small, rural bar in Bunyan Bay, Minnesota on the coldest day of the year. Gunner wants to sell the bar and move to the warmth of Florida, but his wife Clara is determined to stay as she loves the pleasures of ice fishing and her memories of being Queen of the local Winter Carnival. Omnipresent is their waitress Bernice who shares Clara's feelings about Bunyan Bay. They sing, "I'm a Walleye Woman in a Crappie Town/ ... but I'm never moving away/ hey hey, hey, hey." Bernice is engaged to the foolishly self-important and acquisitive supply store owner Kanute. The events that ensue are initiated by the arrival on the scene of Aarvid, a young and enthusiastic karaoke system salesmen Aarvid.

No spoilers here! We are treated to a series of comic songs and sketches involving lots of feudin' and fussin' among our five protagonists and a happy ending that finds Gunner and Clara back in love, Bernice and Aarvid in thrall to each other, and the ridiculous Kanute fuming.

The authors are brothers Phil Olson (book and lyrics) and Paul Olson (music). The former is a California based playwright (with some minor film credits), and the later is a nephrologist in Minnesota, who has always been an accomplished musician. Based on the happy, uncynical, tongue-in-cheek nature of their writing, they might be described as the anti-Coen brothers. The conceit of the music is that the songs are cornball Prairie Home Companion-like adaptations of the styles of famous composers and performers.

At times, the music is more evocative than it is at others. For example, "written by Swen Jorgensen in his Madonna phase" is "He Wore a Purple Tux," a prostitute's lament ("He was a gentleman, he paid me fifty bucks/ And I went back to the V.F.W., to find another purple tux"). Most of these songs are intentionally tacky, yet at the same time manage to be pleasant, lively and amusing. The music is recorded, but this is less of a negative than one might expect because it is mostly represents the sound of the karaoke machine (or the radio).

The entire cast performs with gusto and high spiritedness. Each performer takes advantage of any number of opportunities to shine, and the alphabetical billing is as it should be. Clark Carmichael delightfully projects Kanute's pig-headed, self-centered foolishness in a likeable, broad performance without winking at the audience or otherwise distancing himself from Kanute's ridiculousness. The key here is his excellent comic timing. John Little's Gunner is irascible, but almost always has an observant comic twinkle in his eye that makes it clear that he is not far from reaching out to his Clara and restoring their happiness. He even gets to sing a gay '90s style waltz, "Last Night I Dreamed," with homespun charm. Cortnie Loren Miller's Bernice is bright and dynamic. She performs with show business pizzazz as a waitress whose dream of becoming a professional singer is given impetus by the arrival of Aarvid and his jukebox. Michael Nathanson is a bundle of charm and eager enthusiasm as Aarvid. His likeability and vulnerability are precisely what is needed here. Darcie Siciliano brings a sense of joy to Clara's confident and gritty determination not to lose control of her life.

Among all of the groaner gags that I recorded in my notes, there is one that I found to be amusing on paper. To dissuade Kanute from assaulting him because of his attention to Bernice, Aarvid has convinced Kanute that he is gay. When Aarvid later tells Kanute that he has good news, Kanute responds, "You joined the Ice Capades?"

As it is wont to do on occasion, NJ Rep is utilizing the inner lobby-reception area rather than the main stage for this production. The long narrow space proves most felicitous for Don't Hug Me as it allows for the design of a large and richly detailed tavern set (kudos to designer Quinn K. Stone), and the entire audience can feel that it is within the confines of the Bunyan. Director Gail Winar has kept things moving at a brisk pace and elicited uniformly excellent performances. Note to the director: John Little and Darcie appear far apart in age, and no mention is made of this in the script. This makes it sound odd when Gunner speaks of going to Florida "before we die." Changing the word "we" to "I" would instantly allow the audience to see their age differential as integral to the piece.

There is a visual triumph in her production which is particularly fine. It is at the top of the second act and Gunner and Kanute are standing back of the bar drinking and (for laughs) foolishly lamenting the ascendance of Aarvid and his karaoke machine at the Bunyan, The former is wearing a red and black striped lumberjack's cap (and striped shirt) and the latter a Russian fur hat (and a reindeer sweater), strongly evoking memories of the 1940's "Road" pictures of Bing Crosby (Gunner) and Bob Hope (Kanute). In the context of Don't Hug Me's style of corny comedy, this was a perfect image to put a warm smile on my face. Now Gail Winar may not have thought of this, but, unless she disabuses me of my notion of her intent here, I won't believe that.

Asbury Radio ~ The Radio Voice of Asbury Park

Don't Hug Me
Photo: The cast of "Don't Hug Me": Clark Carmichael, Cortnie Loren Miller, John Little, Darcie Siciliano, Michael Nathanson.

Photo credit: SuzAnne Barabas

Asbury Radio's Review:

One thing that hits you as clear as a Minnesota Icehouse from a 100 yards is the guy who wrote "Don't Hug Me" had a helluva  good time doing it.  Phil Olson, who wrote the book and lyrics for the musical now running through Dec. 31 at NJRep's Lumia Theater in Long Branch, did just that. And the same probably goes for Phil's brother Paul, an M.D., who wrote the music. The result is that 10 minutes into this musical, you drop your big city smugness and settle into your LandsEnd boots (North Country attire is de riguer for the evening) and laugh along to goofy jokes and silly songs that you gradually realize are all rather clever, in fact.

There's a love triangle, a karaoke machine that cues itself at the strangest moments, a couple whose marriage needs a tune up and the constant specter of a now famous classmate, Sven Jorgenson, with 82 songs on the Karaoke LSS 562. The acting keeps this tongue in cheek romp from sinking through the ice. Cudos to Michael Nathanson, who lights up the stage with his irresistibly charming Karaoke salesman (a la Music Man); Clark Carmichael as the egocentric Kanute, John Little as Gunner, the romantically challenged, slightly homophobic husband who just wants to move to sunny Florida, Cortnie Loren Miller as Bernice, who glides through her character's dramatic transformation with ease, and Darcie Siciliano, as Gunner's wife Clara, who portrays a wife with one hand on the front door knob with sincerity, sentiment and humor. Gail Winar did an excellent job of directing the cast through dance routines on the postage stamp Dwek stage. Hurry on over to the Lumia Theater before the bad weather socks you in. 



NJ Rep short play fest turns Deadly this weekend

Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 11/17/06


Pride, envy, anger, greed, gluttony, lust and sloth — for centuries now, those Seven Deadly Sins have, if nothing else, ensured that playwrights are seldom left staring at a blank sheet of typing paper.

Beginning tonight and continuing throughout this weekend, the less-than-magnificent Seven take center stage once more, as the Shore's own New Jersey Repertory Company presents a three-day festival of short plays crafted around the theme of "The Seven Deadly Sins."

It's the third annual entry in NJ Rep's Theatre Brut series of short-form showcases. Founders Gabe and SuzAnne Barabas have described the series as "the creative impulse unfettered by social and artistic convention . . . where the "straitjacket of logic" and "the fossilized debris of dead language" are replaced by "innovation and wonderment."

For the 2006 edition of Theatre Brut (a riff on psychiatrist Hans Prinzhorn's studies in Art Brut, or "outsider" art created by residents of mental institutions), the NJ Rep braintrust surrendered the asylum to the inmates — putting out the call for original short works that have as their thematic foundation any one of the aforementioned Seven Deadlies (or any combo-platter thereof). From more than 500 submissions, the producers assembled three separate programs featuring a total of 28 never-before-seen dramatic works — monologues and ensembles, comedies and tragedies, even a mini-musical — employing the services of some 60 hard-working performers.

Fear not, Sloth fans: Your sin of choice is amply represented here, along with the arguably more compelling sister sins of lust and anger. As in 2004's "My Rifle, My Pony and Me" (a festival built around the image of the American cowboy) and last year's round-robin study in "Sacrifice," this Theatre Brut event promises to bring out the best in NJ Rep's incredible stock company of actors, writers and directors. It's a genuine showcase for the company's formidable human resources, and the ultimate "insider" event for the best and brightest of the area's stage pros.

The Speed Queen: A Fast Paced 85 Minutes of Engrossing Storytelling

The Speed Queen
Anne Stockton
The Speed Queen plays like the terse, exciting Hollywood crime programmers which were often sleeker and more entertaining than the main features which they supported in the double feature movie going days of my too far off childhood.

You'll likely recognize the essential elements of the story. It is told by Marjorie as she awaits her final walk (or a reprieve) in an Oklahoma jail. As she snorts speed apparently provided by a sympathetic jailer, Marjorie is talking into a recorder, answering questions submitted on cards by an author who is paying her for the rights to her story. The money will provide a little nest egg for her 10-year-old son Gainey. Unlike the B-movie melodramas evoked here, The Speed Queen is a monodrama, and only Marjorie appears corporeally. Thus, it is up to the audience to picture the other squalid players and their victims, the spare black and white settings, the cars speeding down highways to nowhere, the erotic entanglements, and the vicious and bloody criminal behavior of the protagonists. And we do see the story vividly unfold in the camera of our minds courtesy of the richly descriptive, vivid and fast paced adaptation of Stewart O'Nan's novel of the same title by Anne Stockton. In this respect, the play calls to mind the pleasurable boon to the imagination that radio drama once provided. The clear presence here of elements of both B-pictures and old time radio make for a pleasing retro experience.

Marjorie begins by telling us that she met Lamont, her husband and partner in crime, when he drove into a gas station where she was working. It is a love at first sight tale of two junkies whose pleasure together derives from taking hard drugs, hot and heavy fornication and attending car shows. In quick time, Marjorie becomes pregnant. When her newborn arrives, Marjorie has to give up her gig at the gas station. However, she services Lamont's druggie customers from their apartment. Marjorie convincingly asserts that she did not use illegal drugs during her pregnancy. After giving birth, she again gets heavily into the use of drugs. At first, she skims from each packet sold. As her habit increases, she increases prices without telling Lamont in order to cover the costs of drugs diverted for her own use. Arrested for possession after an auto accident, Marjorie is sentenced to a minimum security prison. Here she meets Natalie. Their relationship is both sexual and sisterly. When Natalie is released, and needs a place to stay, she moves in with Lamont and Marjorie. Natalie helps with the drug sales, and, before long, adds Lamont to her sexual menu.

Following the theft of the money which he had borrowed to finance a major drug deal, Lamont is viciously assaulted by the loan sharks, and the trio accompanied by 2-year-old Gainey head off onto Route 66 where they embark on a murderous, bloody and stupidity-laden crime spree, and Marjorie repays Natalie's betrayal.

As adapter, Anne Stockton, has so vividly drawn the off stage characters that I had the passing (albeit ridiculous) thought of reviewing the roles of Lamont and Natalie.

Adaptor Anne Stockton also performs the role of Marjorie under the never static, tightly wound direction of Austin Pendleton. She brings variety, vigor and conviction to her portrayal. Marjorie is the kind of person who is able to act in a stone cold, utterly vicious and horrific manner because her all consuming desire to satisfy her own wants is inextricably entwined with her inability to have any concern or compassion for others. In attempting to humanize Marjorie, Stockton may be a tad too engaging. On the other hand, sad experience has taught the world that monsters can be frightfully engaging. Certainly, Marjorie's horrendous behavior is clear enough here.

The clean, sleek prison office setting is by Jessica Parks. Marjorie's new looking, sharply pressed green prison jumpsuit is uncredited. There is a dialect coach, so I'll assume Stockton's near Southern sounding strong regional accent is accurate.

Marjorie mentions that she acquired the soubriquet The Speed Queen because of her high speed car run from the police along Route 99. Another apparent reason is her heavy, long term usage of the illicit drug known as speed.

Stewart O'Nan, on whose work the play is based, is quoted as saying that Stockton's "captured Marjorie's innocence and insanity." This reviewer cannot see Marjorie as (an) innocent in any sense of the word, and is not clear on her precise mental condition. What I look for in portrayals of people who commit unspeakable, inhumane crimes is an understanding of what causes them (and not others) to deviate from normative behavior. I rarely, if ever, find it. The fault may lie in the eye of this beholder.

Actress and adaptor Anne Stockton may have us traveling in B-movie territory, but she certainly is giving us an entertaining and fast paced ride.

Cellblock saga

Few encounters are as rewarding as an audience with 'Queen'
Tuesday, October 31, 2006
Star-Ledger Staff


She's little and lithe, dressed in an immaculate green jumpsuit, appearing to be a gas station attendant just about to start her shift.

However, that DOC on the back of her uniform doesn't stand for Downtown Oil Company.

It's the Department of Corrections, where "The Speed Queen," Anne Stockton's riveting adaptation of Stewart O'Nan's novel, takes place. An audience is about to spend 75 minutes in solitary confinement with an inmate.

Stockton, who also stars in the solo show, and Austin Pendleton, who directs, are collaborators in a solid production at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

Marjorie Standiford is a lovely auburn-haired woman who comes from the Heartland, and seems to have a heart. If only she hadn't fallen for Lamont, who impressed her with his smart-looking car.

She was dazzled, too, that Lamont was a chef of sorts -- he was able to cook up many concoctions of drugs. That's one of two reasons why Marjorie came to be known as "The Speed Queen." Audiences will hear the other before long.

Lamont is not the only person linked romantically to Marjorie. Before long, she'll take up with Natalie. They met while Marjorie was serving a six-month sentence -- "over nothin'," she insists with a rare sneer.

"But," she says evenly, "I swore that this bein' in jail would never happen to me again."

Delivering that line is Stockton's best moment. The look on Marjorie's face, when she realizes that she broke that promise to herself, is filled with shame. Then she finds the resources to plow on, telling her sordid tale to "Stephen" through a tape recorder. After all, Natalie has had a runaway best-seller telling her side of the story, so why shouldn't Marjorie cash in, too?

(A side note: O'Nan originally called his 1997 novel "Dear Stephen King." The horror writer was unenthusiastic when contacted about the book, so O'Nan chose "The Speed Queen" as his title.)

How does a prisoner have access to a tape recorder, a telephone, unlimited phone calls, and what seems to be cocaine? A good reason is furnished, putting that implausibility to rest.

Stockton has a pleading voice and a wistful look in her green eyes when she grabs at the refuge of many prisoners: "I believe I'll be saved," she says staunchly, "and I believe in Jesus Christ. I was another person before I accepted Jesus."

Part of the horror is that Stockton tells her story matter-of-factly. She has Marjorie distance herself from her account, as if she were having an out-of-body experience. Just when she lulls an audience into thinking she's not so bad, or that she was an innocent victim, she delivers a startling line that controverts. For example, when she speaks of going to the hospital to give birth, she off-handedly mentions, "I never shot anyone, though, okay, I did use a knife."

Stockton's warm Southern accent helps to play against the ugly truths she's divulging. When she offers a slight smile, it seems to ask, "Is it all right if I smile?"

There's not much to smile at in "The Speed Queen." There is plenty to admire. It's a different type of horror story for the Halloween season.


Anne Stockton shows she's the "Queen" of denial
Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 10/31/06


With her red hair, chemically turbocharged energy and rapid-fire inflections, the woman in the prison-issue jumpsuit seems almost like an angular, more intense version of Reba McEntire. It's as if TV Reba converted the kitchen to a meth lab and finally did away with her cloying sitcom clan.

The lady on the stage of New Jersey Repertory Company is Anne Stockton, star and sole inhabitant of "The Speed Queen," now being staged at NJ Rep's Long Branch playhouse.

Like any other full-length fiction transmuted into a dramatic piece, "Queen" (adapted by Stockton from Stewart O'Nan's novel of the same name) presents the playwright with some hard choices as far as what to retain from the source work. Stockton is working here with a tight, fast-paced, intimate work whose central device — a narrative delivered by a convicted serial killer for the benefit of a famous horror novelist — seems a natural fit for an edgy and economically scaled theatrical troupe.

Civil Cold War

As Marjorie Standiford — an Oklahoma gal whose travels in entry-level crime and drug addiction eventually lead her to death row — Stockton addresses a stack of index-card inquiries from best-selling scaremeister "Stephen," speaking her answers into a tape recorder.

Relating the details of her involvement in an interstate killing spree — and blandly maintaining her innocence throughout — Standiford/Stockton tells of her enchantment with drug-dealing ne'er-do-well Lamont, her parallel involvement with former jailmate Natalie and the circumstances that drove the unlikely threesome (Marjorie's baby actually makes four) to hit Route 66 in a bloody road trip. It results in the deaths of a state trooper and a couple of fast-food clerks, among others.

As channeled by East Coast actress (and practicing psychiatrist) Stockton from the words of eminent literary type O'Nan, the plains and straightaways of flyover country seem a dead-eyed place where vintage Plymouth Road Runners roar past chain eateries and tired motels; a place where valuables are stashed inside Cap'n Crunch cereal boxes. Whether it's a chainsaw-massacre horrorfest or the kinder, gentler criminality of the film "Raising Arizona," any time that a bunch of perceived "elites" comment upon the ways of red-state America, it does little to soothe the ongoing Civil Cold War we seem to have gotten ourselves into.

Austin empowers

Director Austin Pendleton has shepherded "The Speed Queen" from workshops and readings to countless hours of rehearsals, right on through to this first formal "full" production. His invisible role in the proceedings is every bit as crucial as any of the offstage players in the condemned Marjorie's life story.

Still, this is Stockton's passionately conceived project in the end, and the performer-playwright is the show, attacking the material with laser focus and a knowing sense of the currents that course beneath the most "ordinary" American lives. If "The Speed Queen" is any indicator, a Stockton presentation detailing her real-life career experiences in psychiatry and law enforcement would be a hot and harrowing ticket.

A CurtainUp Review
The Speed Queen

I was a difficult person then, before I accepted Jesus.— Marjorie

Anne Stockton (Photo: SuzAnne Barabas)
Time on earth appears to be running out for convicted murderer Marjorie Standiford (Anne Stockton), who is spending the last hours on Death Row in an Oklahoma prison talking into a tape recorder. While awaiting her scheduled execution, her last meal, or, better yet, a possible last minute stay of execution, Marjorie has agreed to answer questions posed by a celebrated author who is going to write about the crimes she has committed, her drug addiction, her wild sex life and other things that will help the public understand who she is and why she has done what she has done.

As personified by Stockton with her auburn hair pulled back in a ponytail and wisp of a Southern accent, Marjorie appears neither hardened by anger nor visibly repentant. She does indicate a self-serving assurance and arrogance as she sifts through a stack of index cards that contain the questions, choosing to answer some and tossing others into the wastebasket. She knows what she want to tell and has no qualms about re-arranging the facts, justifying her acts, and modifying others' conclusions.

Stockton, who is performing in her own adaptation of Stewart O’Nan’s same-name novel about an Oklahoma inmate, appeared in this harrowing monodrama as part of the fifth annual "Women Center Stage" festival presented at the Culture Project in the summer of 05. It is a fine enough showcase, if one that is also, by right of its subjective confessional format, of limited dramatic variety. Since Stockton provides a vivid portrait of an amoral woman caught up in a series of horrific events that spiral out of her control, this is not to imply that her dramatic range is limited.

As directed with a minimalist touch by Austin Pendleton, The Speed Queen follows a rather conventional, yet curiously involving path to its inevitable conclusion. Pendleton, whose performance as a suicidal professor in the Steppenwolfe Theater’s production of The Sunset Limited (see our review) can currently be seen Off-Broadway, has been involved with this monologue since reading the book and Stockton’s adaptation. Minimalism is also set designer Jessica Park’s approach to the Death Row cell which contains one chair, two small side tables, and bureau.

Dramatic first person narratives demand a great deal and it is to Stockton’s credit that she resists grandstanding emotions in favor of her character’s tough-skinned shifts in tone and temperament. No attempt has been made to keep Marjorie overly active in the cell, except for occasional phone calls to her mother and a quick snort of smack hidden in a soft drink can. That she sees herself as a victim, even as we see her as a callous and gutsy no-regrets woman with limited intellect, gives the play its heft. We are all ears as she talks about her relationships with her drug-dealing lover Lamont, her Lesbian lover Natalie, and her young son Gainey, who will benefit from the proceeds of the book.

The detailed accounts of a killing spree that rivals Bonnie and Clyde and the death of her husband Lamont are riveting. But Marjorie’s reaction to the survival of her one-time lover Natalie (a rival for her husband’s attention whose own account of their Lesbian tryst and unholy partnership has been published), provides the insight into her decision to tell all. Marjorie’s story also alludes to her religious conversion and salvation, evidently the result of the frequent visits of Sister Perpetua.

On one level, we understand how Marjorie’s ill-fated life is a direct result of her addiction to drugs and her need to place the blame for her actions on others. Yet what makes Marjorie most fascinating comes from seeing her inability to make rational and prudent choices, and for Stockton, as her interpreter, to make sure we don’t see her in a sympathetic light.

The Speed Queen may trigger memories of the films I Want to Live, the story of Barbara Graham (with Susan Hayward), the first woman to die in an electric chair, and Monster, about serial killer Aileen Wournos (Charlize Theron). But The Speed Queen stands apart from these ill-fated women's stories for its unapologetic resolve to not encourage our empathy and without casting a rosy glow around its anti-heroine.



Anne Stockton rehearses "The Speed Queen," now being staged at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch through Nov. 12

An actress-playwright and a star director speed-the-play to NJ Rep

Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 10/26/06


At a time when yet another movie about Truman Capote and his fascination with capital convict Perry Smith sheds new light upon the "In Cold Blood" murder case, the folks at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch are inviting audiences to take a more intimate look at the relationship between the chronicler and the condemned.

Set on death row in an Oklahoma penitentiary, "The Speed Queen" is a one-woman show. Inmate Marjorie Standiford speaks into a tape recorder, reflecting upon her career as one of drive-through America's infamous "Sonic Killers" — and how her relationship with her speed-dealing husband Lamont and lover Natalie led her to robbery, murder and the brink of imminent execution. As she makes clear to her unseen interviewer, who just happens to be "America's most popular horror novelist" (the King to her Queen, if you will), it's an attempt to "set the record straight" in response to Natalie's best-selling tell-all.

A tour de force

As Marjorie, Anne Stockton (a busy stage and television performer who also is a practicing psychiatrist) already is poised to deliver what's being described as a bona fide tour de force performance. As if that weren't enough, she's also the playwright — having adapted the script from a novel by award-winning fiction writer Stewart O'Nan ("Snow Angels," "A Prayer for the Dying").

According to Stockton, "When I came to read the book, I could not put it down. I immediately found the main character intriguing, contradictory, funny, and shocking. . . . I quickly began to think that the book would easily lend itself to a one person play.

"I am often attracted to characters whose life experience is far from my own," the actor says. "I am drawn to understanding and then playing characters who exhibit extreme behavior."

Another way in which this medical professional (and professional player) touches upon extremes of behavior is in her sideline gig as an "actor/trainer" with the NYPD Hostage Negotiation Team — a course in which her regular role-play improvisations include "a woman in the middle of a manic episode, and a paranoid former postal worker." It's a unique experience that Stockton regards as "an incredible workout as an actor," adding that "portraying these disorders also has assisted me in understanding them as a psychiatrist."

For "Speed Queen" the novel to morph into "Speed Queen" the solo performance piece, Stockton had to first obtain the rights. She then set about deleting some of the minor characters, as well as editing certain situations and events described in the book — a process about which she maintains, "My director and I made these difficult choices on the basis of what best served the forward movement of the piece and created suspense."

That collaborator, by the way, is none other than Austin Pendleton, the Tony-lauded director ("The Little Foxes" with Elizabeth Taylor), award-winning author ("Orson's Shadow"), instantly recognizable character actor ("The Muppet Movie," along with some vivid appearances on recent "Law & Order" franchises) and eminent educator.

"It has been a great privilege to work with him," says Stockton of Pendleton, who has been affiliated with the project through several workshop and festival productions. "Austin's contribution to the development of the piece has been huge — shaping the script, clarifying the arc of the piece, and of course staging and developing the behavior and nuances of the character."

"The Speed Queen" has preview performances today and Friday. The production continues through Nov. 12 with shows at 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, as well as selected Saturdays at 4 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets for previews are priced at $20 per person, with opening night performance and post-show reception going for $35. Admission to regular-run performances is $30.

Not the retiring type

It's full 'Speed' ahead for Pendleton
Friday, October 27, 2006
Star-Ledger Staff


There aren't many people who open a play in New Jersey and in New York in the same week.

Not that Austin Pendleton will be in two places at once. Given that he's finished directing "The Speed Queen," opening Friday at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, he needn't be on the premises. "Not that a director's work is ever done," he says ruefully.

When the curtain goes up around 8 p.m., Pendleton will be at the theater known as 59 East 59th Street, which is also its Manhattan address. There, he'll play his fourth preview of "The Sunset Limited," a drama by Cormac McCarthy. Pendleton portrays an atheist who plans to commit suicide on a train platform, but is rescued by another man.

And he turned 66 in March. "I never think of retiring. Never," he says. "I know very few actors who do. When Helen Hayes retired, three or four years later she was saying, 'I wish I hadn't done that.' So I do as much as I can."

His involvement with "The Speed Queen" began some years back, when he was introduced to actress Anne Stockton. Three years ago, she told him she was adapting Stewart O'Nan's 1997 novel about a murderess who wants to tell her side of the story to an author very much like Stephen King. Because Stockton planned to star in it, too, she asked Pendleton to coach her.

Pendleton teaches acting at the HB Studios and the New School, not far from his New York City home. "So I said maybe," he says. "I'd never heard of the novel, so I read it, and it knocked me out. Then I read Anne's script, and I thought she captured it. I said, 'Okay, I'll coach.' That led to my actually directing the play -- though I honestly don't remember if she asked me to do it, or I volunteered myself."

On Broadway, he's directed both European classics (Ibsen's "John Gabriel Borkman") to American ones (Lillian Hellman's "The Little Foxes"). He is, however, better known as a performer, albeit one of those actors who many recognize by his small, wispy frame, and looks that he describes as "geeky." He's played many a milquetoast, in "The Front Page" (1974), "The Muppet Movie" (1979) and "My Cousin Vinny" (1992).

The first chance to direct came in 1965, while he was performing in "Fiddler on the Roof." He was the original Motel, the bridegroom who goes from scared rabbit to mensch. Pendleton's mother ran a community theater in their hometown of Warren, Ohio, and she asked him to direct her as Amanda in "The Glass Menagerie."

He had to leave "Fiddler" to do it. "I went without another acting job for months, and yet, it was worth it. If I were forced to choose among the three disciplines, though, I'd taking acting," he says.

Three disciplines? "When I was 50, I promised myself I'd write a play," he says. Since penning "Booth," about the esteemed acting family with an assassin in its ranks, Pendleton wrote two plays that had off-Broadway productions. In 2001, "Uncle Bob" told of a gay uncle and his homophobic nephew. "Orson's Shadow," which played most of last year, dealt with the time when Orson Welles directed Laurence Olivier in a production of Ionesco's "Rhinoceros."

Pendleton didn't have to imagine what Welles was like.

"I worked with him in 'Catch-22,'" he says of the 1970 film version of Joseph Heller's novel. "He was nice to me personally, but very difficult to a lot of people. Only later did I realize that he was in a lot of pain because he wasn't directing that movie. He ruminated on that a lot in front of all of us, making self-deprecating remarks that showed it was eating away at him that his career had waned."

He pauses and shakes his head slowly. "It's another reason I won't retire," he says. "I'm still getting the chance to do it."

Theaters spearheading revitalization efforts

Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 10/19/06


It was dark, real dark, on the night eight years ago that the New Jersey Repertory Company opened its doors on Broadway in downtown Long Branch.

There wasn't much activity in the area, other than a fast-food restaurant and a Brookdale Community College satellite school, both at Third Avenue, and a few hungry seagulls from the nearby beachfront looking for some french fries.

But Gabor Barabas of West Long Branch, producing director of the theater, said he sensed that somehow … and he can't explain how … there was potential for the growth of an arts community there. He said he felt "tremendous energy,'' with
theaters at its epicenter.

New Jersey Repertory, which seats about 140 people in two small spaces at 179 Broadway, has since become the anchor in the city's revitalization of the area known as the Broadway Corridor redevelopment zone.

Perhaps what Barabas sensed were the ghosts of two former theaters in the area. One of those spaces will become a 300-seat performing arts space and New Jersey Repertory's third stage.

Storage building

"The new building, at 154 Broadway, about one block east of our other building, used to be a theater about 80 years ago but you wouldn't know it as it is now stuccoed over,'' Barabas said. "It's been a storage building for some contractor for
the past 30 to 40 years.''

The other former theater was the Paramount Theater, a building which most recently housed Siperstein's Paint and Decorating Center. Barabas said that will become a 2,000-seat performing arts space.

The Broadway zone, one of six redevelopment zones in the city, is a mixed-use plan of about 725,000 square feet between Memorial Parkway and Second, Belmont and Union avenues.

In addition to shops and restaurants, the plan includes 500 housing units, about 100 of those designated affordable housing, said Patience O'Connor, managing director of Broadway Arts redevelopment. Previously she worked on such high-profile redevelopments as South Street Seaport in lower Manhattan, Boston's Faneuil Hall Marketplace and the Old Post Office building on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington.

Hopefully, she said, people living in the year-round housing … such as nurses from nearby Monmouth Medical Center and teachers from Monmouth University in West Long Branch … will be future customers at the theaters, shops and the already
existing Shore Institute of Contemporary Arts at 20 Third Ave.

World premiere

If so, they may want to order their tickets now. New Jersey Repertory's current world premiere production of Robert King's "The Best Man'' is not only sold out but also is the troupe's best-selling show ever, according to Barabas' wife and theater co-founder, SuzAnne Barabas.

Barabas, who also is director of the Long Branch Arts Council, said that group has been identifying "signature events'' to attract people to the downtown area, such as an annual poetry festival begun in 2004.

"The first festival attracted 750 to 1,000 people, including 400 schoolchildren, and featured 40 poets,'' he said. "The next poetry festival, in cooperation with Monmouth University, has poets from around the United States coming here on Nov. 16, 17 and 18.''

From Dec. 2-4, the theater, which offers plays, comedies and an occasional musical, will host 20 literary managers from the National New Play Network, an alliance of not-for-profit professional theaters devoted to new plays. Each will bring a
play and together select the best six and each of those will get a staged reading during those days.

Barabas and his wife recently returned from Slovakia where they met with other theater managers about producing new European plays at their theaters.

"My dream for eight years was to have an annual summer theater festival in Long Branch where theaters come from all over the world to do their work,'' he said.

"I've always felt we were here on the ocean in a community with a long arts heritage and now we are experiencing a gradual arts resurgence. It is dynamic and exciting.'

Review: "Best Man" leaves them laughing at the altar


Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 09/19/06


A laugh-out-loud comedy set behind the scenes at a Hackensack wedding, "The Best Man" should strike a chord with just about anyone — at least anyone who's ever been involved in any way with that peculiar institution known as a wedding party.

It's a noteworthy kickoff to a new season of professional stage fare here at the Shore, in that it comes from the pen of a local author — Asbury Park's own Robert King — and it's especially surprising in light of the fact that it's being presented by the always-edgy New Jersey Repertory Company.

Long known as a go-to source for all that's left of center in modern stage circles, the Long Branch-based NJ Rep has pitched a fastball right up the middle here; finding the strike zone with an entertaining, accessible crowdpleaser of a show. If you've ever meant to check out some of what's been going on at this little treasure of a playhouse on downtown Broadway, there's probably never been a better opportunity to jump in.

Tom Tansey plays the groom's best friend and Susan Greenhill is the groom's mother in "The Best Man," being staged at the New Jersey Repertory Company theater in Long Branch.

Red meat and blue language

In King's script, it's the wedding day of our hero Patrick (Ed Jewett), a plus-size, big-hearted, self-sacrificing lug who's on the verge of being happy for the first time in his life — although that's hardly enough to keep him from sweating through his rented tux, compulsively gobbling candy bars and pacing a trench into the floor of the church dressing room as the big moment approaches. The well-meaning but distracting interventions of his mom Rita (Susan Greenhill) and best bud Ronnie (Tom Tansey) are of little help to the big guy, who's in need of a confidence boost as he prepares to walk down the aisle with his bride to be, the unseen Doreen.

Complicating matters is the fact that everyone in the wedding party apparently had a few kamikazes too many at the rehearsal dinner the night before. Meanwhile, Patrick's ne'er-do-well brother John (Dan Domingues) has come away from the affair with a story to tell — a story that threatens to torpedo Patrick's special day before it ever happens.

For such a brief and economical play (less than 90 minutes with a 15-minute intermission included), King gets a lot accomplished in terms of character background and development — it's as if one of those cheesy "interactive" dinner-theater wedding shows were magically invested with the heart and soul of Paddy Chayefsky's "Marty." There's also a healthy strain of good sitcom writing in the mix here: full of punchy dialogue and plenty of red meat for the talented cast members to sink their teeth into (although, with its dosage of blue language and casual sex talk, it could more readily compare to a sitcom like HBO's "Lucky Louie").

The big figure

As lifelong lonely guy Patrick, Jewett cuts a classically comic figure that carries echoes of everyone from Jackie Gleason and Dom DeLuise to Tom Arnold and Kevin James. Although playwright King wisely dispenses with the sentiment and syrup, Jewett is an actor of real facility and intelligence, who finds ways to connect the emotional dots without benefit of lengthy monologues (as when he likens himself to "a tugboat" rather than the graceful sailboat that Mom envisions). This is a guy who recognizes the one shot he'll likely ever have in life; a guy who does what it takes to see things through to their rightful resolution. We root for the big guy.

Under the guidance of nationally renowned director Peter Bennett, Jewett's scenes with sidekick Tansey take on a Fred Flintstone/Barney Rubble dynamic that allows for some dextrous give-and-take between the two talented character men. Playing to the audience at times and belting out some of the show's biggest laugh lines, Greenhill grabs her share of stage turf from her taller co-stars.

As the slicked-back slacker John, Domingues presents a believably plot-complicating figure and sets the pace for the proceedings with a nervous energy. All four of the cast members and their director are here making their NJ Rep debuts — altogether appropriate for a show that should make its producers a whole lot of new friends.

A Merry Marriage In Long Branch
"The Best Man" at New Jersey Rep

By Philip Dorian

One of the main characters in Robert King's play The Best Man never appears. She's bride-to-be Doreen, whose wedding is about to take place just outside the church office in which the play is set. And even though the play revolves around her misbehavior, I became so fond of her in the course of two fast-paced and delightfully amusing acts that I felt like tossing rice as I left the theater.

I'll see the play again. I suspect the sharp comedy will hold up like a re-run of Everybody Loves Raymond, which it actually resembles. In fact, this might be the first play in my experience where comparison to a TV sitcom is not a negative. Intentionally adapting that ubiquitous entertainment form to the stage is, pending the result, a legitimate endeavor. And the result here is hilarious.

Dan Domingues (left), Ed Jewett and Tom Tansey in The Best Man at New Jersey Repertory Company.
The Best Man is crass and vaguely misogynist. It is politically incorrect, and its main topic, sex, is hardly new. But somehow the comedy conquers its context. The play floats above its own rudeness as if enjoying the fun. Tasteless as it gets in spots, The Best Man ends up being guilt-free entertainment. (That it's so well acted and directed may have something to do with that. More below.)

