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Press Articles 2011-2013

Review: Splendid new play 'middlemen' at NJ Rep

by Rick Busciglio, New Jersey Footlights

New Jersey Repertory Company, in Long Branch, is presenting the New Jersey Premiere of "middlemen," written by David Jenkins* and directed by Marc Geller.**

What happens when a Wall Street financial institution collapses? Who pays for the "mistakes"? Playwright David Jenkins has written a splendid, tight, highly topical two character play that gives us the all too familiar answer....the unsuspecting, unquestioning, trusting (and naive) middlemen. In the case of Jenkins's "middlemen" we have middle manager Stanley Cahill (Duncan Rogers) and fiscal analyst Michael Aaronson (David Friedlander). They work in Manhattan in their adjoining offices on the sixtieth floor, somehow oblivious to the mass departure of co-workers, fiercely intent on completing the corporation's annual report.

One phone call to Aaronson brings them both, almost, to the real world. The call is from the Federal Trade Commission requesting Aaronson's appearance downtown to answer questions on the financial recommendations they contributed to. It seems that one of them may have been responsible for the collapse of Bolivia. From that point on they are on a severe emotional roller coaster.

The two actors masterfully hold our attention for 90 minutes (no intermission). David Friedlander, as the financial analyst Michael Aaronson, nails the naive, shy bachelor who is easily influenced by the senior Cahill. It may be a bit of a reach, but their relationship reminded me of Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel in the "Producers." In any play all roles are never quite equal, and that is true even in a two character play as "middlemen." Duncan Rogers IS the tormented Stanley Cahill. Rogers, not so simply, is giving a master class in acting.

Suzanne Barabas, the artistic director, and Gabor Barabas, the executive director, have developed a very effective formula for delivering superior theater to their sophisticated audience. They present only new plays that have passed several positive critical filters, then put them in the hands of a top-flight director (Marc Geller) who perfectly casts highly talented actors (Duncan Rogers and David Friedlander). The result: a fascinating, rewarding theater experience (unless you invested in Bolivian stocks!).

Special mention is in order for first-rate production values: from the humble, tired office space (Jessica Parks), the scene transition "music" consisting of the drone of industrial air conditioning and the buzz of fluorescent lights (Merek Royce Press); lighting design (Jill Nagle); and costumes... two off-the-rack gray business suits (Patricia E. Doherty). Jennifer Tardibuono is the stage manager.

Reviewed by Rick Busciglio November 10, 2013

You have until December 8, 2013 to see the New Jersey Repertory Company's production of "middlemen." The performances are Thursdays, Fridays at 8 pm; Saturdays at 3 pm and 8 pm; and Sundays at 2 pm.

Tickets are $40; Discounts are available for seniors, students, and groups of 10 or more. NJ Rep is a year-round, professional, non-profit theater located at 179 Broadway in Long Branch only minutes from the Jersey Shore. Free on-site parking is available and there is easy access from NJ Transit (North Jersey Coast Line) and Academy Buses. Contact the NJ Rep Box Office at 732-229-3166 or visit to reserve your seats online.

Photos: Marc Geller/NJ Repertory Company.

*David Jenkins is a New York based playwright and founding member/Artistic Director of Human Animals. His plays have been shortlisted for the O'Neill, P73 and developed by the Lark Theater and IRT, and EST. His first play, "middlemen", was produced in New York to critical acclaim, translated into Belarusian by the Belrus Free Theatre, and premiered in Santiago, Chile in the spring of 2011. After its run at NJ Rep, it will be presented at the Oslo International Theater in Norway in 2014. His play "Post Office" was named one of "The Top Ten Off-Off Broadway Productions of 2011" by the late Tom Murrin of "Paper Magazine". As an actor, he has worked on stages throughout the country, including San Francisco's ACT and Yale Rep. He holds an MFA from NYU's Graduate Acting Program. David's plays include: "middlemen", "Small Claims", "Post Office", "Laissez-Faire" and the forthcoming "Pinewood". He was a finalist for Page 73's 2013 Fellowship and recently taught a scene study class at New York State's Fishkill Correctional Facility with Rehabilitation through the Arts.

**Marc Geller most recently directed the world premieres of "Noir" and "Donna Orbits the Moon" for NJ Rep. Other directing credits include: "Two-Headed" at the Berkshire Theatre Festival, "Souvenir" at StageWorks/Hudson and the world premieres of the Off-Broadway shows "Ascension" (Lion Theatre), "Acts of Love" (Kirk Theatre) and "Adjoining Trances" (Beckett Theatre) in New York City.

BWW Reviews: MIDDLEMEN Resonates for Audiences at NJ Rep

The New Jersey premiere of middlemen is now being performed at New Jersey Repertory Company through December 8th. Written by David Jenkins and directed by Marc Geller, it is an intriguing portrayal of two men whose lives intersect as office mates in a large financial firm. The play reveals an intense and comedic relationship between the co-workers. Effective staging and superb acting make middlemen a must-see for area audiences.

Stan, played by Duncan Rogers, is a self confessed "functioning alcoholic" whose work routine focuses more on milk for his coffee and regular shots of booze than the necessity to complete the company's annual report. Stan is distracted by his personal issues: a problematic 5 year old son and marital tensions.

Michael, played by David Friedlander, is an insecure young man who is disillusioned with his career. Michael soon realizes there is something very wrong at the company; his immediate boss and entire divisions of the company are mysteriously disappearing.

When the two men receive repeated phone calls accusing them of creating a false statistical report, Michael states nervously, "I may have bankrupted Bolivia." And, as they plan a course of action, Stan attempts to deflect the blame. He tells Michael, "You're not important," and "We're not the guys who make the deals here."

In a last ditch effort to do something "important" with their work, Stan and Michael spend a long night compiling a outrageous report consisting with everything from a Civil War pie chart to information about cats and their enemies. It is in this frenzy of activity that they communicate unexpected personal revelations.

middlemen will resonate with everyone. David Jenkins wrote the play just prior to the 2007 explosion of the financial crisis. middlemen has universal appeal; a pertinent piece that carefully incorporates humor and offers a sense of humanity even in the depths of business despair.

New Jersey Repertory Company Features middlemen

New Jersey Repertory Company is a rare commodity these days. With a 64-seat nonprofit theater nestled in Long Branch, the company showcases and develops new plays with the mission to keep theater thought-provoking and important. Established playwrights and new writers have had their works chosen for a mounting at the intimate setting, which has seen 83 plays in just 14 seasons. David Jenkins' middlemen, which was originally produced at New York's Walkerspace in 2009, begins performances at New Jersey Repertory Company on November 7. Jenkins, who is also a cofounding member of the theater group Human Animals, spoke with TheaterMania about his experience working with the NJ Rep and the life that his office-centered black comedy has taken on.

Why did you start Human Animals?

It was a way to produce. I'm the only playwright. We would produce my work, and then self-produce some with some friends. I kind of feel like no one's going to do your work when you're starting to do this because no one really knows what you're doing. Especially if you're doing something kind of different! There's just so much work out there. There's a really good August Wilson quote where he said, "If you want to support a writer, produce the first five plays he writes." When you're producing a play yourself, it feels a little bit more like a band. That's exciting to me. Each individual show is like an album. God bless the people at NJ Rep — those guys, case in point, are out there running a theater. I admire that so much!

The titles of some of your plays are middlemen, Post Office, and Small Claims. It seems that you have a penchant for writing about the everyman in society. What inspired that interest?

I think everyone's an everyman. I like those plays in particular. Those plays are about work, and I'm fascinated by work. It's something that we can all relate to no matter what profession you're in. You probably don't feel like your job is big enough for you, and you probably don't feel like you're able to put your soul into your work, or that your work really embodies who you are as a person — even if you enjoy it! But, it's where we spend the bulk of our time. When I wrote middlemen, I was really interested in what we feel that we're supposed to get from our work, and what we actually get from it. The idea is that we're supposed to follow our passion, and even if we do that, it becomes a job. Work is work. It's not supposed to be fun; you're paying the bills. But if it's fun on top of that, great! When I wrote this play and the economy collapsed, people were getting laid off massively at corporations, [and] it felt like, okay, what are we working for? If there's no security — the entire country is unstable as it is — why do we work? And I think that's a question that everyone can relate to.

What specifically inspired middlemen, which was your first play?

It's kind of a play about financial decline. I wrote it in 2007 when everything was bottoming out, and our first table read of it was up the street from Lehman Brothers while it was collapsing. The day they closed Lehman Brothers, guys were coming out with boxes of their belongings. It felt like there was going to be this inevitable collapse. We were in two wars that we were losing, the housing market had already tanked, we were at the end of the Bush administration, and all the Enron stuff was still in the air. I really thought this play was tied to that place and time, but I'm flattered that people seem to be producing it more now than they did then. It's going up in Norway this winter. It's great that it's had that life.

In addition to running in New York, middlemen has been translated into Belarusian by the Belarus Free Theatre, and premiered in Chile in 2011.

I want to see my work produced by people [who] care about it, [who] can give it the life that it deserves onstage. I'm excited that NJ Rep is doing middlemen…I even feel a little bad for them because I know how hard it is!

How is presenting a play in NJ Rep's intimate theater with sixty-four seats more conducive to a play like middlemen?

I love it. When we put it up in New York we had about forty seats. It was a very claustrophobic performance. I love doing things for smaller houses. I think particularly with this show — it's two guys in one space, and it's hard to do claustrophobia and tension and demonstrate the fact that these guys are deeply bored without inflicting a lot of pain on the audience — but it makes a much more intimate setting. A kind of bunker mentality has set in with these guys, [and] it kind of helps to have a smaller space to make everyone feel like they're in the bunker with them.

Does your next play, Pinewood, follow the same themes about the workplace?

It's about a middle-class family [who] aspires to be an upper-middle class family, but in reality they're going backwards because the jobs just aren't there. But instead of it being an incredibly dark play, I'm starting to wonder, maybe that's okay on one level. Maybe everyone's idea of where they should be in this country is wildly inflated, and we're going through a period of readjustment that's incredibly painful. It's hard to get my mind around it.

BroadWayWorld Interviews: David Jenkins' Play MIDDLEMEN Opens at NJ Rep

New Jersey Repertory Company continues their season with the production of middlemen, by David Jenkins. The play will run from November 7th to December 8th. Jenkins, a New York based playwright, has had his plays shortlisted for the O'Neil and was a finalist for Page 73's 2013 Fellowship. middlemen was produced in New York to critical acclaim; it premiered internationally in Santiago, Chile in the spring of 2011 and will also be produced at the Oslo International Theater in Norway in 2014. His plays include: middlemen, Small Claims, Post Office, Laissez-Faire and the forthcoming Pinewood.

Jenkins is proud to have his play produced at NJ Rep. He said, "NJ Rep is an, ambitious company. I'm thrilled they're producing middlemen; I think it fits in well with their mission of presenting new and challenging American plays. I'm excited that Marc Geller is directing the piece, I think it's a great fit for his dry, zany sensibility."

Jenkins wrote middlemen just before the financial crisis exploded in 2007. One of the first readings was on the day Lehman Brothers folded. While he can't remember a single inspiration for the play, Jenkins stated," It just felt like something was in the air. The country was still sweeping up the legal pieces from Enron, we were knee deep in two poorly prosecuted wars, and lots of people were underwater in their houses. These problems loomed so large at that time that they felt almost personally overwhelming. I was trying to find a way to talk about the ethical shift I felt the country was experiencing that wasn't just shrill, partisan or bombastic. I ended up with this very contained comedy of pressure and discomfort. It turned out to be a good metaphor for the collapse of our economy."

Yet, Jenkins grew up in a family where there was an acute understanding of the business world. He said, "I'm the son of an Eagle Scout who has run the gauntlet of Corporate America. In some ways I think this play is an attempt to understand the ups and downs my father went through in what turned out to be a pretty interesting career. I have also worked a shocking number of survival jobs, and I think I've captured some of the existential dread of toiling in less than fulfilling circumstances to put food on the table."

Jenkins once thought the life of middlemen was tied to the economic collapse of the country but is pleased to see it being produced in the United States and abroad. He said that something about the existential dread of working for a large corporation is universal. Over the years, it has been translated into Norwegian, Belarusian and Spanish. He loves that the people from the Eastern Block really like the play.

Jenkins believes that New Jersey Repertory Theatre audiences will enjoy the show. He said, "I hope they have a few laughs and recognize themselves in these characters. All that work of art can hope to do is make us feel less alone, and I hope this play accomplishes that. Much of my writing, and this play is no exception, deals with the meaning of work in American life, and I hope audiences will be able to relate their own experiences of the workplace to the two characters in the play, Stan and Michael.

'Evita' and more staged locally

Dark office humor and a modern musical diamond shine on Shore stages

By Tom Chesek

The setting is one of those anonymous office towers that choke the landscape — a featureless environment in which, "amid the drone of industrial air conditioning and the buzz of fluorescent lights," a middle manager named Stan and a fiscal analyst named Michael slave away into the night on an annual report.

What Stan and Michael don't seem to have noticed is that, one by one, their co-workers have all mysteriously disappeared. More pressing is the fact that "no one bought milk for the break room, and they may have been responsible for the collapse of Bolivia."

Ask David Jenkins about "middlemen" — the play that opens this weekend at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch — and you might approach with the idea that the dark comedy was written as a response to the playwright's own experiences in the stifling land of cubicles and conference tables.

"Actually, I did mostly blue collar sort of jobs before I wrote this," the New York-based Jenkins explains. "I worked at the post office; I had a job building defibrillators at a weird factory in Illinois…and by the time I got to American Express, they had laid off seven thousand people. Every other desk was empty."

The surreal nature of the way we work in present-day America — including such phenomena as "job creep," in which those who still have jobs are expected to take on the responsibilities of their "disappeared" peers — courses through the veins of "middlemen," Jenkins's first play and a piece that was first seen in an Off Broadway staging by the playwright's own Human Animals company.

"I'm fascinated by decline…it's no accident that I wrote a play about the Post Office," explains Jenkins. "Working in the face of decline is a great metaphor for life."

For the production that runs for the next month at NJ Rep, director Marc Geller (who brought us the edgy and stylized "Noir" earlier this year) works with a pair of largely unfamiliar faces on the Rep stage — newcomer David Friedlander, and Duncan Rogers, who hasn't appeared there since 2001's "Naked by the River."

It's a much-anticipated production for the writer who freely admits, "If you want to make a go at writing plays, you have to have another job."

'Broomstick' casts a quirky spell at New Jersey Repertory

Andrea Gallo casts a spell as a confessional witch in 'Broomstick,' the play by John Biguenet now onstage at New Jersey Rep in Long Branch. / Photo: SuzAnne Barabas

By Tom Chesek

It's a play about a swamp witch, her motives similarly murky — and just moments into "Broomstick," we pick up on something quirky.

John Biguenet's play, on stage now at New Jersey Repertory, puts a controversial framework to the witch's tell-all story. It's told in verse, and indeed at first, a patient ear it takes here — iambic petameter, in fact, just like William Shakespeare.

While the Bard had actor armies at his quill and his command, "Broomstick" makes its music with a deft one-woman band. Andrea Gallo, who flew solo here in "Donna Orbits the Moon," takes us up and back; a fairground float in a colorful balloon.

On a set design by Jessie Parks — a backwoods bayou hovel, with a tree grown through the ceiling; cauldron set to boil and bubble — Gallo casts a spell in monologue, with the batty crone's confessions keyed to how she got her powers, and romantic indiscretions.

Addressing us directly, she holds court for ninety minutes, on revenges and comeuppance and commanding swarms of insects. On drunken dads and squealing pigs, and strange meat in the kettle. She puts a peculiar spin upon the tale of Hansel and Gretel.

She asks us if we maybe "wanna hear a different story;" one that, as a change of pace, "don't end quite so gory." One that, she adds with a sigh, "ends all happy ever after"…one that concludes, against her views, in smiles and in laughter.

Director SuzAnne Barabas lends great verve to the proceedings (the danger with these solos is they can play like scripted readings) — and Gallo, mobile and engaged, a tour de force delivers; a star turn that conveys the laughs and even a few shivers.

The fun is whether she's a witch for real, or just plain mad — she even wonders if, in fact, "I'm some food you ate was bad." Still, such debate is put to rest when she bids us all goodnight — and Gallo and the Rep team send us home with a delicious fright.

As a critic, we've seen plays in rhyme — some ill-advised, some daring — from "hip-hop style street poetry," to misguided Moliere-ing. While you sometimes fail to notice, "Broomstick" dances in its rhythm — though it doesn't hurt that the play is short, and done sans intermission.

A CurtainUp New Jersey Review


"Misunderstood-it's always been the same: when things go wrong, it's me they gonna blame." — Witch

Andrea Gallo

When Glinda, the witch of the north asks Dorothy (in The Wizard of Oz) "Are you a good witch or a bad witch," Dorothy takes umbrage: "I'm not a witch at all. I'm Dorothy Gale from Kansas." Just as Glinda accepts Dorothy's answer in good faith, it might also be a good idea to see the Witch in John Biguenet's play Broomstick as both a good witch and a bad witch.

What we see at first is woman with a rather pretty face of indeterminate age with curly grey hair adorned with beads. Dressed in a long black peasant dress, she cautiously comes down the stairs in the cabin in the woods when she hears someone she thinks may be an intruder. Estranged from the community in Appalachia, she lives alone. She addresses us (the audience), "I hear you in the darkness there. That smell of yours, I'd know it anywhere."

She admits to us that her eyes are not what they used to be, but we can certainly be impressed by what we can see: the glowing embers in the fireplace wherein a cauldron hangs; a table and shelves stocked with bottles of all sizes and descriptions; a rocking chair on the stone floor that rocks without anyone in it; a mirror that changes colors; burning candles that periodically grow dim and then mysteriously get bright throughout the cabin, parts of which look as if carved from the trunk of a large tree, and the encroaching ivy that has grown through the spaces between the logs. We'll give the first shout out to designers Jessica Parks (setting) and Jill Nagle (lighting) who deliver the stunning atmospherics.

We are the voiceless intruder or perhaps the expected visitor who has presumably come back to a place from our past, to see, perhaps confront, a person who surely knows and remembers. We listen as the Witch (Andrea Gallo) slowly makes us feel both unsettled and comfortable if there is such a thing. She speak (in rhyme no less) of why we might be there and why she might be compelled to tell us what we want to hear or need to know in this crafty one-person play about witchery, revenge and love.

The Halloween season is prematurely in the air with this charming and chilling play about a Witch with stories to tell, secrets to reveal and spells to cast over the listener. A native of New Orleans and author of several books, award-winning short stories and plays, Biguenet has written a play in verse that will make you shiver as well as smile. Whether you venture alone or are accompanied, your time will be well spent listening to the confessions of an old crone.

Whether or not you believe her when she professes to be both a protector of good little children who have run away from bad parents, you will certainly take her at her word and from her works that she is as much an unremorseful and unremitting purveyor of spells and sorcery as she is a victim of backwoods ignorance and pervasive superstitions. I was surprised at my own ability to feel the goose-bumps on my arms even when provoked to giggle.

Splendidly directed by SuzAnne Barabas, Broomstick consists entirely of the Witch's poetic narrative, a series of eerie tales enhanced with marvelous special effects. Without cackling pretensions, Gallo is terrific as a rather poignantly defined character who doesn't want sympathy only compassion. She may be corrupted but she has learned how to rise above her circumstances and circumvent the worst reality by embracing the supernatural. Without wanting to be a spoiler, let's say that the ability to rise above is something that any good witch worth her salt can do.

To Gallo's credit, she is mesmerizing, especially given the poetic nature of the text and her soft mountain drawl. But rapt you will be by her story-telling: the remorse in the loss of a young lover, her attempts to save and protect misunderstood/mistreated children, the death of a cruel parent are but some of the stories that are told in the flickering light of memory and myth. Broomstick, the winner of a 2013 National New Play Network Continued Life of New Plays Fund Award will go on after its premiere at New Jersey Rep to productions at Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey, Southern Repertory, and Montana Repertory Theater.

Review: The chilling 'Broomstick' at New Jersey Rep in Long Branch

Andrea Gallo as the witch, or is she?

"No, my dear, don't be alarmed. It's just a little game. You won't be harmed. And even if you are, I know some tricks to reattach a severed finger, fix a foot that's lost a toe or two . . . or three. I'm teasing you. But after all, ask me, who really needs ten fingers, all those toes? If we were talking . . . oh, let's say—a nose. Now you lose that, okay, I'd understand if you thought things had gotten out of hand. It's not like we got extra ones to spare the way we do with eyes and ears. A pair of anything, you can afford to lose the first when there's a second still to use. A nose, though, there's not much to take its place, at least not sitting there, the middle of your face. So yeah, I might be slow to sympathize with someone lost just one of his two eyes. It comes to noses, though, there ain't no "just." You lose your nose and make a little fuss, well, that's to be expected, I suppose, seeing you lost your one and only nose. But these shenanigans about a toe or two—you still got eight, nine others, though. So what you say we play our little game and let's not worry who we gonna blame things go wrong and don't turn out so good? Mean the world to me, it really would."

This strange bit of poetry about missing body parts is recited early in the wickedly funny play now on stage at the New Jersey Rep in Long Branch by a marvelous actress Andrea Gallo. The word 'wickedly' is properly applied to this world premiere play with the simple title Broomstick.

Written by John Biguenet, Broomstick is the sometimes creepy and sometimes funny visit with on old lady (Andrea Gallo) who lives alone in a remote, crude, cabin in the woods. No it is not Grimm's Hansel and Gretel, but close. The old lady is clearly strange and seems to have extraordinary powers. She can have bugs of all types, for example, torment whomever she is displeased with at a moments notice.

She has many other unique powers that are far more aggressive, but not to be revealed here. Let's call her by the title she seems to have earned....Witch. But, not all witches are the our witch a good or bad witch? Or both? As she spins her tale of life in the woods from childhood, early romance, racial violence, death of her parents, "suicide" of a romantic rival and young visitors who are fleeing abusive parents... we see both sides of her. We cry with her at one point and cringe at another.

Playing the witch is Andrea Gallo in a terrific solo performance that you will not soon forget. Gallo speaks in rhyme with an easy, sweet "couldn't hurt a fly" mountain drawl. She wears a long black dress (suitable for broom riding?) with dark grey curly hair (costume designer Patricia Doherty). Her cabin is crude with a large cauldron in the large fireplace.

The set by Jessica Parks is astonishing--- the engineering magicians at Disney World could not have done better. The room has a stone floor, rough hewn logs with spaces covering the walls that are faced with numerous shelves loaded with a great assortment of glassware and strange instruments and bottles clearly standard issue for a card carrying witch. At the center, a self-propelled rocking chair. The lighting consists of various candle fixtures (magically powered by electricity) and mirrors that change color and intensity at a simple nod from the old lady (lighting designer Jill Nagle). Highly effective creepy and creaky sounds are nicely provided by sound designer Merek Royce Press.

A favorite moment is when the witch laments that her girlhood friend, and rival for her boyfriend, sadly committed suicide. "Naturally, she might have needed some a push.....or two" the witch reveals with a coy, innocent smile.

This is goose-bump entertainment, minus movie style violence, at its best. We greatly recommend a journey to Long Branch to the NJ Rep's very comfortable, intimate theatre and sit a "spell." Keep your eyes on the witch during the closing moment's as she reveals another, more than hair raising, talent.

Major applause for Andrea Gallo is naturally in order, of course, who would dare not show appreciation to a witch? Applause, of the standing variety, also to the director SuzAnne Barabas, the NJ Rep's artistic director.

The Witch Tells Chilling, Bitter Tales With Sly Humor, Poetry That Sails

Review by Bob Rendell, Talkin' Broadway

Andrea Gallo

For the length of the New Jersey Repertory's world premiere production of the ninety-minute one-act play Broomstick, audiences in attendance will find themselves sitting deep in the woods in a phantasmagorical cottage built into the earth among the sprawling roots of a gnarled old tree. It is the home of bitter old Witch who has failing eyesight.

The old Witch, now as fearful as she is fearsome, thinks that someone has entered her cave. She imagines him to be a boy, now grown into manhood, whom she had abducted and abused until he had been able to escape her clutches. She imagines that he is perched among us in the darkness and she feels compelled to tell him a series of stories either denying or justifying her horror tale cruelty.

With erotic imagery, Witch recounts her adolescent coupling with Jimmy, the only boy she had ever loved. While off to see the world before marrying, Jimmy had drowned at sea causing her to draw forth her deadly powers because of her anger at the injustice of life. She tells a macabre tale of vile and painful disease coming to a farmer and his stock after the farmer had cruelly cheated her (and their recovery after they had restored to her what was hers) only to blame her bad reputation on others falsely attributing cause and effect to unrelated occurrences.

Witch chortles over the unbelievability of her own claim of coincidence, then tells the imagined intruder that she was only interested in bringing about justice. There is considerably more regarding her treatment of her imagined visitor and his sister, and other children, but you already have the picture.

In a tour de force solo performance, Andrea Gallo projects a pathetically bitter and unhappy woman whose pain has caused her to be cruel to the rest of the world. This Witch is a witch alright, but she also a very recognizable human being. She is one of those reprehensible people who does everything in her power to make everyone else as miserable as she is. That Andrea Gallo, playwright John Biguenet, and director SuzAnne Barabas are able to make us feel sympathy for this miserable wretch is a triumph for each of them.

Most importantly, John Biguenet is a true writer and poet. One of the great joys in theatregoing is being able to be thrilled by the power and beauty of words. In its entirety, Broomstick is written in iambic pentameter, and the words tickle and delight the ear. It is delivered to flawlessly devilish perfection by Gallo. For the most part, the poetry is delightfully reminiscent of the humorously grisly poetry Of Roald Dahl or Edward Gorey:

But what you do when you wake up next day?
You thank that dear old lady let you stay
the night and made you things to eat and drink?
Hell no. You look at me and start to shrink
and squirm and wiggle free when we embrace
and I bend down to kiss your little face.
You let out with this terrifying shriek
as if I were some weird, disfigured freak.

Additionally, there can be a tough and powerful erotic power in Biguenet's poetry:

for him who's laid her naked in the dust.
Just like the moon, though, men and women must
obey what nature has in mind for them.
That night I was a flower; him, a stem.
I opened like a blossom after rain.
I learned that bliss is awful close to pain,
but bliss it was, and nothing I've known since
come close to it. And if it made me wince,
the pain just leavened all the happiness -
like getting bit, the middle of a kiss.