The plot is set in motion by the groom's brother's admission that he had impulsive, alcohol-lubricated sex with the bride after the rehearsal dinner. John (Dan Domingues) confesses the act – indelicately – to Ronnie (Tom Tansey), the groom's best friend and designated best man. Will Ronnie tell groom Patrick (Ed Jewett) about the brotherly betrayal? ("Telling is overrated.") Will Patrick's and John's mother Rita (Susan Greenhill) thwart the nuptials for reasons of her own? You'll not find the answers here, but getting to them in the course of the laugh-packed play is more important anyway.

Patrick is written heavy – in weight, that is – and Jewett might have been the playwright's model. His bulk is deceptive, however, because he's as light and swift with a comic line as a bantamweight. Patrick is made fun of a lot, but in Jewett's playing he's far from a laughingstock. And how many actors can perspire on cue?

Ronnie is the standard ‘groom's best friend'. But Tansey makes a lot more of it, walking the tightrope between Patrick and John and getting his own laughs along the way. (He's a post-teen Jackie Cooper in appearance and style. Not bad.) As played by Domingues, John is the villain you can't hate. He's been a ne'er-do-well anyway; his carnal coupling with Doreen is right in character. And not to worry; John gets his comeuppance.

Playwright King's best-written character isn't a man at all. It's the obsessive, possessive mother, whose portrayal by Susan Greenhill could not be bettered. Rita giveth praise with loving grace one minute and taketh it away with barbed sarcasm the next. She's a half dozen different women wrapped up into the mother-of-the-groom from hell. She's both terribly annoying and, as long as she's not your mom, extremely funny.

Director Peter Bennett has honed the four actors to a fine edge. More natural behavior and movement amidst rapid-fire comic jibing can't be found this side of – well, of Everybody Loves Raymond.

The set is the perfect image of a pre-wedding holding room. Designed by Harry Feiner, constructed by a three-person crew headed by Quinn K. Stone, whose diminutive size belies her mastery of construction tools, and dressed appropriately by prop mistress Jessica Parks, the austere furnishings and peaked stained-glass windows create an ideal contrast for the play's irreverence. And for its well-staged fight scene that leaves some disarray.

The Best Man is an equal-opportunity offender. It includes quips on doing shots ("If it's worth doing it's worth overdoing"), on vibrators ("addictive… like crack cocaine"), on the aforementioned obesity (too many to even start), and on bodily functions (best left out of print). There's even a riff on mental retardation that is – forgive me– a knee-slapper. Still, in spite of its naughty behavior, the play stays...sweet. Just like Doreen. Say ‘I do' to The Best Man.

"The Best Man" continues at New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch through October 15. Performances are Thurs.-Sat. at 8 p.m., some Saturdays at 4 p.m. (call for dates) and Sundays at 2 p.m. For information or reservations ($30, with senior/student/group discounts): 732-229-3166 or on line at

Note: The Best Man is also the title of a 1960 play and subsequent movie, both penned by Gore Vidal. The play was reprised on Broadway in 2000, officially re-titled Gore Vidal's The Best Man. It's rumored that playwright King is working on a new play about his small hometown. It's entitled Robert King's Hamlet.

Asbury Radio ~ The Radio Voice of Asbury Park

The Best Man is a Side-Splitting Delight

Perhaps it's the alcoholic haze that hangs over, or the eccentric strangers suddenly superimposed on our lives in forced intimacy, or the guilt and doom-laden pressure of religion and commitment - a stunning assessment of dreams and failures in one crystallized accounting - beamed nakedly on one day. Whatever contributes to the surreal quality of a wedding day, Bob King has captured it in his hilarious play, The Best Man.

King keeps the mayhem circling around his excellent story like a swirling polka, while he takes us inside the lives of the people we will love; the chubby bridegroom, Patrick, played masterfully by Ed Jewett. Patrick's sacrifices have held the family together while his rakish kid brother, John, played convincingly by Dan Domingues, has snatched nearly all the ripe fruit for himself --even Patrick's most prized possession. (photo left: Bob's other half, Nate Gorham)

King knows weddings so well that he reserves his best stuff for the star of every wedding day, the mother, played to the hilt by Susan Greenhill. Greenhill's Rita, the mother of the groom, heaves with emotion, propelled about the stage by a totally overblown image of her self-importance. Greenhill plays Rita with an interesting hint of self awareness, a knowledge that she is veering on the edge of destruction, at times we suspect to her own mild amusement, but doesn't know any other way to be. Left by a philandering husband to raise her sons, Rita has flung herself headlong to this climactic day --and it's not going well. 

There are no bad roles or small roles in The Best Man. One is convinced in the first five minutes that King isn't capable of writing one. So the groom's best friend, Ronnie, played by Tom Tansey, which might be a bit part if crafted by a lesser playwright, becomes a tour de force for this natural comedian. Tansey, like all good comedians, employs every facet of his physical and mental trappings to propel us along from one side splitting line to the next.  And this fellow knows what to do with a line. When the groom tells his friend he loves his bride so much that he's decided to give her the greatest gift he has, Tansey screams in horror, "Your car? You're giving her your car?"

 King's play was first presented by NJRep as a reading some two years ago, at which time audience members rolled with laughter. Since that presentation King has chiseled away at the character of John, who started out so cruel toward his sensitive, self-conscious older brother that murder seemed a credible direction for the plot to take. King has now honed John to perfection. While still hugely selfish and impulsive, the refined John is more of another victim of his own confusion and out of control life. Instead of hinting that he may have real feelings for the unseen bride, Domingues expresses his revelation early and for all appearances genuinely. He is intermittently remorseful and buffoonish, a credit to Domingues' versatility and King?s skill, which puts this character back into comedic range.

All of the wonderful lines are on the mark, true to character and wonderfully fun. The timing is impeccable and a credit to King's director, Peter Bennett, who also directed the brilliant NJ Rep production, Piaf in Vienna. The plot spins along flawlessly through an excellent set designed by Harry Feiner and lit by Jill Nagle. This wedding is bliss!!

An NJ Repertory Company Production at the Lumia Theater, Broadway, Long Branch - 9/14 - 10/15

Cast: Susan Greenhill, Ed Jewett, Dan Domingues, Tom Tansey, and playwright Bob King


by Gary Wien

(LONG BRANCH, NJ) -- Weddings will always be a popular subject for comedies because so many things can go wrong, but the things one usually worries about before a wedding pale in comparison to the situation presented in Robert King's "The Best Man" - simply the most hilarious, laugh out loud play I've seen in some time.Patrick, the older of two brothers, is finally getting married. He's a bit on the heavy side but as reliable a guy there is. Patrick left school to take over his father's auto garage after his dad decided to run off with his receptionist. Sacrificing his dreams, Patrick became the bread winner for the family and kept the house going. He also paid for his younger brother John to go to college. John had other plans though and wasn't seen for years after quitting school. He reappears a few months earlier with a hefty gambling debt that Patrick pays off.
After years of taking care of everyone else, Patrick finally found the girl of his dreams in a bowling alley where she caught his eye by bowling four strikes. He just knew it meant she was something special.Patrick makes John his best man and John repays him by sleeping with his fiance after the rehearsal dinner and many, many drinks. John tells Patrick's best friend, Ronnie, the news who urges him to keep it a secret from his brother. Unfortunately, John thinks he's in love and believes that his brother's fiance loves him too. And, thus, every groom's nightmare becomes a love triangle un-imaginable just 24 hours before and turns St. Andrew's Church in Hackensack, NJ into a whirlwind of one-liners that nearly all hit the mark.The setting is a sweltering summer's day in June although the only character to really feel the heat is the groom. While Patrick sweats profusely, the others never seem that bothered by the temperature. That little omission is the only blemish in this otherwise perfect production. Dan Domingues as Patrick's younger brother, John is terrific showing a wide range of emotions and running at 100 miles per hour throughout the show. Tom Tansey does a wonderful job as Patrick's best friend since high school, Ronnie. It's Ronnie's job to keep his buddy calm on his wedding day and the secret he holds makes things that much worse. Ed Jewett is solid as the groom, steadily running through the complete array of emotions every groom feels on his wedding day. But Susan Greenhill steals the show as Patrick and John's mother. Every time she sets foot on the stage is a complete laugh riot as she completely excels in the role of the stereotypical mother who doesn't want her baby to marry that tramp. She hides her true feelings as long as she can but eventually lets them known. "She bowled four strikes... that doesn't make her special.. it means she has good aim!"Anybody that has ever gotten married or been in a wedding party will fall in love with "The Best Man." Robert King has taken a comedic staple and given it a new twist and, in doing so, has created a play which should live on for a very long time. Your chance to see it the first time around ends on October 15th.

Judging by the crowd for the first week, tickets may be going fast. NJ Rep actually had to add additional rows including one directly in front of the stage where we were seated. I swear the last time I was that close to the stage I was an actor. It is amazing to see people turn out for world premiere theatre like that. Congratulations go out to the theatre, the actors, and especially the playwright.

On the aisle

Reluctant groom inspires debuting comedy
Friday, September 08, 2006
Star-Ledger Staff


The more weddings Robert King attended, the more he wondered why so many grooms looked as if they were on Death Row.

One husband-to-be spurred King's comedy, "The Best Man," which starts a month's run Thursday at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

"The pressure of the day was so great," King says, "that the guy opened up in a way he hadn't in all the years I'd known him. He was so off-guard that he began telling me things he would have never other wise told me. All this, as people were filing into the church."

King started writing soon after he arrived home.

"The Best Man" concerns Patrick, a 300-pound man of 35 who has finally found someone to marry. While some mothers would be thrilled at the prospect, Patrick's mother Rita isn't. Since her husband ran off with his 21-year-old secretary, Patrick's been her sole support.

He shouldn't be, for Rita has another son, John, who is Patrick's best man. John's an unemployed womanizer who always gets by on his dazzling good looks and charm. He'll add some pressure to an already pressure-packed day.

King admits he's seen grooms who didn't look bleak at their wed dings. "I've been to plenty where they've had blinders on instead. They truly think that now their lives are going to be perfect. What if they could get a glimpse of what their future would be like? If they knew the challenges, the troubles and the horrors that await them, would they go through with it?"

A wedding is a fate -- or blessing -- that King has not experienced. He and Nate Gorham have been partners for nine years. They spend much of their winters in homes in Ho-Ho-Kus and Queens, and summers in Asbury Park, in a Victorian home they bought in 2000.

Because of their Monmouth County location, they weren't living far from New Jersey Rep. They attended once, twice, and soon be came subscribers. King wasn't above mentioning to Gabor and SuzAnne Barabas -- respectively the troupe's executive producer and artistic director -- that he was an amateur playwright.

Yet, that's not quite how "The Best Man" landed at the theater.

"A friend of mine in a playwrit ing class said that she thought a di rector named Peter Bennett would like my play," says King. "I sent it to him, and he did like it. Peter had already directed 'Piaf in Vienna' at New Jersey Rep, so he recommended they do it."

It was the second copy of the script at the theater, for King had already sent in his. A literary ad viser read one copy and rejected it. SuzAnne Barabas read the other and decided to do it.

This is the first professional production for King, who started writ ing 11 years ago when he was 33. For the last 17 years, he's been a tax credit coordinator for the City of New York.

"I applied to the Herbert Berg hoff Studios, and Uta Hagen let me in," King says of the famed actress and the workshop begun by her late husband. "I thought I'd already written a great play, but I learned that all she felt was that I had potential. Now I had to learn the craft of playwriting.

"Being funny is nice, but it doesn't mean everything. I found that it's not hard to make people laugh, but in the context of a play, there must be structure. A story has to be told, and characters have to change. I've tried to make all that happen in 'The Best Man.'"

And what of the groom who in spired the play? "Oh, he's still mar ried," King says, nodding. "But it's been a pretty rocky relationship."


A provocative "Apostasy" onstage at NJ Rep
Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 07/18/06


Race, faith, money, betrayal, abortion, nudity, terminal illness, medical marijuana, middle-age sex — you might say that "Apostasy," the play now in its world premiere engagement at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, has dealt itself a pretty stacked dramatic hand from the outset. Still, rather than drive home their talking points with a sledgehammer, author Gino Dilorio and director SuzAnne Barabas have crafted a serio-comic threesome that favors sense of character over soapbox cacophony. It's a button-pusher that seeks to provoke a reaction at every turn, even as it foils most attempts to predict plotlines and pigeonhole motivations.

Old man Webster defines "apostasy" as "renunciation of a religious faith" or "abandonment of a previous loyalty" — and the apostate in this case is Sheila Gold, a successful businesswoman, divorcee and Jewish mom who is dying of cancer. As portrayed by Susan G. Bob, Sheila is spending her final months in a drab hospice room. It's a place of institutional-green walls and cheerlessly functional objects (matter-of-factly realized by the talented set designer Carrie Mossman) that makes a most depressing anteroom to the afterlife.

While Sheila is regularly visited by her daughter Rachel (Natalie Wilder) — a 30-something single who works as director of a Planned Parenthood center and who brings her mother weed in an effort to get her to eat — the terminal patient is lonely enough at night to become intrigued by African-American TV preacher Dr. Julius Strong (Evander Duck Jr.). This initiates a relationship that brings the televangelist to the door of her room and, with alarming rapidity, into her heart.

The Doctor is in

As for the reason the charismatic Dr. Strong would fly in from California to make this very special house call — well, it could be a chance for him to notch another deathbed conversion to his ministry, perhaps even solicit a very generous donation to his building fund. Then again, it could be that the clergyman is genuinely fond of this woman, who despite her hair loss and pain episodes, remains full of life and quick to break into dance or laughter. Or, as an increasingly security-conscious Rachel suspects, could it be possible that a more sinister purpose lurks behind the song and dance?

Whatever the underlying factors, it's not hard to see how the headstrong Sheila could become attracted to the smoothly seductive Strong. As personified by Duck, he's an apparent angel in a crimson shirt who brings the things she's been missing — light and hope and music and a little romance — back to her world as effortlessly as he restores her appetite with a bag of Chinese food. Insisting that "every now and then you've got to do something crazy just to remind yourself that you're alive," the minister soon has the worldly woman of business on the verge of some pretty radical choices — a mission that he carries out by sheer force of personality, with little evangelical fire and brimstone (other than a deftly delivered sermonette on the topic of Chicken McNuggets). By the midway point, it's clear the actor is willing to put everything he's got on display — although, as Dr. Strong notes, it's not so easy to shed the "preacher persona."

Bob and Duck

Granted, those McNuggets act as a pulled-punch stand-in for some potentially thornier faith-based issues, but although their surnames might suggest a series of evasive maneuvers in the boxing ring, Bob and Duck actually make an effective team. They turn their extended scenes together into a pas-de-deaux that manages to make its own sort of sense within the accelerated time and depopulated space of Dilorio's play. With her Fran Drescher honk of a voice and her "two-thousand-dollar wig," the always engaging Bob ("Harry and Thelma," "Maggie Rose") elevates her character from a standard sitcom-level archetype to a three-dimensional being in record time. It's a feat made all the more impressive by the fact that most of the real action in the script occurs in the second act.

As the odd one out in this triangle, Rachel (a woman whose job has already made her paranoid and distrustful of others intentions) is herself transformed from doting daughter to a schemer of sorts — telling her mother that "just because you're dying doesn't give you the right to change your mind," and employing her own methods to set things back the way they were. NJ Rep stock company member Wilder — who played an instrumental role in shepherding this script from raw-reading to well-done — has obviously invested this project with lots of passion; sounding the notes of discord and conflict, and doing most of the overt preaching to be found here.

In the hands of company co-founder Barabas, the relatively brief play is far meatier than what you'd expect to find on local summer stages — and, if the preview and opening weekend audiences are any indicator, it's a production that should continue to prompt a good deal of strong reactions and animated discussions.

Rich, Multi-Layered Apostasy Entertains and Enlightens in Long Branch World Premiere

Susan G. Bob and Evander Duck, Jr.
Apostasy, an engaging, intelligent new play by emerging playwright Gino Dilorio combines ripe theatricality with an exploration of some serious personal and social issues. It provides much food for thought while nimbly avoiding any offense to differing religious sensibilities.

The entire action of the play occurs over a period of a few days in a hospice in a major Northeast city. Sheila Gold, who appears to be in her late fifties, is a terminal cancer patient. Dutifully visiting with her is her single thirty-one year old daughter, Rachel. Rachel, who had refused to continue her mother’s very successful on-line retail dress business, is a social worker who works for Planned Parenthood at an abortion clinic. This has caused her name to be published on a website which implicitly incites violence against those involved in such activities. She has brought a stash of marijuana for Sheila to smoke for medicinal purposes. However, their relationship remains quite testy.

Ruth discovers some literature from a West Coast television ministry, the Heritage Church of the Living Christ, tucked away in a drawer. Sheila explains to Rachel that she is seriously considering converting. (Rachel banters, “ ... and you made me give up my boy friend, Tony Giamarco ... .Does this mean no brisket on Passover?”) Sheila describes the comfort that she has drawn from the television ministry of charismatic black Baptist minister, Dr. Julius Strong. Rachel notes that the literature is a solicitation for money. She expresses her feeling of being betrayed by her mother. Sheila responds, “We never talk about dying. People with faith die differently than those without ... Don’t feel betrayed. It’s not about you, it’s about me.” After Rachel leaves, Sheila calls her lawyer “about changes in paperwork.” Dr. Julius Strong enters her hospice room. End of Scene One.

This set-up is provocative. The dialogue is sharp and engrossing. Each of the three protagonists is fully dimensional and complex. There may be villainy afoot here (and from more than one source), but it is neither simple nor truly evil. And Dilorio’s story is so lively, engrossing and thought provoking that viewers never have the opportunity to become depressed by Rachel’s terminal situation.

Yes, Dr. Strong has traveled coast to coast in order to secure Sheila’s promised largess for his economically troubled ministry. And yes, he will sexually seduce her (or, it may well be said, allow her to seduce him) in an attempt to insure her fealty to him, but he is also caring and sensitive to her needs and prepared to offer her value for her money. Yes, Rachel is more concerned about her own needs than those of her mother. And, yes, she will use chicanery to try to retain control over her mother, but she does care about her, and cementing a strong and loving bond with her is important to Rachel.

Under the swiftly paced and incisive directorial hand of SuzAnne Barabas, each cast member uncannily fully embodies and fleshes out his/her role. Susan G. Bob as Sheila convincingly runs the full gamut of emotions in an aggressive, nervous yet self confident, style. While Sheila’s decision to embrace a flashy television minister may cause one to question her state of mind, Ms. Bob makes it clear that Sheila still has her wits about her and knows how to get what she wants. And what she really wants is substantially more corporeal than the Holy Ghost.

Evander Duck, Jr. fires on all cylinders as the studiously charismatic Dr. Strong. Duck seems born to the calling of a glib and smooth soul stirrer. However, after Sheila tells him that “your letters made you sound smarter than that,” Duck, smooth as silk, clicks right into place the intelligence to display (a likely insincere) sensitivity.

Natalie Wilder captures the openness and affinity for counter culture of many young people in her portrayal of Rachel. However, as the stakes become higher for Rachel, Wilder brings on a steeliness which indicates that she may end up being her mother’s daughter after all. Ultimately, Wilder nicely conveys a chink in her new found armor.

Credit for these nuances in the performances must be shared with author Gino Dilorio. They may be beautifully interpreted by director Barabas and her superlative cast, but the lines supporting them are firmly implanted in Dilorio’s text. Although having the television minister drop in on and sleep with Sheila may intuitively feel too theatrical to be true, I’m certain that, when substantial money is at stake, such visits are not uncommon. The issues concerning treatment of the dying and the obligations which they and their loved ones have to one another are never raised statically as such, but rise organically from events. Additionally, Dilorio displays the ability to sustain an extended scene over the course of which the relationship of the characters evolves as they interact at length and reveal more and more of themselves. This is a virtue to be cherished and encouraged.

The detailed and realistic set by Carrie Mossman augmented bright and realistically flat lighting by Jill Nagle heighten the sense of reality. Patricia E. Doherty’s apt, and, in the case of Dr. Strong, flamboyant costumes complete the excellent design work.

We are told that Dr. Julius Strong’s television ministry show is called “The Strong Hour.” The good news is that with its production of Apostasy, New Jersey Rep is giving its audiences a couple of hours of strong and thoughtful entertainment.


by Gary Wien


(LONG BRANCH, NJ) -- From the opening conversation, it's clear "Apostasy" won't be your typical mother/daughter play. After all, how often do you see conversations starting off with the mother doing a hit of medicinual marijuana? And then offering her daughter the pipe while the two discuss her recent dating nightmare?

Rachel Gold (the daughter of Sheila Gold) is taking care of her mother at a hospice. Rachel works at Planned Parenthood and recently had a scare when her name showed up on an anti-abortion website. Her mother was an extremely successful business woman who sold her business when it became clear that Rachel didn't want to take it over.

"What the hell is in this weed?" exclaims Rachel after her mother unleases the bombshell that forms a major part in the play's plot - her mother considering converting to Christianity from Judaism. Apparently she found salvation one night when she couldn't sleep and found an evangelist (Dr. Julius Strong) on television. The mother was taken in by the preacher so much that she is planning to make an extremely large donation to his ministry. The catch was that she wanted to meet him before she would make the donation. Meanwhile, she hasn't told her daughter about her plans at all.

Sure enough, Dr. Julius Strong pays her a visit and instantly lifts her spirits leading up to a hilarious scene involving a dying cancer patient and an Evangelist dancing and singing to "Mony, Mony".

Sheila tells the preacher how everybody in the hospice has given up hope. "Some of us just give up slower than others, I guess."

The preacher tries to explain how she should put her life in Christ. As he's talking to her, she looks up to him and says, "You're always on, aren't you?" He later proves her right when he presents a brilliantly executed sermon about Chicken McNuggets.

She may be having trouble taking Christ into her heart, but doesn't have any trouble bringing the preacher into her bed. Ironically, the pair give each other just what they need to survive - so much so, that the preacher asks her to move across country and live with him. Thus begins the conflict between mother and daughter and the daughter versus the preacher with the battle for her spiritual being and millions of dollars caught in between.

There is much more than could be said about this play, but I think you should simply head to the theatre and see how it twists and turns for yourself.

Playwright Gino Dilorio has done an amazing job of presenting religion with a nice blend of faith and cynicism. This production is full of outstanding performances, surprise twists, and will keep you riveted from start to its amazing finish.

New Jersey Jewish News
Greater Monmouth County Feature

A triangle of love and faith
New play at NJ Rep examines mother-daughter tensions over an evangelist’s appeal

Thirty-something Rachel Gold finally has the kind of relationship with her mother for which she has longed. They see each other all the time. They talk. After all these years, Sheila Gold’s career — she was an extremely successful businesswoman — isn’t the most important thing in her life. Instead, Rachel, whose career path steered her to Planned Parenthood, is.

Only one problem: Mom has terminal cancer and is living out her last days in a hospice.

Make that two problems: A dashing African-American TV evangelist oozing with charisma has suddenly materialized and is on the verge of persuading Mom to go back to California with him. In short order, their relationship becomes physical. But what about Mom’s relationship with Rachel? Her Judaism? Her bank account? Gone, gone, and gone — unless Rachel can talk her mother out of this most unusual lifestyle change.

“Rachel finally has her mother where she wants her, and she’ll be damned if some snake-oil salesman is going to steal Sheila away from her,” said New York City-based playwright Gino Dilorio, whose newest work, Apostasy, chronicles this unlikely love triangle. The production will premiere at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. Previews will be July 13 and 14; the play officially opens July 15.

“Is the minister the true villain here?” Dilorio asks. “Is he attracted to Sheila or is he only attracted to Sheila’s money? And what about Sheila, who ultimately must choose between her daughter and this evangelist? Is one choice right and the other wrong, or are there gray areas?

“What I tried to do,” the playwright continued, “is put these issues on the fence and let those in the audience draw their own conclusions.”

Finding answers

The poster advertising the play depicts a star of David, bent in several places and hanging from aApostasy logo crucifix. In retrospect, director SuzAnne Barabas admitted, the poster, while eye-catching, may not capture the essence of Apostasy.

“If I was designing the poster today, I don’t know if I would have quite gone in that direction,” Barabas said. “Certainly, the storyline has the ‘Judaism versus evangelist’ component, but I wouldn’t classify this as a religious play. To me, the play is about interpersonal relationships, about the motivation behind deeds. It has to do with people from different worlds being brought together. I’ll say this: These are three roles the actors can really sink their teeth into.”

The first of several staged readings of the play took place in the autumn of 2004. Since then, the script has undergone numerous revisions, but two constants have remained. All along, the mother-daughter tandem have been played by actresses Susan G. Bob and Natalie Wilder. (Evander Duck Jr., who portrays the charismatic Dr. Julius Strong, is new to the role.)

“I’m not saying I’m anything like Sheila Gold, but I’ve tried to put a lot of myself into this role,” Bob said. “I’d describe Sheila as a woman who was energetic, independent, and driven to conquer life. Sheila’s marriage failed, and her daughter holds her responsible for that failure. Rachel also feels that the time Sheila spent building a successful business was time the two of them should have spent together. This is where the character strikes a chord with me.

“Like Sheila, when I work, I tend to get tunnel vision,” said Bob. “So when my kids were born, I knew I wanted to be there to see them grow up, and that became my priority. My approach was different, but I could definitely understand what motivated Sheila.”

Barabas, herself a Jewish parent, was drawn to the notion of self-sacrifice.

“As a Jew, you’re taught to challenge and to interpret,” she said. “It doesn’t mean we don’t believe but that we should ask questions. Here, a dying woman thinks she might have found the answers she’s looking for in an evangelist she saw on television. Is her daughter right to try to change her mother’s mind? Or, in doing so, is she denying her mother’s happiness? Maybe Mom will be bilked out of her money, but maybe she can spend her final days with a man she loves, which would be a good thing.

“The question then becomes whether Rachel is looking out for her mother’s interests or her own interests.”

Even though the playwright isn’t Jewish, the exchanges between Sheila and Rachel Gold aren’t unlike the kinds of discussions that have been going on in Jewish households for generations.

“My wife is Jewish,” Dilorio said. “I suppose being around conversations involving some combination of my wife, her sister, and her mother have rubbed off on me.”

The nuances of the script appear to have rubbed off on the cast members as well.

“The chemistry Susan and Natalie have developed is such that I have to keep reminding myself that they’re not really mother and daughter,” Dilorio said. “That adds a dimension that audiences should find intriguing.”


by Gary Wien


Gino Dilorio is quickly making a name for himself in the playwriting world. The Clark University Professor has his latest work, Apostasy, currently running at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. His play, The Hard Way, won 1st place in the BBC's 2005 International Playwriting Competition and was one of just 3 plays chosen in the Utah Shakespeare Festival's New Plays in Progress Series. Other highlights include winning a Berilla Kerr Award for Playwriting and having his "Winterizing the Summer House" chosen as one of the top 10 plays in the 2002 Writer's Digest's national play competition.

Upstage had the chance to talk with Gino on the eve of the world premiere of Apostasy at NJ Rep, a theatre which has played a large role in his development as a playwright.

Tell me a little about Apostasy.

It's a play that had a reading at NJ Rep about two years ago and we've been developing it - myself and SuzAnne Barabas (the director of Apostasy).
It's based on a number of different ideas that were going round in my head. I was brought up Catholic, my wife is Jewish and my kids are Jewish and the two religions deal with the afterlife in very different ways. In Christianity the resurrection and the after life are very much a center of the religion, whereas in Judaism it's not. In Judaism, it's the Torah - the law. And it just seemed to me that there wasn't a focus in Judaism with the afterlife. So I started looking at the afterlife issues and I did some research on it and I found that a lot of people who were terminal cancer patients who were Jewish considered converting at the end of their lives because they wanted that idea of a religion that was centrally focused on that. They wanted that hopeful ending, that kind of faith. It seemed like there was a real dichotomy there.

So, I was interested in that and I had a friend who had a bout with cancer and he and his girlfriend were sort of on the outs. But when he first got sick they got back together and she took care of him for the last 18 months of his life. She said that it was the greatest time of her life. The reason, I think, is because she finally had him where she wanted him. He really needed her. So, I was interested in that dichotomy too and that's something we have in the play with the mother/daughter.

Plus I'm also interested in evangelicals and what they are all about. And finally I was trying to write a piece of erotica for an older woman. I thought that it was kind of interesting that somebody at the end of her life would decide to do something crazy so she has a thing with a black preacher.
So, all of that is sort of in the piece. Hopefully, it works in a lot of ways.

How did it evolve from the play which first had a reading at NJ Rep?

It's less talky. I think that it started out as being a heavy idea play and it became more of a personal play. What happens is that you have these ideas and things you want to say in a piece, but then you do more and more readings and you see people start to fade a little bit. People don't want to be lectured to they want these ideas to spring in their head but you need the action to be driving the ideas. So that's how it really changed. A lot of cuts. It became less of an idea play and more about a love story and a personal dynamic between the mother, the daughter and the evangelical and who was going to get this woman in the end.

A lot of writers have difficulties writing dialogues for the opposite sex, how do you think you got by that?

It wasn't really a problem. I think I modeled their relationship after my mother and my sister because they were always butting heads. I heard that in the house a lot, so it was just being a good listener, I guess.

Apostasy started out with a reading at NJ Rep and now is having a full production. How important do you think it is for a playwright to have a certain relationship with a theatre where a piece can go from stage reading to a full production in the same theatre?

Extremely. I mentioned this at the Talk Back today. NJ Rep is an absolute treasure because they do predominately new work. One of the problems new playwrights have is that nobody wants to do new work. They'd prefer to do what's tried and true. In fact, playwrights are not only competing against other new plays but they're competing against every play that was ever written. It's like "Hamlet" or this new play by an unknown guy we've never heard of... I guess we'll do "Hamlet".

They (NJREP) develop so much new work and what's even better is that not only is there a world premiere every six weeks but they take the audience along for the ride. The audience is hip to that, they like seeing new things. It's not the same old tried and true. They like that some of it works and some of it doesn't, but it's always a premiere. I can't overstate all that they've done. Suzanne and Gabor (Barabas) are just the best!

When you were in college you were headed towards an acting career. Were you interested in writing back then?

I always had my eye on it, but I predominately wanted to be an actor. I mostly started writing about ten years ago. My son was born and it was difficult to go and do acting for very little money. I thought I could just stay home and write for very little money instead! At the time, I was with a lot of companies that did new work and I'd read a play and think, "I could write this".
I'm much happier as a playwright than I ever was an actor. You write it, it's up there and it's yours. I never got used to the transient nature of being an actor. It was always a challenge going from gig to gig.

How involved do you get with your productions?

As involved as they want me to be. I'm very comfortable just showing up the first night to see the play. If they want me to be at rehearsals, I'll be there. I try not to be there too much because I think the actors get nervous. I'd rather let them play with it and find it and let the director find it.
I'm not a very good audience member. I get so nervous that I don't enjoy it much. I like to listen to it. I'll sit in the back and just listen to the words.

How did having an acting background help your writing?

I tell my playwriting students that even if you don't ever want to act you've got to take acting classes. You've got to know what it's like to be up there. Even if you're terrible... You've got to know what it's like to stand in a space and read because it gives you a sense of the spoken word.

How has teaching helped you?

I would not have been a playwright if I hadn't been a teacher. I taught Improv for many years and Improv is one of those things where you're always saying yes to your imagination. It totally unlocked it for me. That's another thing I always tell my playwrights - take Improv classes.

What advice would you give somebody that wants to be a playwright?

I'd say take Improv, take acting classes. At first you've got to write what you know. I think you have to write what you love and what you know first. Don't be afraid to tell a personal story on stage. There's nothing wrong with starting there. And then eventually you have to write what you don't know because it's the only way you can learn things.

Go the theatre a lot, go to places where people are speaking. I think the hardest thing you have to do is listen. You have to be a magnet for dialogue. Bars, subways, diners... I don't think you can learn it from books. I think you really have to go places where people are speaking. You have to learn how people converse and bounce words in a space. You have to be a dialogue thief!

A CurtainUp Review

By Simon Saltzman

There are no agnostics in a cancer ward.--- Rachel Gold
Apostasy: 1. The renunciation of faith. 2. Abandonment of previous loyalty. --- Webster's Dictionary:

Susan G. Bob and Evander Duck, Jr. in Apostasy
(Photo: SuzAnne Barabas)
Sheila Gold (Susan G. Bob) is a Jewish patient with terminal cancer living in a hospice. The closest she has come to her faith in her lifetime is preparing a brisket of beef at Passover. This presumably makes her a prime candidate for apostasy, the theme of an absorbing if slightly far-fetched world premiering play by Gino Dilorio, a New York-based playwright who's been 1st place winner place in the BBC's 2005 International Playwriting Competition and a finalist at the O'Neill Center, the Humana Festival and New Dramatists.

When Gold, a self-sufficient independent middle-aged long-divorced woman reaches out for "something," she doesn't turn to her 31 year-old daughter Rachel (Natalie Wilder), who makes daily visits and usually arrives with a fresh supply of pot, declaring "Dis is good shit mon."

Sheila has, in fact, become enraptured with the TV ministry of California-based Dr. Julius Strong (Evander Duck, Jr.), a charismatic African-American Christian Evangelist. Exhausting the alternative cures which her daughter has continually seen fit to put down, Sheila finds that she is eager and receptive to the message that the persuasive evangelist is offering and loses no time in writing to him while also secretively initiating a major change in her will.

Sheila's success as a businesswoman ("I made a bundle selling stuff on line") has resulted in a conflicted relationship with Rachel who chose not to go into her mother's thriving business, but has instead devoted her life and her time to planned parenthood and working at a women's health clinic where she is now a manager.

Although disappointed in her daughter's choices, Sheila continues to urge Rachel to find a man through the Jewish singles web site service nembership in which she has given her as a gift. This subject takes a back seat when Sheila announces, "I'm thinking of converting to…Christianity. I'm serious. People who are dying need something." In a brochure sent from "The Strong Hour," Rachel notices a request for donations and makes it clear that she feels betrayed by her mother. Sheila counters this with "Well, I'm dying. And people who have faith die differently than people who don't have faith. I know it. I've seen it. And I don't want to be like them. So do me a favor, don't feel betrayed"

Rachel discovers that the evangelist has made a personal visit to see Sheila in her room at the hospice (cleanly and functionally designed by Carrie Mossman) and has stayed the night. Have Sheila's letter and its promise of a hefty gift to his ministry prompted Dr. Strong (Evander Duck, Jr.) to do whatever it takes?

You may suspect at this point that you know where playwright Dilorio is leading us and you may be right. However, under SuzAnne Barabas' finely tuned direction, three excellent actors define Dilorio's interestingly complex characters with considerable brio. The plot is a cleverly considered mix of concealed con and overt compassion.

Dilorio's gift for the provocative shows up with Julius' visit, beginning with an exchange of gifts between him and Sheila. Although Sheila is a bit wary of his evangelistic zeal ("You're always in preacher mode".), she is disarmed by his exuberance and warmth, and his ability to make her dance with a joyous abandonment to the strains of "Dancin' in the Street." An embrace leads to a kiss and more, in time for a quick Act 1 curtain. Rachel , appalled by the direction the relationship is taking, proceeds to do what she can to prevent her suddenly rejuvenated mother from being taken in by Julius.

Although the stocky yet spiffy-looking Duck, Jr. has the misfortune to play part of a scene literally bare-ass, his character is otherwise clothed in relentless sincerity and a fully committed mission. At the opening night performance, he got a deserved round of applause for giving an overly dramatic, but highly amusing "testimony" in the form of an improvisation at Sheila's request. Whether he is the scoundrel that Rachel suspects remains an almost moot point in the light of the desperate measures she is prepared to take to get him out of her mother's life.

Wilder has appeared in numerous NJ Rep productions, and she is outstanding as the totally rattled and needy Rachel, who not only finds herself in the role of her mother's protector, but also a probable target of anti-abortion activists. Whether we find Julius' stand on abortion surprising or not, we are more surprised not to see a single member of the hospice staff. Evidently no one checks up to see if anyone died during the night.

Susan Bob, who is best know for originating the role of Dee in Charles Gordone's Pulitzer Prize winning No Place to Be Somebody, gives the play its heart and its heartiness. Reflecting a gullibility that defies logic, and a recklessness that defines irrational behavior, she makes Sheila someone you may find yourself unwittingly rooting for and embracing. To her credit, she dispenses poignancy with a vibrancy that well serves this strangely unsettling but intriguing play.

Although this is not a musical, director Barabas has brilliantly selected recorded songs that deliciously punctuate the scenes and are worth mentioning -- "Stormy Weather," sung by Etta James, "People Get Ready," sung by The Blind Boys of Alabama, "I'm Still Her"e, sung by Tom Waits," Sunday Morning,",," Trust in Me" and "At Last," by Etta James; and "It will Be Me," sung for the curtain call by Kristin Chenoweth.

The LINK News July 20, 2006

Theater review

‘APOSTASY’ rewards faithful theatergoers

By Milt Bernstein

From the title of the latest offering at New Jersey Repertory Company – “Apostasy” – and its publicity logo showing a crinkled Jewish star on top of a larger Christian cross – one might get the impression that we are about to witness a learned debate on the virtues of the two great religions.

            In reality, however, playwright Gino DiIorio has offered us a combined comedy and drama – a “dramedy,” as someone recently put it – of an unusual love triangle – involving a not-very-old but highly successful Jewish businesswoman with an incurable illness, who is supposedly spending her last weeks or months in a hospice; her only caregiver, a daughter who feels all too keenly that her mother has always been alienated from her; and a charismatic Christian TV evangelist the mother has become fascinated with during her lonely stay in the hospice.

The three-character, two-act play opens with the mother (played by Susan G. Bob) receiving a surprise visit from the evangelist (all the way from California) and ends with a fiery showdown that takes place between the daughter (played by Natalie Wilder) and the evangelist (known as Dr. Julius Strong, and played by Evander Duck, Jr.).

            Susan Bob and Natalie Wilder, both NJ Rep veterans, portray their roles beautifully. But the real surprise is the performance of the preacher by Evander Duck, in real life a doctor with a practice in Freehold, specializing in physical medicine, spinal injuries and rehabilitation. Duck offered an overpowering presence in his scenes with the all-too-vulnerable mother, interspersed with moments of high comedy.

            This eminently worth-seeing production has been superbly directed by artistic director SuzAnne Barabas, co-founder of NJ Rep. The single hospice-room set was excellent, by Carrie Mossman; the costume design by Patricia Doherty; lighting by Jill Nagle; and sound by Merek Royce Press.


NJ Rep takes "Apostasy" from preemie to premiere

Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 07/14/06


In "Apostasy," the new play now onstage at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, a wealthy, middle-aged Jewish woman by the name of Sheila Gold (Susan G. Bob) enters into a relationship with Dr. Julius Strong, an African-American evangelical minister (Evander Duck Jr.). It's an arrangement that causes no end of grief to Sheila's daughter (Natalie Wilder), and one that raises issues of sketchy motives (is the charismatic preacher more interested in Sheila's money than he is in Sheila?) and hard choices (as between faith and family).

The three-character dramedy by Gino Dilorio is merely the latest in a long line of world premieres for the ever-innovative Shore-based company founded by Gabe and SuzAnne Barabas of West Long Branch. More significantly, it's the latest graduate of NJ Rep's long-running series of script-in-hand readings — a feature that has functioned as something akin to a "farm club" for works in progress, and a popular offering which, according to SuzAnne Barabas, sends a message "that we are not just a producing theater, but a development theater as well."

Having presented readings of more than 200 plays in the past eight years — with nearly 30 of them having transitioned to fully-staged productions — NJ Rep has established a genuine reason for seekers after something different to leave the house on Monday evenings. The bargain-priced, audience-interactive series — which continues on July 24 with Juan Mayorga's concentration camp drama "Ways to Heaven" — remains a popular draw throughout the year. It has attracted the talents of such performers as Salome Jens, Betsy Palmer and Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert.

"The main purpose of the staged readings is to let the author see where there may be vulnerabilities in a play, and what the audience responds to or does not respond to," explains SuzAnne Barabas, the troupe's artistic director. "Our audience is very astute . . . the playwrights would do well to listen to their comments and to heed their suggestions."

Work in progress

According to Barabas, a typical staged reading is cast about three weeks prior to presentation (Actors Equity, a union, allows up to 15 hours for rehearsals and performance of a drama or comedy). There are generally two rehearsals of the material — one in New York, and one at NJ Rep the day of the performance.

"With certain plays, we know from just reading the script that the play is ready. However, we often will do a staged reading of it to get a stronger sense of the work," she explained.

"It also gives us the chance to feel out the playwright and see how easy or difficult he/she is to work with, and how eager they are to further refine their play."

Then there's the sort of play which can, as SuzAnne Barabas puts it, "Read one way on paper and another on its feet" — as in the case of "Apostasy," a play she characterizes as "very human . .. we were drawn to all three characters, and we found the subject matter, and the interplay between comedy and drama, intriguing."

The NJ Rep people had already worked with playwright Dilorio during their mainstage production of his "Winterizing the Summer House" in 2003, and scheduled a reading of "Apostasy" almost exactly two years ago. While SuzAnne Barabas observed that the audience was very clearly moved and very encouraging in their post-show discussion, "we felt that it needed significant development."

Working closely with Dilorio to "make some edits, build up sections, and clarify issues," Barabas and company (including actress Natalie Wilder) did a closed table reading of a new draft. After further modifications were put through, a reading of the latest version was given at Luna Stage in Montclair — after which followed more suggestions, more re-writes and more table readings.

Two years and six more scripts later, SuzAnne Barabas said that "We felt the play was well on its way and we optioned it," adding that once a play is optioned, "We are then fully committed to the project . . . the director, however, will still work with the writer before and during rehearsals on the script as needed."

From there it was on the casting phase of the process, with Barabas (now officially attached to the project as director) offering first dibs on the role of the daughter to Wilder — a member of NJ Rep's stock company of players and a person regarded by all concerned as "a strong member of the development team." Susan Bob, who played mother Sheila in the very first reading, auditioned and was cast alongside Duck, making his first Rep appearance.

While noting that "We are very proud to have been a part of the development of this world premiere," the director emphasizes that the NJ Rep braintrust and its loyal audience aren't always on the same page when it comes to the properties that are selected for staging each season.

"We have also produced plays that the audience did not especially like, but we did . . . it poses a special challenge to see if we can bring the play to life in such a way that the audience changes its mind."

Grand finale

'Exits and Entrances' ends theater season on a high note

Wednesday, May 31, 2006
Star-Ledger Staff


The last production of the New Jersey theater season ranks as one of its best.

"Exits and Entrances," now at the New Jersey Repertory Company, has a splendid script, superb acting and masterful direction. Who could ask for anything more?

Athol Fugard's 30th play, and his most recent, had its world premiere engagement in 2004 in Los Angeles. New Jersey Repertory's artistic director, SuzAnne Barabas, and her husband, executive producer Gabor Barabas, have imported Stephen Sachs' production to their Long Branch theater.

It's the perfect play for the Barabases, because it celebrates the stage. Few rival this couple's love of theater, as they continue the difficult mission of bringing new plays to audiences.

That "Exits and Entrances" is autobiographical is easy to glean, though Fugard never refers to himself by name, but simply as "The Playwright." He could have called himself "The Dresser" just as easily, for he spends most of the play caring for the costumes -- and the ego of actor Andre Huguenet.

Fugard uses a real name here: Huguenet was a famed South African actor when Fugard worked for him during a 1956 production of "Oedipus Rex."

"The Playwright" shows Huguenet the unconditional respect that only a novice can give, and Huguenet happily takes it. When the lad compliments him on his performance, Huguenet asks, "Really?" He doesn't trust or admire the boy's opinion; he just wants to be praised again.

William Dennis Hurley is excellent as "The Playwright." The script demands that he have the starry-eyed enthusiasm of the stage-struck, but also that he stand up to the star. Hurley displays a strong backbone at these moments.

Morlan Higgins is extraordinary as Huguenet, one of those grahnd men of the theater who enjoys pretending that he's a regular, jovial guy -- but woe be to the underling who disagrees with him. Higgins uses a pretentious and portentous voice when saying, "im-purrrrr-tenant" and the de rigueur "dear boy." Yet what childishness he shows when there's a problem with his costume. Better still is Higgins' introspection when he remembers the taunts and threats heaped on him by village bullies long ago.

Self-pity can only last so long. Higgins snarls when he's corrected while rehearsing "Oedipus," then grandly orates when he's shown performing the text. How imperious he looks, too, when he takes his curtain call before the imaginary "Oedipus" audience.

Back in the dressing room, Higgins shows Huguenet's insouciant nature. He mentions "the drunkenness and sex" for which theater is famous, dryly adding, "If only that were true." Then he turns deadly serious when he speaks of another aspect of stage life: "the hard labor of dreams."

"The Playwright" finds that the realization of his dreams does indeed involve hard work. Five years later, he's about to have his first play produced. He visits Huguenet backstage to tell him about it. That leads to a surprising rift. Here, Hurley takes center stage, and delivers an impassioned speech without a trace of dishonesty.

New Jersey Repertory has replaced its hard-bottomed, armless steel chairs with plush, two-armed theater seats. But even if the company had removed the chairs and made everyone sit on the floor, "Exits and Entrances" would be worth the sacrifice.


"Exits" enters from a left-coast stage
Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 06/1/06

There are a number of pin-drop moments that occur during "Exits and Entrances," the two-character Athol Fugard drama now onstage at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

They are moments in which a hush settles over the room, broken by nothing more or less than a couple of finely tuned actors performing some carefully wrought words — with the subdued lighting, the barely discernible hum of the house air conditioning and some comfortable new seats adding to the quiet-time power of this elegiac duet.

There's little in the way of real action in this 2004 play by the South African scribe who's been lauded as one of the greatest literary voices of the last fifty years. Branded a "memory play," it's essentially a couple of snapshots from a slow, sad changing of the guard — a crossing of paths between the aging, Afrikaner actor Andre Huguenet (Morlan Higgins) and an idealistic young playwright (William Dennis Hurley) who has occasion to serve as supporting player, de facto dresser and appreciative audience to the older man.

This most recent work from the pen of the playwright best known for "Master Harold . . . and the Boys" was written for and developed by director Stephen Sachs and his Fountains Theatre in Los Angeles, a premiere for which Fugard helped supervise the casting and lent his wisdom during the rehearsal process. With director Sachs and his original cast all present for the show's Long Branch engagement, the NJ Rep production of "Exits" comes to the Jersey Shore bearing its famous author's still-warm fingerprints.

William Dennis Hurley (left) and Morlan Higgins rehearse a scene from Athol Fugard's "Exits and Entrances" in Long Branch

Arrivals and departures

Introduced by the unnamed Playwright (a surrogate for you-know-who) on the 1961 inauguration of the Republic of South Africa — an occasion that synchronically coincides with the death of Huguenet — the play very quickly flashes back to 1956 and the aspiring literary lion's experience with the weary Andre during an ill-starred run of "Oedipus Rex." The gradual "exit" of the classically trained, old-school impresario — and the concurrent "entrance" of the Playwright's more immediate brand of socially relevant theater — are just some of the "arrivals and departures" noted by Fugard, not least of which are the passing of the old Union of South Africa amid the first stirrings of the forces that would transform his country's society a generation later.

Always among the most trenchant of observers of life in the Apartheid era, Fugard keeps the grand sweep of history offstage, channeling the sea-change currents into a more personal argument between the hidebound conservator of Afrikaner culture and the wordsmith out to change the world. It's an exchange that momentarily wrests the jaded actor from his boozy resignation, prompting him to call his young friend back for more with the plea that "we haven't exhausted all our points of disagreement."

Comings and goings

While NJ Rep is presenting "Exits" without an intermission, the script does fall into two distinct sections. The latter finds the Playwright looking up the all-but-forgotten Andre in a small-time production of "The Prisoner," in which the broken, bankrupt Huguenet's gut-wrenching turn as The Cardinal presents a proud man "slowly stripped of all his disguises . . . forced to recognize and confess to what he really is."

Once regarded as the greatest actor in all of South Africa, the real-life Huguenet was a specialist in such larger-than-lifes as Hamlet and Lear. In a role that he has every right to claim having "created," Higgins embodies Huguenet as a sardonically witty extension of his stage self, a sin-eater who seems to assume the burdens shouldered by every tragic figure he's ever portrayed. As imperious as he is insecure, claiming to have "bred antibodies" to the critics while pouring another few fingers of bottled courage, the self-proclaimed "old gay ham" stands exposed as a lifelong outsider, a dinosaur with no real friends. Whether relating his childhood epiphany at the sight of the great ballerina Pavlova, or delivering Hamlet's famous soliloquy with a world-weary, booze-bleary authority you'll likely hear nowhere else, Higgins delivers this portrait to places only skirted by the likes of "The Dresser" and other "backstage" tales.

In a considerably less showy role — one that the playwright didn't seem fit to bless with a name — Hurley endeavors to expertly balance rather than compete with the stentorian swaggers and staggers of Higgins. He's the eloquent narrator who frames the vignettes, a straight-man and interlocutor, a stand-in for author and audience alike. He makes this play happen every bit as much as his 800-pound gorilla of a co-star.

The two actors and their director have honed this show to a fine point over the course of four productions and scores of performances. While it's not for every taste, it's a welcome summer guest here on our fair Shore — and to see it is to be provided with a direct glimpse into the creative process of one of the world's greatest living playwrights.

Major Playwright, Original Cast In Long Branch
The Two River Times

By Philip Dorian

Athol Fugard's "Exits and Entraces" at NJ Rep

In Exits and Entrances one of the characters, an aging actor, asks the other, a young playwright, if stage plays can make any difference in the world. Considering the impact Athol Fugard's have had on the social and political fabric of his native South Africa, the question is hardly rhetorical.

William Dennis Hurley (left) and Morlan Higgins in Exits and Entrances.
Dealing primarily with relationships among whites, blacks and "coloureds" in the era of apartheid, Fugard's early, mixed-race casts (Blood Knot, Boesman and Lena, etc.) were banned in his own country, but the plays galvanized anti-apartheid opinion with productions in this country (first at Yale Repertory Theatre) and elsewhere around the world. Exits and Entrances, which premiered in 2004, centers on the relationship between the idealistic young playwright and the older, disillusioned actor, whose values have become linked with the characters he has played. Apparently autobiographical, the characters are based on Fugard himself and on an acclaimed South African actor of the 1960s, Andre Huguenot. Fugard is noted - and sometimes criticized - for a reliance on metaphor, and this latest of his plays bears that out, even to the title.

In Exits and Entrances we are led to consider the demise of the repressive Union of South Africa, and the emergence of the democratic Republic of South Africa just 15 years ago. One character, the actor, is in decline; the other, the playwright, in ascendancy. Read that metaphor into Exits and Entrances if you choose; it's surely there. Or see it as "just" penetrating exchanges of philosophies between two intriguing characters at different points in their lives. Andre's only real home has been the stage, and the young writer is switching to plays because his short stories are mostly written in dialogue.

The play is set in 1956-61, but written recently, post-apartheid, it doesn't have the sting of Fugard's earlier works. Racial, social and economic divisions still exist in South Africa, of course, but Exits and Entrances seems removed from the biting reality of earlier Fugard. ("Master Harold" …and the Boys, for example, is gut wrenching.) It's more philosophical, less piercing. This does not detract from the sterling production now running at New Jersey Repertory Company.

We first see the playwright (William Dennis Hurley) ruminating on the past before we flash back to a theater dressing room where he serves actor Andre (Morlan Higgins) as a valet-dresser, readying him for a performance of his triumphant Oedipus Rex. Andre regales his assistant with tales of past glories as he makes up and dons his costume, and Higgins's transformation from the flamboyant ‘civilian' to the obsessed Oedipus is remarkable. Taking on a Bela Lugosi eeriness, he launches into the role within the role, acting the scene where Oedipus puts out his own eyes with convincing fervor. Later, reciting Hamlet's contemplation of suicide, actor Higgins does justice to the South African actor that Fugard honors in the play. In between the Sophoclean and Shakespearean excerpts, Higgins proves a master of Fugard's intense dialogue. It's a fine performance, necessarily outsized, but not scenery-chewing.

Hurley is more constrained but no less effective. He's in awe of Andre in the early scene, but less so five years later, when he has matured and Andre has fallen into irrelevance. The playwright's one outburst, giving voice to Fugard's rage against the old South African order, is startling in contrast to the character's overall calm. Hurley acts it well, up to and including the sudden halt when the younger man realizes he's not getting through to Andre. The accent Hurley affects may be authentic white South African, but he slips in and out of it, which is somewhat distracting.

Producing an established playwright is a departure for New Jersey Rep. They've done it here with class, not only by the choice of Fugard, but by importing the play's original cast as well as its director, Stephen Sachs, who blends actors and characters - and those metaphors - seamlessly.

Plays about theater people, real or fictitious, have a unique appeal, and Exits and Entrances is no exception. Being admitted to the dressing room and hearing excerpts from classic plays makes us feel like we're in on the process. In this case, the finished product is the latest play from a world-renowned author. Fugard is rarely produced locally - never before, to my knowledge, with the original cast and director. Serious theater fans - and fans of serious theater - are well advised to take advantage of this rarity, right in Long Branch.

"Exits and Entrances" continues at NJ Rep's Lumia Theatre, 179 Broadway, Long Branch through June 25. Performances are Thurs.-Sat. at 8pm, with matinees on selected Saturdays at 4 and Sundays at 2. Information and tickets ($30): 732-229-3166 or at

Two River Times theater critic Philip Dorian's e-mail address is

Jersey's best (In one critic's humble opinion)

Sunday, June 11, 2006
Star-Ledger Staff

The 2005-2006 New Jersey theater season certainly hit the heights with its comedies and dramas. The five best plays ran the gamut from funny ("Miss Witherspoon") to poignant ("From Door to Door") to nostalgic ("Music from a Sparkling Planet") to theatrical ("Exits and Entrances") to harrowing ("Gem of the Ocean"). Each deserved to be named best play of the year, and picking a winner wasn't easy.

Best Play: "Exits and Entrances" by Athol Fugard (New Jersey Repertory Company, Long Branch); "From Door to Door" by James Sherman (Forum Theatre); "Gem of the Ocean" by August Wilson (McCarter); "Miss Witherspoon" by Christopher Durang (McCarter); "Music from a Sparkling Planet" by Douglas Carter Beane (The Theater Project, Cranford).

Theatrical veteran writes valentine to his art

Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 06/23/06


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

WHEN: Today through Sunday

COST: $30-$35

CALL: (732) 229-3166

The plot is simple: An aging, seasoned actor and a young playwright battle over artistic differences. But what Athol Fugard's "Exits and Entrances" says and how it gets its point across is far more important than the simplicity of its plot.

Athol Fugard, 73, the South African playwright who has more than 25 full-length plays to his credit, is a unique voice in contemporary theater. For more than four decades, he has been writing about government oppression during the period of apartheid South Africa, and the repercussions of the artistic frustration that it has caused.

Apartheid is a system of racial segregation peculiar to the Republic of South Africa, during British rule. It was largely repealed in 1991-'92.

It is not rare for Fugard to have the conflict of his scenarios expressed through two major characters. The conflicts in "Blood Knot," "Master Harold . . . and the Boys" and "Valley Song" are all expressed through the two major characters.

Fugard's latest play, "Exits and Entrances," being staged at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, also has its conflict expressed through its two major characters.

The autobiographical drama traces the relationship of two characters over a long period of time. Andre is an aging actor on the brink of retirement. The young playwright (who represents a young Fugard) is simply known as the playwright.

The play spans 1956 to 1961, the oppressive years in which South Africa was under British rule. Due to the fact that Fugard and his plays always tried to protest apartheid, they were banned by the government and Fugard came to the United States to have them produced.

In "Exits and Entrances," the older man, Andre, believes theater should depict life as it should be, whereas the young playwright thinks theater should show life the way it really is. Andre is for lifting the spirits of the oppressed people of South Africa, by showing them some kind of positive aesthetic. He believes people go to the theater to escape real life.

On the other hand, the young playwright wants to change lives by writing plays about what's happening right now (in 1956), i.e., the horrible conditions under which the oppressed classes are living.

It may sound mundane, or even familiar, but what appears to be a simple concept is the cornerstone of a touching work. Director Stephen Sachs is passionate about it.

"The play is Fugard's valentine to the theater," Sachs said recently. "It is a series of scenes that, over a period of time, shows the relationship between the two men grow and develop."

Sachs lives in Los Angeles and works mostly at the theater he founded in 1980, the Fountain Theater, where he is artistic director.

He became aware of "Exits and Entrances" through a twist of fate.

"I was directing a play by Fugard called "The Road to Mecca' for The Fountain Theater," Sachs recalled. "Well, Fugard came to Los Angeles to see it and loved the production. We got to talking and I offered him our theater as his artistic home."

A few days later, Sachs received an e-mail from Fugard asking him to direct his latest play.

"The entire text was in a file attachment. It was "Exits and Entrances.' I read it and was very moved by it," Sachs said.

Athol Fugard’s Exceptional Exits and Entrances in Northeast Premiere

Exits and Entrances
Morlan Higgins and William Dennis Hurley
Working within the framework of simple, direct plots, the prolific South African playwright Athol Fugard brings an astonishing density and richness to his plays. Additionally, Fugard clearly possesses the admirable ability to reinvent himself and remain relevant in an ever changing world. In any number of ways, his new play, Exits and Entrances, is a stunning culmination of his oeuvre. However, it also reminds us that for as long as he retains his strength, Fugard can be depended upon to continue to evolve and illuminate the theatre with his particular genius.

The autobiographical play depicts the two encounters between The Playwright and South African Afrikaans actor Andre Huguenet. They occurred in 1956 and 1961. The Playwright is very explicitly the young Fugard, half Afrikaans and author of a play about "two coloured brothers, one dark, one light living in a pondok (shack)." (This is a description of Fugard’s first internationally famed play, Blood Knot.) Andre (as he is identified throughout), who in actuality had been known as the Laurence Olivier of the South African theatre, is an unhappy lost soul in the failing, declining days of his career. The Playwright, filled with zeal and ambition, is embarking upon a career in the theatre which we know is to be stellar. Thus the two protagonists, respectively, are making their Exits and Entrances into and from their productive lives in the theatre.

1956. Andre is producing and starring in Oedipus Rex in Cape Town, for which he has hired the 24-year-old Playwright to play the role of a shepherd and act as his dresser. Andre, while vain, bombastic and fragile, has a glory about him to which those of us with a love for the power of the theatre can relate. He describes himself as a Dopper Moffie (Afrikaans for village queer) who found in the theatre "a world where I would be safe." Citing South African poet Eugene Marais, who when asked "where is your home" responded by holding up a sheet of paper, Andre proclaims that "the theatre is my home ... my greatest sense of myself, my greatest acuity, is in pretending to be someone else." He favorably compares being loved in his "home" by Shakespeare’s Ophelia to the relationship between The Playwright and his wife.

Audiences are sparse, and having spent his last monies to produce Oedipus, Andre is at the point of bankruptcy. "What creativity is all about is the hard labor of dreams ... The awful truth is that the audience has to give you permission to dream."

1961. The Playwright meets Andre for the second and last time in Cape Town where Andre is playing a highly fictionalized version of courageous Joseph Cardinal Mindszenty, who had been prosecuted by the Hungarian Communist regime, The Prisoner. It is clear to The Playwright that Andre’s career, indeed his very life, has reached the endgame. It is now clear to both men that Andre’s florid acting style has gone out of fashion and will no longer be accepted by producers and audiences. Andre does not have the inner resources to change. At least as devastating is Andre’s loss of belief in his ability, or in the ability of any individual, to make any difference in the course of the world. When The Playwright vehemently objects to his words, Andre responds, "You didn’t take offense?. My words were directed at myself when I was your age." "What do you pray for Andre?" "Nothing much, just a little courage to wear my curse, the Dopper Moffie, as a badge of grace and not disgrace.

Despite the fact that while on the surface, Exits and Entrances, like this review, may seem to center mostly on Andre, it is at heart a journey into the mind and spirit of The Playwright. The Playwright has always been determined to "wake up the Afrikaneers and make him think." Told by Andre that he should write of his own people, he responds "as far as I’m concerned the people of the slums are my own people." Of course, we have long known that The Playwright would play a major role in raising consciousness to the plight of the indigenous populace under racist apartheid regimes.

However, almost half a century ago, The Playwright was treated to an object lesson on how not to respond to the inevitable changes that come to us all with the passage of time. Even then, based on the evidence of this play, Fugard knew that one day, he would devote more of his writings to his personal concerns. While still writing of the evolving social and political terrain of South Africa, the focus of his recent plays has become decidedly more personal, and, as a result, they have more universal application. Figuratively, Athol Fugard has found the fountain of youth, and he is generously sharing its location with us.

The world premiere of Exits and Entrances was presented at the tiny Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles. The New Jersey Rep area premiere boasts the cast and director of the Los Angeles premiere production. Director Stephen Sachs has directed with a sure hand, never allowing the conversation to become static, and smoothly blending two diverse performances into an organic whole.

Morlan Higgins is excellent in the showier role of Andre. As noted, Andre is an emotionally buffeted, bombastic and complex individual. Additionally, Andre has to perform excerpts from Sophocles and, to a lesser extent, Bridget Boland (The Prisoner) in a florid manner while still conveying a certain grandeur in the performance of the former, and hard won pathos in the latter. Higgins captures the bold strokes and complex nuances required to capture Andre. William Dennis Hurley as The Playwright meets the challenge of holding the stage equally with Higgins, despite having to rely mostly on subtler, more limited strokes.

The spare, attractive set of Jessica Parks nicely serves for the three required locations. The costume designs by Shon LeBlanc are first rate.

Athol Fugard has been quoted describing Exits and Entrances as a "small play." Perhaps he only intended that it be a brief memoir of Andre Huguenet. However, this 85 minute, one act, two character play has emerged as an all encompassing self-portrait summing up the magnificent playwriting career and evolution of one of the giants of the English language theatre. Gratitude is due to the New Jersey Rep for bringing it to us.

The LINK News June 1 thru June 7, 2006
Theatre Review
Engrossing new play at NJ Rep
by Milt Bernstein
"Exits and Entrances", the latest drama by the great South African playwright Athol Fugard, is the current offering of the New Jersey Repertory Company at the Lumia Theater on Broadway, Long Branch.
This is a beautifully performed two-character story of an actual friendship, in South Africa, between an aspiring young playwright (Fugard himself, although not named) and an older, egotistic and demanding actor who has specialized in bringing classic roles to the upper class in South Africa, the Afrikaners, not always with success.
When the narrative begins, in 1961, South Africa has become the Union of South Africa, under Afrikaner rule (the original Dutch Boers); and apartheid has become the official life in this racially divided country. The young writer, after several years as an expatriate in England, returns to his homeland imbued with the desire to throw light on and expose the terrible ills in his country. When he visits his old friend after a performances as the cardinal in "The Prisoner" (Cardinal Mindszenty) there is a riveting scene as the two clash over their different philosophy and point of view as to what is most important for one to do in life. As the play comes to an end, each of them has a greater appreciation of his friend; and we are treated to a most memorable recitation of Hamlet's "to be or not to be" soliloquy by the aging actor reclining in his dressing room armchair.
This eminently worth-seeing play, by the renowned author of such works as "Blood Knot" (described in this play, though not by name), "A Message from Aloes", "Master Harold and the Boys," and others too numerous to mention, is being offered for the first time in the tri-state area; and if it receives sufficient notice, may well wind up on or off-Broadway, in that other big city nearby.
Sterling performances are rendered by William Dennis Hurley as the young writer and Morlan Higgins as the actor - both of whom are continuing in the roles they created for the play's original performances in California, along with Stephen Sachs, the original and brilliant director.


by Gary Wien, Upstage Magazine

(LONG BRANCH, NJ) -- Exits and Entrances is the latest in a long line of NJ Rep success stories. The Long Branch company is presenting the New Jersey premiere of Athol Fugard's latest play until June 25th. In a word, the play is nothing short of powerful. Very, very powerful.

The play revolves around the relationship of a budding playwright and an aging actor in South Africa in the early 1960s. The two first meet each other during a production of Oedipus in which Andre receives raves reviews as the star and the playwright is his assistant in the dressing room. Andre is played by Morlan Higgins and the playwright is played by William Dennis Hurley. Both actors are wonderful and utterly believable with their South African accents.

After the play's run is over, the playwright asks Andre where he's off to next? Is he going home? The actor holds up a piece of blank paper and tells the story of a writer who said the words on this page of paper were his home. He then mentions how people were asking him about playing King Leer and he was debating if it was time to start having "a quiet, family life.

They meet up again a few years later when the playwright saw that the actor was back in town. He heads back to the old dressing room afterwards to drop in on him and the two reminscence.

The title of the play stems from the various exits and entrances taking place in the playwright's life at the moment. His father is dying in the hospital while his first child just was born. Exits and Entrances provides a wonderful perspective on the lives of playwrights and the actors they come in touch with through the years. The play's use of sound is very provocative and startling even. There are moments of pure silence and moments where the two old friends are literally shouting at one another higher and higher until you can feel the tension actually snap.

That tension is generally from the changing of the guard in South African theatre. The actor is of the old school while the playwright is one of the voices for the new generation. When the actor tells him that he should write about his "own people" rather than about the people in the slums, the playwright screams "these ARE my people!"

In one of the most telling moments of the play, a toast that never actually happens says so much. The two members of the theatre both shared visions of changing African theatre once, but while one still holds on to that dream the other gave up long ago. Andre's life mirrors that of the playwright's father in many ways. When asked what his father is dying of the playwright says "he's dying of unimportance".

"That's a dangerous disease," said Andre. "Yes, it can easily kill a man." -- Spoken from one who knows.

Exits and Entrances is a powerful look at a period of time when history was being written every day. Athol Fugard's script blends humor with drama effortless and the acting is spectactular. This is a play not to be missed!

What an entrance

Road-tested drama gets off at NJ Rep's exit

Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 05/26/06

Anyone who's followed the progress of New Jersey Repertory Company could tell you that the Long Branch-based professional theatrical troupe founded by Gabe and SuzAnne Barabas has made it their prime directive to develop and debut new works for the stage. With a pretty formidable back catalog of world-premiere presentations — and a highly successful farm-club system of script-in-hand readings — it's a rare production indeed that deviates from this artistically adventurous standard.

Opening this weekend at NJ Rep, Athol Fugard's "Exits and Entrances" is just such an event. It's the newest play from the pen of the internationally acclaimed South African dramatist best known for the award-winning "Master Harold . . . and the Boys."

The two-character, single-act "Exits and Entrances" is a slice of autobiography pairing a young, up-and-coming (and unnamed) playwright with the legendary Afrikaans actor Andre Huguenet — presented here in the twilight of his career during a 1956 run of "Oedipus Rex."

It's a play in which Fugard took an especially active interest; having written it specifically for Los Angeles director Stephen Sachs (who helmed the West Coast premiere of Fugard's "Road to Mecca") and his intimately-scaled Fountain Theatre. Sachs and Fugard hand-picked the cast, and the author was on hand throughout the rehearsal process to consult with the director, as well as with the actors Morlan Higgins and William Dennis Hurley. Following the show's initial run in 2004 — a production for which both actors won major awards — Sachs, Higgins and Hurley collaborated on three stagings in California and Florida.

In a pleasantly surprising turn of events, the three men are reprising their partnership once more during the Long Branch engagement of "Exits and Entrances," onstage through June 25.

"This is still a world premiere of the newest play by one of the world's leading dramatists," says director Sachs, "and, because it's being presented by the original team, New Jersey audiences are seeing the world-premiere production at New Jersey Rep."

Actor Higgins — who, in his turn as Huguenet, gets to spout passages of Sophocles and Shakespeare in addition to the masterful language of Fugard — is also emphatic about the play's status as an all-new, all-original offering.

"It's not a homegrown production," he said, "but so what? I mean, it's not as if (Gabe and SuzAnne) have imported a touring production of "Grease II.' "

What's more, it's a work in which the two colleagues continue to find new inspiration — with Sachs observing that "the play itself is so rich and multi-layered, it constantly reveals new levels; so, the New Jersey production will be unique."

"We never stop honing it . . . we want to keep running it and working it wherever we can," says Higgins of the show. "Our ultimate goal is a New York production. We think Athol deserves that."

While the basic premise — the older actor sharing some backstage moments of reflection with a young rookie — might bring to mind such plays as Ronald Harwood's "The Dresser" or David Mamet's "A Life in the Theatre," "Exits" carries the added value of the author's own half century of life experience on and around stages that ranged from lavishly legitimate to illicitly underground. Still, even though the real-life Huguenet was regarded as the greatest South African actor of his day (and the character of the playwright is pretty much universally accepted to be a stand-in for the young Fugard), both actor and director stress that no intimate knowledge of pre-apartheid Afrikaans theater is required in order to "get" the script.

"The characters are so vivid and alive, and everything unfolds so clearly, audiences everywhere have loved this play," Sachs explained.

"Everything rings true to me about the play," said Higgins in agreement. "Here is one of the great playwrights pouring 50 years of work in the theater into 90 minutes . . like O'Neill, he knows that one reveals the universal by clearly and honestly revealing the specific."

Having created and defined the role of Huguenet with the author's blessing, Higgins can admit to feeling somewhat proprietary toward the play and his character. When asked to proffer any bit of advice to future players of the part, he said, "Early in rehearsal I asked Athol if I could only get one thing right about Andre, what should that be"?

" "Pride,' " he said. " "He was a very proud man and it made him and undid him.' "


"Lockerbie" is place to go for a good cry
Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 03/29/06

"Bring a handkerchief," advised actor Al Mohrmann when discussing "The Women of Lockerbie," a drama in its regional premiere at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. Indeed, the scattered snuffling and sniffling that accompanied Saturday's opening night performance suggested hankies should have been inserted into the programs. At least one ill-prepared gentleman was forced to use his shirtsleeve, while the massive snort of emotional runoff that greeted the final blackout confirmed that the play is a successful tugger of heartstrings.