Broomstick should eventually be published in an illustrated reader's edition as it would surely be a delight to read aloud. There are occasional false rhymes that fall roughly on the ear ("next" and "sex"/ "wrist" and "kissed"). And there is a realistically brutal story told by the Witch about witnessing a racist lynching which is clearly important to New Orleans based playwright Biguenet as an example of an evil begetting more evil, but it seems out of place in this phantasmagoric narrative. Fortunately, these miscues are small potatoes within a rich theatrical bouillabaisse.

The New Jersey Rep design team gets high marks here. Jessica Parks has designed an eye-popping log cabin cum witch's cavern. It is complete with grass and earthen stairs leading onto a shale floor, tree roots growing down through the ceiling, and a fireplace with a large pot. It is replete with paraphernalia—a fantastic mirror that appears simultaneously concave and convex, claw-like candelabra, a huge assortment of apothecary jars and bottles and much more—many which have a life of their own. Lighting designer Jill Nagle incorporates some dazzling color schemes, some of which shine out from openings between the logs which comprise the walls of the cottage. Witch is garbed by Patricia E. Doherty in an ornate black dress replete with devil associated symbols.

The New Jersey Repertory production of Broomstick is the first of its three National New Play Network world premiere productions. New productions will follow at the Southern Rep and Montana Repertory Theatre in 2014.

New Jersey Rep brews up a bubbling cauldron of 'Broomstick'

Andrea Gallo plays a witch in a confessional mood in 'Broomstick'' at New Jersey Repertory. / SuzAnne Barabas

By Tom Chesek

The setting is a lonely cabin, pitched deep in the woods of rural America — the sort of place where a gnarled old tree commands the center of the sparse and Spartan furnishings, and where a simmering pot merits one's occasional attentions.

It's the kind of a place where, if a body's not too careful, the occupant could easily become whispered about as being a witch.

It's there that an old crone lives in her own unique world — and where she reportedly takes her guests down a shadowy path somewhere between our material world and the realm of fantasy; regaling the listener with tales of her long-ago first love, the acquisition of her powers and confessions of transgressions that may often as not have crossed the line of natural laws.

Continuing well into the season of the Great Pumpkin, New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch is presenting the world premiere of "Broomstick," an intimate play described by its author John Biguenet (whose careeningly claustrophobic thriller "Night Train" was seen at NJ Rep in 2011) as "kind of a musical without an orchestra – an internalized story that draws the audience into its spell.'' The show has been extended through Oct. 20.

Presented without intermission, it's the first fully staged production of a work that, as part of the National New Play Network system of "rolling premieres," will soon be going on to four additional productions in the year to come — prompting its New Orleans-based author (who makes a point of visiting each host theater) to observe that "the cardinal rule for any writer is to invest in a good suitcase."

The one-actor play under the direction of NJ Rep co-founder SuzAnne Barabas stars Andrea Gallo, a Rep regular with considerable experience in carrying a show by her lonesome — recall her solo turn in Ian August's 2011 "Donna Orbits the Moon."

Ask the playwright, however, and he'll tell you that there's really no such thing as a one-character show, in that "there's always a second person, with the audience functioning as that character."

"She greets us with the suggestion of 'Oh, you've come back at last.' " Biguenet explains. "The question occurs to us, is there really somebody else there in the room with her? And is she really even a witch, or just half crazy?"

Witch or no witch, "Broomstick" should sink or float entirely on the strength of the old woman's conviction that she is, indeed, a weaver of spells, and a witness to an outlandishly long span of human history.

"You could say that we're listening to the confessions of an older, independent woman," says Biguenet, noting that the whole concept of the "witch" in world cultures arose out of "the latent power of older women…people would just be afraid of somebody with that much knowledge, power, and independence."

"Civilization, and the basic continuity of the home, depended on the grandmothers…younger women invented agriculture, and the grandfathers didn't have much of a role in things," Biguenet adds.

Equally as important an element in "Broomstick" is the role of language — especially appropriate to a script about witches, who traditionally tend to cast spells with the power of words, more so than the waving of wands or the wiggling of noses.

"She has a relationship with language the rest of us don't have," says Biguenet, whose own impressions of his beleaguered home city elicit the comparison of New Orleans to "old documents that have been erased and written over…there's a new city on top, but you can look closely and see was underneath."

"Her use of words may be surprising at first," hints the playwright…and beyond that we cannot reveal, since so much of witchcraft revolves around surprises both devastating and delightful.




October 1, 2013

It's not quite Halloween and the spooky house on the New Jersey Repertory Company stage isn't made of gingerbread, but the old crone who lives there is right out of Hansel and Gretel's worst fears. You can just hear her cackling "Come in to my parlor, children," and picture her maneuvering the kids into her oven.

But looks can be deceiving. The woman who flies in this Broomstick, while creepy in appearance and demeanor, and identified simply as Witch, wouldn't harm a fly. At least not a child. She's cranky, alright, but hardly evil. As she takes pains to point out, that was a suckling pig in her oven, and not, as neighborhood rumor had it, a little boy.

The Witch in John Biguenet's offbeat new play is an intriguing concoction of fantasy and reality, leavened with a pinch of irony. She's also a triumph for Andrea Gallo, who proves once again that one can be enough. Witch, you see, is the only character in Broomstick, and Gallo the only actor. Flying solo two years ago in Donna Orbits the Moon (not on a broom), she held the audience in the palm of her hand, and while the hand is now gnarly, she does so again.

Acting is more than memorization, of course, but a one-character play presents unique problems. The actor must not only remember what the heck to say next, but also needs to project the variety and intensity usually inspired by exchanges with others. Making effective and intimate use of the device whereby Witch is talking directly to the audience, Ms. Gallo accomplishes just that.

It's an engrossing 80 minutes. Enough tales are conjured up to keep you interested in Witch's story, which includes witnessing her father's act of extreme violence and the mysterious down-the-well drowning death of a young woman whose back-story would make a whole other play.

And did I mention: Broomstick is written in verse. So smoothly does Ms. Gallo glide through Mr. Biguenet's cleverly iambic meter (one unstressed syllable…one stressed…repeat) that it was a good ten minutes before I realized it was verse. Hearing "wrist" rhymed with "kissed" cinched it.

Director SuzAnne Barabas has ensured that Broomstick is not a straight-on lecture. She keeps Witch in motion around and about her familiar surroundings. Jessica Parks's finely detailed set design and décor pieces, some of which come alive on their own, are classically eerie. If this misunderstood Witch moved out, a truly wicked Witch could move right in without installing even a new cobweb. You may want to pay a visit before the For Sale sign goes up.

BWW Reviews: BROOMSTICK at NJ Rep - A Must-See

There is an old, mysterious woman who lives near you; she is someone who conjures up a sense of the unnatural, or supernatural. What if you dare to enter her home, learn about her past, and how she perceives herself? That is what you can experience at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

John Biguenet's hit play, Broomstick, sweeps away the dust that lies on the path between fantasy and reality. It takes you on an intimate journey with a woman we know to be a witch. Set in a remote cabin deep in the woods, the audience becomes guests of her unique world. Biguenet has written the text of Broomstick artfully; we are aware of the rhyme scheme as it compliments each line.

Produced by Gabor Barabas and directed by Suzanne Barabas, Broomstick is a one-woman play that is so seamless, its ninety minutes fly by. The creative design team has captured the mood of the show with the set design, lighting, sound and costuming that perfectly complements the show.

Andrea Gallo delivers a truly remarkable performance as she assumes the role of the old crone and the individuals that were a part of her dark childhood; she describes her life believing it is terribly misunderstood. With both humor and drama, Gallo incorporates other characters so effectively into her monologue that we are led to believe the stage is full of the people who roamed her past. Gallo's extraordinary skill as an actress found its home with Broomstick.

New Jersey Stage


By Gary Wien

(LONG BRANCH, NJ -- SEPTEMBER 21, 2013) -- NJ Rep's latest premiere, "Broomstick", opened last weekend. Set in a remote cabin deep in the woods, the one-woman play is a fascinating study into the mind of a serial killer told as if it was a fairy-tale. It's sort of like Dahmer meets Hansel and Gretel. It's spooky, funny, and extremely well acted -- perfect to get you into the spirit of Halloween.

Andrea Gallo stars as an old, single woman who has lived in that cabin for years. Yet, oftentimes, she hasn't lived alone. The self-proclaimed witch has had a series of children be her guest for spells at a time. Some were runaways; others simply found lost in the woods; regardless of how they arrived, the witch convinces them they don't have anyone who cares for them on the outside. As the play opens, she wakes in the night to the sounds she thinks are of someone at the door. When she looks outside, she believes it's one of her kids returning home, years later as an adult.

Written by John Biguenet, the play is a masterful look inside the psychological problems that could cause someone to go off the deep end and venture where evil lurks. For the witch, this involves a series of "coincidences" through the years where she was blamed for someone else's misfortunes. There were crops that wouldn't grow, skin rashes that caused itching to the point of anguish, and strange insects that appeared to be under her control. Just enough history to have people swear they had a witch in their midst. "When things go wrong, it's always me they blame," she says.

In her mind, all she was ever trying to do was keep the children from harm. Yet, something bad always seems to happen. She's haunted by the memory of each former guest and she's haunted by the memory of her one true love; a loss that led her to becoming the woman she is today.

Biguenet's script is often read in rhymes, furthering the nursery rhyme effect. As the play moves forward, it becomes more and more entangled into the world of schizophrenia and real-life horror. You'll likely find yourself remembering just how warped the lyrics in your old nursery rhymes really were...

Rock-a-bye baby, in the treetop
When the wind blows, the cradle will rock
When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall
And down will come baby, cradle and all

Gallo is tremendous. She's got the role down so well it's one of those performances you couldn't imagine followed by anyone else. Equally amazing is the incredible lighting and sound effects within the play (by far the best I've ever seen at NJ Rep) and a stunning stage design. The special effects for the mirror alone are worth the price of admission. Between the effects, Gallo's breathtaking performance, and superb direction by SuzAnne Barabas, "Broomstick" is a clear winner for the season! Highly recommended!

Note: while the subject matter revolves around a witch, it is clearly meant for older audiences. The play runs about 90 minutes straight, no intermission. It runs at NJ Rep through October 13 and then will move on to three additional venues as part of its rolling world premiere from the National New Play Network. Next up is a run at Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey in January, Southern Rep (New Orleans) in June 2014, and Montana Repertory Theater next September.

New Jersey Rep Presents NNPN's BROOMSTICK, Now thru 10/13

New Jersey Repertory Company has announced the National New Play Network World Premiere of Broomstick, running tonight, September 19 through October 13, 2013 at 179 Broadway, Long Branch.

Set in a remote cabin deep in the woods, an old crone lives in her own unique world. As she unveils her life, we journey with her down a shadowy path somewhere between our material world and the realm of fantasy. Wickedly funny and frightening, she takes us back to our childhood, when in our innocence, we first wrestled with good and evil.

Written by John Biguenet (Night Train), directed by NJ Rep's Artistic Director, Suzanne Barabas, and starring Andrea Gallo (Donna Orbits the Moon),Broomstick is no Hansel and Gretel fairy tale; for justice is swift and whiners end up in casseroles.

Asbury Pulp Fact & Fiction on the Jersey Shore

Witches and Wordcraft, at NJ Rep

Confess, Witch: Andrea Gallo spells it like it is in BROOMSTICK, the play by John Biguenet going up this weekend at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. (photo by SuzAnne Barabas)

By Tom Chesek

LONG BRANCH, NJ – Must be the Season of the Witch, and in haunts and hollers like downtown Long Branch — where Sandy's surges and extended outages cast a dismal spell over autumn 2012 — they've got a lot of lost Halloweening to make up for.

Over at New Jersey Repertory Company, the clocks are being turned back to the witchin' hour beginning this Thursday, September the 19th, when preview performances begin for Broomstick, the latest in a long line of world premiere presentations on lower Broadway — and a production that arrives via the National New Play Network's "rolling premiere" system.

Written by Big Easy-based dramatist John Biguenet, and directed by NJ Rep co-founder SuzAnne Barabas — the creative team who brought the hellbound suspenser Night Train to the stage — the one-act, one-character play marks a return to Long Branch for a performer who's no stranger to being the whole show: Andrea Gallo, lone-star leading lady of 2011′s Donna Orbits the Moon.

In Broomstick, Gallo appears as a backwoods bruja in a talkative mood; a confessional crone who "unveils her life…somewhere between our material world and the realm of fantasy" as she "takes us back to our childhoods, when in our innocence we first wrestled with good and evil." Weirdly wise and maybe even as old as the hills, she's a sorceress with some secrets to spill — even if her secrets have nothing on the whammy that the playwright has planned for unsuspecting audiences.

The second-string Theater Desk at Asbury Pulp summoned Biguenet from his hoodoo-country home, to cast a spell regarding witches and wordcraft and women and things. Read on…

JOHN BIGUENET: It's great to be back working with New Jersey Repertory…it's is an absolute gem of a theater; one with a very small stage that they can somehow make look enormous or tiny. I trust their expertise, their level of artistry. And I know that they had a tough time of things with the storm last year…we certainly sympathize with something like that where I live. New Orleans these days can be likened to old documents, that have been erased and written over again…there's a new city on top, but you can look closely and see was underneath.