Lockerbie, of course, is the small town in Scotland that achieved international infamy as the site of the devastating 1988 crash of Pan Am flight 103. Subsequently traced to a terrorist bomb plot, the disaster killed numerous people on the ground in addition to all airborne passengers and crew.

Described as a "preamble to 9-11" in the pre-show comments by NJ Rep executive producer Gabe Barabas, the tragedy is regarded by many to have been a retaliation against the shooting down of an Iranian airliner by U.S. forces. When it's discussed at all these days, the incident tends to be viewed from a purely American perspective. All of these are among the talking points addressed by the Alaska-born Deborah Brevoort in her drama, a winner of several awards for playwriting.

Split down the middle

Set in the moss-covered hills outside Lockerbie on a moonlit December night some seven years after the crash, Brevoort's fact-based ensemble piece brings a still-grieving American couple (Marnie Andrews and Mohrmann as the Livingstons of New Jersey) to the once-anonymous Scottish village in search of their long-dead son — or rather, a personal memento or bit of earthly remains. Here on the anniversary of the life-altering event, the U.S. State Department has announced that it will close out its investigation by destroying a warehouse full of clothing and personal effects belonging to the victims. Some 200 Lockerbie women (represented by Corinne Edgerly, Alice Connorton and Margery Shaw) have mobilized to prevent the destruction from taking place, as well as take possession of the burned and bloodied apparel for the purpose of a symbolic cleansing.

This real-life incident (thousands of articles of clothing were cleaned and shipped to victims' families by the women of the town) forms the basis of a script that — ripped screaming from the headlines though it may be — departs at the gate from stark realism. Characters tend toward purple pronouncements ("We need to give love to all the families, so that evil will not triumph") and jack-handy aphorisms ("Trust in the rising sun, and the stars that shine at night"), while the trio of Edgerly, Connorton and Shaw operate primarily as a sort of classical chorus — and the modern world seems far afield from Jo Winiarski's moody, mist-shrouded set; a design that's bisected by a fully functional brook.

Al Mohrmann and Marnie Andrews star in "The Women of Lockerbie" in Long Branch.
By Deborah Brevoort

— Through April 30 — $20-$35

— (732) 229-3166

We're here by the side of this stream because Mr. Livingston has come in search of Mrs. Livingston, who has strayed into the hills after fleeing from a memorial service in the village. She can be seen shambling over hill and dale, calling out her son's name as the Lockerbie ladies liken her to "a tree struck by lightning; split down the middle by grief."

As it happens, Grief is virtually a character unto itself, to hear Edgerly and company tell it. We learn that "Grief is a guest who stays too long," and who "wears a dark coat." We're told that "Grief runs wild" because the sky is too big to store it — and, in an awkward juxtaposition, no sooner has Edgerly assured us that there's no point in talking to Grief (since "Grief has no ears to listen"), than she states that "Grief needs to talk."

Earned in full

With a cast of seven professional players under the direction of Jason King Jones, "Lockerbie" places more people on the mainstage of NJ Rep's Lumia Theatre than any production since 2003's "The Good Daughter." That show (perhaps not coincidentally) also was directed by Jason King Jones. With "Daughter," Jones moved his big group through a complex cavalcade that spanned several years, countless scene changes and some impressively realized stage effects.

Despite its ensemble nature, "Lockerbie" is a different species of drama. Presented without intermission, it unfolds in a static setting, with nearly all of its dramatic highlights occurring offstage. The production derives its emotional power from some standout speeches and exchanges by Andrews, Mohrmann and Edgerly, with Connorton and Shaw providing succinct (and comparatively subdued) support. David Volin and Michele Tauber, as the boorish bureaucrat from the State Department and his cleaning lady, appear at first as something akin to comic relief. Volin's trademark edgy, urban sort of characterization (very effective in the recent "Klonsky and Schwartz") seems particularly out of place in this quasi-mystical tableau, although perhaps that's the point.

It's a definite credit to this cast and director that they're able to find a real emotional resonance at the heart of an often surreal script. The very genuine issues of loss and love and closure touched upon herein mean that every teardrop will be earned in full — and that "hatred will not have the last word in Lockerbie."

"The Women of Lockerbie" continues through April 30 with performances on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings, as well as selected Saturday afternoons and Sunday matinees. For tickets and information about other upcoming offerings at NJ Rep, call (732) 229-3166.

Go to it: love, life and "Lockerbie"

An acting "marriage" is put to the test at NJ Rep

Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 03/24/06

INFO: (732) 229-3166

Whatever its outcome, a modern (read: non-arranged) marriage is an agreement that's entered into with best intentions and highest hopes — a good idea that's generally born of some good times. But when that bond is tested by adversity — a devastating illness, a grievous loss — it can be easy for two people to lose the thread of those more carefree days and to see each other in a new and possibly unwelcome light.

Consider New Jersey Repertory Company members Marnie Andrews and Al Mohrmann. Offstage, the two Actors Equity professionals have long been married — to other people. For numerous hours of their adult lives, however, they've stood before an audience as husband and wife — and although their roles in such NJ Rep productions as "Big Boys," "Touch of Rapture" and "Maggie Rose" have put them at the center of some of the Shore-based company's most laugh-packed scenes, their local stage legacies are just as likely to spring from their time together in "Till Morning Comes," a bittersweet duet they performed on the Long Branch stage a few seasons back.

He plays a man whose strength and spirit have been stolen by Lou Gehrig's disease. She plays his energetic, ever-supportive spouse, a woman whose own spirit is tested by her husband's request for assistance in his own suicide. Both actors infuse each moment of the two-character script with a palpable sense of who these people were in the decades before the lights went up on their final act together.

Andrews and Mohrmann return as husband and wife in "The Women of Lockerbie," an award-winning drama by Alaska-born Deborah Brevoort. Making its New Jersey premiere this weekend, it's a story about a town in Scotland that was the site of an infamously tragic jetliner crash in 1988. The fiery fate of Pan Am Flight 103 — and the subsequent investigation that uncovered a bomb plot by Libyan nationals — placed a glaring media spotlight on the once-quiet hamlet where the women reached out to bereaved family members (represented here by Andrews and Mohrmann as a grieving couple from New Jersey), even as they struggled to cope with their own losses in the disaster's aftermath.

According to Andrews, it's a play that "deals with a serious subject, but contains humor, community and a vitality that is rare in modern plays." "When we did the reading last year, we got a standing ovation," the actress recalls. "I can tell you, that is rare, especially in a reading . . . it speaks to the power of the play in the hands of this director (Jason King Jones) and these actors."

An ensemble piece that features Alice Connorton, Margery Shaw, Michele Tauber, Corinne Edgerly and David Volin, "Lockerbie" is a different sort of experience for Mohrmann. He recalls his "Morning" with Andrews (during which the flu-stricken Mohrmann's struggles in rehearsals allowed the actors to better understand their roles as caregiver and patient) as a time when the two "looked back a good deal on how life used to be for these folks and how rapidly things changed."

According to Mohrmann, their new project "seems to be about moving forward . . . so this script doesn't allow for too much reminiscing."

"For this couple to have lasted the seven years prior to the time of the play, we had to have a fabulous marriage early on," Andrews says.

Asked if she's developed a genuine chemistry with her stage spouse, Andrews says, "We have a tough time as a couple in the struggle of this play, (but) the work is so much easier with good chemistry . . . timing shifts from night to night. Energy shifts."

"The really great runs are when the cast senses those adjustments and moves with them," she adds. "The exhilarating times are when I really have no clue what I am going to say next, but find it in what the other actors are doing."

Given a chance to name a project she'd love to tackle with her co-star, Andrews cites "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" and "The Lion in Winter."

For his part, Mohrmann expresses a preference for a comedy "or at least a script without fatal diseases, suicides, terrorists, or plane crashes," he says. "That would be a start."

Call it what you will, the players enjoy a professional rapport and synergistic "something" that comes across to the audience. In Mohrmann's words, "Marnie and I clearly have a relationship (that) grew out of the journey we took together in "Morning,' and for better or worse, that experience will always be with us."

"It feels very easy and natural now to think of her as a spouse," the actor says. "Obviously, it would be possible to form a bond with a different actress, but it's so much easier when you can start with someone you're already close to."

"For me," Andrews adds, "the commitment to marriage is renewed daily . . . have I imagined those moments with Al, as my stage husband? Absolutely.

"That's the beauty of working with Al," she says in summation. "I can see the glint of a laugh in him; I can feel his strength and kindness when we sit in silence listening to notes . . . he's easy to love."

Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 04/2/06
DUNCAN M. ROGERS wants you to see his new short film, "Bust," but mum is the word about its specific contents. It's playing today at the Garden State Film Festival in the noon-to-2 p.m. block of screenings at Convention Hall in Asbury Park.

Admission is $8 for the two-hour film block.

Shot entirely in Long Branch in September 2004 on the second floor of the New Jersey Repertory Company's rehearsal room at 179 Broadway, "Bust" is, Rogers said succinctly, "a cop drama."

"Jessica Parks, our production designer, turned the repertory's rehearsal hall into an interrogation room," Rogers said by telephone. "We actually had cops come by — they were providing technical help — and take pictures of the set because it was so accurate." "Bust" stars Dan Lauria, who has numerous off-Broadway and regional stage, film and TV credits. They include portraying Fred Savage's father in "The Wonder Years" and a role in the film "Independence Day."

"Dan is also a huge advocate of new writers, which is part of why he did this film. Lord knows we didn't pay anybody anything, except my thanks," Rogers quipped.

A Massachusetts native and an actor before he became a writer/director/producer/editor/marketer, Rogers also is a member of the New Jersey Repertory group. A Maplewood resident, he is the founder of Freshwater Films; its first production was "The Ables House is Green," which played at festivals including the Dancing Goat Short Film Festival.

"The Reader," a winner of numerous short film festival awards, was next, followed by "Bust." Rogers said "Bust" was a "very grueling three-day shoot" about the investigation into a mob-related murder. It runs 14 minutes.

Rogers' other shorts are "The Reader" (10 minutes) and "The Ables House Is Green" (13 minutes). He said some of his colleagues make shorts "as a calling card (toward) making features, but one of my missions is to never make a long story short or a short story long. I believe in the value of short stories; that's why there are the O Henry awards."

And one of the upsides of making shorts and having them accepted on the festival circuit is getting to travel. Rogers will go to Hawaii to screen "The Reader," and he has shown it in Woods Hole and Williamstown, Mass., festivals. At this point, he pays his own expenses.

Along the way, Rogers has accumulated awards, press coverage, allegiance from prestigious actors such as Lauria and Tony Award-winner Elizabeth Franz ("Death of a Salesman") — she's in "The Reader" — and attention from the money people.

He has been approached with deals for distributing his short films, including an offer from a major Hollywood studio.

"If I had been younger I would have moved to L.A. the next day, that's how complimentary they were," he said.

Instead, Rogers is staying in New Jersey, where he and Middletown native Michael Folie are planning to shoot a feature of the Folie play "Naked by the River." The goal is to make it for less than $200,000.

"Depending on how our fund-raising goes, we will shoot 70 to 80 percent of it in New Jersey with some New York shoots," said Rogers. "We are now starting the business of setting up a company and approaching investors."

All abuzz about Steve Colbert

Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 03/31/06

His new series on Comedy Central has emerged as a "must-watch show" and a late-night ratings boon, with The New York Times calling it "one of the best television shows of the year." A savvy spinoff from "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" and a playground bully pulpit for its creator/co-producer/writer and star, "The Colbert Report" — col-BARE re-POR to you freedom-fry fans — has become an influential, even "grippy" little zephyr in the zeitgeist. No less than the American Dialect Society named the show's Colbert-coined buzzword "truthiness" as its 2005 Word of the Year.

So then what's Stephen Colbert — the truth-spewing, flag-wearing, bear-hating, Charlene-stalking talking head of the class of TV pundits — doing in a one-shot dramatic reading Sunday in Long Branch? Particularly when he could be kicking back and living the life of O'Reilly?

According to director ames Glossman, it could be due to the fact that Colbert "has a lot of stamina" — or it could simply be that "he's an astonishing chameleon," an observation to which the veteran director adds, "he's also the nicest guy; a great family man."

Then again, it could be that there's simply more to Colbert than that Peabody Award-winning political satirist who holds forth four nights a week on basic cable. There's the familiar comic character player of big screen ("Bewitched") and small ("Strangers with Candy," a show he helped create). There's the commercial pitchman (Mr. GoodWrench), comedy writer ("Saturday Night Live," "The Dana Carvey Show") and — if you happened to have caught a memorable episode of "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" last season — a dramatic actor with the skills to pay the bills.

Truthiness be told, Colbert and Glossman — both of them Northwestern University-trained actors with a number of mutual friends in regional stage circles — have been looking for an opportunity to work together on the drama "The Good German" ever since Glossman mounted a reading at the Madison-based Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey; a show that featured, in addition to famed actors Edward Herrmann and Austin Pendleton, Colbert's wife, Evelyn McGee, in a crucial supporting role.

As Glossman tells it, "We thought it would be fun if Steve brought his quick-witted, methodical, dangerous style to the play" — and on Sunday, Shore theatergoers will be able to join in the fun, as New Jersey Repertory Company welcomes Colbert and company in a special Sunday installment of their popular series of script-in-hand readings.

The associate artistic director of Madison-based Playwrights Theatre and a visiting lecturer at Johns Hopkins University, Montclair resident Glossman should be familiar to NJ Rep fans, as director of the very recent "Tour de Farce" — as well as for his collaboration with actor Ames Adamson on "Circumference of a Squirrel," a one-man show that he helmed at both NJ Rep and Playwrights Theatre (and a happy partnership that's scheduled to continue with a production this summer at Shadowland Theatre in Ellenville, N. Y.).

Set in Germany during the World War II, "The Good German" centers around an aristocratic professor of literature named Karl (Paul Murphy), whose wife, Gretel (McGee), takes into their home a man by the name of Braun (Shadowland artistic director Brendan Burke) — a man whom she claims is a relative who has lost his family in an Allied firebombing. When tragedy strikes, the truth about Herr Braun and Gretel stands revealed — and Karl is compelled to face some essential truths about who he is and where he stands in the madness that swirls about him.

In Glossman's view, the script by James Wiltse "explores certain truths about the human heart; how even in the midst of hell we can somehow make connections with people, even against our will."

Appearing in the role played previously by Pendleton, Colbert plays Karl's cousin Siemi — an amiable chap who also happens to be a clerical worker for the SS. It's a part about which the director observes, "You're never sure if he's just a fun guy, if he's actually here to warn you, or if he's going to turn you in to the Gestapo."

"Steve brings a sharp, knifey edge to (Siemi) that's very good for the character," Glossman explains. "He's either a truly gentle and generous guy, or he's a terrifying manipulator — and Stephen can be surprisingly funny, in a terrifying way."

NJ Rep comedy a "Tour de Farce" for actor

Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 02/24/06

Ask anyone who's trying to manage an intrepid not-for-profit theatrical troupe, and you'll be told that there are certain members of the stock company who are pretty near indispensable.

There's the young leading man who can carry a whole show on his shoulders. Then there's the mature character player who can credibly embody the (sometimes twisted) authority figures. Not to mention the utility guy who can take on a gallery of smaller supporting parts, some not much bigger than a walk-on.

Fortunately for New Jersey Repertory Company, all these positions are currently filled, thanks to a rather versatile actor by the name of Ames Adamson. A familiar face on the NJ Rep stages for the past several seasons, Adamson has starred or featured in five different main stage productions, attracting a great deal of attention and stepping into dozens of different roles.

The reason that Adamson has amassed such a gallery of personae in such a short time is that he is one of those rare artists who's been able to make a specialty of performing multiple roles in a single show. It's a multi-faceted set of skills that has served the Philadelphia-based Adamson well in his current endeavor at NJ Rep.

Now in its world premiere engagement at the Long Branch company's Lumia Theatre, the Philip LaZebnik-Kingsley Day comedy "Tour de Farce" is one of those good old-fashioned bedroom escapades — a frenzied frolic of mix-matched partners, crossed signals and slamming doors. It's the kind of romp that sends a slew of madcap characters darting in and out of a hotel suite with the choreographed grace of a particle accelerator.

The budget-conscious twist here is that said slew is conjured up entirely by two actors, with Adamson and co-star Prentiss Benjamin each handling five roles apiece.

An even bigger twist is that it's scarcely the first time Adamson has done a five-fer in a single play. It was his quintet of exceedingly nutty characters — including a mad scientist, a martinet director and a sleazy agent — that first got the attention of Rep regulars in the absurdist comedy "Panama." Then there was "Circumference of a Squirrel," a one-man tour de force in which Adamson, playing a gently neurotic young layabout with an irrational fear of rodents, channeled an assortment of parents, fiancees and other peripherals via his veritable toolbox of voices and body language.

In between the higher-profile projects at the Rep, Adamson has further made himself indispensable by participating in the regular series of script-in-hand readings, emceeing fund-raisers, performing in and directing segments of the troupe's short-play festivals, even getting involved with the administrative end of things.

"Most of my ability to dodge the occasional bullet comes from being a twerp as a kid, and having to jump through windows and out of tree houses to escape the torture of my playmates," Adamson said. "I think I was also a privileged child to have parents who had me watching the Three Stooges, Stan and Ollie, Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin from an early age."

In addition to Laurel and Hardy, the actor credits such comic icons as Peter Sellers, a master of disguise, and even Looney Tune's Foghorn Leghorn as being part of his preparation for the show, although he's quick to point out that "I didn't study them or steal from them so much, but memories of their work bathe me, as it were."

While many method actors have the luxury of "inhabiting" or even "being" their character for the run of a play, Adamson is inclined to take a more pragmatic stance when gearing up for a performance, asserting that "it's hard to "develop' or "inhabit' a character from the inside in a play like this, and frankly, not all that necessary. As long as I believe the words I'm saying, it is simple, unadulterated make-believe for a couple of hours."

When not creating a lasting legacy at the Lumia, Adamson picks up the odd movie gig (watch for him as an extra in "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days"), does commercials for the Philly market and performs in Shakespeare productions across the region.

2 performers rate a 10

Adamson and Benjamin whirl through 5 roles each in 'Tour de Farce'
Monday, January 30, 2006
Star-Ledger Staff


The very best part of "Tour de Farce" occurs at the very end of the evening.

Not at the very end of the play, mind you. Philip LaZebnik and Kingsley Day's comedy, currently at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, doesn't end as amusingly as it might. Along the way, it isn't as funny as it could be, too.

Yet the end of the evening is wonderful because at the curtain calls, an audience gets to give tribute to Ames Adamson and Prentiss Benjamin, who do amazing work in this two-person, 10-character play.

That's right: Both Adamson and Benjamin each play five different characters in this slamming-door farce. Every time one leaves and returns, it's as a new person. The cheers the two heard after Saturday's night opening -- the longest sustained applause heard this season or maybe any other -- were in appreciation that they made it through the grueling, two-hour-plus farce.

Adamson starts out as a bellhop who ushers Rebecca into her hotel room. She doesn't want to be there, and not just because it's a dump. Her husband Herb (Adamson, of course), who's downstairs at the moment, is promoting his self-help book on marriage. He's so focused on that that he has neglected his own relationship, and Rebecca feels it.

This strife excites tabloid TV host Pam Blair (Benjamin, naturally), who sneaks in cameraman Gunnar (Adamson, as if you didn't know) into their closet so he can videotape their fights. Of course, when Pam discovers that Senator Ryan (care to guess who?) is in the next room with his bimbo Gwenda (you know who), she really smells paydirt. And so it goes, as the authors deliver a solid message about media hypocrisy, but don't come up with enough hilarious moments.

Actually, if audiences could see what's happening backstage at "Tour de Farce," they'd have much more fun. What must it be like back there, when a dresser rips a leopard-print dress off Benjamin in order to quickly get her in a blouse and pants? Granted, both actors do get by with a little help from their three friendly stage managers, but most of the achievement is their own.

In addition, both have to adopt five different voices for their five different characters. Adamson does better here, for Benjamin seems to have only four. Nevertheless, considering that they often have to do off-stage conversations between two characters in two different voices -- while getting into new costumes, yet -- is another tall hurdle each must jump.

That New Jersey Rep's stage isn't large -- some stretch limousines are longer -- makes matters more challenging, for an actor here could quickly cross the small stage and open a door all too quickly before his confederate is dressed as the next character. Director James Glossman clearly knows that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, so he smartly has Adamson and Benjamin walk in an arc when approaching a door to stall for a few precious extra seconds.

"Tour de Farce" is one of those experiences that an audience can only get in live theater. A movie or a taped TV version could show the versatility of two actors playing different roles, but we'd all know that as soon as one left the room, a director would yell "Cut!" What Adamson and Benjamin are achieving is certainly many cuts above that.


NJ Rep stages a grand "Tour" for two
Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 01/31/06

At first blush, you've seen its kind before. Take a "happily married" couple, strand them in a cobbled-together "suite" at a third-rate hotel and season to taste with enough mixed-up menages, scandal-mongering schemes and dopey interlopers to fuel a week's worth of "Three's Company" reruns. Then provide sufficient bathrooms, closets and beds in which to stash everyone. It's the sort of thing that sounds like it wouldn't be out of place at a cruise-ship dinner theater; in fact, there's even a character who looks to have wandered in from a neighboring production of "Nunsense."

But this is the New Jersey Repertory Company, the innovative professional stage group that's made it a mission to disdain theatrical convention and just generally put the "New" in New Jersey with each cheerfully challenging premiere productions. So it stands to reason that the troupe's current mainstage offering, "Tour de Farce," serves up a new twist on the trite and true bedroom-comedy formula.

The script by actor/composer Kingsley Day and Philip La Zebnik (writer of "Pocahontas," "Mulan" and other animated hits) is a silly and skin-deep affair that plays its gimmicky hand from the get-go: The play's 10 broadly etched characters are performed by just two actors.

Prentiss Benjamin (left) and Ames Adamson portray 10 different characters in the frantically paced comedy "Tour de Farce" in Long Branch.

The time of their lives

The pair of very busy players are returning NJ Rep favorite Ames Adamson and new face Prentiss Benjamin, cast here respectively as wishy-washy academic (and author of "Marriage is Forever") Herb Gladney and his bored, frustrated "I-want-a-divorce" spouse Rebecca. Pretty poor company to share a room with for a couple of hours, but naturally the quarrelsome couple are soon joined by a smarmily strident local talk-show host, a fetishistic "family values"-spouting U.S. Senator, a handful of bothersome hotel employees, a bimbo with an agenda and that singing nun with the accordion.

All of them are channeled (under the sturdy direction and pinpoint choreography of James Glossman) by a tag-team of pros who are having the time of their lives, and, it goes without saying, working harder than any stage performer has ever been called upon to work in the history of live theater.

The fun derives from watching the actors put themselves through these arduous paces — entering the scene as one character, ducking into here or under there when there's a knock at the door, then re-emerging in a different place as a completely different person. Without benefit of camera effects, Adamson and Benjamin are called upon to effect lightning-fast changes of costume, hair and voice; "fight" themselves and, oh yes, remember a couple of reams of dialogue at the same time.

It's a situation that requires at the very least a crash-course in such vaudevillian skills as pratfall acrobatics, ventriloquism and plate-spinning — and we the audience, the same folks who attend auto races hoping to see a colorful crash, eat this stuff up.

Although the mechanics of it all are something to revel in, by the time this show really gets to hitting on all cylinders it's best to simply surrender to the illusion and enjoy this display of exemplary stagecraft in the service of a decidedly featherweight script. A big chunk of credit must go to costume designer Pat Doherty for her role in keeping the myriad details straight — and the stage crew at the Lumia Theatre lends crucial assistance in people-moving devices that border on Lance Burton territory.

There are times when you'd swear there were more than just the two performers onstage — wait a minute, there were more than two of them a moment ago. Now, how'd they do that?

Backward and in heels

A man who's fast becoming a genuine franchise player for New Jersey Repertory Company, Adamson had already proven his readiness for this sort of task with his quintet of memorably nutty roles in "Panama" a few seasons back. The star-quality comic character actor, who's also excelled in ensemble scenarios (as with the recent "Tilt Angel") and even carried a whole show by his lonesome ("Circumference of a Squirrel," also directed by Glossman) creates a variety-pack of vivid portrayals here, from the stammering milquetoast of a "marriage expert" to the cocksure barnyard bantam Sen. Ryan, and a particularly crowdpleasing turn as a Swedish cameraman — a fatalistic former protege of Ingmar Bergman whose dry observations are a real highlight.

Benjamin, whose famous stage-and-screen parents, Paula Prentiss and Richard Benjamin, cheered her on from the opening-night audience, does everything Adamson does (only backward and in heels), using her dance-trained body language and classic-comedienne sensibility to conjure up a Joan Rivers-ish TV personality, a kleptomaniac maid and the Senator's fame-obsessed mistress (but not the Senator's Bar Bush of a wife; you'll have to contemplate how they manage that one).

Looking and sounding in fine mettle on opening night, NJ Rep co-founder and consummate trouper Gabe Barabas was on hand to keynote the company's 2006 season — as well as to deliver his customary entertaining and impassioned pre-show monologue, a speech in which the good doctor (who's in recovery from a recent stroke) pondered "playing the stroke card" and capitalizing on the situation for the benefit of the ongoing subscription drive.

"Tour de Farce" is a precision comic machine with broad crowd-pleasing appeal.

Crackerjack Production is the Real Tour de Farce

by Bob Rendell

Lovers of farce (count me among you) are in for a real treat at the New Jersey Repertory Theatre which is presenting an amazingly fluid and fabulously performed production of the very complex and more than promising appropriately titled Tour de Farce.

As the curtain rises, Herb Gladney and his wife Rebecca are three weeks into a book tour promoting Herb’s successful book “Marriage is Forever” in which he dispenses advice on how to successfully maintain a marriage. The catch is that Herb and Rebecca’s marriage is floundering, and Rebecca is one upset away from spilling the beans and destroying all future sales for Herb’s book.

Herb and Rebecca are checking into a hotel room (they’ve lost track of what city they are in) where we will spend the next two hours with them in real time. During this time, they will be harassed by the play's eight other characters, the snoopy Pam Blair (1) who is the host of a television interview show on which they are scheduled to appear; Gunnar Gustafson (2) her Swedish cameraman whom she instructs to photograph one or the other of them in a compromising position; conservative U. S. Senator Grant Ryan (3) who has commandeered their very room (which adjoins his) for his floozy girlfriend, Gwenda Hill (4); the Senator’s wife Delilah Ryan (5) who is (well actually not quite) waiting in the wings to stir things up; Sister Barbara (6), a singing nun; and Bill (7), the meddlesome bellhop, and Nina (8), the maid, who is an illegal alien with sticky fingers. Importantly, given that this is a farce, there are four entrances (or exits, if you prefer): one each to the hall, the bathroom, a closet and the adjoining room. Additionally, the set harbors secrets that will not be described here.

Ames Adamson and Prentiss Benjamin star as Herb and Rebecca Gladney. And, as you are about to discover (in case that you didn’t know already), Adamson and Benjamin also play all of their eight tormentors (four each) - not just once or twice each, but each of these folk show up repeatedly throughout the entire play. Oh, what you probably didn’t notice is that only three of the eight are men (or, if you prefer, you probably didn’t notice five of the eight are women), so expect some shades of Dame Edna.

Ames Adamson gets most of the juicier farce material and he runs with it. His characterizations are each very specific, often inspired and supply the lion’s share of the evening’s laughs. His whiny bellhop (“I guess it’s better not to meet your idols face to face”) and dour Swede (“Once I was assistant cameraman for Ingmar Bergman; now I’m hiding in closets” – my notes say “apartments”, but “closets” sounds right) are especially funny. If commercial producers get to see Adamson’s work here, we may end up sharing this most reliable and valuable “New Jersey actor” with the Big Apple.

Prentiss Benjamin does excellent work throughout. The tormentors whom she portrays fall into a narrower range (three are conniving manipulators), and she has less opportunity for broad farcical strokes. Benjamin is a sympathetic Rebecca and mines as much humor as possible from her other roles, displaying distinctive body language, and accents and speech patterns for each.

Authors Philip LaZebnik and Kingsley Day have put together elements which seem to have been purloined from a grab bag of farce material. They are recycling material that Ken Ludwig recycled in Lend Me a Tenor, and even Peter Shaffer’s Black Comedy comes to mind (although here, when it’s dark, it’s dark). No problem here. LaZebnik and Day have come up with an unusual, if not unique, and truly delightful notion in employing only two actors to perform an old fashioned, eight character farce. However, so far, they have done so at the price of muddling their story line and throwing in too many complications that do not sustain our laughter and involvement to the extent desirable. I’m still wondering why Herb Gladney took two showers even though his luggage had been misplaced and he had no clothes to change into. So, this farce still needs work.

A possible solution would be to have four actors with two (straight men) playing the Gladneys, and two playing all the comedic tormentors. LeZebnik and Day might then have more freedom to better structure their farce, and they could up the ante with additional characters (and changes), so as not to lose the considerable and awe-inspiring fun that the current logistics provide. Of course, it is possible that LeZebnik and Day will be able to find the best answers within their two actor format. The authors should also upgrade a few of the jokes, such as the double entendres employed when Rebecca describes Herb as “soft”, “quick” and “small.” In any event, they have done so much fine and clever work so far that it is devoutly hoped that they can go the distance. None of this should deter anyone from seeing Tour de Farce, and the terrific production which it is receiving in Long Branch.

Not enough can be said about the marvelous pace and clarity provided by James Glossman’s direction. Not only is he a sensational traffic cop here (and that is no small feat), but he also has elicited richly imaginative, dimensional performances from two actors who by the nature of their roles have to be beleaguered at every performance.

It is impossible to see Tour de Farce without thinking of the second act of Noises Off in which we see the farce within that farce from backstage. Well, the complexities of staging here are so breathtaking that we can’t help but wonder and try to imagine what is going on behind the scenes. Keeping every change of character and all the lines in order is an almost unimaginable feat, even with the help of Stage Manager Rose Riccardi and her crew. Assistant stage managers Stephanie Dorian, Jane O’Leary and Corey Tazmania deserve on-stage bows and they appropriately and generously receive them. Someday, I’d like to see a production of Tour de Farce with transparent walls which allow us to see the insanity which must be going on off-stage. Yes, it is possible that it could diminish the magic. However, since it is real magic, I believe that it would double our pleasure and awe.

The excellent scenic design of Carrie Mossman provides amazingly playable space on the NJ Rep’s small stage. The costumes (Patricia E. Doherty), and the uncredited wigs and makeup are excellent, and provide for quick changes which have to be seen to be believed. Just wait until you see the entire cast of ten take their hilarious curtain calls.

So don’t just sit there, get your tickets to see Ames Adamson and Prentiss Benjamin knock themselves silly for you. You may never get the chance to see anything quite like it again.

Tour de Farce continues performances (Thurs. – Sat. 8 p.m./ Sun. 2 p.m. / Some Sat. 4 p.m.) through February 26, 2006 at the New Jersey Repertory Theatre, 179 Broadway, Long Branch, New Jersey 07740; Box Office: 732-229-3166; on-line:

Tour de Farce by Philip LaZebnik and Kingsley Day; directed by James Glossman

Feb.2 thru Feb. 8, 2006

Theater Review

'Tour de Farce' is a tour de force

The new offering by the NJ Rep at the Lumia Theatre, downtown Broadway, a comedy called "Tour de Farce," by Phil LaZebnik and Kingsley Day, could just as well be called "Tour de Force, " because that describes a remarkable evening of acting and stagecraft that leaves one wondering how in the world it was all done.

This is a comedy of average length, with just two performers, one male and one female, in the main role of a husband and wife at each other's throats in their hotel room while on tour promoting a book the husband has written. But the two actors carry off this door-slamming riot by donning completely different costumes and performing four other

roles each. This results in a hilarious cast of characters, which as mentioned above, leaves us shaking our heads at how well it is managed.

Skillfully directed by James Glossman, this delightful and surely not to be missed show features the veteran NJ Rep star of pervious offerings, Ames Adamson, as the beleagured husband; and a newcomer to the Rep, Prentiss Benjamin, as his bent-on-revenge spouse. Interestingly, Ms. Benjamin happens to be the daughter of Richard Benjamin, who starred in "Goodbye Columbus" some years ago, and Paula Prentiss, who appeared in a number of Hollywood films as well; and both of them were in the audience at Saturday night's gala to applaud their daughter's remarkable and versatile performance.

The play can be seen until Feb 26, with evening performances on Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. , some Saturdays at 4 p.m. and on Sundays at 2 p.m. Regular admission is $30, with some discounts available.

The number to call for seats is 732-229-3166. Go! You will not be disappointed.


NJ Rep stages a grand "Tour" for two
Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 01/31/06

At first blush, you've seen its kind before. Take a "happily married" couple, strand them in a cobbled-together "suite" at a third-rate hotel and season to taste with enough mixed-up menages, scandal-mongering schemes and dopey interlopers to fuel a week's worth of "Three's Company" reruns. Then provide sufficient bathrooms, closets and beds in which to stash everyone. It's the sort of thing that sounds like it wouldn't be out of place at a cruise-ship dinner theater; in fact, there's even a character who looks to have wandered in from a neighboring production of "Nunsense."

But this is the New Jersey Repertory Company, the innovative professional stage group that's made it a mission to disdain theatrical convention and just generally put the "New" in New Jersey with each cheerfully challenging premiere productions. So it stands to reason that the troupe's current mainstage offering, "Tour de Farce," serves up a new twist on the trite and true bedroom-comedy formula.

The script by actor/composer Kingsley Day and Philip La Zebnik (writer of "Pocahontas," "Mulan" and other animated hits) is a silly and skin-deep affair that plays its gimmicky hand from the get-go: The play's 10 broadly etched characters are performed by just two actors.

Prentiss Benjamin (left) and Ames Adamson portray 10 different characters in the frantically paced comedy "Tour de Farce" in Long Branch.

The time of their lives

The pair of very busy players are returning NJ Rep favorite Ames Adamson and new face Prentiss Benjamin, cast here respectively as wishy-washy academic (and author of "Marriage is Forever") Herb Gladney and his bored, frustrated "I-want-a-divorce" spouse Rebecca. Pretty poor company to share a room with for a couple of hours, but naturally the quarrelsome couple are soon joined by a smarmily strident local talk-show host, a fetishistic "family values"-spouting U.S. Senator, a handful of bothersome hotel employees, a bimbo with an agenda and that singing nun with the accordion.

All of them are channeled (under the sturdy direction and pinpoint choreography of James Glossman) by a tag-team of pros who are having the time of their lives, and, it goes without saying, working harder than any stage performer has ever been called upon to work in the history of live theater.

The fun derives from watching the actors put themselves through these arduous paces — entering the scene as one character, ducking into here or under there when there's a knock at the door, then re-emerging in a different place as a completely different person. Without benefit of camera effects, Adamson and Benjamin are called upon to effect lightning-fast changes of costume, hair and voice; "fight" themselves and, oh yes, remember a couple of reams of dialogue at the same time.