This is the first fully staged production of Broomstick, and there must be some kind of magic at work, because the play's going to go on to four productions in the year to come. I try to look in on productions of my plays when I can. The cardinal rule for any writer is to invest in a good suitcase.

The play is about the experience of going to the theater. It's kind of a musical without an orchestra…an internalized story that draws the audience into its spell. And the set reflects that internalized aspect. We're in a cabin in the woods at night; there's a rocking chair and big pot, and a witch.

A role in a one-person play is so much more than just memorizing all the lines. There's always a second person, with the audience functioning as that character. She greets us with the suggestion of 'Oh, you've come back at last'," but the question occurs to us, is there really somebody else there in the room with her? And is she really even a witch, or just half crazy?

You could say that we're listening to the confessions of an older, independent woman…what it's like to be an old woman who's seen everything. She talks about how she got her powers, about her first love affair, confessing more and more as she goes along. She knows she's going to die…eventually.

The whole idea of a 'witch' is really an indicator of the latent power of older women…people would just be afraid of somebody with that much knowledge, power, and independence. Civilization, and the basic continuity of the home, depended on the grandmothers…younger women invented agriculture, and the grandfathers didn't have much of a role in things.

She has a relationship with language the rest of us don't have. Witches derive much of their power from the language of casting spells, after all…and without giving away too much, I can say that in a play about a witch, there is a rationale about using language in unusual ways. The audience is going to find that her use of words may be surprising at first…but I think that after a few minutes it will all seem very natural; very right for this character and this play. Beyond that I'm sworn to secrecy!

Rising Water Trilogy to Coincide with Broomstick Opening at NJ Rep


Nearly one year after Hurricane Sandy devastated the Garden State's shoreline, New Jersey Repertory Company will feature noted playwright John Biguenet's "Rising Water" trilogy, inspired by his personal experiences during Hurricane Katrina and his return to his home after its massive flooding and widespread destruction.

The plays will be presented on three consecutive Mondays as part of NJ Rep's reading series on September 23, September 30 and October 7 at 7:00pm at NJ Repertory Company located at 179 Broadway in Long Branch.

The reading of the three plays will complement the opening of Biguenet's new play, "Broomstick," which will run from September 19 through October 13 as part of a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere.

Biguenet's experiences and observations of Hurricane Katrina should resonate with many residents of the Jersey Shore who experienced similar loss last October and are still struggling to cope with the destruction from Hurricane Sandy nearly a year later. As we approach the one year anniversary of Sandy, tens of thousands of property owners continue to recover from the unprecedented disaster.

"We here in Louisiana had a real compassion for New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy knowing first-hand the consequences and the human toll." said Biguenet. "Even eight years later, victims of Hurricane Katrina are still struggling and many are fighting insurance companies and the federal government in an effort to rebuild their lives."

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina was the deadliest and most destructive tropical hurricane to hit New Orleans and was the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history. Nearly 2,000 people were killed and total property damage was estimated at $81 billion.

Detailing his personal experience, Biguenet recalls, "We were homeless and slept in a daycare center without hot water... and in that daycare center I wrote 15 newspaper columns and shot 2 videos for the New York Times and told what was really going on in the city. The truth of the matter is that the levees collapsed and it was a man-made disaster that struck New Orleans. These plays are designed in some sense to give an accurate depiction of what happened and also in the year following."

"The first play, "Rising Water", deals with the first night after the hurricane has passed and people went to bed that evening thinking that things would be alright, but woke up the next day with flooding in their homes up to 8 feet, and had to run to their attics. The temperatures were 120 to 130 degrees and people had to find a way to get to the roof. The United States government didn't send any significant help for three or four days. An American city was destroyed, seven times the size of the entire size of Manhattan."

The second play, "Shotgun", takes place four months later, and is about a man who has lost his wife and then develops a relationship with his landlord. He is white and she is black. It's about rebuilding one's life and tackles real-life race relations issues.

The third play, "Mold", is set during the first anniversary of the collapse of the levees, and is about a young couple figuring out whether to rebuild or move elsewhere.

As Jersey Shore residents know, the storm is not over once the hurricane has passed, but continues well after. Biguenet reflects upon the deep wounds that still exist.

"As my wife and I have watched couple after couple break up under the stress of lost homes and lost jobs and lost self-esteem, I've discovered that if one is to depict the human toll of a massive disaster, it's effect on relationships is the most visible embodiment of that catastrophe. I could not have guessed before the flood that in composing a trilogy about the destruction of a city, I would wind up writing three love stories."

NNPN Presents John Biguenet's BROOMSTICK Rolling Premiere in NJ, LA, MT in 2013-14

The NATIONAL NEW PLAY NETWORK (NNPN), the country's alliance of non-profit theaters that champions the development, production, and continued life of new plays, announces its 41st Rolling World Premiere: John Biguenet's Broomstick will receive four productions through the Network's Continued Life of New Plays Fund in the 2013/14 season. Broomstick will begin its Rolling World Premiere at New Jersey Repertory Company (Long Branch, NJ, September 19 - October 13, 2013), followed by performances at Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey (Madison, NJ, January 9-26, 2014), Southern Rep (New Orleans, LA, June, August and October, 2014) and Montana Repertory Theatre (Missoula, MT, September 10-27, 2014). ABOUT THE PLAY: A witch confesses all: her first love affair, how she discovered her powers, how she has used them. But more than that, Broomstick is a funny and frightening return to our childhood where we first wrestled with evil and justice. For the witch is a completely unsentimental moralist who knows everything about the human heart - having been both its victim and avenger all her life long - and who metes out inexorable justice, immune to our pleas for mercy, cackling at our excuses. This is no Hansel and Gretel. In Broomstick, whiners end up in casseroles.

John Biguenet has published seven books, including Oyster, a novel, and The Torturer's Apprentice: Stories, released in the U.S. by Ecco/HarperCollins and widely translated. His work has received an O. Henry Award for short fiction and a Harper's Magazine Writing Award among other distinctions, and his poems, stories, plays, and essays have been reprinted or cited in The Best American Mystery Stories, Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards, The Best American Short Stories, Best Music Writing, Contemporary Poetry in America, Katrina on Stage, and various other anthologies. His work has appeared in such magazines as Granta, Esquire, North American Review, Oxford American, Playboy, Storie (Rome), Story, and Zoetrope. Named its first guest columnist by The New York Times, Biguenet chronicled in both columns and videos his return to New Orleans after its catastrophic flooding and the efforts to rebuild the city. Rising Water was the winner of the 2006 National New Play Network Commission Award, a 2006 National Showcase of New Plays selection, and a 2007 recipient of an Access to Artistic Excellence development and production grant from the National Endowment for the Arts as well as the 2007 Big Easy Theatre Award for Best Original Play; it has had numerous productions around the country. Shotgun, the second play in his Rising Water cycle, premiered in 2009 at Southern Rep Theatre, with subsequent productions at the Orlando Shakespeare Theater and Florida Studio Theatre, both in 2010; it won a 2009 National New Play Network Continued Life of New Plays Fund Award and was a 2009 recipient of an Access to Artistic Excellence development and production grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Shotgun is published by Dramatists Play Service, Inc. His ongoing trilogy of plays about the flooding of New Orleans has been the subject of articles in American Theatre, The American Scholar, and elsewhere. He was awarded a Marquette Fellowship for the writing of Night Train, his new play, which he developed on a Studio Attachment at The National Theatre in London and which premiered at New Jersey Rep Theatre in 2011. In 2008, Biguenet was named Theatre Person of the Year at the Big Easy Theatre Awards, the region's major professional theater awards. He received the Louisiana Writer Award in 2012. Having served twice as president of the American Literary Translators Association and as writer-in-residence at various universities, he is currently the Robert Hunter Distinguished University Professor at Loyola University in New Orleans.

NNPN's flagship program, the Continued Life of New Plays Fund supports three or more theaters which choose to mount the same new play within a twelve-month period. The result is a Rolling World Premiere through which the playwright develops a new work with multiple creative teams, for multiple communities of patrons, ensuring the resulting play is of the highest possible quality. And with a minimum of three productions in a single year, the play attains the momentum it needs to join the repertoire of frequently-produced new American works. NNPN provides grants of $7,000 to the first three participating theaters in each Rolling World Premiere; to date, NNPN has championed the continued life of 40 new plays in over 100 productions, with over a quarter-million dollars in grants. The New Jersey Repertory Company was founded in 1997. Its mission is to develop and produce new plays and to make a lasting contribution to the American stage. Since it opened its doors 15 years ago, the theater has produced 62 world premieres and has presented over 350 developmental readings of new works.

Founded in 1986, Playwrights Theatre is a 501(c) 3 not-for-profit professional theatre and arts education institution dedicated to developing and nurturing the dramatic imagination of artists, students, and audiences. Their New Play Program creates development opportunities for professional writers through readings, workshops and productions, and invites audiences to participate in authentic feedback experiences. Their New Jersey Writers Project, Poetry Out Loud, New Jersey Young Playwrights Contest and Festival, and Creative Arts Academy programs provide a comprehensive and hands-on arts education experience to over 31,000 students, Pre-K through adult. From 2003-2013, they have been designated a Major Arts Institution by the New Jersey State Council on the Arts (along with only four other theatres: The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, George Street Playhouse, McCarter Theatre Center and Paper Mill Playhouse) as "an anchor institution that contributes vitally to the quality of life in New Jersey."

Founded in 1986, Southern Rep's mission is to develop and produce new plays that reflect the diversity of the city we call home, to provide our audience with professional theatre of the highest artistic quality and achievement, and to establish a creative working environment that nurtures theatre professionals. As New Orleans' only year-round professional theatre, we strive to use the artistry of theater to enlighten, educate, and entertain audiences, and further extend that service through educational and outreach programs.

The Montana Repertory Theatre is the professional Theatre in residence at The University of Montana. Its mission is to "tell the great stories of our world to enlighten, develop and celebrate the human spirit in an ever-expanding community". The Montana Rep consists of a national touring program, bringing American classics to medium and small communities; an educational outreach component serving middle and high schools in Montana; "The Missoula Colony", a gathering of artists in support of the writers craft; and "Montana Rep Missoula" bringing cutting edge theatre to downtown Missoula.

The National New Play Network (NNPN) is the country's alliance of non-profit professional theatres that champions the development, production, and continued life of new plays. Since its founding in 1998, NNPN has commissioned eighteen playwrights, provided nearly twenty MFA graduates with paid residencies, and supported over 100 productions nationwide through its innovative Continued Life of New Plays Fund, which creates "Rolling World Premieres" of new plays. Hundreds of artists have gained employment through these efforts all over the country where NNPN Member Theatres are located. NNPN receives substantial support from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, the Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust, the Shubert Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. The Network is comprised of a group of Core Members, who pioneer and implement collaborative new play strategies, and a growing group of Associate Members, who disseminate the Network's programs and strategies nationwide. Visit

NNPN's Core Member theaters are: Actor's Express Theatre (Atlanta), Actor's Theatre of Charlotte (Charlotte, NC), Borderlands Theater (Tucson), Contemporary American Theater Festival (Shepherdstown, WV), Curious Theatre Company (Denver), Florida Studio Theatre (Sarasota), Fountain Theatre (LA), Horizon Theatre Company (Atlanta), InterAct Theatre Company (Philadelphia), Kitchen Dog Theater (Dallas), Magic Theatre (San Francisco), Marin Theatre Company (Mill Valley, CA), Mixed Blood Theatre Company (Minneapolis), New Jersey Repertory Company (Long Branch), New Repertory Theatre (Watertown, MA), New Theatre (Coral Gables, FL), Orlando Shakespeare Theater (Orlando), Performance Network Theatre (Ann Arbor, MI), Phoenix Theatre (Indianapolis), Playwright's Theatre of New Jersey (Madison), Prop Thtr Group (Chicago), Riverside Theatre (Iowa City, IA), Salt Lake Acting Company (Salt Lake City), San Diego REP (San Diego), Southern Rep (New Orleans), Unicorn Theatre (Kansas City, MO), and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company (Washington, DC). Read more about NNPN Presents John Biguenet's BROOMSTICK Rolling Premiere in NJ, LA, MT in 2013-14 Page 2 by

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Click Here for the New York Times Review of 'Saving Kitty'

Review: 'Saving Kitty' at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch


As most fans of live theatre in New Jersey know, we are blessed with a number of truly excellent professional theatres, e.g, The George Street Playhouse, The Paper Mill Playhouse, the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, The Dreamcatchers, Centenary Stage Company, etc. These theatres produce plays that are the equal of much of the 'other side of the Hudson' with actors who work both sides of the river.

Thursday we had the opportunity to journey down to the Jersey Shore and visit one of the true professional theatre gems in the state. The 14 year old New Jersey Repertory Theatre in Long Branch, co-founded by Gabor Barabas and his wife SuzAnne. Gabor serves as the Executive Director and SuzAnne is the Artistic Director. The theatre is unique in that they exclusively produce new plays.

The current production that officially opens tonight at 8 pm, Saturday, July 27, 2013, is "Saving Kitty," a romantic comedy with bite, written by Marisa Smith (a Jersey girl...born in Princeton) and directed by Evan Bergman. Smith is a longtime publisher of plays with her husband (Smith & Kraus), a former actress and, since 2005, an award winning playwright. Smith's "Saving Kitty" won Best Play from Portland Stages' Clauder competition in 2010 and premiered at the Wellfleet Actors Harbor Theater in July, 2012.

The 'saving' Kitty comes from the frantic, often hilarious, efforts of a mother to keep her only daughter from marrying the wrong kind. This, of course, reminds us of the great Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn and Sidney Poitier film "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner."

In the case of "Saving Kitty" the otherwise social liberal mother's prejudice is not racial, but religious. The mother, Kate, is a former television soap opera actress married to a United Nations diplomat. They live relatively quietly as ultra liberals (i.e. New Yorkers!) in a very comfortable Fifth avenue apartment until a tornado hits in the form of only daughter Kitty, a successful television journalist, arriving from California with her fourth fiance candidate Paul...not only an evangelical, but he is starting a religious school in the Bronx.

To mother Kate this means that Kitty's trading her promising career for a life in the kitchen, dressed in muumuus and producing numerous babies. "He's brainwashed her, he's gonna get her involved in that kooky religion and keep her barefoot and pregnant for the rest of her life!" proclaims Kate.

Kate, played by Judith Hawking, is described by her husband Huntley "like a lioness protecting her cub." Judith Hawking has a star turn as the perfect Kate who takes unhappy to a new level. Kate's various, creative, and kooky attempts to sabotage her daughter's relationship are the comedy high points of the play, frequently assisted by several bourbon on the rocks. Not easy to understand why the fiance does not retreat in the presence of the future mother-in-law from hell.

The reason for part of Kate's actions can best be understood by these comments from playwright Marisa Smith: "I've really come to believe that one of the last acceptable prejudices that the well-educated elite still maintain with no embarrassment and absolutely no sense that this belief might be wrong, is their prejudice against evangelical Christians. You can be at a dinner party and somebody can start bashing evangelicals in a very crude way and no one looks twice, where you would never say those kinds of things about any other group with any impunity."

The second part of the massive, negative reaction of mother Kate is that she gave up her own promising acting career for marriage with some regret and is now living vicariously through her daughter's rising career. Kitty pleads to her mother to get her own life.

Director Evan Bergman's production of "Saving Kitty" is a well paced treat with a superb cast that includes Sarah Nealis as Kitty, Christian Pedersen as her fiancé-to-be Paul, and John FitzGibbon, a NJ Rep veteran, as Kitty's father Huntley who is consumed by an Islamist bomb threat in Turkey. ​

Some key dialogue moments: When Paul tries to explain the differences in the conservatism of Islamists and Evangelical Christians, he says: "If you disagree with the Islamists, they cut off your head. If you disagree with us, we just pray for you." When Kitty tries to explain to her mother that a large number of Christians are Evangelical, Kate replies "Well, none of them live in Manhattan!"

The production team includes: Scenic design and props Jessica Parks; Costume design Patricia E. Doherty; Lighting design Jill Nagle; Technical director Michael Carroll; and Stage manager and sound design Jennifer Tardibuono.

The New Jersey Repertory's production of Marisa Smith's "Saving Kitty" is four-star entertainment. The thought-provoking script with an abundance of laughs, first class acting led by Judith Hawking, attractive set, fine costumes, and comfortable seating combine to equal a superior theatre experience.

'Saving Kitty' brings mother-in-law drama - and comedy - to New Jersey Repertory Company

By Ronni Reich/The Star-Ledger

Sarah Nealis, Judith Hawking, John FitzGibbon in a scene from the new comedy, "Saving Kitty" at NJ Rep in Long Branch thru August 25 (SuzAnne Barabas)

When Kitty brings home her fourth fiancé to meet her parents, they have every reason to expect the worst.

But in Marisa Smith's entertaining, smartly plotted "Saving Kitty," directed by Evan Bergman, the story of a new dinner guest is not exactly what one might predict. Paul (Christian Pedersen) is an attractive, well-educated, altruistic man fully devoted to Kitty. He also happens to be an evangelical Christian. Kitty's father describes himself as an agnostic, and her mother Kate, when faced with the charge of being a liberal, doesn't exactly refute it when she says, "I'm a New Yorker."

It is not just the title character, but everyone onstage, who could use a bit of salvation — or at least divine guidance — whether or not they realize it.

Via an outsize and often hilarious performance by Judith Hawking, Kate is made to appear like the mother-in-law from hell. A one-time soap opera actress, Kate is prone to quoting plays, shedding tears and slipping into foreign accents — her Nazi voice, when Paul says he has German ancestry, is particularly indicative of her inability to avoid the inappropriate.

She will stop at nothing to test and ruin Paul's discipline and relationship with her daughter, with an arsenal of tricks that includes brownies, an appearance in a negligee and attempts to assassinate Kitty's character.

Fueling her outrageous behavior is a mixture of painkillers, brandy and frustration with her husband, Huntley (John FitzGibbon), a harried diplomat who keeps leaving at suspicious times of the day to attend to a crisis in the Middle East.

In contrast to her indulgence, Paul avoids sweets and alcohol and fends off insomnia with exercise. He and Kitty sleep in separate bedrooms in the house, which is given a rich look by set designer Jessica Parks.

Smith raises intriguing questions about why some people have a defensive, uncomfortable reaction when faced with religion. Kate keeps making references to sin and going to hell, while Paul remains unfazed. He's perfectly willing to say a prayer for her, but not out to preach.

The playwright refuses to let him be a caricature as he fends off Kate's assumptions. He does not identify as a fundamentalist and he believes in evolution. Paul handles Kate calmly and patiently, with reason and humor — and he's not as highand-mighty as she thinks he is, or he'd like to be. Pedersen finds just the right balance of restraint and release, agitation and amusement.

It may seem odd to have not yet mentioned Kitty (Sarah Nealis), but the conflict between Paul and Kate is at least as interesting as that of the young couple. The title character is less clearly drawn than the others, in part because she seems to be figuring out who she is.

As Kitty negotiates adulthood, Nealis effectively conveys nervousness, exasperation with her upbringing and a desire for approval. A 27-yearold TV producer who wants to take a break from her career — possibly forever — Kitty still enjoys enacting a silly ballet ritual with her mother, but yearns to break free of her influence.

Although there are a few gooey declarations of love, the play itself is not too sweet. Smith throws obstacles into the couple's relationship that are more serious than the missteps, miscommunications or misunderstandings that typify romantic comedies, and offers a believable, satisfying conclusion. reviews

Saving Kitty

reviewed by Nita Congress

July 26, 2013

John FitzGibbon and Judith Hawking in a scene from Saving Kitty | SuzAnne Barabas

It's sort of like Guess Who's Coming to Dinner but with a UN diplomat and his maddening wife instead of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, and an evangelical Christian standing in for Sidney Poitier. The conceit being, as playwright Marisa Smith notes, that liberals can—amazingly—hold onto this one smug prejudice in our PC era; that it's somehow ok to mock and malign a born-again.

If that makes Saving Kitty sound weighty, knotty, or dense, fear not. This is the lightest of summer fare with no message to impart, no issues to wrestle to the ground, no consciences to tweak. It's filled with sitcom-style zingers, familiar familial conflicts (mother-daughter, husband-wife, girlfriend-boyfriend)—and some of the most scrumptious baked goods ever to grace a set.

The central conflict is mother Kate's single-minded determination to break up daughter Kitty's romance with Paul. She gives or indicates many reasons for this: Kitty's burgeoning career, Kitty's history of inappropriate and ill-starred boyfriends, Paul's presumed narrow-mindedness, her own frustrations. Ultimately, though, she just seems to relish the role of mischief-maker. Judith Hawking pulls out all the stops as Kate flirts, flits, frets, finagles, flounces, and frightens her bemused family. She is a powerhouse, a termagant, alternatively silky and silly, as she utters such lines as "I don't consider myself a liberal anymore. I'm a New Yorker." And "My father was a Methodist, but it was more of a social thing." And "Kitty never met a plant she couldn't kill." And, on tasting a vintage wine, "Hint of pencil lead." Her extreme colorfulness threatens to eclipse the other, more moderate characters, but it's a fun and lively performance.

Solid actor John FitzGibbon as Kitty's father Huntley all too often has literal or metaphoric plugs in his ears as he converses on cell phones or listens to music, largely oblivious to the domestic conflicts swirling around him (one, revealed late in the play, of his own making). Huntley is gone to his office for large blocks of time to settle a crisis brewing in Turkey, appearing at intervals to bellow at his unruly womenfolk to settle down or to pour everyone another drink.

Christian Pedersen's Paul is sensible, friendly, and good without being cloying or annoying. Sarah Nealis navigates the difficult role of Kitty gamely: Kitty is her mother's daughter, and has strong currents of giddiness and rebelliousness coursing through her as a consequence. It's a little hard to know how we are to see Kitty: is she a determined woman pitted against an impossible mother, or a flighty girl unfocused in her ambitions and desires? The playwright drops clues, but doesn't ultimately enlighten us.

Saving Kitty fits with the season: a pleasant enough diversion after a hot day at the beach. And as presented by the sterling talents at New Jersey Rep, it is sleek and attractive. Kudos as always to designers Jessica Parks, Jill Nagle, and Patricia E. Doherty for creating a beautiful and believable space and ambience—a stunning and bright New York apartment—through set, light, and costume, respectively. And director Evan Bergman smoothly moves us through the confection, aside from one clumsy conveyance at the end, when Hawking's character walked through the apartment but was not in it, breaking an illusion of space and time that could have been resolved by a spot up at stage right.

I have to admit to not being as attuned to the humor as was the rest of the audience, but that, apparently, was my loss. The enthusiastic crowd laughed their way through the breezy, easy piece, and some of the comments I overheard as I left reminded me of the old adage "there wasn't a dry seat in the house."

BWW Reviews: SAVING KITTY at NJ Rep Entertains with Thought Provoking Humor

by Marina Kennedy

July 31, 2013

"Saving Kitty," a comedy by Marisa Smith opened at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch on Saturday, July 27th and the audience enjoyed every minute of it. Smith has succeeded in writing a play that is completely entertaining and truly thought provoking. Drawing on her personal experience, Smith's writing examines behaviors that are commonly associated with the right and the left and calls them into question.

Kitty, a lovely young professional woman, brings home her new beau, Paul, to her ultra-liberal parents, Kate and Huntley who live on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Paul, an Evangelical Christian, will soon be the principal of a religious school in the Bronx. Kate attempts to thwart their very serious romantic relationship; she totally abandons social protocol speaking bluntly about Kitty's former relationships, and ridiculing Paul's conservative ideals. Huntley, a dedicated and loving father, is somewhat removed and distracted from the family drama as he deals with a Middle East crisis for his United Nations job. While the young couple's love for each other is clear, they must confront the clear differences in their backgrounds. "Saving Kitty" plot has a few shades of "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." Yet, it is completely unique. As conversations unfold, conflicts and tensions begin to surface. The play examines an important social issue. It challenges our perceptions of stereotypes; liberal, conservative, religious, atheistic, and differing cultures. The humor is often bittersweet as the characters face real personal dilemmas.

The impeccable direction of Evan Bergman guides the company of four through a series of seamless interactions and the roles are perfectly cast. Judith Hawking plays Kate, who is tragically humorous and doesn't miss an opportunity for banter. John FitzGibbon as Huntley is reserved, thoughtful, and tries in vain to maintain a level balance within the family. Perky, and pretty, Sarah Nealis as Kitty is the centerpiece of the action as her best interests are paramount. Christian Pedersen plays Paul, intelligent, considerate and much more polite than he should be in light of the attacks made on his religion and character by Kate.

Audiences, young and old should see "Saving Kitty." And many will leave the theater asking themselves, "Who needed to be saved after all?"

A CurtainUp New Jersey Review

Saving Kitty

" Thirty-five percent of Americans —possibly more— consider themselves evangelical Christians Mother." — Kitty

Sarah Nealis and Judith Hawking. (Photo credit: SuzAnne Barabas)

Surely the guess-who's coming-to-dinner plot device is one of the more common and most conventional of dramatic cliches as it provides an easy hook for a conflict and an acceptable vehicle for a message. It usually involves an interracial, interfaith or cross-cultural romance seen in the light of either societal or parental disapproval, the possibilities have been endless ever since Jewish Abie fell in love with his Irish Rose. Brava to award-winning playwright Marisa Smith for coming up with a tartly comical twist on this theme with Saving Kitty.

Since well-heeled, middle-aged WASP married couple Huntley (John FitzGibbon) and Kate (Judith Hawking) are incorrigibly sophisticated, smugly erudite, blisteringly condescending New Yorkers living grandly in their "stately" upper Fifth Avenue apartment the politically progressive posturing that marks and defines them need not be considered an oxymoron. Huntley has some important job at the United Nations and Kate is a former actress/soap star, well-read, well-dressed, and more importantly, well-acquainted with the number of men with whom their attractive twenty-seven year-old, novice television producer daughter Kitty (Sarah Nealis) has been previously and frequently dis-engaged.

Despite being prepared for the usual inquisition, brave-hearted Kitty shocks her parents more than usual when she brings home for dinner Paul (Christian Pedersen), a born-again Evangelical missionary with whom she has been dating quietly for months. Kitty's reluctance to have the thirty-something Paul meet her parents may be because they are confirmed atheists with her father leaning generously toward the agnostic.