It's a situation that requires at the very least a crash-course in such vaudevillian skills as pratfall acrobatics, ventriloquism and plate-spinning — and we the audience, the same folks who attend auto races hoping to see a colorful crash, eat this stuff up.

Although the mechanics of it all are something to revel in, by the time this show really gets to hitting on all cylinders it's best to simply surrender to the illusion and enjoy this display of exemplary stagecraft in the service of a decidedly featherweight script. A big chunk of credit must go to costume designer Pat Doherty for her role in keeping the myriad details straight — and the stage crew at the Lumia Theatre lends crucial assistance in people-moving devices that border on Lance Burton territory.

There are times when you'd swear there were more than just the two performers onstage — wait a minute, there were more than two of them a moment ago. Now, how'd they do that?

Backward and in heels

A man who's fast becoming a genuine franchise player for New Jersey Repertory Company, Adamson had already proven his readiness for this sort of task with his quintet of memorably nutty roles in "Panama" a few seasons back. The star-quality comic character actor, who's also excelled in ensemble scenarios (as with the recent "Tilt Angel") and even carried a whole show by his lonesome ("Circumference of a Squirrel," also directed by Glossman) creates a variety-pack of vivid portrayals here, from the stammering milquetoast of a "marriage expert" to the cocksure barnyard bantam Sen. Ryan, and a particularly crowdpleasing turn as a Swedish cameraman — a fatalistic former protege of Ingmar Bergman whose dry observations are a real highlight.

Benjamin, whose famous stage-and-screen parents, Paula Prentiss and Richard Benjamin, cheered her on from the opening-night audience, does everything Adamson does (only backward and in heels), using her dance-trained body language and classic-comedienne sensibility to conjure up a Joan Rivers-ish TV personality, a kleptomaniac maid and the Senator's fame-obsessed mistress (but not the Senator's Bar Bush of a wife; you'll have to contemplate how they manage that one).

Looking and sounding in fine mettle on opening night, NJ Rep co-founder and consummate trouper Gabe Barabas was on hand to keynote the company's 2006 season — as well as to deliver his customary entertaining and impassioned pre-show monologue, a speech in which the good doctor (who's in recovery from a recent stroke) pondered "playing the stroke card" and capitalizing on the situation for the benefit of the ongoing subscription drive.

"Tour de Farce" is a precision comic machine with broad crowd-pleasing appeal.

A CurtainUp Review
Tour de Farce
Love is an illusion. Between two people there is only despair and silence and alienation. Bergman knew about such things. --- Gunnar, A former assistant camera man to Ingmar Bergman. Into the closet, Gunnar.---Pam, a TV talk show host.

Prentiss Benjamin and Ames Adamson
(Photo: SuzAnne Barabas)

With a title that leaves little room for doubt about what we are in for, comes the sudden impulse to count the number of doors in the simply furnished hotel room (designed by Carrie Mossman), its off-yellow walls as telling as the off-color and off-the-wall action ostensibly prescribed by co-authors Philip LaZebnik and Kingsley Day. A goofy-looking bellhop escorts a discontented woman to the room. She has left her husband at the front desk where he is presumably trying to find out what happened to their luggage. Within seconds after the bellboy leaves, the husband arrives. It only takes a few seconds of their conversation to realize that their marriage is on the rocks. Nevertheless Rebecca Gladney, who is accompanying her preoccupied husband Herb on a whirlwind multi-city book-signing tour to promote his book Marriage is Forever, wants to be sure of her investment.

The conversation, mostly punctuated by Rebecca's insinuations about Herb's sexual inadequacies, goes on hold when she exits to the bathroom. Herb responds to a knock on the hotel door to find Pam Blair, a local TV host eager to have Herb appear has her guest that night. Having heard raised voices in the hall, Pam's suspicions about the couple are aroused. Nevertheless, Pam gives Herb the details of his TV appearance and leaves. Rebecca comes out of the bathroom with a headache and leaves the room to purchase some aspirin. Herb exits to the bathroom paving the way for the hotel maid to enter the room from the door to the adjoining suite. After stealing a watch she sees on a table, she gives the all-clear sign to the indiscreet Senator Grant Ryan.

The maid has mistakenly assumed that the room is vacant and will be perfect for the married Senator's peccadillo with his bimbo girlfriend Gwenda. During the ensuing hanky-panky whichincludes a little derriere slapping and handcuffs amid split-second comings-and-goings, Pam manages to hide Gunnar Gustafson, a Swedish Ingmar Bergman-trained photographer in the closet to catch Herb in the act. Of course, there is the senator's wife Delilah to contend with when she gets wind of what's going on -- and, not to be overlooked, is a singing accordion-playing nun eager to ingratiate herself with Herb with the hopes of making an appearance on the TV show.

One has only to have looked at the program to see that there are only two actors in the cast. The authors have calculated the action with a meticulous if absurdist attention to probability. The dialogue is silly to a fault: She: "There is something between us." He: "Where?" This is a comedy that unashamedly wallows in the broadly comical genre that has maintained its popularity with the public from Plautius to Moliere to Feydeau and up to the contemporary under-the-bed, in-the-closet, out-the-window farces of Britisher Ray Cooney. Hardly in that league, but nevertheless fodder for the undemanding, Tour de Farce tries hard to duplicate that air of compromising naughtiness, questionable wit, and mindless lunacy. However, respect iw owed to the actors whose job it is to make quick-second changes of costume and morph into different characters for two hours over two acts. Ames Adamson and Prentiss Benjamin hurtle bravely through the shtick-filled demands of this convoluted comedy with the speed and dexterity of Olympic champions.

Adamson, a versatile farceur, has played numerous roles at N.J. Rep. and other New Jersey venues, but none, I suspect, were as demanding as the five roles he is currently playing. Shades of the late comic Red Skelton can be seen in his recklessly over-the-top acting, facial contortions, double takes and blatant mugging. Funny as it is to see a man romping around in boxer shorts, hand-cuffed to a bed, or dressed in drag (think Barbara Bush), it is the aura of doom and gloom that Adamson hilariously projects as the Swedish photographer that rings the bell.

Benjamin may not be Adamson's peer when it comes to defining a character but she nevertheless employs some deft body language as she assumes the guise of an East European maid, the sexiest maneuvers of the publicity-seeking Gwenda, the screeching of a tone-deaf nun (eat your heart out Florence Foster Jenkins), and the haranguing of the disgruntled wife. Benjamin is the daughter of actor/director Richard Benjamin and actress Paula Prentiss, both of whom were in the audience beaming throughout the nonsense, with parental delight.

There are moments when the actors have to change a wig and a costume off-stage while they simultaneously continue a conversation as another character. If the overall impression one gets of this comedy is that it is less about its characters than it is about multi-tasking, director James Glossman makes no bones about his willingness to have his players chew the scenery with a ferocious sense of abandon. The audience appeared to be seduced by the scent of amateurism that pervaded throughout and they responded with vigorous applause at the end. However, a director with a clearer vision and a stronger control over performances could have shaped this hapless affair into a real howler. Regional and community theaters with a small budget and a pair of fearless thespians should have a field day with this one.

On a more sane note: Executive Producer of N.J. Rep. Gabor Barabas gave a short pre-show that touched the hearts of everyone as he shared with us the news that he was recovering from a stroke. ""How could I play the stroke card and encourage subscriptions," he pondered to himself as he lay in the hospital bed. Also a medical doctor by profession, Barabas is also a theater lover whose dedication to N.J. Rep. is duly noted. Hats off to wife SuzAnne, N.J. Rep's Artistic Director, for getting both a show and a husband on their feet.

Asbury Radio 88.1 FM

'Tour de Farce' is 'Tour de Force' for Adamson and Benjamin - Grab the Tickets While You Still Can!

Attendees of Saturday's cast party at NJRep's east coast premiere of Kingley Day's and Philip LaZebnik's "Tour de Farce" were treated to celebrity close ups with Hollywood's favorite couple, Paula Prentiss and Richard Benjamin, there to see daughter Prentiss Benjamin and co-star Ames Adamson bring the packed house down with their frenetic portrayal of 10 hilarious characters, expertly directed by James Glossman.

Better known for the high-budget world of musical theater, Day and LaZebnik set out to create a play so cheap to put on that no reasonable producer could resist it. The result: two actors, inside ten characters, in a humble hotel room set. But oh my what two fantastic actors can do with a great script and the imaginative genius of director James Glossman. Impossible you say? Damn near, yes.

Prentiss Benjamin, who is the obvious recipient of every talent gene from both her comedic parents, and Ames (Circumference of a Squirrel) Adamson, dart back and forth among the ten souls, and ten elaborate costumes, to a musical rhythm that gradually builds to a wild staccato beat. But the logistics would be only silly without the excellent timing the playwrights apply in deciding just when to go for the wisecrack, the character flaw, the running gag, the inside joke, the cutting wit, slapstick, and on... "Tour de Farce" may be the most economical production but they sure didn't scrimp on the humor!

Review of Tour de Farce

by Gary Wien,

(LONG BRANCH, NJ) -- The New Jersey Repertory Company opened its 8th season with "Tour de Farce" by Philip LaZebnik and Kingsley Day on January 28th. The extremely entertaining show continues through February 26th.

Starring Ames Adamson (a familiar face to NJ Rep audiences) and Prentiss Benjamin in a madcap adventure involving the author of "Marriage is Forever" and his wife, a senator and his mistress, a local television reporter and her Swedish cameraman, a bellboy, maid and an accordion-playing nun all somewhat trapped in a rather indistinguishable hotel in a city somewhere along the author's book tour.

Oh yeah, and all of the characters are played by Ames and Prentis!

It's a zany hour and a half that will thoroughly entertain you as apparent by the steady laughter throughout the audience on opening night. Similar to the style of Neil Simon, the play is a true farce taking on several issues (such as marriage infidelity, political hanky panky, and the media) at the same time in rather ludicrous fashion.

In spite of the rapid fire character changes and the idea of ten characters played by two actors, this is perhaps one of the most mainstream plays you will ever see on the NJ Rep stage. And judging by the response of the audience, I'd bet the company gains several new subscribers during this run. So the idea of doing something without killer vegetables yet still a little off of the standard path might be a good way to introduce people to this fine company's largely experimental and challenging work.

The premise behind "Tour de Farce" is that Herb Gladney, the author of the self help guide "Marriage is Forever" and his wife Rebecca are pretending to maintain their own marriage through a book tour. They are in town to appear on the local talk show hosted by Pam Blair. Unfortunately, Pam Blair shows up at their hotel room early and overhears an argument. She then decides to catch Herb in an affair to make her career take off. Meanwhile, a senator is arranging for a tryst and somehow gains access to the suite occupied by the Gladneys. As people go in and out of the rooms, you really have to leave logic aside and just enjoy the ride. There are loads and loads of hilarious situations and brilliant one-liners spread throughout.

In a way, the play reminds me of a live action cartoon for adults (maybe because Ames' accent for the senator sounded a bit like Yosemite Sam to me). It's funny, silly and a little insightful all wrapped up in one. Ames Adamson is absolutely wonderful in capturing five different voices and personas. My favorites are his take on the senator and Gunnar, the Swedish camerman. Prentiss Benjamin (the daughter of actor Richard Benjamin) does a fine job as well although I think the play really didn't need her maid and nun characters. Those two extra voices and personas were unnecessary. They added a laugh or two here or there but wouldn't have been missed at all. I would have prefered to see just how much extra she could have developed the three main roles without the extra burden.


by Gary Wien,

Each of you handles five characters in this play - a monstrous challenge in itself. Was that your biggest challenge? If not, what was?
PRENTICE -- I think for me it was probably differentiating the off-stage voices because we're also changing clothes in a huge hurry. So, to take the time to differentiate it was probably the biggest challenge.
The women who are backstage changing us literally have to tell us where to go and what costume to put on because we're so involved. They're like air traffic controllers - this way... that way.
AMES -- Yeah, that would be the hardest challenge because I may be putting on Mrs. Ryan and speaking as Gunnar or Herb. Just keeping that straight in your mind is sort of like driving. It's like by the end of this we can shift, pressthe clutch and gas then release and look out all the windows and mirrors. But right now we're sort of like student drivers guiding through this.

How exhausted do you get after doing this show?
PRENTICE -- I'm exhausted! Right now we just did one show and I don't know how on Thursday and Friday we did two because I feel so tired right now! We had an hour rest and that seemed to rejuvenate me.
It's like training for a marathon. Your body's muscle memory begins to kick in and your endurance goes up little by little.
AMES -- Thankfully there's some respite. I can go backstage and breathe for just a moment while Prentice is speaking or vice versa. This show is just so physically demanding because you do so much running. I've already lost two inches on my waist!

Which is your favorite character to portray?
PRENTICE -- Gwenda is probably the closest to me. She's right under the surface for sure and Rebecca too. Those are right under there for me.
AMES -- I think Herb is a chance to be a relatively normal person, which is nice, but Gunnar is a lot of fun. People respond to him. He's an interesting character.

Even though there are multiple characters and a zillion character changes and exits, this is probably the most mainstream play you've done at NJ Rep.
AMES -- Oh yeah, it really is. This is very mainstream but I think there's nothing wrong with that. It's a very interesting choice. I thought it was cute but I'm honestly used to doing either Shakespeare or doing weird, weird stuff. I was like this is cute, but it didn't bowl me over. And the more I read it the more I got into it and thought this could be quite amazing.
PRENTICE -- I think it's the type of show where afterwards you come out maybe just a little bit happier than when you stepped into the theatre. And I think that's a very valuable thing. I think that's actually worth a lot to come out of an hour and 45 minute experience a little bit happier for an afternoon or evening.

May the "Farce" be with you
Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 01/27/06

Don't blink, or you might miss what's happening onstage at the New Jersey Repertory Company.

Actors are on stage one minute, off the next. They're changing characters within seconds. And those mistaken identities . . .

What's it all about?

"The two actors who appear in this play are like athletes in a relay race," explained director Jim Glossman, referring to "Tour de Farce," making its East Coast premiere at the Long Branch theater.

The play is a bedroom farce in which 10 characters are played by two people.

"Ames Adamson and Prentiss Benjamin seamlessly jump around from character to character in a way that makes the audience root for the actors as well as the characters," Glossman said.

Glossman said he came across the play, written by Philip LaZebnik and Kingsley Day, when he wanted a change of scenery after doing a string of serious opuses, like "Waiting for Godot" and "All My Sons."

"I was working with Paula Prentiss and (Richard) Benjamin in "All My Sons' last summer. I also met their daughter, Prentiss."

Glossman later directed Prentiss Benjamin in a comedy called "Sunrise at Monticello," produced at Playwrights Theater of New Jersey. He was so impressed with her that he cast her in "Farce."

Reached at her famous parents' home in Beverly Hills, Prentiss Benjamim said: " "Farce' is about a couple who are promoting a book that they wrote called "Marriage is Forever.' It all takes place in one hotel room, and we each play many characters. We have literally 10 seconds to make the costume changes."

Adamson has appeared in several plays at the Long Branch theater.

"Sometimes, I think jumping around from one character to the next is going to kill me," he said. "But it is all fun."

Comedy calls for quick change artist

'Tour de Farce' star derives name and talent from noted acting couple
Friday, January 27, 2006
Star-Ledger Staff


Prentiss Benjamin is making sure that the door doesn't hit her on her way out. Or in.

"That's the big danger when you do a farce," says the tall, striking brunette as she prepares to open "Tour de Farce" on Friday at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

So far Benjamin has escaped injury from any of those slamming doors. "But I did smash a phone down on my thumb," she says, examining it to see how it's coming along. "That taught me to never do that again."

The show, directed here by James Glossman, is more demanding than many farces. Most have a lot of people running in and out of slamming doors. However, in Long Branch Benjamin is half the cast -- Ames Adamson is her other half -- in this 1993 knockabout by Philip LaZebnik and Kingsley Day.

Benjamin starts out playing Rebecca, whose husband has written "Marriage Is Forever," a self-help guide he's promoting on a book tour. "She's stuck in this hotel, but she doesn't want to be there," says Benjamin. "Neither does he, once a variety of characters come through the door: a housekeeper, a nun, an assistant to a senator, a reporter, and some others, too."

And Benjamin must play them all.

"It's not just the getting in and out," says Benjamin. "I've five seconds to change clothes and shoes. Thank God for those three wonderful women backstage who help me."

It's the first farce Benjamin has done since "Noises Off" in 2000 at Northwestern University -- the same school where her parents met in 1958. They're Paula Prentiss and Richard Benjamin, the actors who have been married since 1961.

"I grew up in a magical world," Benjamin says. "I remember when I was a little girl, maybe 8, for a school assignment I had to read an abridged version of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream.' Then my mother read the original to me and acted out all the characters, and I thought, 'What a wonderful thing to be able to do.'"

By this point, she'd already been taken to movie sets by her father.

"He brought my older brother, too," she says of Ross Benjamin. "I always wanted to stay in the trailer. I hated going to the set, because I felt I was getting in the way."

Still, she has fond memories of being a 6-year-old on the set of "The Money Pit," which her father directed. "That's because my brother and I played with Colin Hanks, Tom Hanks' son."

Once Benjamin decided she wanted to perform, ballet was the route she chose.

"I always had to fight my natural shape," she says, patting a stomach that's not at all large. "But of course you have to be very thin to do ballet. So like Rebecca in the play, I've looked at my fair share of self-help books -- if you count diet books as self-help ones."

Ballet quickly ages its ballerinas, so Benjamin, now 27, has been centering on theater these last few years. She's traveled from her Manhattan home to play Miss Prism in "The Importance of Being Earnest" in Lancaster, Pa.; many roles in "The Dining Room" on Cape Cod, and, last fall, appeared in "Sunrise at Monticello" at Playwrights Theatre in Madison. Her parents come to see her in every show, and will take in her stint in Long Branch, too.

"I'm not interested in being famous or being wealthy, particularly," Benjamin adds. "I really enjoy working on plays. I love the rapport with the audience. It's hard work and tiring, but it's an honor and a pleasure. If this could be my whole life, that would be a great thing. But I'll take whatever I can get."

Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 01/27/06

One might easily say that Prentiss Benjamin, 27, was born to be in show business.

The star of New Jersey Repertory's "Tour de Farce" is the daughter of Paula Prentiss and Richard Benjamin, one of Hollywood's "it" couples of the '60s and '70s.

Paula and Richard met as theater students at Northwestern University in 1958 and were married in October 1961. Paula caught the eye of an MGM talent scout and was brought to Hollywood to co-star in "Where the Boys Are" (1960). The tall, slender actress turned out to have excellent screen chemistry with actor Jim Hutton: They would be cast together in two more MGM films, "The Honeymoon Machine" (1961) and "The Horizontal Lieutenant" (1962).

But Paula and Richard eventually would bring their real-life chemistry to screens as well, not just as stars but as characters who were married to each other, Lucy/Desi-style, in the 1967-68 CBS sitcom "He & She."

Richard made his motion-picture breakthrough in 1969 in "Goodbye, Columbus." His portrayal of Philip Roth's hero, a poor, urban-raised Jewish librarian in love with a girl from a wealthy family brought him worldwide critical acclaim and catapulted him to the top of Hollywood's A-list. He subsequently landed starring roles in several '70s films, most notably "Catch-22" (1970) (in which Paula also appeared), "Diary of a Mad Housewife" (1970) and "The Sunshine Boys" (1975). Richard has since become a director and producer.

"When I was growing up in California," Prentiss recalled during a rehearsal break in Long Branch, "the family would often sit together and watch my parents' films when they would be on TV. We particularly liked watching "Catch-22' and some movies that my dad directed, such as "My Favorite Year' (1982)."

The Benjamins also have a son, Ross, 31, an actor who lives in Beverly Hills.

One glance at Benjamin, whether she's racing across the stage in character, or just being herself, reveals her origins: Tall and sleek like her mother, with a face that bears her father's eyes and smile, she carries herself with a graceful, elegant glide, and speaks with a sweet, unaffected disposition.

"My parents have always been very supportive of anything I wanted to do," Prentiss said. When I decided to study drama (after surviving a serious knee injury as a ballet dancer) and be an actress, both my parents were very helpful.

"Both my parents come to every play in which I appear. They are the best audience members that anyone could possibly imagine."

"Tilt Angel" soars at NJ Rep in Long Branch
Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 10/18/05

You've got to hand it to Gabe and SuzAnne Barabas and their surrogate family at New Jersey Repertory Company. While much of their concerns in running a small and scrappy professional stage company fall into the realm of the pragmatic and logistical -- scraping together funds; putting butts in seats; making sure said butts are heated or cooled to a reasonable comfort level -- the troupe has seldom played it even remotely safe in its choices of featured presentations.

Flash back to "Beyond Gravity," the Ruth Wolff drama that occupied the main stage of the Rep's Long Branch facility in April. A dense, difficult piece packed with poetic soliloquies and dreamlike atmosphere, the play featured actors who were more concepts than characters and dead-end plot points that were drenched in metaphor -- hardly the stuff of crowdpleasing closure. Other offerings from "Spain" and "Whores" to "Child's Guide to Innocence" have similarly played out inside the heads of their protagonists, with results that ranged from mind-blowing to merely head-scratching.

"Tilt Angel," the play now in its world premiere engagement at the troupe's Lumia Theatre, has a lot in common with those other productions (as well as such cultural resources as Tennessee Williams, Eugene O'Neill, David Lynch and, trust us, "Swamp Thing" comics).

It's an oddball show that tackles some big dramatic themes -- abandonment and reconciliation; confrontation and denial; hometown roots and escape routes -- in a colorfully convoluted and largely comic fashion. What this puzzler has over "Gravity" and other such arty-facts is an honest-to-goodness entertainment value that comes courtesy of a solid cast of Rep regulars and rookies.

In the award-winning script by Texas playwright Dan Dietz, a strange (and none too terribly bright) young man named Ollie (Ian August) remains a recluse within his family home in some dusty Tennessee backwater. He's been living in self-imposed exile since the plane-crash death of his mother Lois (Andrea Gallo), obsessively cleaning house and dreading any incoming calls from the monstrous hearse-black telephone on the table. His father, Red (Ames Adamson), stays holed up in the meantime at his neighborhood auto body repair shop, channeling his frustration through hammer and hacksaw and neglecting not only his slowly starving son but his once-proud vegetable garden -- an evil-looking tangle of tubes and vines that threatens to consume the entire family homestead.

This standoff of domestic stasis can't continue -- not when it becomes evident that somebody must finally pick up Lois's boxed remains after some nine years. Traveling to the vaguely mystical "Airplane Place," Ollie encounters an ethereal guide in the person of Angel Bones (Reginald Metcalf) -- a serene if somewhat less than heavenly presence in tattered wings, filthy airline uniform and carnivale mask.

What follows can perhaps only be described as a fantastic voyage through phone lines, loamy underworld and chilly stratosphere; featuring local stops at transcendence, epiphany, resurrection and rebirth.

Strong cast
Director Cailin Heffernan knows how to sell a show, and her cast follows suit. Looking like a battered Mardi Gras figure left behind in receding floodwaters, Metcalf uses his mellow-toned singing voice to keynote the action with a series of Dietz-penned blues ballads. While the angel's motives are sometimes a tad suspect, the actor comes close as anyone to providing a Zen center to the often frenzied proceedings.

Adamson takes absolute command of his role as the grizzled, sweaty, maimed (but not unloving) third-generation fix-it man. Expressing emotion as much with a toolbox as with stage-honed tonsils, the versatile actor provides a genuine source of energy and intensity.

August is an inspired fit for the weak and needy (yet ultimately resolute) Eminem-look-alike Ollie, a boy who pines for his momma even after she died attempting to forge a new life apart from him and her stuck-in-the-mud husband (for whose disfigurement Ollie bears no small responsibility). For a character who's supposed to be dead from the get-go, Gallo is able to take centerstage with her wordy and challenging role.

The crew members assembled here by tech director Quinn K. Pawlan (including scenic designers Randy Lee Hartwig and Matthew Campbell, costumer Patricia Doherty, light source Jill Nagle, sound expert Merek Royce Press and puppetmaster Jessica Scott) make this show move and flex and function, from Red's workbenched hand, to that giant phone, jigsaw-puzzle walls, hammered-steel wings and an especially eye-popping stage effect that climaxes the first act.

A fairy tale that's seriously off kilter

Wednesday, October 19, 2005
Star-Ledger Staff

Let's put this as nicely as possible: With its production of "Tilt Angel," New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch firmly establishes itself as the state's premier experimental theater.

Artistic director SuzAnne Barabas gravitates to plays that few theaters would touch. Her taste embraces the weird, as witnessed now by Dan Dietz's 2001 fantasy, which he describes as a "deadpan Tennessee fairy tale."

At its core, Dietz's story is simple enough, and has been told many times: A housewife needs more mental stimulation. A son is afraid of his father and rails against him. Some theatergoers may be excited that the tale is told in a maddeningly symbolic, experimental fashion and think admiringly, "Isn't that wild?" Others will wish that Dietz had just rolled the plot without pretentious embellishments.

Randy Lee Hartwig's set first shows a bisected Earth, where a woman is flying without benefit of airplane, somewhere over Greenland. The lights black out and come up on an Angel, whose wings are in woebegone condition. "I was only born an hour ago, and now I'm 92," he announces.

Cut to a Tennessee cabin, where a young man named Ollie is cleaning to the point of obsession. What isn't clean is Ollie's face: It sports a large tattooed question mark, from hairline to chin. (Perhaps it's a visualization of the questioning looks that many are bound to give this play.)

Ollie is the son of Lois and Red, once a happy hillbilly couple, until she started reading The New Yorker and wanted more out of life. Red had been bullying Ollie to help him in his body shop. Now he snarls at his son, "Work is important. Talk is salad dressing."

Ollie's incompetence with tools inadvertently causes his father to lose a hand, so Red now wears a menacing-looking shoulder harness and clamp. How he made this complicated device with one hand is not explained.

The guilt-ridden Ollie is then abandoned by his mother, pushing him into nine years of agoraphobia. Maybe he's right to stay inside, for when he finally leaves the house, he has a fateful encounter with a man- eating plant. Lois dies in a plane crash -- that explains her flying over the world in the first scene -- and is recycled into a garden.

As a result, she's glad to be outdoors on this lovely day. She and Ollie like nature so much that soon they're deconstructing their house, which is composed of jigsaw puzzle pieces. The play continues ....

Dietz's characters often use startlingly fresh images and rarely rely on clichés; when Lois discusses Ollie with Red, she talks about trying to "put up curtains in the empty rooms in his head." That shows a writer at work, but one who wants to express his own voice, not those of his characters.

Ames Adamson's Red has a defensive demeanor, lest he admit that his life has been a failure. Ian August's Ollie partakes in many imaginary conversations and adopts voices of different characters in a distinct manner.

Andrea Gallo's square-jawed, careworn face is an apt reflection of Lois' hard life. Even in this non-realistic play, she never lets an audience forget that the character has a life-crunching dilemma.

Then there's Reginald Metcalf as the Angel, who says he comes from Cloud Umbilical Airways and securely spouts a lot of lush language.

Credit goes to director Cailin Heffernan for staging "Tilt Angel" fearlessly, and for casting it so well. All four performers are game in treating this play as if it were a straightforward classic.

Tilt Angel

By Simon Saltzman,

Reginald Metcalf and Ames Adamson

At the beginning of Dan Dietz's play Tilt Angel, now receiving its professional premiere, Lois (Andrea Gallo), a middle aged woman, falls gracefully though a blue sky toward earth. She is the victim of a mid-air plane crash. Later in the play, she will quite literally transubstantiate herself as a vegetable garden for Ollie (Ian August), her hungry mentally impaired 21 year-old agoraphobic son, who is helping her to go peacefully into the afterlife. This is done with the help of a blues-singing Angel Bones (Reginald Metcalf), apparently a winged half angel/airlines pilot with goggles. There is no help forthcoming from Red (Ames Adamson), Ollie' s resentful, indifferent father who refuses to claim the ashes.

In Cailin Heffernan's cleverly surreal staging of this play, described by the author as "a deadpan Tennessee Fairy Tale," worlds as well as the members of a working class family collide. In actuality, Tilt Angel appears to be an impressionistic dark comedy in which the skewed perceptions of a socially disenfranchised young man are given a vivid reality. In this very imaginatively conceived yet unsettling play, we are privy to Ollie's skewed world, notably his home comprised of disquieting distortions and expectations.

Lois had taken about all she could from Red, a callous, crude 3rd generation owner of an auto body repair shop in East Tennessee. She had also done as much as she could for the pathetically limited Ollie, who hasn't left the house in 9 years. Lois, who finally made up her mind to leave them both and begin a new life that includes getting a college education, took the fateful airplane ride and died.

At home, the simple-minded Ollie, who likes to dance while doing the housework and laundry, keeps getting calls from "an airlines guy" for someone to claim Lois's remains. Ollie's pleas to the insensitive Red, who barely acknowledges Ollie's existence, only spark Red's fury which he takes out mostly on the metal parts of cars. Red has been estranged from his son ever since an accident occurred years ago in the body shop causing the loss of his arm, but continues to do his repairs with the help of a prosthetic pincer-type apparatus controlled by a harness he wears over his shoulders. Blaming Ollie for the accident, Red has left Ollie to fend for himself.

Without Red's help to retrieve Lois' remains, Ollie deals with the problem in the only way he knows: by seeking help from the angel pilot. As both Ollie and Red wrestle with their grief through flashbacks and metaphysical communication, Lois's presence asserts itself as a soul needing closure. Ollie's anxieties about his mother's burial takes him to such abstracted places as inside the telephone lines, the ethereal world and eventually into the fearsome underworld, while Red's unwillingness to claim the body or deal with his son's presence provokes a rather unexpected resolve.

Trying to analyze this play may not prove as fruitful as the experiencing of it. Heffernan's direction appears to be in complete accord with the playwright's eerily dramatic contours. And the performances are effective in their eccentricity without being cartoons. August creates a rather poignant portrait of Ollie, who, despite being a social outcast and a failure in his father's eyes, is determined to find a way to help his mother go peacefully into the after-life.

Adamson is terrific as the rage and resentment-propelled Red whose life is shattered by the accident and a disintegrating marriage. There is a disarming charm to Gallo's performance as Lois, a woman who, soon after she is married and has done all she can to nurture and protect Ollie, discovers her own potential and seeks out a new life. And perhaps capturing the essence of the ethereal most wittily is Reginald Metcalf, as the lyrical Angel Bones. Praise to the wittily integrated songs and lyrics, assumedly the creation of award-winning Texas-based playwright Dietz, who may have mixed more grit (or is its grits?) into his Southern Gothic comical-tragedy than some people will cotton to. But the experience was refreshingly haunting (seems just right for Halloween).

Production values are imaginative. Randy Lee Hartwig and Matthew R. Campbell are both credited with the expressionistic set (impressively lighted by designer Jill Nagle) that provides a virtual collage of various places in and out of this world. Costumer Patricia E. Doherty has to be praised for creating Lois' vegetable garden costume that proves to be as incredible as it is edible.


by Gary Wien
Upstage Magazine

(LONG BRANCH, NJ) October 15, 2005 -- This isn't your father's family drama, that's for sure. There really are maniacial vegetables...

New Jersey Repertory Company's latest production is Tilt Angel by Dan Dietz, a modern day family drama told as a fairy tale. It's wildly entertaining, a bit baffling, and rather humorous throughout. It is also the best collection of actors I've ever seen on the NJ Rep stage.

Ames Adamson (Red) and Ian August (Ollie) are NJ Rep veterans who star as father and son. Ames does a wonderful job as a red neck body shop worker who's abusive streak has decimated his family. Ian plays Ollie, an autistic child of 21, who gives Forrest Gump a run for his money. He is a simply loveable character performed masterfully by August. Ollie hasn't left the house in nine years, spends all day cleaning and misses his mother terribly. Together they are as far apart as a father and son could be.

Andrea Gallo (Lois) plays Ollie's mother who died in a plane crash as she was leaving her husband. After spending years home-schooling her son, she realized she had a thirst for knowledge and decided to leave for college. She knew that her husband would never understand.

Reginald Metcalf (Angel Bones) is the angel that seeks to unite the family and her ashes (which were never claimed yet). Reginald adds a spiritual feel to the play with several bluesy, soulful acapella numbers. His costume reminds me of someone from the sixties film, Barbarella - but he manages to make it look dignified nonetheless.

The play revolves around the plane crash and how their family was breaking apart long before the crash took place. Flashback scenes reveal Lois trying to explain why she needed to move on.

"If I wasn't going to make it with you, I was going to make it with Nietzsche... with Proust... with Kant," she says.

His reply, "You trying to tell me you're a lesbian now?"

One-liners are mixed in with serious matter as Dietz succeeds in transporting the audience into a fantasy world. Credit goes to the set designers (Randy Lee Hartwig and Matthew R. Campbell) who have created a scene out of "Alice in Wonderland". It is a set that extends into the audience space and peaks your interest because every part is used - sometimes in crazy ways and sometimes in ways that will totally surprise you.

The play contains adult language, but doesn't abuse it. All in all, it's a hilarious look at a Tennessee house gone amuck. Somehow I get the feeling that Dan Dietz was the type of guy who never listened when they said everything's already been written. This play is as original as they come! Dietz has done something rare - he has created a fine drama wrapped in fantasy. It's doubtful you'll be prepared for what happens when her ashes are returned to the family. Let's just say that by the time that happens you'll be so wrapped up into this fantasy world that you'll believe anything. So just sit back and enjoy the ride. It's a good one!

"Tilt Angel" Flies in Many Directions
A Review By Asbury Radio

If you're the type of theater goer who likes to sit back, relax and watch a linear plot unfold, you may want to run from the theater during the first act of "Tilt Angel". But don't. You'd miss some fantastic acting and playwright Dan Dietz's sometimes brilliant dialogue. Some lines are delivered within a verbal dance of sorts worthy of a Balanchine. There is more than one scene where the actors, separated by an unseen wall, wield their lines like deftly timed swords through the 'wall', their meanings crossing in mid-air. Whoosh!!. Timing is not the problem with this play.

No, the quandary here is, well, what exactly Dietz wants us to think about Tilt Angel. Imagine "Little Shop of Horrors" set in an auto body shop. No, maybe it's like "Alice Doesn't Live (in Tennessee) Anymore". Or, "It's a Wonderful Life" with Jimmy Stewart never getting that final taxi ride home. And yet Tilt Angel might be none of these.

Dietz wants us to think about nature and our irrevocable connection to it - and especially about death - the ultimate punctuation mark to that point. So he tries to engage all of our senses, with drumming and banging and music and singing and creative lighting, excellently executed through Jill Nagle's design. And there is no plot device Dietz will not try.  Tilt Angel is about abandonment, guilt and redemption, loss of love, hope, limb, legacy, and life -- to name but a few -- and maybe a few too many. Tilt Angel is both a comedy and a drama, which is where Dietz sometimes lost this member of the audience.

Despite his youthful appearance, this is not the Austin, TX-based Dietz's first play. He has had at least a half dozen performed and has gathered his share of awards, including the James A. Michener and Josephine Bay Paul fellowships and the Austin Critics Table Award for Best New Play. If there is an award for fearlessness, Dietz should have that one, too, for he tempts all.