What drives the ensuing confrontation and the progressively caustic route toward a resolve is Kate's unapologetically acerbic wit. As played to the hilt of affectation and innuendo by a terrifically invasive Hawking, her role becomes the hilarious and often outrageous centerpiece in a comedy that can be savored line by line. Under Evan Bergman's incisive direction the play careens without a let-up from one critical but also laugh provoking juncture to the next.

Empowered by a relentlessly Mommy Dearest-invoked determination to put Paul through the ringer and to undermine his relationship with Kitty, Kate is clearly on a crusade, but certainly not one of a religious nature. With her politely accusatory baiting and barely veiled insults with regard to Paul's religious beliefs and his commitment to his work that includes being the principal of a an evangelical church, Trinity Bible School in New York City, she is unstoppable. But so is our laughter that accompanies Kate's tirade.

Kate's assault against Paul begins during the dinner party, picks up steam again during the middle of the night in a blissfully funny encounter that would make Noel Coward smile, and again the next morning. All of these, however, find Paul extraordinarily polite, tempted but unwilling to offend his future mother-in-law. While it is easy to be tickled by Kate's vicious attacks, witty but blistering opinions, we also begin to see her poignant, heartbreaking side.

The aspect that really elevates this play beyond its clever plot conceit is the dialogue, always trenchantly on target without being mean-spirited and despite its content. A subtext involves Huntley's concerns over an Islamic faction causing trouble in Turkey, but that is less relevant as Kate becomes acutely aware of a more devastating cause and effect of trouble in paradise. The living room setting by Jessica Parks may not presume paradise, but it does infer elegance as does Patricia E. Doherty's costumes particularly for Hawking.

With Hawking giving the kind of attention-demanding performance, it is remarkable how impressively the very pretty Nealis asserts the title character's charmingly rebellious nature into the squabbles. The commendably trim and good-looking Pederson remains ingratiatingly invincible, particularly in how he feels about pre-marital sex, an issue that adds another wrinkle to his relationship with Kitty.

Although this is the fourth play by Smith (it won Best Play in Portland Stages Clauder competition in 2010 and was work-shopped in New York with Harriet Harris), it is the first play by Smith that I have seen. This excellent play deserves a future life in regional theaters as well as in New York where a smart producer should take it forthwith.

The LINK News
Theatre review

'Saving Kitty' a comic look at faith and more at NJ Rep

By Neil Schulman

Christian Pedersen and Sarah Nealis in "Saving Kitty" at NJ Rep.

Playwright Marisa Smith knows that comparisons with "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" are inevitable in her new comedy, "Saving Kitty." The characters themselves acknowledge it. When it makes its New Jersey premiere at the New Jersey Rep this Thursday, Kitty (played by Sarah Nealis) brings home her boyfriend (played by Christian Pedersen) to meet her parents. Instead of race, the issue is faith — he's an evangelical Christian. Kitty's liberal mother, a former soap opera actress (Judith Hawking), is far from pleased.

What follows is a look at faith, love, and politics, with a comic lens.

One of the reasons that Smith wrote this comedy was to shed a different light on evangelicals. She isn't one, but says that they often seem to be "the last prejudice of the elite." She's been at parties where attacks on Christians "were just vicious." She's found that those she's talked to are much more nuanced than the stereotypes, and she wanted to make sure hers didn't come across that way. "He's a very sympathetic character," she said. "I interviewed a bunch of evangelical men."

Her other characters are also based on multiple people in real life, combining various traits.

While Smith says that this is, basically, a romantic comedy, there's more than just an unhappy mother and boyfriend who doesn't fit in to this play. Part of it involves a situation where the Turkish army has been taken over by Islamic fundamentalists.

Smith says that she tries to write to give a feeling of heightened reality, not naturalism. Her writing has been described as "A.R. Gurney on acid." (Gurney wrote "Love Letters"). Working at NJ Rep has been a great experience, she says. Seeing the play acted out, under the direction of Evan Bergman, has allowed her to refine the script. Until you see a play acted, you don't know whether parts are successful or not.

"The actors add so much to it, and they illuminate it so much. They reveal its strengths and flaws," Smith said. "That's what so great about what NJ Rep does. We have an opportunity to work on a play, refine it."

Smith is looking forward to the premiere of "Saving Kitty," when she'll have a chance to meet the final character of the play.

"The last character who enters a play, if it's a comedy, is the audience," she said.

Hell, oh 'Kitty': Publisher turned playwright is coming to dinner at NJ Rep

Christian Pedersen and Sarah Nealis as Kitty in 'Saving Kitty.'' / Photo: SuzAnne Barabas

By Tom Chesek

"I moved to New York to be an actress," explains Marisa Smith, when quizzed about the origins of her writing career. "I kept getting cast as a hooker."

Actually, the Princeton-born playwright came to the role of an emerging wordsmith through a somewhat unorthodox, and very impressive, route — as the co-founder, with her husband Eric Kraus, of a dramatic publishing company.

In business since 1990, the Smith & Kraus imprint has issued more than 600 full-length plays, one-acts, reference works and acting guides — an endeavor that's exposed Smith to a broad range of "amazing" new work, she says, although there was "that one time when I threw a play across the room."

Bitten big-time by the writing bug — and determined to not be the author of the script that becomes airborne — the mother of two young sons parked herself at the public library for an hour each day, taking more than a year to write her first play. Inspired by the "blue collar/ white collar tensions," extramarital passions and general competitiveness of her upper-class, college town milieu, "The Book Group" saw a successful staging in Vermont — and "the minute I heard the audience laughing at something I'd written, I was hooked."

Beginning this weekend and continuing almost to Labor Day's doorstep, New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch presents a new production of Marisa Smith's fourth full-length work, "Saving Kitty." Described as a "hilarious new comedy that exposes contemporary hypocrisies and beliefs," the four-character play uses a classic catalyst of conflict —the daughter bringing home her new beau to meet the parents — to summon up a situation that, by the playwright's account, is also inspired by people she's known and befriended.

"A lot of my plays come from things that bug me," explains Smith. "And living in a small, very liberal college town, I noticed that the only group that these very educated, upper class people felt comfortable making fun of, were evangelical Christians."

"We got friendly with a family of Christians…and I'm very familiar with the WASP culture," adds the Wesleyan grad. "I learned that once you get to know someone, you wind up having more in common than not."

In the play under the direction of frequent NJ Rep collaborator Evan Bergman — a specialist in just these sorts of domestic disturbances, through such past credits as Jack Canfora's "Poetic License," "Jericho" and "Place Setting" — the "Kitty" of the title (Sarah Nealis) introduces her U.N. diplomat father (played by Rep regular John FitzGibbon, recently of "Puma" and "Bakersfield Mist") to her boyfriend. The boyfriend is played by stage-screen veteran and Monmouth County native Christian Pedersen, fresh off a Surflight Theatre production of "Sleuth" that paired him with actor, former U.S. Congressman and right-wing radio personality Fred Grandy.

"The main role in this show is the mother…she'd do anything to break it up," says Smith of the "comic tour de force" part played here by Judith Hawking. There's also a secondary plotline to keep things at a tense simmer; a potential powderkeg involving an Islamist takeover of the Turkish army. It all comprises a Smith style that's been variously described as "heightened reality" and "(A.R.) Gurney on acid."

First seen last summer in a production by the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater company on Cape Cod, "Saving Kitty" arrives at NJ Rep with its second act completely re-written by the playwright, who confesses that her projects are "always inside you…you think about it in the shower."

"I'm so happy to have discovered playwriting," enthuses Smith. "The world becomes your palette…everything can be used. It scares people away from you sometimes!"

Asbury Pulp Fact & Fiction on the Jersey Shore

Writing Kitty

Classic red state/ blue state types make for purple passion, when Christian Pedersen and Sarah Nealis co-star in SAVING KITTY at NJ Rep. (Photos by SuzAnne Barabas)

By Tom Chesek

LONG BRANCH, NJ – When it comes to instantly resonating, high-concept tag lines, the folks at New Jersey Repertory Company know that they don't come much meatier than "Guess who's coming to dinner." From those awkward get-togethers at the Macbeths' place…to the conflict-laden cocktail klatsch of NJ Rep's hyper-recent Happy…having a handful of oil-and-water characters attempt to make nice with each other in a cordial social setting has long been a red-meat menu staple of dramatists and farceurs alike.

When the guests meet the hosts in Saving Kitty, the whole lot of them will have been coached in the social graces by a bona fide specialist in this sort of thing — director Evan Bergman, whose productive association with playwright Jack Canfora (Poetic License, Jericho, Place Setting) has seen many an ostensibly celebratory occasion between families or friends devolve into decadent layer cakes of betrayal, deceit and binge drinking. For the comic Kitty, Bergman works for the first time with Marisa Smith — an up and coming playwright who just might be a VERY familiar figure to an entire generation of actors, directors and wordsmiths.

Add her husband's surname of Kraus, and Marisa Smith stands revealed as one half of Smith & Kraus, co-founders of the dramatic imprint that's published over 600 full-length plays, one-acts, reference works and actor's guides since 1990. As her fourth full-length play to be produced for the stage, Saving Kitty takes a tried-and-true setup — daughter brings home her new boyfriend to meet the folks — and puts a tangy twist on notions of prejudice and progressive attitudes, by framing the parents as staunch Eastern liberals and the new beau as an Evangelical Christian.

Solidly credentialed in professional stage work and TV projects, the cast features John FitzGibbon and Judith Hawking as the parents, with Sarah Nealis as the daughter and Christian Pedersen as the coming-to-dinner catalyst. Subscribers and habitues of NJ Rep will recognize FitzGibbon's marvelous voice and manner from numerous shows; most recently Bakersfield Mist and Puma (in which he played novelist Erich Maria Remarque). Pedersen — a Shore native who appeared on the downtown Long Branch stage in the sensational spooky western Dead Ringer — just came off an engagement of Sleuth alongside actor/ congressman/ right-wing pundit Fred "Gopher" Grandy.

The second-string Theater Desk at Asbury Pulp saved some toil and trouble, and invited Marisa Smith to illuminate us as to the beginnings of her recently minted career as a playwright, and the observations that went into what became Saving Kitty. Read on… NJ Rep regular John FitzGibbon raises a glass with Judith Hawking as the parents in SAVING KITTY, the comedy by Marisa Smith going up this weekend at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. NJ Rep regular John FitzGibbon raises a glass with Judith Hawking as the parents in SAVING KITTY, the comedy by Marisa Smith going up this weekend at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

NJ Rep regular John FitzGibbon raises a glass with Judith Hawking as the parents in SAVING KITTY, the comedy by Marisa Smith going up this weekend at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

MARISA SMITH: I was born in Princeton…my father was a college professor, and we moved to Dartmouth, to Hanover, New Hampshire. I went to Wesleyan…then I moved to New York to be an actress. I kept getting cast as a hooker.

Having been an actor definitely helps you as a playwright…I came to it as someone who had a sense of what words worked best coming from a person's mouth, rather than just sitting on a page. Then my husband Eric Kraus and I started Smith & Kraus in 1990…and we've got two sons, so all of that kept me busy for a good number of years. I got exposed to a lot of amazing new plays in the process…although there was that one time when I threw a play across the room.

Finally in 2005 I decided that it was time for me to try my hand at writing a play…it took me over a year to write my first play, which was called The Book Group. I was in a book group then, and I was very conscious of the blue collar/ white collar tension there in my college town. I noticed how the women in the group would get attracted to contractors, who were working on their houses while their doctor husbands were gone…one friend actually cried when the job was finished, and she had to say goodbye to the contractor that she had become close with. I got to thinking, what would happen if one of these wives went all the way with this contractor.

There were other things going on around that same time…one of my sons was not doing well at school, and so I told myself I've got to get out of my own head; to start writing. I went to the local library for an hour each day…it was very Pavlovian; I was totally in writing mode. Children tend to take up a lot of emotional energy, but I was able to make the time for writing, and to have the time for my family.

If you really want to do something, you find the time…you just do. It's always there inside you; it marinates in there; you think about it in the shower. Chekhov…not that I'm comparing myself to Chekhov…found the time for it somehow, even though he was a busy doctor, he was poor, he got no sleep, he had TB, and all these relatives to support…I don't know he managed to do it, but he did.

Well, The Book Group got produced in East Bedford, Vermont — and the minute I heard the audience laughing at something I'd written, I was hooked. From there I went on to write The Divine Family Comedy, and I was asked to create a few shows for the Hanover Inn, there in Hanover…I did a couple of Christmas shows and a reunion show. Saving Kitty is my fourth full length play, and it came about because someone saw a ten-minute play that I did in the Boston marathon of Plays. Saving Kitty had its premiere last summer, with the WHAT…the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater…on Cape Cod. Seeing that production inspired me to rewrite the second act completely, so what you'll be seeing at New Jersey Rep is nothing like what they saw last summer.

A lot of my plays come from things that bug me…Moliere, not that I'm comparing myself to him, used that same sort of impulse to poke fun at society so brilliantly. Living in a small, very liberal college town, I noticed that the only group that these very educated, upper class people felt comfortable making fun of, were Evangelical Christians. I'm very familiar with the WASP culture, of course…but I also got to meet some Evangelicals, and they were not at all like the stereotype that someone who's not from that world would imagine. We got friendly with a family of Christians; the kids were home-schooled, but would come to the regular school to take part in sorts and music and other activities. Brilliant kids, one of whom now works in fashion, which is not at all the sort of industry where you'd expect to find an Evangelical Christian.

They say that if you say something about an Islamist's faith, they'll chop your head off, but if you say something about an Evangelical's faith, they'll pray for you instead. I learned that once you get to know someone, you wind up having more in common with them than not. And that's one of the ideas behind Saving Kitty…the notion that people who pride themselves on being so progressive and open minded can still approach some people with a whole set of prejudices.

In Kitty there's that one plot, and there's another storyline, in which there's a tense situation developing…the father in the play works for the U.N., and they're monitoring a situation where Islamists are threatening to take over the army in Turkey. But the main role in this show is the mother…she'd do anything to break it up. It's a comic tour de force; the part has been read by several actresses, including Wendy Malick, and it's all part of this sense of heightened reality in my work…my plays have been called 'Gurney on acid.'

I'm so happy to have discovered playwriting. When you're working that way, the world becomes your palette…everything can be used. It scares people away from you some times!

"Saving Kitty" is Purr-fect for Hot Summer Nights at NJ Rep


What happens when a daughter brings home a young man to meet her ultra-liberal Upper East Side parents for the first time and he turns out to be the antithesis of everything they stand for?

"Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" takes on a whole new meaning in this play starring Sarah Nealis as Kitty, Christian Pedersen as her fiancée-to-be, John FitzGibbon as her unflappable father, and Judith Hawking as her mother, a former soap-opera actress who guards her home like a cornered lioness.

The claws come out at New Jersey Repertory Company for the premiere of "Saving Kitty", a 'purr-fectly' provocative new dramatic-comedy written by Marisa Smith, July 25 through August 25, 2013.

Directed by Evan Bergman , "Saving Kitty" won Best Play from Portland Stages' Clauder competition in 2010 and premiered at the Wellfleet Actors Harbor Theater in July, 2012.

Performances are Thursdays, Fridays at 8:00 pm; Saturdays at 3:00 pm and 8:00 pm; and Sundays at 2:00 pm July 25-August 25. Special reduced price previews are on Thursday, July 25 and Friday, July 26 at 2:00 pm and 8:00 pm, and Saturday, July 27 at 3:00 pm. Opening night with reception is Saturday, July 27 at 8:00 pm.

Tickets are $40; Previews are $35; Opening night with reception is $50. Discounts are available for seniors, students, and groups of 10 or more. NJ Rep is a year-round, professional, non-profit theater located at 179 Broadway in Long Branch only minutes from the Jersey Shore. Free on-site parking is available and there is easy access from NJ Transit (North Jersey Coast Line) and Academy Buses.

For tickets, contact the Box Office at 732-229-3166 or visit to reserve your seats online. New Jersey Rep is a member of the National New Play Network, The New Jersey Theater Alliance, Theater Communications Group, and the Monmouth and Long Branch Arts Councils. Support for NJ Rep is provided in part by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, the Shubert Foundation, the Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust, The Horizon Foundation for New Jersey, the Stone Foundation of New Jersey, the Baumol Family Foundation, OceanFirst Foundation, the Investors Foundation, the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, the Jewish Communal Fund, the Community Foundation of New Jersey, Dramatists Guild Fund, Actors' Equity Foundation, ERBA Company, the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, and the American Theatre Wing.

HAPPY Wins Best New Works (Professional) from 2013 BroadwayWorld New Jersey Awards


A human collision, a 'Happy' accident at NJ Rep

Tom Chesek for the Asbury Park Press - Jun. 5, 2013

Susan Maris and Michael Irvin Pollard tank up on Tanqueray and spill some secrets in 'Happy,' on stage now at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. / Photo: SuzAnne Barabas

What would dramatists do without the dinner party — that social situation wherein the drinks flow a little too freely, tongues and ties get loosened up, the dirtiest of laundry gets hung out on the line, and blood, wine and Sunday sauce splatter about in equal measure?

A particularly uncomfortable soiree sits at the dark heart of "Happy," the not at all ironically titled play by Robert Caisley that's onstage now at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. Presented as a "rolling" world premiere in cahoots with the National New Play Network collective, the production reunites company co-founder and director SuzAnne Barabas with one of her most versatile human assets — actor Michael Irvin Pollard.

In his eighth mainstage project for NJ Rep, Pollard is Alfred, a suburban niceguy husband and father, a largely anonymous academic, and — as is clear from the outset — a most happy fella. Given over to nervous chuckles at the slightest prompting; able to laugh even at having his clothes ruined by a puddle-hopping SUV, Alfred is a guy who, we learn soon enough, "has never lost his temper" — one who remains "freakishly happy" despite some obvious professional frustrations, and the ongoing care of a daughter afflicted with serious "medical issues."

It wouldn't rate as much of a spoiler alert to suggest that such a character's sunny-side-up attitude couldn't possibly last too many minutes on the dramatic stage — and in the process of a single, fast-moving, intermission-free act, Caisley, Barabas and Pollard succeed in turning this happy man's world completely inside out, and not in a funny way. To speed this process along, the playwright has reached into the brimstone-choked brick ovens of Hell, and delivered us an Eva.

The new girlfriend of Alfred's old school buddy Eduardo — and an artist whose metal sculptures adorn Eduardo's loft space in a not-fully-gentrified urban neighborhood — Eva (Susan Maris) is no sullen and sneering art-goth. A master player of head games and a mischievous invader of personal space, the young sociopath is a bolt of dark energy sent to bedevil the hapless Alfred into a state of complete imbalance — peppering him with personal questions, plying him with straight gin, putting forth stories of personal tragedy (that might just be total fabrication), playing the tease, and stripping him of his carefully crafted defenses as quickly as his puddle-soaked chinos.

With Eduardo (Mark Light-Orr) off on a wine run, and Alfred's wife Melinda (Wendy Peace) due to arrive by separate car, the two are left alone in a booze-filled apartment that becomes a supercollider for a couple of particles that cannot co-exist within the same space. When the others finally show up, they do little to buffer the comfort zone — Eduardo turns out to be a graying fratboy with some inscrutable motives and nagging insecurities of his own, while Melinda's general obliviousness (and reliance upon pop-therapy tropes) has done nothing to pull Alfred back from the precipice. Each of them has also apparently had a run-in with the same SUV-driving "gangsta Napoleon" who splashed Alfred.

Sharing a confined space with these unpalatable characters, the audience might go in search of something good and true — and come back only with the observation that Melinda is even more deliriously deluded than her happy hubby. Or that Eduardo tends to channel Ricky Ricardo when he becomes upset. Or that Eva — a grown woman who snores at other people's stories; who insults, curses at and flashes her boyfriend's longtime pal; who feigns forgetfulness of everything she said five minutes ago — is not so much a person as some obnoxious obstacle in a holographic video game.

There's really only one way out of this dismal dinner date, and that's via another proven and effective device from the dramatist's toolbox — the climactic meltdown of the play's put-upon protagonist. Coupled with some late-innings revelations regarding the real reason that he and Melinda were invited to the loft, Alfred's soused and seething (and above all, brutally honest) descent into vitriol and violence serves to put a lot of the characters' bizarre actions into some sort of perspective. The final minutes of "Happy" are indeed something to see, and Mr. Pollard is indeed the man for the job.

In 'Happy' at NJRep, artist makes those around her anything but

By Ronni Reich/The Star-Ledger

Michael Irvin Pollard and Susan Maris in a scene from Robert Caisley's "Happy" at New Jersey Repertory Company (SuzAnne Barabas)

When an ex-boyfriend hit her, Eva covered his sheets in lighter fluid and lit a candle — or so she tells her a houseguest she has just met.

A self-professed fire-starter, the 22-year-old at the center of Robert Caisley's "Happy" only seems at peace when others are agitated — or, in her words, honest. Currently onstage at New Jersey Repertory Company as part of a rolling world premiere directed by SuzAnne Barabas, the provocative show calls to mind two recent Broadway productions.

Eva seems to be related to both the kittenish, ditzy girl who turns out to wield far more power than expected in David Ives' "Venus in Fur" and a proponent of the get-the-guests game of Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

Eva (the charismatic Susan Maris) first appears wrapped onstage in a towel when the doorbell rings. Her boyfriend Eduardo (Mark Light-Orr) — who could be twice her age — has proposed a dinner with his oldest, dearest friend, a man he calls his brother.

Alfred (Michael Irvin Pollard) arrives early, before his wife, Melinda (Wendy Peace). Eva challenges even the most innocent of statements as she plies him with alcohol. "Nice to meet you," he says. She counters, "Is it?"

She seems bent on enticing him as she applies lotion to her calves, only to accuse him of ogling her legs. Later, she places a high heel over Melinda's lap, much to the older woman's discomfort.

At first, the enigmatic Eva stalks kittenishly around the stage. But she grows sour and defensive when others point out what seem like her flaws. She also seems to enjoy stirring up turmoil over nothing, including an SUV driver who splashed a puddle all over Alfred. She reveals sad details of her past openly, almost proudly.

At the crux of her behavior seems to be her assertion that she is uncomfortable around "happy" people. She claims to Alfred that Eduardo has told her that he exemplifies the type of cheeriness she can't stand. Never mind that he appears to be a fairly average, slightly reserved guy who makes the best of things. For one reason or another, her mission is to inflame his temper — and watching to see how and why is riveting.

A once-promising writer, Alfred has largely given up creative pursuits. He now teaches English while caring for his teenage daughter, who has serious medical problems. Eva fills Alfred with doubt about his life choices and the loyalty of Eduardo's friendship. Eduardo, an artist with a propensity to make poor romantic decisions, enjoys Eva's affections and claims to be in love with her. The frazzled Melinda is left to stand by, watch and chatter.

Like Eduardo, Eva is an artist, but by the end, as she works her way under everyone's skin, her work may turn out to be more conceptual than any of her dinner companions realized.

Maris conveys Eva's masterful manipulations with her own brilliant emotional fluidity, clouding over instantly as something disturbs her gleeful, pixie-like front before sulking or bursting into tears. As the beleaguered Alfred, Pollard is fully believable as his reaction to Eva shifts dramatically.

Some of the questions that Caisley engages with aren't new. Must an artist suffer to create? Is everyone who claims satisfaction — or at least those who have significant hardships — lying?

But aided by Barabas' incisive direction, the suspense builds tantalizingly as we peer inside the disturbing world of his characters.

New Play at NJ Rep: "Happy" is only the title…

Jun. 6, 2013

One of the four characters in Happy, Robert Caisley's new play at NJ Rep, ends up happy at the end, but you won't learn here who it is. In order of appearance, it could be 40-something Alfred (Michael Irvin Pollard), who is greeted when he arrives at his artist-friend Eduardo's apartment by Eva (Susan Maris), fresh from the shower and clad only in a towel. Or maybe it's alluring Eva herself, who relieves Alfie, as she nicknames him, of his trousers, which had been splashed in an SUV drive-by.

It could be Eduardo (Mark Light-Orr), also in his 40s, whose live-in Eva is half his age. Or, last but hardly least, there's Melinda (Wendy Peace), who arrives a bit late for her first night out after years of being home-bound, caring for her and husband Alfred's severely disabled daughter.

From left: Mark Light-Orr, Michael Irvin Pollard, Wendy Peace and Susan Maris in "Happy"

Short of who kills who in Hamlet, revealing the end of any play is generally unwise, and anyhow, it's the journey, rather than the destination, that fuels this well-crafted 90-minute play.

It's not a knock to say that Happy follows a familiar formula: The Dinner Party From Hell. That setting not only brings assorted characters together into a confined space, but also, every audience member can relate to a dinner party that went south by dessert. (No? You obviously weren't paying attention.)

Susan Maris and Michael Irvin Pollard

Alfred and Melinda have been invited to Eduardo's to renew the men's 14-year friendship and to meet Eva. The banter between Alfred and Eva, who has a need to divulge much too much personal information much too soon, starts off as light flirtation, but darkens by degrees as the play progresses.

Eva has her own inner on-off likeability switch, which Maris manipulates with eerie dexterity. Just when you think Eva's a real sweetheart, her claws come out and Maris effectively reveals her witchy side. You wouldn't want a girlfriend like Eva. (Or maybe you would; at least you wouldn't be bored.)

Eduardo is a shallow fellow, a characteristic that Light-Orr mines for more substance than meets the eye. His acceptance of a small humiliation by Eva is deftly acted, and like Chekhov's gun, it goes off later in the play.

Melinda and Alfred both deliver revealing monologues. Hers, in which she extols her husband's patience with their afflicted daughter, is movingly voiced by Peace, who goes on to reveal the cracks in Melinda's self-protective shell. In Pollard's playing, Alfred's growing discomfort hovers over the character and indeed the play, culminating in a totally believable outburst that bubbles up until the lid comes off.

SuzAnne Barabas directs with a sure hand, keeping the relationships clear, even as their dynamics shift. This is one of four "rolling premiere" productions of Happy – highly likely the best-directed one.

The play isn't perfect (although Jessica Parks's artist-loft set design is). It could be trimmed and tightened; even several minutes in 15-second snips would ramp up the tension. And guzzling warm gin without so much as a grimace? Don't think so. (There's no ice; Eva has sensitive teeth.)