Director Cailin Heffernan, who has a long string of credits to her name as well, had her hands full with this one. Soliloquies abound, as do physical flights and fist fights. That Randy Lee Hartwig (who you may remember as the husband in Asbury Radio's production of Dave Talbot's one-act play, "Thermostat Wars") and co-designer Matthew R. Campbell's set can support all of this is a credit to the two. Through them and a superb cast of actors, Heffernan executes it all quite flawlessly. Yet, the question nags, do we need ALL of it?

But then Ames Adamson, as the Neanderthal, third generation body shop owner in this back water town, whose progenitors' spirits still permeate the walls, grabs hold of our attention again like the dented fender of a Chevy and pulls us back in. Even when Adamson's character, Red, is crude, sweaty and infuriatingly misogynistic it's impossible to turn away. Maybe it's the way Adamson physically wraps himself inside a role, even if it's playing a squirrel (in John Walch's Circumference of a Squirrel). And, when Adamson breaks the fourth wall by acknowledging the audience, as he does in Tilt Angel, we forgive him if not Dietz.

Andrea Gallo, who as the mother, Lois, must act the role of a vegetable tree, gives a whole new dimension to 'Mother Earth'. As Red's wife, Gallo makes the mistake of getting sucked into the knowledge tree by a snake bearing an uncanny resemblance to Jeopardy's Alex Trebek. Gallo's rapid-fire description of this transformation is worth the price of admission alone. As Red recalls of this period, Lois actually started reading, "The New Yorker." It's the familiar scenario of the wife mentally outgrowing the simple, but honest husband and flying the nest. Only this time the plane isn't air worthy, which explains the blues singing winged-pilot who must coerce the next of kin into claiming Lois' remains and thus cutting his earthly bonds. Reginald Metcalf plays the pilot, Angel Bones, a part which functions as both scene connector and tension breaker. Metcalf croons a mean spiritual in his first role for NJ Rep, which I strongly suspect will not be his last.

But the scene stealer in Tilt Angel is Ian August who turns the impossible part of the mentally tapped, reclusive son of this dysfunctional union into a tour de force for his singing, dancing and acting talents. Despite Red's admonition that his son would, "get a sunburn from a bright idea", and Lois' recognition that "behind those eyes is all blue sky back there," August makes us like and respect this character, something the playwright doesn't always accomplish for the entire play. Tilt Angel is experimental -- crazy, daring, corny, trite, insightful and campy --which is what theater on the cutting edge perhaps has to be. So go and laugh. Over and out!   The play runs through November 20th.

All Over the Map: Finn in the Underworld in San Francisco and Tilt Angel in Long Branch, NJ. Plus: The Oregon Shakespeare Festival wraps up its 70th season

Andrea Gallo and Ian August in <i>Tilt Angel</i><br>
(Photo © SuzAnne Barabas)  
Andrea Gallo and Ian August in Tilt Angel
(Photo © SuzAnne Barabas)
In Dan Dietz's latest play, Tilt Angel, a mother leaves her Tennessee family to pursue her lifelong dream of going to college, but her plane crashes along the way. "The story is about how the father and the son cope with this and deal wsith the fact that they're estranged from each other as well," says Dietz. Sounds like a straightforward family drama -- but Dietz throws in a couple of curveballs. In one scene, a character travels through telephone wires, and in another, someone flies.

Such stage directions can strike fear into the hearts of theater companies, but they certainly caught the attention of New Jersey Repertory, which is presenting Tilt Angel. Dietz's lush style also hooked the Salvage Vanguard Theatre in his hometown of Austin, Texas, with which he often works. "[These companies] like nothing better than to take a play that seems impossible to stage, and stage it," says Dietz, who acknowledges that finding directors intrepid enough to do them is a daunting task. "When I find a director who really 'gets' my voice," he says, "I really cling to that person."

Dietz partly developed his quirky style while writing English translations of Japanese animated films for ADD, the largest distributor of anime in North America. "I was really into anime in my teens and early 20s because I was just fascinated by its storytelling traditions, as well as the idea of fusing man and machine and the high-octane action sequences," he says. His favorite anime series that he's worked on is Dai-Guard -- about a team of hapless office workers forced to commandeer a giant robot to save the world -- which ran here briefly on the Cartoon Network.

His playwriting career began to take off after he submitted one of his short works to the Humana Festival on a teacher's recommendation to his graduating class. ("She said, 'Someone's bad play is going to win this contest; it might as well be your bad play.' ") Like most emerging playwrights, Dietz constantly submits scripts to theaters around the country. He remarks: "Those two things, really working on my voice and the pieces I was writing and being brave or stupid enough to spend all that money on postage, have seemed to work for me."

For a time, Dietz worked with an underground theatrical society known as RAT, a collective so shadowy that it never even defined its acronym. "It sort of envisioned this idea of theaters that were willing to take risks and do a lot with a little," he explains. Most of RAT's members were small companies but, according to Dietz, a few of them tried to bring their aesthetic to the mainstream. "As the audiences for larger theaters start to dwindle, which they are, my hope is that those theaters will find themselves in a position where they need to take a risk," Dietz says. "That's my hope, anyway."


A "blues-infused fairy tale" bows at NJ Rep

Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 10/14/05

From "Hamlet" to "Hairspray," "Medea" to Miller, domestic dysfunction remains a thematic stage staple that continues to pique audience interest and paint balance sheets black. After all, what better way to escape the petty pyrotechnics and molehill melodrama of one's own homelife than with a couple of hours spent literally looking down upon some angst-infested brood of flustered and frustrated family members, encapsulated like a globeful of sea monkeys on a set that's equal parts living room and lock-up?

No strangers to the more vein-popping side of family life, the producers and performers at New Jersey Repertory Company have dished up their share of dinner-table decibels: from the country-house conflicts of "On Golden Pond" to the trailerpark tribulations of "Maggie Rose."

With this weekend's debut of the new mainstage production "Tilt Angel," the acclaimed Long Branch-based theatrical troupe presents a show that's been described as a "gritty and lyrical comic-epic about a most unusual family." It's a story in which characters cross the threshold between planes of existence as easily as they darken their own doorstep.

Set in Tennessee, the play by Texas-based author Dan Dietz conjures a very unhappy household lorded over by Red (Ames Adamson), a mechanic with a prosthetic hand and a son who's even less useful to him. While the withdrawn and reclusive Ollie (Ian August) hasn't set foot outside the house in nearly a decade, it takes a tragedy — the death of his mother, Lois (Andrea Gallo), while en route to Memphis, Tenn. — to shake him from his self-imposed exile, and send him on a mission that will bring him to the uncertain border between this world and the next.

When Red shows no interest in claiming his wife's remains, it's up to Ollie to escort her on her journey back home; a journey joined by an apparently helpful but enigmatic character known as Angel Bones (Reginald Metcalf, who performed the role at NJ Rep's 2004 reading of the play).

This engagement marks the world professional premiere of Dietz's "blues-infused fairy tale," which was staged to award-winning acclaim as a community production in the author's native Austin, and workshopped in a couple of other locales before arriving in its current fine-tuned version as the last NJ Rep offering of the year 2005. It's helmed here by Cailin Heffernan, a director with an impressive list of credits among the Shore's most forward-thinking stage companies.

NJ Rep subscribers and other frequent-fliers should perk up at the presence of Adamson, a Rep regular whose colorfully vivid character portrayals (in "Old Clown Wanted," "Circumference of a Squirrel" and Mike Folie's "Panama") have made him something of a breakout performer among this stellar stock company. He's joined by fellow "Panama" survivor August (by the by, it was writer-actor Folie who played Red in last year's reading of "Tilt Angel") and company man Metcalf, as well as Rep rookie Gallo.

The odd couple of the literary world
Monday, August 29, 2005
Star-Ledger Staff

There have been plenty of plays and movies where a character proclaims, "I hate and despise him, and I can't live without him." When the line is said in "Klonsky and Schwartz," however, it manages to sound fresh.

For one thing, in Romulus Linney's play at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, the line isn't said by a woman, as it seems to be in all those other properties. A man is the speaker, but his motivation is not a homosexual one.

Linney is looking at another kind of passion here -- the highs and lows of friendship -- and in the process has created an often gripping and fascinating play.

Milton Klonsky is the speaker, and the love-hate he has is for Delmore Schwartz, the noted American poet. They meet when Schwartz is judging a poetry contest that young Klonsky has entered. Of course, Klonsky is flattered when this literary celebrity takes an interest in him, for at the moment, Klonsky is unpublished -- and will be for some time to come.

That may be because he spends so much time taking care of Schwartz. No question that Schwartz is what many people would call "a handful." Indeed, the rich and complicated character that Linney has written here would be such a handful that he'd stymie an octopus. He and Klonsky have many fights, most of them verbal, though they're not above a rowdy physical one, too.

So why does Klonsky bother? There's more than a dollop of hero-worship here, to be sure, but by often chiding Schwartz for not maintaining his health, Klonsky can find one way in which he's superior. Klonsky may admit to having an affinity for "bourbon, broads, weed, and the track," yet he doesn't let any of those escalate into addictions that keep him from writing. Still, Linney suggests that Schwartz's willingness to taste, feel, experiment, and grasp life by both hands made him the superior artist.

Certainly Schwartz has the better role, and John FitzGibbon is delivering a dynamic, must-see performance, under SuzAnne Barabas' strong direction. He's expansive and bigger than life, roaring with the rage of the frustrated artist, and wailing to the skies. Here's a dipsomaniac who enjoys a drunken dance in Times Square from time to time, but then suddenly reverts to quieter moments. With his tie askew, he weaves as he walks, and he has a squint that shows the pain of being annoyed. When he rubs his exhausted eyes, he seems to be blocking a view of his tortured soul.

FitzGibbon has perfectly captured the confident man who believes he has all the answers, as well as the high-maintenance dependent who expects unconditional love from everyone. When he states, "I feel as old as worn-out shoes," he says it with a smile that's meant to suggest he's still in control, and nobody really has to worry about him.

David Volin gives excellent support as Klonsky. He expertly shows the neurosis of the writer who's afraid to show his work, mixing it with a nervous need for approval. How flummoxed Volin looks when he says quietly, "I was a prodigy who was reading when I was three" -- wondering how after that terrific head start he fell so far behind.

Near the end of the 80-minute, intermissionless play, Schwartz tells Klonsky with certainty, "No one will remember you without me." To a degree, that's turned out to be true. And while Linney, who actually knew Milton Klonsky, has taken pains to see that his old friend's name stays before the public, he can't do it without linking it to Schwartz. But at least he's put Klonsky back in the public eye.


Absolutely, Mr. Klonsky? Positively, Mr. Schwartz
Published in the Asbury Park Press 08/31/05


David Volin (left) and John FitzGibbon star in "Klonsky and Schwartz" at the New Jersey Repertory Company's Lumia Theatre in Long Branch.
Through Oct. 2 — New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch

— $30

— (732) 229-3166
Their names have been said to sound like some classic vaudeville team, and indeed there are moments when "Klonsky and Schwartz" get off some real zingers: "A poet breaking into Yiddish is like a thief breaking into prison." Or, "Why should I make one girl miserable when I can make a hundred shiksas happy?"

Despite the audible rimshots, it wasn't all fun and games for poet and essayist Milton Klonsky in the summer of 1966 — a mean season wherein he struggled to find his own voice as a writer, even while he played self-appointed guardian to the man who had given him his first professional break, the legendary literary figure Delmore Schwartz.

The very untidy relationship between these two real-life writers — the insults and inspirations, the fistfights and forgiveness, the hugs as well as the drugs — forms the basis for Romulus Linney's play bearing their names. The acclaimed playwright, himself a friend of Klonsky's in the writer's later years, was on hand Saturday night for the opening of a major new production of his work at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

New York setting

Recalling both the many sublevels of Manhattan's hollowed-out island as well as Dante's various circles of hell, the multitiered set design by Jessica Parks is a neon-graveyard evocation of New York's jazz-age glory days, filtered through the smoggy prism of the late '60s. It's the perfect place for two talented players to skip across time and space, from the blazing energy of 1940s Greenwich Village to a chilly bench in Bryant Park.

Chronicling what would come to be the final weeks in the life of Delmore Schwartz, "Klonsky" begins, ends and continually returns to that fatal summer of '66; a time when the city's hold on the American imagination had been eclipsed by the currents blowing in from the West Coast; a time when the grand institution of New York baseball resided in the cellar and the Velvet Underground was even then working up songs that the band would come to posthumously dedicate to Schwartz.

His best work decades behind him, his marriage in ruins and his life in a shambles upon the abandonment of his academic career, Schwartz haunts the streets, saloons and Automats of the city in a last-ditch attempt to recapture the muse that made him one of the major poetic voices of the twentieth century — a paranoid drunk who believes he's being tracked by an accusatory "dybbuk" and that Nelson Rockefeller is having an affair with his wife.

Himself a figure plagued by self-doubts, unable to finish anything new and haunted by the prospect that his own career is little more than a footnote, Milton Klonsky would seem an unlikely pillar of strength for the older writer. Yet he's there at Bellevue when Schwartz is arrested for a delusional assault; he's there in Schwartz's flophouse room when Delmore needs help finding his way home; he's there to identify Schwartz's body on the morgue slab when no one else comes forward. Still, he finds it impossible to argue when Schwartz points at him and sneers his sadly prophetic "Nobody will remember you without me."

Presented without intermission and punctuated by passages of klezmer music, Linney's jazzy, Beat-inflected script is brought blazing to life by a couple of familiar faces from the New Jersey Repertory Company. As Schwartz — a role originated by TV star Chris Noth, who also initiated the project — John FitzGibbon (seen most recently as an unctuous art dealer in "Touch of Rapture") conveys the method and madness of this brilliant and burned-out man with a scary facility.

As Klonsky, David Volin (from NJ Rep's "Laramie Project") is all nervous energy channeled away from self-destruction and toward the uneasy responsibility he's saddled himself with. The brief interlude wherein a frustrated Klonsky endeavors to complete a new poem is a particular gem.

Under the steady hand of NJ Rep artistic director SuzAnne Barabas, these two really intense performers work very much in concert with each other, when one could easily imagine each of them taking on the project as a one-man show (the actors occasionally double up as various spouses and rabbis).

Volin and FitzGibbon run the material for all its worth, with the result being that an especially hard-hitting affirmation-of-friendship scene plays spot-on true. Their chemistry ranks up there with such classic New York duos as Kramden and Norton, Oscar and Felix, Seinfeld and George — and at times you might think you're watching the greatest movie that Edmond O'Brien and Tony Curtis never made together.

"Klonsky and Schwartz" is doubtless a difficult piece to master and a definite challenge to the audience — nonlinear, densely packed with references and allusions. Director Barabas and company have put forward a smart and emotionally supercharged example of local professional theater at the top of its game, acted with real conviction and presented by people who very obviously believe in it.

Suck up all of those anxieties and meet this one halfway. Its rewards are many and varied.

A CurtainUp Review
Klonsky and Schwartz

My mother named me after a Pullman car. She thought it sounded Goyishe --- Delmore Schwartz

John FitzGibbon and David Volin in Klonsky and Schwartz
John FitzGibbon and David Volin in Klonsky and Schwartz
It isn't surprising that Romulus Linney's aggressively schizophrenic play about Delmore Schwartz opens in a 1966 mental ward at New York's Bellevue Hospital. The noted American poet has been brought there for observation by the police after he has assaulted a couple on a Manhattan street. The obviously delusional Schwartz (John Fitzgibbon) is visited by his friend Milton Klonsky (David Volin), the skilled essayist to whom he has long been a mentor.

The play focuses on Schwartz' declining sanity after he has left his job at Syracuse University to write poetry and live in New York City. Imagining that his wife was stolen by Nelson Rockefeller and believing he was told what to do by Dybbuks (plural), Schwartz is nevertheless urged by Klonsky to think rationally, to recall his childhood as the son of irrational unhappily married Romanian immigrants.

Schwartz's mental instability is dramatized in fits and starts following his release from Bellevue as a kind of neurotic vaudeville act (shades of Smith and Dale on speed) as the two writers review the high and low points of their tight but testy relationship. The fast staccato paced dialogue is unleashed by the manically envious Klonsky and the manically depressive Schwartz in a lyrical point counter point style. Each man is afforded his own time in the spotlight, each confronted by his own demons. Their unlikely friendship began after Klonsky has submitted a poem in a contest judged by an expectedly condescending Schwartz. As egomaniacal as he was brilliant, Schwartz's influence on the 10 years younger Klonsky proved profound, even as it served to block Klonsky's creative flow ("You think any nutball idea that comes into your head is poetry and you can't tell the difference.")

The play moves speedily through brief scenes that focus more on the men's r emotional instability than on their intellectual gifts. Both marry and divorce, Schwartz twice. As they concede in concert: "Why should I make one Jewish girl miserable when I can make a hundred shicksas happy."

Although he doesn't get the opportunity to rant and rave like his co-star, Volin is impressive as the more conventionally dysfunctional Klonsky, whose preoccupation with horse racing and womanizing may also have led to the artistic paralysis that consumed him during his friendship with Schwartz. When you have friends like Schwartz who tells him, "You're just a prick, posing as a poet," you don't need a bad review from a literary critic.

Fitzgibbon has the tougher assignment as he has been apparently encouraged by director Suzanne Barabas to enforce and validate Schwartz's nutty behavior (that includes drunken binges and waving a loaded gun around in Bryant Park), with an excess of flailing hands and nervous body tics. One can't say that Fitzgibbon isn't acting up a storm.

Various locales are simply established within Jessica Parks' setting featuring a neon-lit cityscape. The quirky structure of the dialogue, some of it almost singspiel in delivery suggests that Linney sees his play as a lyrical convergence of these commiserating but creative poet/writers. The delivery is sharp, but it eventually grows wearisome. Although he always wanted to write like Schwartz but couldn't, Klonsky was a friend to the end of Schwartz's life. When Schwartz was found dead, destitute and alone in a rat trap of a hotel room, it was Klonsky who came to the morgue to identify him.

Though Linney maintained a friendship with Klonsky during the last ten years of Schwartz's life he maintains that Klonsky never once talked about Schwartz, even after his death. Following Schwartz's death, Klonsky began writing with a renewed intensity. One can see the motivation behind Linney's play and find it compelling if also slightly unnerving.

New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Klonsky and Schwartz
and Romulus Linney

It is 1966. Little-known, little-published poet Milton Klonsky has been contacted by the National Endowment for the Arts. It seems that the Endowment has selected his friend and mentor, the noted American poet Delmore Schwartz for an award and grant, and is trying to locate him. Klonsky knows exactly where Schwartz is. In fact, in about an hour and a quarter at the conclusion of Romulus Linney's new one-act, two-character play, Klonsky and Schwartz, Klonsky will share this terrible knowledge with us. However, first Klonsky will tell us about their twenty-five year relationship and the commonalities in their backgrounds which helped to bind them together.

Klonsky and Schwartz
David Volin and John FitzGibbon

Linney's play is about many things. The identity problems of first generation American who love their immigrant parents, but are ashamed of their accents and patterns of speech. The pain and loneliness which can arise from being turned out by a spouse with whom one remains in love. The anguish and difficulty of coping with and channeling creative genius. However, in order to best understand and enjoy Klonsky and Schwartz pay close attention to the title.

Going in, one naturally expects to see a play about the major poet, Schwartz, with the little known Klonsky providing a unique perspective regarding him. The opening gambit, the NEA search for Schwartz, re-enforces this view. As the play develops, it is only a little more even-handed in its focus. However, in the end, it may well dawn upon you that it is with good reason (beyond it being possibly more euphonious) that Klonsky's name precedes Schwartz in the play's title. It seems that foremost, Linney is concerned with the deleterious effect that the charming and brilliant, yet cruelly self centered and paranoid Schwartz had on the underachieving and insecure, yet talented and loyal Klonsky (yet, as Schwartz states in the course of the play, if Klonsky's name were to survive over time, it would be because of Klonsky's relationship to him).

Although not known to a wide public (most articles note that he is the father of actress Laura Linney), author Romulus Linney is one of America's most distinguished playwrights. Linney has authored over twenty full-length plays, several short plays, and three novels. He has taught playwriting at Columbia (where he chaired the MFA Playwriting program), Princeton, Penn and the Yale School of Drama. Currently, Linney is a Professor of Playwriting in the Actors Studio MFA program at the New School. His highly regarded work covers subject matter with a wide global expanse and different historic eras. Still the Madison, Tennessee and Boone, North Carolina (where several of his plays have set) reared Linney is a member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers.

So who would have thought that Linney would have written a play in which his characters sometimes speak in the rhythms of such ethnic comic vaudevillians as Smith and Dale? Furthermore, throughout the play, the expressions and argot, and concerns of his protagonists, unerringly reflect speech and attitudes common to mid-twentieth century New York Jewish intellectuals. Of course, Linney has been intimate with such individuals, but his ear for their speech and empathy with them is as admirable as it is remarkable. Although his tale is a cautionary one, the style in which he tells it along with his inclusion of some sharp excerpts from the pen of Delmore Schwartz, keeps things entertaining.

David Volin and John FitzGibbon fully embody Linney's portrait of Milton Klonsky and Delmore Schwartz. Volin's persona conveys likeability, kindness, enough smarts to kind to hold his own with Schwartz, and a vulnerability which renders him ineffective. FitzGibbon combines considerable charm with the bullying dominance and a very credible paranoid madness. Together, they deliver Linney's rapid fire, interlaced dialogue with the practiced ease of long time partners.

Much credit for the smooth integration of the work of Volin and FitzGibbon is due to NJ Rep Artistic Director SuzAnne Barabas, who has directed the play with skill and affection. Scenic Designer Jessica Parks has designed an impressionistic set with cutouts of New York City landmarks (including evocative signs for Klonsky and Schwartz restaurant hangouts, Katz's and the Automat) which nicely complement the play.

Although Linney has fictionalized any number of details, it is essential truths which Klonsky and Schwartz illuminates.

Review of Klonsky and Schwartz

by Gary Wien

(LONG BRANCH) - I've often wondered what it must have been like to be among the first audiences to see a Samuel Beckett play. Did the people at the early showings of "Waiting For Godot" really know they were watching history? Did they revel in the confusion? Were they laughing incredibly at the jokes? Or did the play simply sail over their heads, leaving them perplexed as to what they had just witnessed.

Was it art? Madness? Or did they walk out muttering 'what the hell was that?'

As I watched the New Jersey premiere of Klonsky and Schwartz by Romulus Linney, I felt as if I was among the crowds at an early Beckett performance. And the experience was thrilling.

Klonsky and Schwartz is a roller-coaster ride of nonsense and true meaning rolled into one. It tells the tale of Milton Klonsky, a struggling writer and Delmore Schwartz, a brilliant poet who becomes his friend. The play is based on the true story of the two artists who lived in New York City during the 1960s.

Klonsky (played by David Volin) is haunted by the thought that he will only be remembered for being a friend of Schwartz (played by John Fitzgibbon) - a thought driven into his subconscious by Schwartz repeatedly. Klonsky finds himself constantly in a state of rewriting his work over and over. Nothing is ever good enough to be deemed finished - or good enough to present to Schwartz for his approval.

SuzAnne Barabas, the Artistic Director of the New Jersey Repertory Company, is the director of this production. She has put together a show that just might be one of the fastest paced productions I have ever seen. Between the pace of the play, the language of the artists (including moments of poetry recited throughout) and splashes of music, the play takes on the appearance of a beatnik poem.

"I think it's in the writing," explained SuzAnne Barabas. "It leads us there. It's the type of play that you should see a few times and you'll get something different out of it each time. The first time you kind of go along for the ride and then when you see it again you can begin picking out things because it's not a linear play. And yet there is a story that does have linear movement. We've tried to make it as accessible as possible.

"When I first read it I thought the payoff was amazing. I didn't know who Klonsky or Schwartz were. I was just so moved by the experience and the human relationship of the two men - it didn't have anything to do with the poetry. The poetry is glorious, but it was the relationship of these two men of 25 years and the payoff at the end, which was very moving to me."

The play was obviously very moving to her husband, Gabor Barabas as well. Prior to the performance, he told of his childhood in Hungary and how he developed his love for poetry. That love and hunger for words was the perfect introduction to the play. We've included an excerpt here.

The play succeeds on many levels and the two actors do a wonderful job. Romulus Linney, a two-time Obie Award winner, has come up with another brilliant work. If you like theatre to challenge you, you'll love Klonsky and Schwartz.


Tale-of-two-scribes "Klonsky and Schwartz" premieres at NJ Rep

Published in the Asbury Park Press 08/26/05


It's an age-old dramatic premise: the intellectual and emotional tug-of-war between mentor and protege, with the iconic hero ultimately revealed as a very flawed, very human being. In the two-character play now onstage at New Jersey Repertory Company, the mentor has pretty much bottomed out by the time the curtain goes up — and it's the protege who assumes the leadership role as the older, more famous figure spirals into the closing act of a lost life.

While the title might bring to mind a pair of polyester-age TV cops, "Klonsky and Schwartz" promises to make up for a distinct lack of airborne car chases with snapshots of a turbulent relationship between two writers — each speeding his way along a physical and spiritual journey of his own. It's that relationship between the two (real-life) literary figures that forms the basis of Romulus Linney's script — a story charged with the author's own personal connection to one of the principals.

The "Schwartz" in question is the legendary scribe Delmore Schwartz (1913-1966), a poet, prose artist and editor known as much for his own works ("In Dreams Begin Responsibilities") as he is for the posthumous tribute paid him by people from Saul Bellow ("Humboldt's Gift") to Lou Reed ("My House").

The other half of the play's equation is Milton Klonsky. A poet and scholar of considerable talent, he's a guy who also had the "genius" tag applied to him in his time — albeit a man whose reputation lacked the rock star mystique that the burned-out Schwartz would accrue in the decades after his passing.

That the name Delmore Schwartz retains a certain undeniable cachet with artistic types became evident when the playwright was approached by TV star Chris Noth (of "Law & Order" and "Sex and the City" fame) to develop a stage project based on Schwartz's life. In the course of his research, Linney (whose daughter is screen actress Laura Linney) stumbled upon an astounding fact: His own good friend Milton Klonsky had been Schwartz's closest confidante in his final days — to the point of having been the one to identify Schwartz's corpse at the city morgue following the writer's death at a local transient hotel.

"I found to my surprise that the man who was closest to him when he died had been a good friend to me in the last 10 years of his life," Linney recalled in an interview from a few years back. "Yet after Delmore died, Milton never talked about him."

Characterizing his late friend as "a very nurturing person, even though he was disappointed in his literary accomplishments," Linney set about crafting a theatrical chamber piece that honors the life and legacy of Klonsky as it examines the last days of Schwartz — a man who, as we meet him, has quit his academic job to drink, ingest barbituates and, hopefully, compose the most scintillating poetry of his once-stellar career.

Kicking around the bars, Automats and institutions of downtown Manhattan in the summer of 1966, the two men fight (to the extent that most productions have required the services of a fight choreographer), bond, reference pop-culture touchstones and work to dispel the demons that dog them.

Following a 2002 premiere in Connecticut (with Noth in the part of Schwartz), the play has appeared in professional productions on both coasts, and arrives at NJ Rep's Lumia Theatre in Long Branch for a New Jersey premiere engagement that opens Saturday night, following preview performances that continue at 8 today. Directed by NJ Rep co-founder SuzAnne Barabas, the show stars a pair of actors with an impressive list of credentials on Shore area stages.

As Schwartz, NJ Rep regular John FitzGibbon promises to bring some of the powerful stuff that informed his role as a washed-up alcoholic professor in "Winterizing the Summer House" a couple of seasons back. David Volin, whose resume includes a fine turn as Bottom in "Midsummer Night's Dream" at Holmdel Theatre Company, tackles the part of Klonsky after a busy summer spent with Monmouth University's Shadow Lawn Stage series in West Long Branch.

Driven actor racking up miles, roles
NJ Rep show is Volin's 6th this year in his home state
Friday, August 19, 2005
Star-Ledger Staff

David Volin marks his sixth Garden State show of 2005 on Thursday, when he opens in "Klonsky and Schwartz" at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

"I'm racking up thousands of miles on my car," the 39-year-old Tenafly native and resident says.

Volin feels the commuting is worth it to play Milton Klonsky (1921-81) -- "a poet, a writer and a recluse when he wasn't a womanizer. Very little is written about him."

All of Klonsky's books -- including the well-received "The Fabulous Ego" (1974), which dealt with the corruption of power -- are out of print.

"Klonsky wrote poems that, he admitted, nobody understood but him," Volin says. "Maybe he felt that if you can't understand a piece of writing, you really can't say if it's bad or good."

The play by Romulus Linney, father of actor Laura Linney, concerns Klonsky's relationship with Delmore Schwartz (1913-66) -- also a poet, writer, recluse and womanizer, though a far more famous one.

"He was the only person Klonsky would let judge him, even though Schwartz was often uncomplimentary. In fact, they met when Schwartz was judging him in a poetry contest," Volin says.

The play takes place in 1966. The National Endowment for the Arts is trying to find Schwartz to give him an award and can't find him. They finally do, thanks to Klonsky.

"Klonsky embraced his poverty," Volin says. "He held it up as a shield to anyone who said he wasn't successful. 'No,' he said, 'I am writing. What I do isn't business, but art.' And I relate to that."

Between 1993 and 1999, Volin was working in a low-level job for a consulting firm. By night, he would act with his own New York troupe, The White Buffalo Theatre Company. ("The great thing about working in an office is that you can Xerox scripts for free.")

When the company shut down, Volin went for broke. He gave up his day job, moved back to Tenafly and concentrated on acting.

He has worked steadily ever since. "I'm my own publicist-manager-agent, always checking to see who needs an actor at what theater. That's led to a lot of repeat work. So many theaters say, 'We'd like you to do this play because we know you can.'"

After he appeared at New Jersey Rep in "Raft of the Medusa" in 2001 and "The Laramie Project" in 2002, SuzAnne Barabas, the theater's artistic director -- and the director of "Klonsky and Schwartz" -- decided that Volin was her man.

He'll be busy until October, which precludes his doing "Art" at the Women's Theater Company in Wayne, where he played an obsessed Mae West fan in "Dirty Blonde" in January. In March, he was at Tri-State Actors Theatre in Sussex, playing Bottom in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" -- "which means playing part-animal, part- human," he says, before noting that he got to play an entire animal in "Go, Dog! Go!" at The Growing Stage in Netcong. "As emcee," he says, "I was the only dog to have lines."

This summer at Shadow Lawn Stage in West Long Branch, he was in Steve Martin's "The Underpants" as the mortified husband. As soon as it closed, Volin grew six weeks' worth of beard to play a 70-year-old judge in Jules Feiffer's "Little Murders."

Volin points out that though Feiffer had written the judge for the play's original 1967 production, he dropped him just before the Broadway premiere. "I'm glad he put him back."


Drama depicts three ages of 'Innocence'
Published in the Asbury Park Press 07/13/05


Corey Tazmania (left), Catherine Eaton (center) and Deborah Rayne star in "A Child's Guide to Innocence" at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.
New Jersey Repertory Company — 179 Broadway, Long Branch — Through Aug. 14 — $30 — (732) 229-3166
"Something is happening to us somewhere — but not here," intones first-generation Italian-American Francie (Catherine Eaton) at more than one point during Vincent Sessa's "A Child's Guide to Innocence," the drama now in its world-premiere engagement at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

Francie (or Frances or even Francesca, as she's variously branded throughout) could be commenting upon the fact that the dramatic peaks of her family's history — the births, the deaths, the challenges of forging a new life in a strange place — mostly occur offstage, or in a time frame separate from that in which the characters are interacting.

Unseen, too, are the men who figure prominently in Francie's life — her husband, her neighborhood grocer Papa, her seaman brother Johnny — although these absent characters are vividly invoked at times through reminiscence and a bit of playful imitation.

As it turns out, much of "A Child's Guide" revolves around what's not there — the missing persons, misplaced objects and unspoken secrets taking center-stage prominence over the more mundane details of what at first glance appears to be a largely uneventful life. What we do have on display (in a production directed by NJ Rep regular Dana Benningfield) are snapshots of a 50-year span in the life of a woman who's spent a lot of time "praying that God doesn't lose interest in me" — a woman who comes late to the realization that it's impossible to make it through the present while living in the past.

The Brooklyn-born Sessa's script opens in the wartime summer of 1944, with Francie and her sisters Catherine (Corey Tazmania) and Marion (Deborah Rayne) in tentative mourning over brother Johnny, gone missing from the naval vessel on which he was stationed. Adding to the anxiety is the fact that Francie's beau also is off to fight the good war — and assuming a bizarre prominence is the apparent loss of a glass crystal decoration from a table lamp, an object variously described as a "prism" and a "star."

Then again, certain objects take on a special significance in this play, tinged as it is with a realism that's distinctly more magical than matter-of-fact. The family dinner table is said to possess a soul, celery plays a recurring role in the proceedings and the eventual rediscovery of the glass "star" treats the bargain-store bauble with the deference normally granted some talisman out of Tolkien.

A saga of bonds

In fact, you'd do well to check all preconceptions of what this play is all about at the door. Playwright Sessa has cited the script as "autobiographical" in its origin with his own Italian-American family members, but if you're anticipating a lot of caricature "fuhgeddaboutit" accents and expecting the action to be punctuated by busy kitchen scenes, then get thee instead to a venue that's showing "The Godfather's Meshuggenah Wedding." While the actresses occasionally affect a Lawn Guyland inflection or two and Papa Luigi hovers just this side of tangibility, it's first and foremost a saga of bonds that can never be severed — of words and deeds that resonate across time, of ordinary lives that have a profound influence.

What it's not is a true ensemble piece. While Tazmania and Baum lend solid support in their triple-duty roles as sisters, daughters and grandchildren, it's indisputably Francie's story. Eaton, onstage for every moment of this no-intermission production, fixes her pale blues toward the audience and conjures things from V-E Day in Times Square to the fate of her sailor brother — as "unstuck in time" as Kurt Vonnegut's Billy Pilgrim, with the Great War every bit as much at the center of her being.

Carrie Mossman's set design — a slightly surreal amalgam of 1944 store, 1975 dining room and 1995 bedroom — suggests as well that it's Francie's head we're looking into, appropriate to a show that captures the liquid flow of time and memory (and reminds us that very few people in this life are afforded an "intermission" to change into their future selves). Company veterans Jeff Knapp and Jill Nagle provide a music-and-lighting environment that's smoothly cinematic and fitting with the often dreamlike quality of the production — although a climactic oooh-aaah effect is arguably not a necessity.

Director Benningfield has been quoted to the effect of having taken a less-is-more approach to Sessa's play, trimming expository lines and pitching the material as "more universal than just the Italian-American experience." With her first full-length professional production, Benningfield makes some intriguing choices — and reminds us that New Jersey Repertory remains a laboratory in which new works come to evolve, often right before our eyes.

Three Sisters, With No Chekhov in Sight

Published: July 17, 2005

THE New Jersey Repertory Company may never win the Tony Award for regional theater, but it deserves some kind of prize for sheer unpredictability. Its last show here, ''Ten Percent of Molly Snyder,'' was as whacked-out a comedy as New Jersey is likely to see this year. But its new show, ''A Child's Guide to Innocence'' by Vincent Sessa, is as delicate and nuanced a drama as you'll find, its three actresses telling a sublime intergenerational tale beautifully.

At the center of it is Catherine Eaton as Frances, whom we first meet in Brooklyn in 1944. She is the oldest of three sisters, and of course it is wartime and there is a brother overseas. Corey Tazmania and Deborah Rayne play Frances' sisters in the opening vignette, but by the final segment of Mr. Sessa's intriguingly structured triptych they are playing her grandchildren, and it is 1995. We don't see much of Frances' life over this 51-year span -- the play's middle segment is set in 1975 -- but somehow by the end we know a lot about her, and about those she loved and lost.

Mr. Sessa's inspired stroke is to tackle almost nothing head-on. Indeed, it takes a while in the opening segment for a story to catch hold -- the sisters are so chirpy (far chirpier, in fact, than any real sisters would be) that they're hard to listen to. Gradually, though, it sinks in that their brother is missing in action and what we're seeing is their collective defense mechanism; each copes with the news differently.

Even so, though, Mr. Sessa stays away from anything overt; the first segment remains a collection of fragments. It's a deliberate device and an effective one; not until 31 years later, in a harrowing, heartbreaking monologue by Ms. Eaton midway through the play, does he let all the pieces coalesce, and the waiting makes the moment all the more powerful.

''A Child's Guide'' becomes irritatingly New Age-y at times (''I think a table has a soul when a family sits at it''), and the final segment, with its ''greatest generation'' references and Frances in a coma, feels a bit shopworn. But in general Mr. Sessa shows great restraint, as does the director, Dana Benningfield; they don't try to do too much with the story, and thereby do quite a lot. It's a lovely portrait of how ordinary lives can be defined by a few pivotal moments, of how the world's great events can have a profound impact at a very small, personal level.

''A Child's Guide to Innocence'' continues through Aug. 14 at the New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch, (732)229-3166,

A Child's Guide to Innocence -- a review by Restore Radio

This review was broadcast live on July 14th, 2005

In the Sicilian-American, Brooklyn household of 1944 that Vincent Sessa transports us to, something is always left on the dinner table. The spirits of the people who sit there over the years are infused into its very wood, animating it -- if you will. So you leave a bit of food for the table.  I noticed an audience member nod at this. But the few pieces of fruit that can be spared for this ritual are covered. Sessa's character explains, "Nothing that people want should be seen all of the time."

Indeed Sessa's play, A Child's Guide to Innocence, is run through with themes of anticipation, yearning, longing, joy deferred and innocence lost. And yet there is a delicious taste to this hunger unrequited.

He conjures at times truths, half-truths and downright superstitions so distantly familiar that their sudden recollection can cause one to physically ache. 

Sessa also touches on the metaphysical element that exists in every period, present in the everyday as well as the profound. Francie, the eldest sister in the first act played by Catherine Eaton, declares, "Something is happening to us -- somewhere else." And we believe her feeling is palpable. That we can be affected by the actions of others somewhere else acting in our name is a powerful theme. One can't help but draw parallels between the World War whose scars our three principals carry through three generations and the Iraq War we find ourselves in now. Just as the characters strive to retain -- or feign -- their innocence about the war, because knowledge would carry responsibility maybe even complicity, we can't help but make comparisons between Mr. Sessa's quote-unquote just war and the atrocities at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.   

That we can affect and be affected by actions of others near or far is a tantalizing concept. Marion, played by Deborah Rayne, says, "Mama is ready to go now. I hear her. She has a different walk when she holds her handbag." We are affected consciously or unconsciously by even the most subtle of actions.

Perhaps it is not the recognition of how buried in our pasts the experiences are that Mr. Sessa resurrects for us, but how innocent we were when we first had them. And it is the interplay between knowing and not knowing and the fear that occupies both states that is the central theme of Mr. Sessa's excellent play.

Corey Tazmania, as Catherine, Joan and Julia, has exquisite comic timing. All three actors are flawless. Dana Benningfield does an excellent job of direction. One suggestion: since the three actors play numerous characters -- with no intermission, some cues -- black outs between acts, changes in dress or hairdos might smooth these transitions a bit.  For tickets call 732-229-3166 or call to win a pair of tickets now. Vincent Sessa has accepted our invitation to join us in the studio very soon, hopefully with Dana Benningfield.  And the cast and I discussed doing a radio drama -- they're very excited about the prospect... Maureen Nevin

Review: A Child's Guide To Innocence

by Gary Wien, Upstage Magazine

Shortly before the world premiere of Vincent Sessa's "A Child's Guide to Innocence" I overheard one of the patrons at NJ Rep's Theatre tell somebody a little about the theatre. He said that the acting was always incredible but to remember that the plays were experimental...

In case you're familiar with NJ Rep (New Jersey Repertory), it's a wonderful theatre company located in downtown Long Branch. It uses Equity actors - sometimes well known, sometimes not so well known - but it is not an experimental theatre. It's a theatre that prides itself of presenting NEW work. In fact, the overwhelming majority of productions through the company's seven years have been world premieres. Some of those works have been outstanding, some have needed a little polishing, and some have already moved on to many more productions across the world. But theatres like NJ Rep are where these works get a chance to be performed in front of an audience. And, every now and then you get a glimpse of brillance from an emerging playwright. Last Saturday night, I saw such brilliance from Vincent Sessa.

I can't say that "A Child's Guide to Innocence" is a perfect play. The production had many flaws, but the final two scenes were as good as any American drama I've seen in the past decade. So good, in fact, that it almost makes you forget about the problems that marred the production in the beginning.

The play starts out telling the story of three sisters from Brooklyn who are awaiting their brother's return from World War II. One of the sisters (Francie) is also awaiting the return of a soldier she has fallen in love with. As the play progresses we follow Francie's life through the next fifty-odd years with stops in 1975 and 1995. It's a remarkably well written look at how the generations change within a family as we are introduced to Francie's daughters and later her granddaughters.

"A Child's Guide to Innocence" is held together with a secret that Francie kept to herself throughout her life until revealing to her children one day. It's a secret that will most likely take everybody by surprise and plays a significant role in shaping her life. The little things in life - like family secrets and the bond between family members - are a major part in Sessa's creation.

The final two scenes are so good that it makes me yearn to see a slight rewrite of the first scene to take this production to the level it deserves. Sessa tries too hard to make us like three sisters (two of which we will not see again) to develop the idea of the family tree. As the trio waits for news of their brother the conversation simply rambles back and forth. The effect is that while the sisters are waiting for any news, the audience begins to wait for something new to happen. Waiting is very difficult to show on stage and Sessa needs to trim some of the early pages to get the story moving a bit quicker. The early one-liners almost make it seem like a drama that wishes to be a comedy. But once the story is allowed to breathe, it is a breathtaking dramatic piece.

The play mixes in ideas about family and religion amidst the hopes and dreams of the sisters. Francie's big dream is to be a good housewife - and Sessa shows how even that dream is much bigger than we ever imagine. Francie touches so many lives through one lifetime that it makes you wonder who are the lives that you yourself may have changed.

One flaw in this production was a rather poor selection of accents from the sisters. They sound nothing like first generation Italian-Americans or even resemble the accents one hears in Brooklyn. This wouldn't be so bad in many parts of the country, but in an area where so many people are from New York City - it becomes very noticeable.

All in all, it is refreshing to see playwrights still digging deep into their soul to produce dramatic works like "A Child's Guide To Innocence". Even more refreshing is to see theatres like NJ Rep continue to take chances and succeed more often than not.

You can catch "A Child's Guide To Innocence" at NJ Rep Theatre in Long Branch until August 13th.


"A Child's Guide to Innocence" gives women a positive voice

Published in the Asbury Park Press 07/8/05


— Through Aug. 14 — NJ Repertory Company — 179 Broadway, Long Branch — 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; also 4 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays — $30 — (732) 229-3166
Dana Benningfield has found a creative haven at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

"I like to wear many creative hats," explained Benningfield, originally from Texas.

As an actress, she has appeared in several NJ Rep productions, including Mike Folie's "Lemonade." As a literary manager, Benningfield assists with the reading and assessment of original scripts that are considered for staging by NJ Rep.

While reading through the many submissions the troupe receives, Benningfield came across a drama by Vincent Sessa called "A Child's Guide to Innocence."

"The play is about a series of ordinary women who can make an extraordinary difference in the lives of people around them, not necessarily by doing extraordinary things," Benningfield said.

Having taken an interest in directing, and already having a directing credit at NJ Rep, Benningfield is making her directing debut with "A Child's Guide."

The story originated for Sessa as an autobiographical piece, said Benningfield, who believes her experiences as an actress have influenced her in developing the desire to direct.

"I found that I was focused on how to present a story theatrically, and dramatically in terms of seeing it onstage and not just being about the research of the piece or writing revisions," she said. "My contributions to the plays were really becoming about putting the play on its feet and cutting lines that I felt . . . you don't have to tell an audience."

With this play in particular, Benningfield has felt the artistic scheme with the play from the printed page and enjoys the opportunity to stage it, working with actors.

"The thing about Vincent is that he grapples with big ideas and then puts them in settings in which they can be easily identified," she said.

In "A Child's Guide," the big ideas are exploration of family tradition during a time of war, religion and secrecy. The action of the play takes place in a grocery store in Brooklyn in 1944. It is the beginning of a family story that sprawls 50 years into the future, capturing a legacy of hope tradition and courage in three Italian women.

According to Benningfield, Sessa originated his work as an autobiographical drama because the women in the play contain elements of his mother and his aunt, both Italian, "but we wanted the play to be more universal than just the Italian-American experience, so that the play can be seen as an experience of very ordinary people and how they influence their future generations."

Also, World War II has a very significant impact on the characters, she added.

Thematic message

There are a few surprises in the play the director will not give away, but she does want us to know what message she sees in this work.

"The play makes a point about the importance of knowing your past," Benningfield explained. "There's a line in the play when Franchesca, the main character, says, "Knowing the best, knowing the worst, knowing is the only innocence.' And, in a sense it provides us with a release because knowing one's past gives one license to move forward with a new sense of wonderment and astonishment of going through life. It's that tie to the past that gives input into the experience of moving forward."

July 14, 2005

Theater Review By Madeline Schulman

"A Child's Guide to Innocence," by Vincent Sessa, is a beautiful and touching play, designed to move and delight an audience. Running at the New Jersey Repertory Company, on Broadway in Long Branch, this family history is wonderfully acted by Catherine Eaton, Corey Tazmania and Deborah Rayne, and splendidly directed by Dana Benningfield. An actress herself, the director brings out the nuances of the characters as they re-live three days, but decades apart.

Eaton serves as the connecting thread, playing the same woman at 21, 51, and 71, as she believable changes from young woman to matron to older woman without altering makeup or costume. Her two co-stars each cleverly morph into three very different characters, appearing first as her sisters, then as her daughters, and finally as her granddaughters.

The action starts in a Brooklyn grocery store in June, 1944, at the height of the war (WWII) as sisters Francie, Catherine and Marian wait for news of their brother Johnny, lost at sea, and Francie, the oldest, longs for letters from her fiance, Freddy. They vacillate between hope that Johnny has survivied and fear that he has not.

The events of that day echo through the years in the second and third scenes, as the years pass and we learn how that day in 1944 has affected the family's life. Throughout, the dialog is leavened with flashes of humor - while describing the movie "Jaws" one daughter says she would need a "horse Valium" to go swimming in the ocean at night. A granddaughter, challenged to identify Charles Lindbergh, mutters, "He invented the Lindy?"

One symbol throughout the play, as evocative as Laura's unicorn in "The Glass Menagerie," is a piece of glass which dangles from a hurricane lamp, variously described by the characters as a star or a prism. We learn in the first scene that it is missing, but not how or why. Just as we learn Johnny's fate and Freddy's, we do find out the significance of the prism, and as a star or prism should, it scatters a light on all that has gone before.

The single set serves equally well as a grocery store, Long Island dining room, and grandmother's bedroom.

"A Child's Guide to Innocence" is highly recommended as an emotional and intellectual pleasure.


A paranoia paradise at NJ Rep

Published in the Asbury Park Press 05/24/05


Stephanie Dorian and Michael Irvin Pollard in "Ten Percent of Molly Snyder."
By Richard Strand — New Jersey Repertory Company — 179 Broadway, Long Branch — Performances through June 26 — $30 — (732) 229-3166
A conspiracy buff's comic fantasy that's all too disconcertingly rooted in 21st-century reality, "Ten Percent of Molly Snyder" is a sharply written and performed bit of burlesque for the X-Philes among us. It's also a show that should really strike a chord with anyone who's ever experienced a "Twilight Zone" moment at the local motor vehicles office (read: anyone who lives in Jersey).

If you're a nonhabitual theatergoer who's looking for something a little edgier than "Annie" but still accessible in its own way, Richard Strand's two-actor play — now being seen for the first time on the East Coast in a new production by New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch — is a good place to get your dash of bitter social commentary, chased by a frosty mug of flat-out funny business. Under the direction of NJ Rep co-founder SuzAnne Barabas, it's an entirely accessible and (at a tad under 90 minutes) economical excursion into paranoia paradise, the Abbott and Costello routine that famed funnyman Franz Kafka never got around to writing.

The "fun" begins when one Molly Snyder (Stephanie Dorian) arrives at the office of one Mr. Aaron (Michael Irvin Pollard) with a simple request to have her street address corrected on her driver's license. When the blandly annoyed civil servant suggests she accept what has been given to her — insisting that he's only looking out for her best interests — Snyder moves to take control of the situation.

Big mistake. While Molly — a somewhat full-of-herself artist who dresses in what she probably thinks is some sort of thrift-store chic — attempts to assert her rights as an individual, she opens up a wormhole that sends her careening into a pencil-pushing purgatory. Issued a death certificate instead of a corrected license, she very quickly finds her house repossessed, her assets frozen and her butt in convict orange as she awaits execution for Murder One.

Molly's attempts to put her affairs in order — from pleading with the local bank officer to seeking a pardon from the president of the United States — are met each step of the way by Mr. Aaron, or a whole lot of people who happen to look exactly like him. Ostensibly appearing as several different characters of assorted races, genders and sexual preferences (all of which seem to take the form of that same bald-headed bureaucratic Beelzebub with an office painted in what's variously described as beige, ecru, alpaca and champagne), the enigmatic man behind the desk never fails to throw down roadblocks of paperwork and protocol at every turn. It's a process that leads our frustrated heroine from a mild simmer to volcanic eruptions of verbal vitriol and vein-popping violence.

Identity crisis

As an underlying theme, loss of one's identity used to be largely the province of Rod Serling and his sci-fi brethren; these days the dehumanizing effects of modern American life and the very real threat of identity theft put all of us at the threshold of our own personal trip to the Zone. Playwright Strand knows that we know this, and consequently his script avoids beating the audience over the head with an obvious stick in favor of going for the gut-level laugh.

There's even some knock-down, drag-out slapstick (Pollard seems to wind up getting strangled in every show he's in), as well as a positively shocking climax and a weird little denouement that turns the whole shebang on its ear.

The main thing that keeps Strand's play from being little more than a padded-out skit is the power of the players involved, and Barabas (who's also the artistic director of the Shore-based professional troupe) has wisely cast her show from the ranks of Rep regulars. Both cast members have proven their comic credentials many times over on the NJ Rep stage.

Anyone who enjoyed their efforts in such past productions as "Big Boys" and "Lemonade" can pretty much guess that Dorian doesn't skimp on her masterful slow burns and cathartic tirades, even as Pollard delivers his patented portrayal of the suit-and-tie good guy with a heart of daffy darkness.

While it's often helpful to enter into a theatergoing experience without a preconceived set of notions, this correspondent has always looked forward to the shows that feature some of our favorite faces from what has become the finest stock company of actors in the state.

Presented without intermission, "Ten Percent of Molly Snyder" continues through June 26 with performances on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings, as well as (newly introduced) Saturday and Sunday matinees.

There's also a cool and concurrent exhibit of artworks by Red Bank Regional High School students, built around the theme of driver's licenses and the good old DMV.

MOLLY SNYDER 100 Percent Enjoyable at NJ Rep

The Link News

Review by Milt Bernstein

"The Percent of Molly Snyder," a fast-moving two-person play, and the latest offering of the NJ Repertory Company in Long Branch , can easily qualify as one of the funniest and most original comedies seen there.

To anyone who has ever had to visit a Bureau of Motor Vehicles, a tax department, or any similar governmental organization, Molly Snyder's experience in trying to correct a tiny error in her records will evoke a spark of recognition. In this case, the results are quite hilarious, though eventually tragic as the unfortunate young woman, beautifully played by Stephanie Dorian, encounters the "ultimate bureaucrat" in a rapid succession of tableau-like scenes which differ from each other in very subtle but suggestive ways.

Playwright Richard Strand spares no opportunity to satirize the self-serving pomposity and indolent indifference of the bureaucrat, played wonderfully well by Michael Irvin Pollard, in a succession of various guises – each one more ridiculous than the one preceding it.

This little play comes full of surprises, and was enthusiastically received by the full house on the night we saw it. SuzAnne Barabas, who is artistic director of the company, and with husband Gabor founded the company seven years ago, did an outstanding job of staging this comedy, which ought not to be missed by anyone with a free evening or afternoon and a lover of the theatre.

Here's a comic nightmare all New Jerseyans can relate to

Published in the Asbury Park Press 05/20/05


By Richard Strand — New Jersey Repertory Company — 179 Broadway, Long Branch — 8 p.m. today and tomorrow; 2 p.m. Sunday; performances through June 26 — $20-$35 — (732) 229-3166
If you've lived at or near the Shore for the past fistful of years — and have an appetite for culture that at the very least transcends turkey bowling and turtle races — you probably know the New Jersey Repertory Company as the intrepid professional stage troupe that has made it its mission to produce, promote (and often premiere) stage works that are stimulating, innovative and seldom "safe." It's a mission and a mandate the company has fulfilled many times over — but with the words "New Jersey" in its name, one could rightfully expect NJ Rep to address issues that are of particular interest to residents of the Car-den State.

Of course, if you've lived for as little as a month in New Jersey, you've probably got at least one good true-life horror story centered around the old Department of Motor Vehicles and its no-less intimidating successor. Soviet-style waiting lines, "Twilight Zone" losses of identity, "X-Files" bureaucratic conspiracies, Kafka-esque runarounds — jaded Jerseyans have seen all this and more in their time.

And it's about time somebody in the arts community did something about it, even if that somebody is West Coast-based playwright and professor Richard Strand.

In "Ten Percent of Molly Snyder," a two-character play making its East Coast premiere at New Jersey Rep's Lumia Theatre in Long Branch, author Strand presents a comic rhapsody-in-red-tape that commences when a young woman (Stephanie Dorian) sees a DMV agent (Michael Irvin Pollard) with a simple request to rectify an incorrect bit of information on her driver's license.

Suffice to say that it goes on from there, spinning off into a nightmarish scenario that director SuzAnne Barabas characterizes as "capturing the frustration that we all experience in dealing with things like the cable provider, the credit card company, the insurance company . . . only done in a very funny way."

According to the NJ Rep co-founder and artistic director, "Simply trying to get a person on the phone sometimes illustrates how our society is taking away all trace of the individual . . . it's as if everybody is becoming the same person."

The play, which was originally staged by Chicago's legendary Steppenwolf company, features a couple of familiar faces from NJ Rep's fantastic stock company. Both actors were seen to fine advantage in previous Rep productions — Dorian as a fiancee and mistress in the riotous romantic quadrangle "Lemonade," and Pollard as a nebbishy corporate neophyte in the giddily absurd "Big Boys."


Written by John de la Parra,

They laugh, they cry, they scream, they live life right before our eyes and it all comes crashing down with the weight of the metaphysical, with the weight of words. The NJ Repertory Theatre presents the world premiere of Ruth Wolff's compelling Beyond Gravity.

The NJ Repertory has brought the specter of high art to Long Branch and the whole cast and crew are ready to blow your mind with it. Beyond Gravity is a play about life's seemingly neurotic nuances that challenges the viewer to admit that we all have to fool ourselves sometimes in order to deal with life. In the very act of attending the theatre we are invited to willfully suspend our disbelief, and Ruth Wolff's expertly crafted play reminds us that we live constantly inside various states of "the willful suspension of disbelief." Such nuance could not be conveyed on stage without skilled performers. They have indeed honored us with their presence and surpassed any possible expectations. Gail Winar (Jan), Peter Brouwer (Harry) and Ellen Wolf (Frederica) are class acts and you will feel very privileged to have them emote for you. The smallness (there really is no better way to put it) of the Lumia Theatre actually works to the great advantage of this work by putting you practically on stage with the actors, who are themselves cramped together, physically and emotionally. The intimate setting created by Carrie Mossman comes to vivid and surprising life through the top-notch lighting design of the skilled Jill Nayle.

Originally titled "The Aviators", this play is better represented by that flighty title than by the less direct (and likely less copyrighted) "Beyond Gravity". With identity invention and glamorous role playing Wolff has created a tiny world of believable illusion. She leads us on a journey inside the mind of what should be your typical academic couple, college professors Jan and Harry Hawkesworth. We first encounter the raw oozing brains of Jan trying to deal with her reality. In her titular (and maybe bizarre?) aviation fantasy she perhaps seems more hysterical than she actually is. But then quickly unfolds a story about couples and what happens in the mind-meld when two people are closed up together for a long time. A curious visitor, a questionable past, and a secret kept from one half of a couple combine and disrupt the carefully fabricated life of Jan and Harry. Problems thought forgotten, fester like a secret kept from oneself. Brushing away the intense superficial cobwebs of seeming insanity reveals the kernel of truth. Wolff's work demonstrates that if the fiction is instantiated for long enough, a kind of schizophrenia takes over. At the same time it is shown that we all could be like Jan and Harry, creating our own realities to help us cope with our own existence.

They laugh, they cry, they scream, they live life right before our eyes and it all comes crashing down with the weight of the metaphysical, with the weight of words. The high energy of the cast is to be praised. The tension bursts off the stage with a crescendo in the second act and then increases again to an emotionally wrought collapse of a finale. These fine actors push it to places you did not think it could go as they involve you in this mysterious fable about coping. As a study in life and human adaptation, the production succeeds and soars beyond expectations with the subtle character exploration of the cast. This unique and delicate work is a testament to the depth of culture to be unearthed in our community.

John de la Parra is a writer and poet living in Red Bank, NJ.

"Gravity" goes up at NJ Rep
Published in the Asbury Park Press 03/31/05


Peter Brouwer, Gail Winar (center) and Ellen Wolf star in "Beyond Gravity," opening this weekend at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.
By Ruth Wolff —New Jersey Repertory Company —179 Broadway, Long Branch —Previews at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. today and 8 p.m. Friday; openings at 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; continues Thursdays through Sundays through May 8 —$20-$30
—(732) 229-3166
New Jersey Repertory Company founders Gabe and SuzAnne Barabas are preparing for another in an impressively long string of world premieres at their Lumia Theatre in downtown Long Branch.

"Beyond Gravity" (a play that was billed as "Aviators" until the success of the Leonardo DiCaprio/Howard Hughes biopic apparently forced a name change) is a newly unveiled work by the celebrated author Ruth Wolff, whose prodigious portfolio has been staged at such venues as the Old Vic in London and the Kennedy Center in Washington (and who has penned plays and screenplays for the likes of Glenda Jackson, Liv Ullmann, Lilli Palmer and Peter Finch).

In Wolff's script, under the direction of Donald Brenner, Jan and Harry Hawkesworth (Gail Winar and Peter Brouwer) are "two middle-aged college professors living a comfortable life in a comfortable home on the beach" — a recipe for disaster, according to the tenets of American theater. The cracks in the couple's staid facade appear soon enough, as Jan is mistakenly led to believe that she's been awarded a major honor for her work as a poet — followed soon thereafter by the unexpected appearance of an ambitious journalist (Ellen Wolf), whose presence casts doubt upon every aspect of this respectable couple's past.

Secure in their carefully crafted existence just moments before, the Hawkesworths are suddenly forced to reveal their secrets, abandon their elaborate fantasy life and deal with reality — all of which causes their world to literally crash around them.

In addition to director Brenner, all three actors are undertaking their first mainstage project as members of the NJ Rep stock company. Their efforts will be augmented by the talents of a crew of company regulars. They include set designer Carrie Mossman, whose expressionistic, nightmarish environment for the recent "Old Clown Wanted" lent that Iron Curtain absurdity a great deal of its power. NJ Rep also will present another new work by Wolff, "Shakespeare Road," as part of the troupe's Monday-night series of script-in-hand readings on May 2.

"Beyond Gravity" previews with three performances this week and opens with an 8 p.m. show with a reception on Saturday. The play then continues its Long Branch run with performances at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through May 8.

Admission is $30. There is a $10 discount for anyone who brings a toy airplane, to be donated to the Ronald McDonald House in Long Branch. In keeping with the theme of the play, NJ Rep also is hosting an exhibit of aerial-view paintings by Jill Kerwick in the Dwek Theatre Gallery. Admission to the exhibit is free.

An Interview with Ruth Wolff

The play was originally called The Aviators. I'm guessing you changed it because of the film.
How did you guess that? Beyond Gravity is a better title actually. Everybody kept asking, "who's the aviator?" So this is more philosophical or something like that... more interesting.

The play is really being marketed in a very vague way...
I know. It's because it's a complex play. I can't come up with one sentence but I'll try. It's about an academic couple, it takes place in a college that's nameless, in a house by the sea. They've been married for over 20 years and are facing a personal and professional crisis when a mysterious young woman enters their lives.

The meaning of Beyond Gravity is that gravity is the force that holds you down and going beyond gravity is somehow being able to life up above that. Some things that happened in their past now explode and the way the woman deals with it is through her imagination and the way the husband deals with it is kind of through sarcasm and wit.

It's a play about marriage and that's a subject that I've come back to again and again in a lot of my plays. Marriage is a basic thing and I'm just very interested in that relationship; why some stay together and some break apart. Some marriages that have a lot of challenges manage to stay together. Like the Clintons and the Roosevelts for example. You can name an awful lot of those and there's a lot of drama in that.

Is it more of a drama or a drama with comedic elements?
It's kind of a mixture. I'll be happy to have any laugh I can get! I love to have laughter in the midst of a lot of angst.

How does the play run?
It's four scenes played without intermission.

This is the world premiere, right?
Yes, this is the world premiere. It's also going to be done at the Barter Theatre in September to November. The Barter did my play, "The Second Mrs. Wilson" which is about Woodrow Wilson and his second wife. That play opened the week of September 11th. It was very strange because a lot of the themes in that were very apt.

What does the set look like?
It's an interior. The play takes place in one room and there are elements which keep it less than totally real. I like to do things where people are using their imagination. I've never loved realism. And so I like when the sets have a kind of abstractism to them.

In addition to plays, you have also written a few screenplays. How do you find the difference between writing for film and for the stage?
I happen to love both. I love words, but I also love images.

Your plays have been produced all over the place, yet you hold the traditional playwright's home in New York City. What are your thoughts on regional theatre?
I think it's wonderful. I say this before everyone comes here, of course! I feel protected. I feel nurtured certainly and the Barabas' are wonderful. They just tenderly let every one of their plays grow. They will also be doing a reading of my newest play, "Shakespeare Road" on May 2nd.

What would you like an audience member to leave with?
I hope they are able to both feel and to think. I hope they'll be moved. I am! I'm always like, 'where's my Kleenez!' because the actors are terrific and they get me every time. I know this play. I really know the play, but they're marvelous and they make things very moving and they make me laugh. I would like an audience to feel that way too.
-- Gary Wien, Upstage Magazine

Who's Afraid of Ruth Wolff? (Not NJ Rep)
Published in the Asbury Park Press 04/6/05

Ruth Wolff's "Beyond Gravity" is being staged by the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.
"Everything you see before you is illusion," imparts poet and educator Jan Hawkesworth (Gail Winar) to her history prof hubby Harry (Peter Brouwer) at one point during "Beyond Gravity," the three-character drama by Ruth Wolff now in its world premiere engagement at New Jersey Repertory Company's Lumia Theatre in Long Branch.

Harry, for his part, peppers his conversation with reverie on "the lies we perpetrate to burnish our image with our unperpetrated sins." Even a supposedly neutral third party character (played by Ellen Wolf with one "o") gets into the act, helpfully goading the middle-aged academics to "play along . . . pretend!"

The esteemed playwright Wolff drops enough clues into her new script (a single-act work that originally showed up on NJ Rep's schedule under the title "Aviators") to drive home the fact that we are not looking in on a simulacrum of "real life" here. The little beach-house world that these characters inhabit is a fragile box propped up by lies and delusions, caulked and insulated with hallucinatory episodes and confessional monologues.

At face value, it's a setting straight out of the playwright's standard playbook — the long-married professional couple, the skeletons in the closet, the uninvited guest who serves to shake up their razor-thin margin of comfort.

Wolff's "Beyond Gravity" seeks to soar free of the forces that serve to pin most American dramas to the floorboards of "realism," with enough materialized metaphors, stream-of-consciousness soliloquies and puzzling plot points to keep the audience off-balance for the duration of its relatively brief time on stage.

With the NJ Rep tech team doing its best to conjure the unseen world beyond the fruit-crate walls of the (college-owned) house, the play kicks off with an auditory illusion. It then moves immediately into a bizarre sequence wherein wife Jan is mistakenly anointed the winner of a Pulitzer Prize — an odd bit of business that is just as quickly reversed and never discussed again.

Enter Frederica

It's the appearance of an intrepid freelance journalist named Frederica — who slips Lois Lane-like into the house and hides behind a screen as the old-timers make whoopee — that throws the weird plot mechanism into drive. More a literary device than a fully-fleshed character, Frederica serves to penetrate the veneer of domestic bliss (and the hallucinatory haze of role-playing) that surround the spouses; drawing out not just the secrets but the secrets within the secrets — and revealing that she herself has a prominent personal stake in the couple's past, present and future.

Oh, and then there's that obsession with Charles Lindbergh. It would appear that the quasi-sane Jan lapses at times into a belief that she is Anne Morrow Lindbergh — celebrating her famous husband's solo success with a re-enactment of his famous flight, mourning the loss of her kidnapped son and chastising her spouse for his apparent support of the Nazi regime. Lucky Lindy is just one of the forces pushing and tugging on the beleaguered little people inside the box. There's the true nature of the reporter, as well as the offstage visitor who arrives with her at play's end in a beam of bright light.

There's also the alarmingly sudden appearance of a wrecking crew outside that comes to forcibly evict the couple from the property when they're unceremoniously canned from the faculty in a twist that relates to one of those aforementioned nesting secrets. The sequences having to do with the beach house under siege (and the literalized demolition of their safe haven) are impressively staged by tech director Randy Lee Hartwig, lighting designer Jill Nagle and sound sultan Merek Royce Press.

Winar stars

The cast works hard under director Donald Brenner, but none more so than Winar in her debut main stage production as a member of the NJ Rep stock company. Winar generates genuine momentum and lends flashes of levity to "Gravity," breaking down resistance with her mastery over some purplish prose and oft-times ridiculous business.

Published in the Asbury Park Press 04/3/05


Paintings by Jill Kerwick are on view at the New Jersey Repertory's Dwek Theater in Long Branch.
Featuring paintings and prints by Jill Kerwick — Through May 8; public reception at 4 p.m. today — The Dwek Theater at New Jersey Repertory Company — 179 Broadway, Long Branch — (732) 229-3166

of a theater production and finding that themes from the play are portrayed in original artworks displayed on the lobby wall.

Although not created by the playwright, they carry the play's themes from inside the darkened theater into the light of day.

Instead of hushed silence, chit-chatting is encouraged, as the audience processes its responses to both the play and the artworks in a casual, public setting.

"The Art and The Artist" series is New Jersey Repertory Company's way of honoring visual artists of all kinds. In addition to embracing theater and the people that make it happen, a new effort began with the last production to turn the more intimate Dwek Theater, adjacent to the larger Lumia Theatre on Broadway in Long Branch, into a permanent art gallery.

Artists are chosen to complement and reflect a specific production, and their work is on display throughout the run of that individual play. This is the theater's second collaboration with an artist and features Fair Haven resident Jill Kerwick, an established painter and printmaker.

The current play at NJ Rep, "Beyond Gravity" by Ruth Wolff, focuses on the complex life and fallen dreams of a suburban couple. Therefore, the theater has chosen to exhibit several of Kerwick's paintings reflecting suburban life from an aerial view.

"I often feel like I have landed in suburbia, as if it were an alien, fictitious, humorous, lonely and comforting place," she said.

Kerwick, originally from Hawthorne in Passaic County, has taken views from the 17th floor of Monmouth Beach's Channel Club to telescope the ordinary observance of local neighborhoods. In keeping with the theme of a new perspective, Kerwick recently has developed a far more distant view.

Since 2002, Kerwick has taken extended trips to Costa Rica and has exchanged images of Jersey's track housing for one of Costa Rican lusciousness- rich, full, green fruit trees, fabulously colored birds, and nature in a raw, voluptuous state.

"It's a totally different perspective on life," Kerwick said. "Here (in New Jersey) everybody watches the news — there you watch the sunrise and the sunset."


Theatre Brut Festival explores art unfettered by convention
Second festival features 19 short plays this weekend at NJ Rep

Brian O'Halloran (above, foreground) and Betty Hudson (r) performed in plays that were presented during NJ Rep's first Theatre Brut Festival last year.
Gabor Barabas, executive producer of the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, isn't content just to produce new plays. His upcoming second annual Theatre Brut Festival encourages playwrights to speak a new theatrical language and provides adventurous theatergoers with the opportunity to see 19 short plays written by 16 different playwrights, directed by 19 directors and performed by 45 actors in just one weekend.

A different series of plays will be presented each day of the three-day festival, which will take place at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and at 2 p.m. Sunday in the Dwek Studio Theatre at NJ Rep, 179 Broadway, Long Branch.

"It's a goal and a dream of the theater," he said. "We are so involved in developing new works that try to explore and stretch the boundaries of theater as an art form."

Barabas' motivation for creating the festival grew out of his vision of theater as a vital social force.

His inspiration for its framework came from the early 20th-century "outsider" art movement first described in 1923 by the German psychiatrist Hans Prinzhorn, who saw artistic merit in paintings and drawings by untrained inmates in insane asylums. Later Jean Dubuffet and the surrealists broadened the idea of "outsider art" to include intuitive and original works produced by anyone who worked free of normal cultural influences. It was later renamed art brut (raw art).

According to the NJ Rep Web site, Theatre Brut celebrates "the creative impulse unfettered by social and artistic convention."

Last year, the first Theatre Brut Festival titled "My Rifle, My Pony and Me" explored the myth of the American cowboy. Despite taking place during a major snowstorm, the event sold out all three days.

One of last year's plays went on to be selected as a finalist at the Humana Festival in Louisville, one of the largest festivals of new plays in the country. Another was expanded into a full-length work that was given a reading at NJ Rep.

More than 250 submissions were received for this year's festival, which is organized around the idea of "sacrifice."

"We want to get new playwrights involved and get them to do something they wouldn't automatically think about by encouraging them to focus on a specific topic and use that topic as a catalyst to get them to think outside the box and explore," said NJ Rep's artistic director SuzAnne Barabas.

"Everything is up to the individual director almost as if it is self-produced. It's all about trusting the raw theater aspect of it," she said.

"We want to get away from traditional ideas, do something quickly, creatively, get the ideas out there without resorting to old tricks," she added.

The festival also showcases NJ Rep's large company.

"Part of it is to give a lot of our company members, designers, actors and directors an opportunity to show their talent," she explained.

SuzAnne Barabas thinks the fast-paced experience is something the audience will enjoy.

"When you hear the word sacrifice you have a certain image, but then you see all the different interpretations. It's amazing. Sometimes we would read a play and say, 'We really like this, but what does it have to do with sacrifice?' Then we'd find it. I think it's something the audience will enjoy trying to figure out as well.

"There's comedy, drama, theater of the absurd, and everything in between. We are calling it a smorgasbord of raw theater," she continued. "You go quickly from one thing to another and you see how creative and inventive people can be on a single theme and all the different ideas that come up. It's an experience, especially if you see all of the plays."

Company member Ian August, a graduate of Rutgers with a degree in English, has two plays in this year's festival. Although he has written longer pieces, August enjoys writing within the limitations of a 10-minute time frame.

"Ten minutes is exciting, refreshing. I find that the 10-minute piece is just long enough to express an idea creatively and still keep it contained," he said. His play "Le Supermarche or What I Did for Lunch" was the first one selected for this year's festival.

"It's a fairy tale in food speak, a lovely little revenge story with constant food references," he said. "I had never had anything produced professionally before. I was so pumped I went home and wrote 'Abraham on the Mount' and submitted it two weeks later."

That play, which takes place the week before the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac, also made the cut. The work features Abraham and a "Bugs Bunnyesque" goat. August describes the piece as a cross between "a vaudeville sketch and a Warner Brothers cartoon."

The author will play the goat. The part of Abraham is played by Mike Foley, one of NJ Rep's playwrights in residence, who had two pieces in last year's festival.

Foley, a Middletown native, studied acting at Rutgers and at the HB studio in New York and performed professionally as an actor for eight to 10 years before starting to write plays.

He has participated in many short play festivals but thinks that Theatre Brut is special.

"Other festivals have a theme, but Gabe and SuZanne always do something that means something to them," he said. "NJ Rep is a very unusual organization, very inventive. They have such a broad group of actors and writers and people love them [the Barabases], so they do their best work for them. Everybody brings a lot of themselves to it."

As an experienced playwright, Foley understands the pros and cons of a festival that presents "raw work."

"It's a double-edged thing. In some ways it's nice to write a short play quickly and see it go up fast. You get gratification quickly. That's good. The other side is, it's hard to write a good 10-minute play. You have to be so succinct, establish your conflicts and characters quickly, get to the resolution and get off," he said.

He thinks the variety of pieces is important to the audience's enjoyment.

"It's like the weather," he said. "If you don't like something, wait 10 minutes — another one will come along that you might love."

While Foley appreciates the festival's role in helping playwrights hone their skills, company member Brian O'Halloran, who starred in Kevin Smith's "Clerks," is enthusiastic about the opportunity to attract new theater audiences.

"As an actor, live theater is my favorite medium, and something I've always gravitated to," he said. "Taking live theater and doing it in a way that is different and leads to a great audience experience, I'm all for it."

Brian appears in two of the festival's more dramatic works, "Trouble on the Path" with Bob Senkewicz and "Sara" with Donna Morrazzo.

"If you can only see one theater experience this season, this is what you should see," he said. "It's like seeing an entire season of a theater company wrapped up in one weekend."


Asbury Park Press 2/18/05
Tom Chesek

The smell of Brut

This correspondent called it the Shore area's "theatrical event of the year" for 2004 — a three-evening festival of short dramas, comedies, sketches, monologues and all-around madness that pooled the talents of a staggering number of actors, directors and playwrights from around the region, built around the theme of the American cowboy and presented to full houses (on some very icy midweek nights) under the umbrella title "My Rifle, My Pony and Me." The event, produced by New Jersey Repertory Company as an experiment in what founder Gabor Barabas has branded Theater Brut or "outsider theater" (check the Website at for a mission statement/manifesto on the concept) would have remained encapsulated as a happy memory were it not for that unmistakable whiff of Brut in the air today.

Yep, Theater Brut returns to NJ Rep's Lumia Theatre in Long Branch on the nights of March 4, 5 and 6 — that's a weekend engagement this time out; and if you've ever wanted to dip a tentative toe into the more adventurous waters of the area stage scene, this smorgasbord looks to be the perfect point of entry.

Built around the concept of "Sacrifice" — a theme that resonates within settings from biblical days to the baseball diamond — the tri-night series will feature some 19 new works from such scribes as Dickey Nesenger (whose liltingly surreal "Harvest Moon" was a particular highlight of last year's fest), Joel Gross and Vladimir Zelevinsky; with writing contributions also coming from Ian August and Barney Fitzpatrick, a pair of familiar onstage faces at the Lumia. Cast members have yet to be announced, but with so many talents on display, the seats are sure to fill up fast with friends and family — reserve your place at the table now by calling (732) 229-3166.


This review by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the January 26, 2005 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

NJ Rep: 'Touch of Rapture'

At the opening of "Touch of Rapture," a new play by Mary Fengar Gale, Clovis Myrtle Minton, a reclusive sculptress, is dying. She asks her husband Quince Dillingham, a patron of the arts and the proprietor of the prominent Shallots Gallery in the West End of London, "Will you take my hands?" At first, Quince assumes that Clovis is merely requesting that he hold and caress her hands in her final moments. But then, just as his wife dies, something miraculous happens. To Quincy's amazement, he is suddenly filled with the urge to not only begin sculpting, but to continue working on a series of figurative statues of mythological goddesses begun by his wife, whose work has never been shown. For reasons that the play later explores, Quince has kept Clovis' work under wraps.

Working under a pseudonym, Quincy is soon displaying and promoting the sale of the goddesses in his gallery. Running a business and sculpting round the clock like a man possessed, Quincy is near exhaustion. The new sculptures, however, are recognized as the work of Clovis by her elder brother and barrister Garlin Mandrake Minton. He accuses Quince of hiding from him his sister's most recent work, all of which was supposedly left to him in her will. It is not surprising that Quince's explanation does not satisfy Garlin, who feels that Quince is trying to deny his sister her glory and cheat him out of an inheritance. Garlin is dumbfounded when Quince demonstrates that he has, in fact, somewhat miraculously gained the ability to draw in the exact style of Clovis.

Quincy, who believes that a dealer who exhibits the work of his wife would be perceived as nepotistic, convinces Garlin that they should form a partnership to exploit the sculptures, which are sure to be very valuable. Things get even more strange and unsettling when Clovis' talent is transferred to Garlin, and then transferred to Rosemary, Clovis' frumpish cousin.

Under the facile direction of Stewart M. Schulman, "Touch of Rapture" which seems at first like a barrage of silly chatter and absurd situations evolves into a rather sweet and gentle allegory about gender and the rules of the game.

Just know that when Garlin and Quincy decide to bring Rosemary into their scheme to pose as the artist at public appearances, the play begins to assert itself with whimsical twists and turns. The play takes an audacious approach to its theme - the circuitous route to recognition and empowerment that women strive for in a world where men either provide the way or put up the roadblocks.

John Fitzgibbon, as the smug motor-mouthed Quince, rattles off his dialogue faster than the patter of Gilbert and Sullivan's modern major general. Davis Hall is increasingly amusing as Garlin, a closeted prig. Probably the most interesting turnabout is offered by Marnie Andrews, as the earthy Rosemary. Her transformation from an unappreciated and unmotivated woman to a graceful artist allows for a change in the balance of power, providing the play with its most affecting resonance.

Designer Carrie Mossman's stylized setting (cleanly lighted by Jeff Greenberg) brings us from a bedroom and parlor at the estate of Fennfield in Hampstead Heath to Shallots Gallery with rotating white panels, some sculptured figures, and a few chairs and tables. Despite frequent lapses into verbosity, "Touch of Rapture," ultimately wins us over through the sheer playfulness of its fantastical plot.


Touch of Rapture

Artistic talent is tricky. Is it innate or the province of critics? And if you possess it, is it a blessing or a curse? Touch of Rapture delves into the meaning of art — with a catch. The breezy drama, now playing at the New Jersey Rep Company, a little jewel box of a theater in Long Branch, addresses both the nature of art and the reality of women artists. The playwright, Mary Fengar Gail, understands that men dominate the art world. Women's achievements, long relegated to second-class status, demand attention.  But as this zippy production makes  abundantly clear, misogyny prevents it. Until providence intervenes. 

In Rapture, a dying sculptor whispers a simple phrase to her husband: "Will you take my hands?" He does and in one transcendent moment, her remarkable talent becomes his — setting off a stunning chain of events. Suddenly, Quince (John FitzGibbon), a successful gallery owner, has an awakening: His long-neglected wife, who crafted large, exquisite goddess sculptures, was supremely talented. How does he know? Because he can duplicate her artistry. Once he has the power to create, the work is bestowed with meaning, beauty, and most importantly, it will sell.  In a nod to Pgymalion, Gail gives the sculptures, a living quality, a touchable quality, that proves seductive and irresistible. Art, she explains, is a living, breathing entity. Women birth; men take.

Thus, while Clovis, Quince's deceased wife, gets short shrift in life, she's a marketable commodity in death. Trouble is, the public likes to celebrate live artists. So Quince and Clovis' staid barrister brother, Garlin (Davis Hall), concoct a clever scheme: In fairness, Garlin, a sincere booster of his sister's work, is appalled by Quince's chicanery. Unlike Quince, he realizes women artists haven't received their due. The siren call of commerce, however, proves too hard to resist.

Enter Rosemary (Marnie Andrews), Clovis' kooky, albeit literate cousin, who smokes cigars and worships literature. She's wacky and wonderful and recognized Clovis' genius long ago. Unfettered by sexism, she sees art, not gender. But can the two men pass her off as the real thing?  More pointedly, which of the three has the right to inherit Clovis' gift?

Artistic possession and the nature of creation are just two of the heady themes Rapture confronts. Yet the play isn't didactic, thanks to the deft, fluid direction of Stewart Schulman, who wisely keeps the action moving, and Gail's clever storytelling. Schulman uses the small stage to good effect; his talented ensemble inhabit their roles so completely, audiences fall in love with the notion of artistic creation. Strip away the gallery politics, the greed, the critics and the hype, and what's left is magical. Gail reminds us that art is a calling. And we are all humbled before it.  —Fern Siegel

The LINK News January 20, 2005
Theater Review
By Milt Bernstein
Long Branch - Saturday night saw the world premiere production of New Jersey Rep's newest dramatic offering, a play called "Touch of Rapture," written by a promising young playwright, Mary Fengar Gail.
The three-character play, done with one partly movable set, is an interesting combination of drama and fantasy, with some comic touches, about a gifted sculptress, Clovis, whose plaster creations of nymphs and goddesses adorn the paneled walls of her home - but whose art gallery owner husband has never seen fit to exhibit her work. (Perhaps he didn't think they were good enough.)
In any event, the play begins with Clovis on her deathbed, mysteriously managing to pass her sculpting gift, through a holding of hands, to a disbelieving spouse. Quince (his name) is both transformed and seduced by this cloning of artistic gifts; but convinces the reluctant Garlin, a friend and supporter of his late wife, that someone still living (like Garlin) should take credit for the works to be shown.
Before the action has stopped, the mysterious gift has passed from Quince to Garlin and eventually to the female in the cast, Rosemary, the cousin of Clovis, (for whom the gift may have originally been intended.)
The play, ably directed by Stewart Schulman, features fine performances by John FitzGibbon as husband Quince, Davis Hall as friend Garlin; and Marnie Andrews, as cousin Rosemary, who undergoes a transformation from a dowdy and frowsy persona in Act I to a radiance in Act II that put me in mind of Eliza Doolittle in "My Fair Lady."
The opening night performance was followed by a gala reception for the audience and company, generously provided by the Ocean Place Resort and Spa.
A fascinating addition to the evening was also provided in the Dwek theater space where the reception was held, with a display of sculptured bronzes by the Israeli-American artisti Benjamin Levy. The sculptures, all for sale, will be on view through Feb 20, and are well worth seeing.
"Touch of Rapture" is also very much worth seeing.


Review: Touch Of Rapture

(LONG BRANCH) -- It takes imagination to lie. So says one of the characters in Touch Of Rapture, the latest production from New Jersey Repertory Company. In this wonderfully creative comic-drama imagination and lies truly run wild.

The play starts with a London artist (Clovis) dying in her bed asking her husband (John Fitzgibbon as Quince) to "take her hands". Little does he know that she was about to pass on her gifts as a sculptor to him. Quince was the owner of an important art gallery, but had no artistic talent before suddenly having his "hands" guide him through the process. Essentially, he became able to make sculptures that were virtually identical to those by his late wife.

Unfortunately, his brother-in-law (Davis Hall as Garlin) learned of the sculptures and thought Quince was trying to rip him off by hiding sculptures that were given to him from her will. Garlin is first seen bringing Quince a notice that he is being sued. Quince does his best to convince him that he created the sculptures but Garlin doesn't buy it. Finally Quince gets him to pose very quickly while Garlin sketches his portrait. Knowing that Garlin had no artistic talent before he is intrigued by the wonderful sketch drawn.

Eventually, Garlin is convinced that Quince is the sculptor but still refuses to believe that his sister passed on her hands and her gift to him. The two agree to go into business together selling her sculptures and those he had created as well. Since she was a virtual unknown artist who specialized in sculpting goddesses, and since none of her sculptures had sold while she was alive, it was up to Quince to use his gallery to drum up attention for her work. The only question left was what would they do when people eventually wanted to see the artist?

They decided they needed someone to play the role of the sculptor and they agreed that it had to be a woman. Garlin suggested Clovis' cousin Rosemary, an un-employed "hag" of a woman; unkempt and the farthest thing from what one would expect an artist to look like. As she herself remarks, "who would ever believe such beautiful sculptures were created by me?"

It's after the introduction of Rosemary that the zaniness and comedy really kick in. All three actors are simply wonderful in their roles and the chemistry is perfect. As the play moves on, the laughs seem to come more and more often and the jokes get stronger and stronger.

The play is actually a brilliant display of character development. As the audience learns more about each character, they become more and more comfortable to peer into the fantastical world created by playwright Mary Fengar Gail. It's a world in which anything can happen including passing the gift of artistry from person to person and a woman can literally go from being an overweight woman who smells like cabbage to one of the world's most important artists.

Touch of Rapture reminds me somewhat of the off-Broadway classic Prelude To A Kiss by Craig Lucas; however, Mary Fengar Gail seems to have created a better (and far more believable) plot line than Lucas. Although this world is clearly fantastical, it's highly believable as well, especially when considering that no one truly knows how great artists receive their abilities.

Touch of Rapture runs until February 20th at the Lumia Theatre in Long Branch (179 Broadway). In addition, the theatre's lobby is currently showing an exhibit featuring bronze statues by Israeli-American sculptor Benjamin Levy. These are not your ordinary sculptures I can assure you. Some will make you laugh and even blush! -- Gary Wien


Interview with Playwright Mary Fengar Gail

Q) What do you think Touch of Rapture is about?
I think it's about love and loss. It's the idea of possessing a gift and passing it on. I've actually have always been fascinated by genetics and the idea that people will be customizing their babies and someday they may find the genetic marker for gifts such as being a musician or a painter or mathematician; someone's destiny will be completely figured out for them before they're even born. So I thought, what if a gift could be passed through shear will? And that's the impetus of the play. Also there's a red cloth that goes from scene to scene and it's about how we perceive an object. They've discovered that the person perceiving the object actually affects the object at a subatomic level. All of these ideas coalesced in my mind - my demented mind - and became this play.

Q) Was there a particular reason that you have the play set in London?
Well, one of the characteristics of the English people is eccentricity, so I thought it would be more fun to have it take place there. There's also a big sculpture movement in England; a very active art world. And I'm allowed a lot more liberties with regards to language. I can use words like bullocks. It's a wonderful language that I couldn't use if it took place in New York.

The other thing I like is a heightened passion that takes me to unfamiliar worlds. If the characters have English accents and a kind of slanted speech it asks the audience to listen in a different way. And maybe they'll enter the whole fantastical world... Or maybe they'll resist but it's more fun for me.

Q) The laughs in Touch Of Rapture seem to grow larger as the play moves on.
I think people need to get comfortable with the play and each other and give themselves permission to laugh. It is a comic drama.

Q) The play is very much based in fantasy but plot driven as well.
Aristotle said the essence of drama is story and I think he means plot. I have to admit I do love plot. Look at the shows on tv that are successful - shows like Law & Order - and they're plot driven. So, because I love story I do put the story element in my plays. And sometimes it takes me a long time to figure out what the story exactly is but the characters are clear and they help write the story.

I'm just grateful when anybody agrees to my run with my perversions. I don't think I write in the normal, more conventional-linear-sequential-domestic-realism style. I prefer a more fantastical theatre and not everyone's willing to enter my demented world. -- Gary Wien

A Look Inside The Set With Carrie Mossman

Every now and then when people leave the theatre the design of the stage is on their mind. That was the case after the opening night of New Jersey Rep's production of Touch of Rapture. As the groups gathered to talk about the play, the production's sparse yet effective set design came up often in conversation. Set design is something that often gets overlooked, but set design is a very important part of each production. Upstage decided to talk with Carrie Mossman, the designer for this production to get her feelings on the set, and the role of set designers in general. Her answers were a bit surprising...

Q) Tell me a little about your work with Touch of Rapture. You not only designed the set but helped create the sculptures on stage as well.
It was very interesting. The thing about the script is that they talk about the sculptures being so magnificent and so overwhelming that there was a concern at first whether or not we would be able to create something that would still make you feel that. Honestly the set that you see is quite different from my original idea. The director and I originally talked about an idea of having the walls actually being a stretchable fabric with the sculptures being living people pushing through the back of the fabric because they talk about the sculptures being alive. But, as it turned out it was going to be much more difficult to do in a small space. So the sculptures sort of come out of the wall. It's not a sculpture that you can walk around. It's not a 3-D sculpture and yet, at the same time, it is 3-D because it's coming out and you can physically touch it and it's not flat.

Q) What is the goal of a set designer?
The truth is that designing a set is really a glorified way of designing entrances and exits. My job is to help the flow of the action of the play; to move the actors on and off stage in the best and easiest and most interesting way possible. But if it doesn't serve the play and if what I do upstages what they do then I haven't done my job. It's not about my set. It's about the play and what's going on between the actors. The best thing I can do is serve that in a way that helps it and moves it along. I don't think you go into set design to be a star; you go into it because it's a collaborative process. There are many Broadway set designers who want to shine, but I don't agree with that. -- Gary Wien

NJ Rep to host art exhibit

LONG BRANCH — The art of internationally renowned sculptor Benjamin Levy will be on view at the New Jersey Repertory Co. Jan. 13 though Feb. 20. A special reception for the artist will be held on Sunday, Jan. 16 from 5:30-8:30 pm.

The exhibit will coincide with the world premiere of "Touch of Rapture" by Mary Fengar Gail, a play that celebrates the love of art. The exhibit will feature Levy's bronze sculptures.

Reservations for the reception are recommended. Gallery hours are Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays 5:30-7:30 pm, Sundays 11:30-1:30 p.m., and by appointment.

Levy, an Israeli/American artist originally from Tel-Aviv, Israel, has had over 100 one-man exhibitions in museums and galleries around the world, as well as 500 group exhibits.

For more information about the artist visit

Dan Lauria Wants to Bring Theatre Back To It's Wonder Years
from Upstage Magazine
The theatre needs more people like Dan Lauria. He's best known for his role as the father on TV's "The Wonder Years", but, in addition to his work in television and movies, he's a true champion of the theatre. More importantly, he's a true champion of new theatre.

Dan will be making his return to the George Street Playhouse stage this January for Lee Blessing's new production, The Winning Streak. In the play, he portrays a retired major league umpire who lives near a ballpark. His world is shaken up a bit with the introduction of his son, the byproduct of a one-night stand that happened roughly 30 years ago.

The play takes you inside a father-son relationship that's never existed and may never get off the ground. As with most plays by Lee Blessing, there are comedic moments, bitter-sweet moments, and harsh doses of honesty making for a highly enjoyable story.Dan Lauria's return to George Street was largely due to Lee Blessing. For 10 years, he ran a writing program in Los Angeles where they read a new play every Monday night. The idea was to help writers get literary agents. One of the writers they read each year was Blessing.

"It's always the writing that attracts me," explained Dan Lauria. "I was supposed to go back to L.A. for pilot season right after the first of January and Lee called and said, 'hey, I've got a new one' so I said let's go. It's a crime that we have so many good new writers that can't get produced."

Lauria knows a thing or two about getting new work produced. As an actor that has performed in theatres from coast to coast, Lauria is adamant about only acting in new productions.

"I don't do plays by dead white guys," said Lauria. "I've only done one revival in 17 years. Jack Klugman made me do The Price. He only got me to do it because he said Arthur Miller's not dead yet! But that's the only revival I've done."

When Lauria talks about theatre, you hear a passion in his voice that yearns to see theatre reclaim its place in the entertainment world. He mentions places like Seattle and Chicago, but admits that there isn't any one true spot for new works anymore. And he's seen the changes happen firsthand.

"Even 15 years ago, 50 regional theatres would all do a new play that was not done anywhere else," he explained. "Now five or six theatres will do a new play. One will make a little noise and the other 45 theatres will do that play and say it's a new play. This year it's Richard Dresser's Rounding Third; a couple of years ago it was Marc St. Germain's Camping With Henry and Tom. The Laramie Project must have been done in 50 regional theatres and every one said it was a new play. But it wasn't new, it was new the first time it did it.

So, we don't have regional theatres now trying to discover the new writer and get to New York. We have somebody in New York who will put up a play and make a little noise and then that play is done as the new play for the regional theatre. And you wonder why the audience is getting older and older when you don't bring kids in. Well, we don't do plays by younger people."

Lauria believes that there are two main reasons why the theatre has failed to attract younger audiences. One is that the young group of actors coming up now don't feel the need for theatre. The other is that theatre itself has simply gotten too expensive.

"When I started, we got a few dollars together, went into a basement, built a set, put on a new play and hoped that agents would come and see us," recalled Lauria. "We knew that no agents were going to come see another revival or something, so we were always looking for something new that would make a little noise. If you talk to people like Gary Sinise at Steppenwolf it was always young people looking for young writers and that's what started a group off. But nowadays, it's too expensive to do a showcase. For the same amount of money you can go to a Radio Shack, buy a digital camera and shoot a 20-minute movie that the actors have to show agents forever. So, we have a core of young actors who don't have a theatre background and feel no obligation to the theatre; therefore, they don't go back. See, I blame my fellow actors for the demise. Moreso than critics. Because if these young stars would go back to the theatre with new plays, it would build a whole new audience. I did a play with Fred Savage (The Wonder Years) about 7 years ago. It was his first professional play and we played Westport, Cape Cod and Algonquin, Maine and we sold out every night."

Lauria wishes that there was one major regional theatre close enough to New York City that it would attract the stars on a regular basis. The theatre would be committed to developing new works. Critics would be encouraged to come to only the last night so the plays would not be about success or failure but development. He feels that stars would feel safer going there if the critical pressure was removed.

In the Upstage coverage area, Lauria is encouraged by the work of George Street Playhouse (although he keeps pressing David Saint to add more premieres each season) and the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. Lauria has known Gabor Barabas, NJ Rep's Executive Producer, for quite a while.

"I wish Gabe was the Artistic Director of a major theatre," said Lauria. "See, he only does new plays. And he went from two-week runs to three-week runs and now they're up to four-week runs. He's built an audience. You cannot pick a style because every style is done there. They do abstract plays, realistic plays - but they do new plays. And his audiences are young and old.

"I think it's a terrible thing to assume that the old people only want to see old plays," he continued. "One old fan told me, 'I was there when Willy Loman first walked on the stage. I was there when Blanche first walked on the stage. What makes you think I don't want to see a new Willy Loman or a new Blanche?' I think it's so insulting to assume that they're only going to see Kiss Me Kate."

You can see Dan Lauria in action during this month's run of The Winning Streak at the George Street Playhouse. After the run is over, Lauria will probably be seen in some television shows or maybe a film or two. His passion is the theatre, but the other mediums help financially to keep his passion alive. His work on The Wonder Years will always follow him wherever he goes, but he says that he regards it as a blessing.

"They wouldn't be considering me for these regional theatres if I didn't have some kind of name. John Ritter always said the same thing and he was right. He said start worrying when they stop bothering you about The Wonder Years. That's when you're in trouble..." -- Gary Wien

Review: A charming 'Touch of Rapture' in Long Branch
Published in the Asbury Park Press 1/19/05


'Take my hands," the dying artist pleads from her deathbed, meshing her fingers with those of her husband as the last bit of strength ebbs from her earthly vessel. And in those moments a miracle transpires, as the woman's gift of creation passes from her hands to those of her spouse -- endowing the worldly-minded man with a newly-minted passion to create, and a newfound appreciation for the spirituality of art.

New Jersey Repertory Company Lumia Theatre
179 Broadway, Long Branch
Through Feb. 20
(732) 229-3166

It all comes off sounding more than a little bit precious, but if we learn anything from "Touch of Rapture" -- the play now in its world-premiere engagement at New Jersey Repertory Company's Lumia Theatre in Long Branch -- it's that an idea really only comes together when it's in the right set of hands. Fortunately, the key-stroking digits of playwright Mary Fengar Gail seem to be the right hands for the task; putting a playful stamp on a potentially ponderous premise (and avoiding the scenario of artists who are so intoxicated with the act of creating art that they fall out of synch with their stone-cold-sober audience).

Played out on one of Carrie Mossman's characteristically inventive shadowbox set designs for this economically-scaled stage, "Touch" opens with just-widowed gallery owner Quince (John FitzGibbon) working feverishly to continue a series of plaster goddess figures initiated by his late wife Clovis -- a body of work that has the artist's barrister brother Garlin (Davis Hall) accusing the art dealer of secretly warehousing pieces that should rightfully have been willed to him. Quince manages to convince his erstwhile in-law that a miraculous and supernatural process has indeed taken place, and -- still very much the businessman in mind and soul -- hatches a scheme to keep supplying the art-buying public with fresh product in the Clovis style; transforming the uptight attorney into a one-man production line by (rather forcibly) transferring the sculptor's gift to him.

What the two partners require is a public face to play the part of the sculptress at all of the anticipated art-world events, and they find it (more or less) in the person of Clovis's unemployed cousin Rosemary (Marnie Andrews), a self-described "frumpy old bubbler" who smells like sauerkraut and has split ends on her split ends. While something of a familial resemblance exists (Andrews also has a cameo as Clovis at the outset of the show), the attempt to place the well-read but socially-challenged Rosemary as the purported star of a one-woman show is not exactly a resounding success at first (witness her pigging out at the gallery buffet and the attendant consequences).

aving introduced these farcical elements, however, the playwright shifts direction as Rosemary grows ever more comfortable in the spotlight, and makes an unexpected request: that she herself become the logical custodian of "The Hands"; insisting even that her deceased cousin would have wanted it that way (the "unseen" character Clovis is a magical being indeed, communicating with the others via direct contact with her plaster creations). Naturally, each of the three cohorts has their own design upon the gift -- a source of conflict that's further complicated by some tricky interpersonal dynamics among the principals.

Under the direction of Stewart M. Schulman (who helmed a very satisfying script-in-hand presentation of Mark Dunn's "Dix Tableaux" here last summer), the three cast members -- all of them veterans of major turns in previous NJ Rep productions -- work together like the stock-company pros they very well are. And why not; the same players originated their respective roles in a tryout reading of Gail's text last February -- making "Rapture" merely the latest of the company's 'raw' productions to be successfully developed as a mainstage offering.

The story's fanciful conceit aside, the actors manage to make the most of the situation even when the last remaining dollop of logic goes missing. While the script has as many unresolved ends as Rosemary's frizzle-fried 'do (more than one audience member brought up the question of why a stand-in would be required for an artist who labored largely in anonymity), the fact that this American author's action is set in the British art world is a puzzlement, when the search-and-destroy of the New York scene would have filled the bill quite nicely. This requires the stars to affect put-on accents, with FitzGibbon having particular fun oozing his plummy baritone around some drolly drawling put-downs -- as when he describes Rosemary's "purple trowel of a tongue," or legs that conjure "pills of gorgonzola."

The route between points A and B is dotted with other off-ramps best left unexplored (an undercurrent about the transcendent powers of the Goddess seems almost a parody of old-school feminist writing), but suffice to say that this ultimately charming little play ends happily, pleasingly and in an economical time frame. Continuing Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings (plus Sunday matinees) through Feb. 20, "Touch of Rapture" is paired with a concurrent exhibit of whimsical bronze statues by Israeli-American sculptor Benjamin Levy. For information about both events, call (732) 229-3166.

Touch of Rapture
By Simon Saltzman:

Marnie Andrews, John Fitzgibbon, David Hall

At the opening of "Touch of Rapture," a new play by Mary Fengar Gale, Clovis Myrtle Minton, a reclusive sculptress, is dying. She asks her husband Quince Dillingham, a patron of the arts and the proprietor of the prominent Shallots Gallery in the West End of London, "Will you take my hands?" At first, Quince assumes that Clovis is merely requesting that he hold and caress her hands in her final moments. But then, just as his wife dies, something miraculous happens. To Quincy's amazement, he is suddenly filled with the urge to not only begin sculpting, but to continue working on a series of figurative statues of mythological goddesses begun by his wife, whose work has never been shown. For reasons that the play later explores, Quince has kept Clovis' work under wraps.

Working under a pseudonym, Quincy is soon displaying and promoting the sale of the goddesses in his gallery. Running a business and sculpting round the clock like a man possessed, Quincy is near exhaustion. The new sculptures, however, are recognized as the work of Clovis by her elder brother and barrister Garlin Mandrake Minton. He accuses Quince of hiding from him his sister's most recent work, all of which was supposedly left to him in her will. It is not surprising that Quince's explanation does not satisfy Garlin, who feels that Quince is trying to deny his sister her glory and cheat him out of an inheritance. Garlin is dumbfounded when Quince demonstrates that he has, in fact, gained the ability to draw in the exact style of Clovis.

Quincy, who believed that a dealer who exhibits the work of his wife would be perceived as nepotistic, convinces Garlin that they should form a partnership to exploit the sculptures, which are sure to be very valuable. Things get even more strange and unsettling when Clovis' talent is transferred to Garlin, and then to…

Under the facile direction of Stewart M. Schulman, "Touch of Rapture" initially gives one the impression that it is propelled by a superficial glibness that strives to summon up the ghost of Oscar Wilde (unfortunately without his wit). Within what seems at first like a barrage of chatter and absurdities, emerges a rather sweet and gentle, rather fantastical, allegory about the genders and the rules of the game.

Just know that when Garlin and Quincy decide to bring Clovis' frumpish cousin Rosemary into their scheme to pose as the artist at public appearances. Ms. Gail's play begins to assert itself as a whimsical allegory. Although I'm not familiar with any of Gail's plays that include such curious titles as "Drink Me," "Fuchsia," and "Carnivals of Desire," this play takes an audacious approach to it theme: the circuitous route to recognition and empowerment that women must take and their relationship with the men who unwittingly provide the way or put up the roadblocks.

It isn't clear to me why the playwright thought it necessary to set the play in London and its players so veddy veddy British. But John Fitzgibbon, as the smug and condescending motor-mouthed Quince, rattles off his dialogue faster than one would expect the patter from Gilbert and Sullivan's modern major general. Davis Hall is increasingly amusing, as Garlin, a closeted prig who not only inherits for a time Clovis' talent but her sexual interest in Quince. Probably the most interesting turnabout is offered by Marnie Andrews, as the earthy Rosemary. Her transformation from an unappreciated and unmotivated (except when it comes to eating) woman to a graceful and energized artist enabled to change the balance of power provides the play with its most affecting resonance. Despite frequent lapses into verbosity, "Touch of Rapture," ultimately wins us over through the sheer force of its fantastical conceits.

Designer Carrie Mossman's stylized setting (cleanly lighted by Jeff Greenberg) brings us from a bedroom and parlor at the estate of Fennfield in Hampstead Heath, to Shallots Gallery with rotating white panels, some sculptured figures, and a few chairs and tables.

"Touch of Rapture" (January 15 th – February 20th)

New Jersey Repertory Company at The Lumia Theatre

179 Broadway, Long Branch, N.J.

For tickets ($30) call 732 – 229 – 3166 or e-mail

Reviewed by Simon Saltzman -

Reviews of NJRep - Restore Radio

Touch of Rapture Roars Through NJ Rep's Lumia Theater

Leaving Everyone Satiated  (A Restore Radio Review)

"People can't pass along talent like a tray of salami" -- or can they?

That tantalizing question forms the basis for Mary Fengar Gail's witty, sophisticated farce, set appropriately in a country manor house just outside London.  Gail's choice of locale affords her the right to take more than a few hilarious jabs at the eccentric Brits with her sharp tongue: Referring to barristers as having the usual attractions "to torts and tarts" and Cambridge spawning "fruiters". Think of your first British movie, the one that had you rolling over the inside jokes. Then add a generous dollop of delicious bawdiness and unapologetic lust. The latter by the way is perfectly matched, by the Rep's new Assistant Stage Manager and PR person Lily Mercer, with sculptor Benjamin Levy's charmingly zaftig ladies in bronze. His exhibit opened officially today (Jan.16).

The acting team of Marnie Andrews, as the wonderfully self-indulgent (zaftig) cousin Rosemary, John FitzGibbon as the widower Quince, and Davis Hall as Garlin, the sexually uncertain brother-in-law with a hopelessly pathetic crush on Quince, are flawlessly directed by Stewart M. Schulman. All are superb. Kudos to them for not overplaying their excellent and varied accents and for squeezing every drop of caustic wit from Gail's rapid-fire dialogue.

Schulman must be commended for his creative bag of tricks. When Rosemary achieves sudden fame, Schulman handles the media frenzy, despite his tiny working room, by flashing a square box of light on her from the waist up. Bingo, we?re watching her live on TV and then in video recorded form, sound on, sound off, freeze frame, smooth as a remote control, all through the magic of expert direction and fantastic timing on the part of Andrews and FitzGibbon. And, a lesser actor might have turned the crestfallen Garlin into a creepy sap. But Hall plays this character with the depth and sensitivity of a Leslie Howard, while handling the comedic elements with equal success.

Rather than give more away, watch how Gail handles the obvious temptation to go down a Pygmalionesque path. This play is a box of chocolates without the calories. Indulge!! Maureen Nevin, Host