Alfred's extended rant appears to put a cap on the play. Sure, you think; that explains a lot. But don't leave your seats just yet. Playwright Caisley has a double whammy in store that leaves just one character smiling, and I'm still not telling which one. reviews


reviewed by Nita Congress

May 31, 2013

Susan Maris and Michael Irvin Pollard in a scene from Happy | SuzAnne Barabas

Happy opens with the unexpected arrival of a soaking wet Alfred Rehm, who is greeted by a towel-clad hostess, Eva. It takes us a few minutes to figure out what's going on—who these people are and why they are here—but it takes poor Alfred almost the whole of the remaining ninety minutes to fully appreciate the situation into which he's been thrust.

Alfred has arrived at his long-time friend Eduardo's home to meet the new woman in his life; his own wife, Melinda, is driving in separately, and Eduardo has gone out for wine and bread.

Which leaves Alfred, a pleasant man with a pleasant marriage and a pleasant job, alone with Eva, whom he later describes, quite fittingly, as an "emotional terrorist." She is a decidedly original creation—part Sally Bowles, part Lilith. Every sentence Alfred utters she in some way challenges. She is mean and menacing, and then coquettish and winsome. She is utterly maddening, and nothing she says can be trusted.


Eduardo and Melinda arrive, some food is eaten, and a lot of liquor and wine is drunk. Tongues are loosened, clothes are lost (both Alfred and Melinda were badly splashed on their arrival by a sadistic SUV that is the scourge of the neighborhood), truths and lies and punches are exchanged. It makes for a thought-provoking evening as the nature of happiness is examined.

As always at New Jersey Rep, the set and lighting design immediately grounds us in the play's reality: a boho, upscale artist's home in a seedy neighborhood. Beauty, taste, and comfort inside; hints of a wilder, wetter, warier outside. It makes for a brilliant contrast with what's happening to the characters, where their facades are all safe and shiny and comforting, covering up a much less pleasant and comfortable reality. Director Suzanne Barabas and her gifted design team of Jessica Parks (set), Patricia E. Doherty (costume), Jill Nagle (lighting), and Merek Royce Press (sound) have made some very wise decisions to highlight the ambiguities that the play exposes.

The actors are uniformly fine: Mark Light-Orr's Eduardo turns from warm camaraderie to cold dismissal in chilling fashion; Wendy Peace's Melinda, trying to enjoy this very awkward rare evening away from the full-time tending of a severely disabled child, is brave and poignant; Michael Irvin Pollard, as Alfred, clearly shows his character's move toward self-knowledge; and Susan Maris, as the enigmatic Eva, keeps everything and everyone sardonically, ironically, off kilter and off course.

Until she doesn't.

The play evokes Yasmina Reza's Art with these oh-so-civilized old friends losing more than a bit of their civility on the alter of art, friendship, and understanding; and Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, with its alcohol-induced gamesmanship. One of my companions also sensed a bit of Pinter in the mix. Playwright Robert Caisley has drawn on some very deep stuff, and his dialogue is smart and natural sounding. He has set up a very elegant character arc, and some very smart symmetry and symbolism. For example, all of the characters except Eduardo shed some of their clothes; all except Eduardo shed some secrets too. The damage wrought by Eva in the beginning is satisfyingly, satisfactorily counterbalanced at the end. But there's an odd lack of clarity about time and personal histories, which the playwright should attend to: is it possible that these distinctly middle-aged people have been married only fourteen years (yet their child is clearly identified as being fifteen)? And how did they meet Eduardo, who is either much older than they (if they married straight out of college) or at least ten years their senior? And more disturbingly, is it fair to undermine the adjustments made by a man who has had to compromise to serve his family and save his sanity as hypocrisy? It attests to the intelligence of the writing that these questions can be raised: there is much here to ponder.

BWW Reviews: HAPPY a Must-See at NJ Repertory Company in Long Branch


by Marina Kennedy

Have you ever been uncomfortable at a dinner party? Likely your experience was mild compared to the situation that develops with the foursome in the play Happy, now showing at the New Jersey Repertory in Long Branch, New Jersey.

Great theater leaves the audience reflecting on a play's thematic elements long after the curtain call. Happy does just that. Each line of the script is carefully crafted to divulge the true nature of the play's characters, and the play is perfectly staged, and performed.

Written by Robert Caisley, NJ Repertory Company Artistic Director, Suzanne Barabas, directs Happy with the sleek style that it deserves. The remarkable cast shines a light on the question contemplated by many, "Are you truly happy?" While the play has comedic moments, the piece also possesses a dark side that gives the audience much food for thought.

When Eduardo (Mark Light-Orr) invites his long time friend and fellow academic, Alfred (Michael Irvin Pollard) and his wife, Melinda (Wendy Peace) to dinner to meet his new girlfriend, Eva (Susan Maris), the truth of their lives, individually and collectively, is revealed during throughout the evening.

Eva is a seemingly depressed, temperamental 22 year old sculpture artist who is certain that happiness is not the norm. Her much older lover and famed artist, Eduardo, is enamored with her and very protective. Eva especially victimizes her guest, Alfred, as she challenges his light, optimistic attitude by evoking the difficult realities of his life; a static marriage, unfulfilling career, and the stressful care of a special needs daughter. Meanwhile, his very pleasant wife, Melinda, seems oblivious to the conflict playing out before her. While Eva's twisted, manipulative behavior makes the situation tense at best, both the humor and drama is perfectly placed to keep the audience wanting to know more and more about all four at the dinner party.

The New Jersey Repertory Company is a gem of a theater located in the heart of Long Branch, New Jersey. It is a year-round professional theater which is part of the National New Play Network, an alliance of not-for-profit professional theaters that champions the development, production and continued life of new plays for the American theater.

Asbury Pulp Fact & Fiction on the Jersey Shore

A 'Happy' Little Occasion at NJ Rep

(L-R): Mark Light-Orr, Michael Irvin Pollard, Wendy Peace and Susan Maris are coming to dinner in HAPPY, the new play going up at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. (photo by SuzAnne Barabas)


By Tom Chesek Special to Asbury Pulp

LONG BRANCH, NJ - It's been an effective device of stage drama since long before Banquo busted up Macbeth's banquet: The Dinner Party — where guests get oiled, skeletons get rattled, toasts get testy and the plot gets thickened as lumpy gravy.An invitation to dinner — with all the dramatic dyspepsia that entails — is at the heart of Happy, the new ensemble piece that makes its regional debut this week at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

In it, a well adjusted middle aged guy named Alfred and his wife Melinda are asked to break bread at the home of Alfred's friend Eduardo — with the intent of meeting Eduardo's new girlfriend, Eva, a "sexy 22 year old artist with a dark soul," and an outlook that catalyzes the party into an affair where "truths get twisted, secrets get revealed," and the whole soiree "becomes an evening that spins wildly out of control."

Happy is being presented as a so-called "rolling" world premiere — a play that presents a series of separate "premiere" stagings in different cities, with different casts and directors — by the National New Play Network. Playwright Robert Caisley has been traveling the country, looking in on the previous productions in Montana, Florida and California — and the Idaho-based academic landed recently in downtown Long Branch, where director and NJ Rep co-founder SuzAnne Barabas has assembled a cast that the Idaho-based academic praises as top-notch.The central character of Alfred is played here by an actor who's a member of the NJ Rep stock company if ever there was one: the ever-versatile Michael Irvin Pollard, whose previous co-star turns have included roles as slightly surreal desk jockeys in Big Boys and Ten Percent of Molly Snyder; a wayward hubby in Apple; a couple of taciturn strangers with dark secrets in Dead Ringer and Yankee Tavern; a suit 'n tie patsy in Night Train, and a convicted pedophile in Release Point. He's joined by Mark Light-Orr as Eduardo, Susan Maris as Eva and Wendy Peace as Melinda.

Will NJ Rep have another winner on its hands? Will Alfred forget Eva and find true happiness? And what about Melinda?? For the answers, the second-string Theater Desk at Asbury Pulp dispensed with the questions, and let Robert Caisley fill us in on the origins, and the real meaning of Happy. Read on…

ROBERT CAISLEY: I teach a course in dramatic literature at the University of Idaho, exposing students to the canon of Western Lit. Every year I give an assignment on 'tragic flaws'…and every year I wind up having to read fifty shoddily written undergraduate papers. The same names come up all the time — Hamlet, Oedipus, Othello — and the same tragic flaws, too; jealousy, revenge, bloodlust, hubris Those tragic flaws are always described as negative impulses or emotions — but what if a character's tragic flaw is something that's generally regarded as a positive? What if it's the person's own contentedness? Their own honesty.

It brought to mind a drinking game with a friend, in which we try to practice 'radical honesty.' We try to get around the fact that we tend to protect the people we love by lying to them. I got to thinking, what if a guy who was happy with his life, happy with his job, happy with his 14 year marriage to his wife — what if we got him in a room with an antagonist, with someone who posed a threat to that carefully maintained happiness.

In the play, Ava is actually the new girlfriend of Alfred's best friend. Alfred and his wife are invited to meet her — it's their first time out in a long time— and things spiral out of control.

Our lead actor, Michael Irvin Pollard, is just perfect casting for the character. This is, I think, the eighth production that he's done at New Jersey Repertory, and by the time of our first rehearsal he already had a lot of the words down pat.

I appreciate being able to be there at the theater during the rehearsal process. It's actually part of my deal with the National New Play Network; they offset the cost of bringing in the playwright, and I've been there for each production of the play — except for Miami, although I did see it there.

I think that for the actors, sometimes it initially unnerves them to have me there — they're already used to having to please the director, but on the other hand they've got lots of questions, and I can help.

I've been tweaking it all along. Even today at rehearsal I made a few cuts; trying to trim it to fighting weight despite the fact that it's been staged several times already. It can be such a great benefit, to sit down with them and help them have the best possible production.

C'mon get 'Happy'

New Jersey Rep's newest explores the sunny side of tragic flaws

Tom Chesek for the Asbury Park Press - May 30, 2013

Michael Irvin Pollard, Susan Maris and Wendy Peace in a scene from 'Happy.'' / Photo: SuzAnne Barabas

The way Robert Caisley tells it, the roots of the thing called "Happy" are grounded in the stuff of classic tragedy.

"I teach a course in dramatic literature, exposing students to the canon of Western Lit" says the playwright, a faculty member at the University of Idaho. "Every year I give an assignment on 'tragic flaws'…and every year I wind up having to read fifty shoddily written undergraduate papers."

"The same names come up all the time — Hamlet, Oedipus, Othello," Caisley says with a laugh. "And the same tragic flaws, too — jealousy, revenge, bloodlust, hubris."

The professor, it turns out, is a long way from his classroom this evening, as he sits in on rehearsals for "Happy," the latest production at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch — and a concept that had its origins, like so many great ideas, in a flash of "what if?" inspiration.

"Tragic flaws are always described as negative impulses or emotions," says Caisley. "But what if a character's tragic flaw is something that's generally regarded as a positive? What if it's the person's own contentedness?"

In "Happy," that character is Alfred (played here by NJ Rep regular Michael Irvin Pollard) — a guy who's "happy with his life, happy with his job, happy with his 14-year marriage to Melinda" — even as the relationship between Alfred and his spouse (Wendy Peace) has had to take a back seat to the couple's raising of a special needs child.

On their first night out together in a long time, Alfred and Melinda are invited to dinner at the home of Alfred's friend Eduardo (Mark Light-Orr) — and it's there that our pillar of positivity meets Eduardo's new girlfriend, Eva (Susan Maris) — a "sexy 22 year old artist with a dark soul," and a perspective on life that establishes her as an epic antagonist for the man with the glass-half-full outlook.

To quote the theater's press notes, "Truths get twisted, secrets get revealed, and what starts out as a sophisticated dinner party among friends, becomes an evening that spins wildly out of control."

NJ Rep co-founder SuzAnne Barabas directs the production going up on June 1, as part of a National New Play Network "Rolling World Premiere" that sees the play being presented in several different locales, with different casts and directors, throughout the year. The month-long engagement in Long Branch marks the fourth such staging of "Happy" (following productions in Montana, Florida and California) — and according to Caisley, Garden State audiences will be seeing an ever-evolving work that's been fine-tuned each step of the way.

"I've been tweaking it all along — even today at rehearsal I made a few cuts, trying to trim it to fighting weight," he explains. "It's part of the deal with the New Play Network; to have the playwright brought in."

While he praises leading man Pollard ("Release Point," "Night Train," and five other previous productions at NJ Rep) as "perfect casting" for his positive-minded protagonist, Caisley confesses that "Sometimes it initially unnerves the actors to have the playwright present at the theater — but on the other hand, they've got lots of questions, and I can help."

"It can be such a great benefit to sit down with them, and help them have the best possible production." reviews


reviewed by Nita Congress

April 4, 2013

Michael McCoy, Catherine LeFrere, Darrell Glasgow, Thomas Grube in Noir | SuzAnne Barabas

It's night. Or dusk, or twilight. The colors are black and white and gray. The music is moody horn-blown jazz. The surroundings are brick, punctuated by shafts of light pooling before suddenly, briefly, opened doors. The men wear hats. Everybody smokes. The dialogue is terse, staccato. The stakes are high. No one is who they appear to be, and nothing is what it seems.

This is the world of noir. And director Marc Geller and the New Jersey Rep design team have brought it thrillingly, palpably, grittily to life in Noir.

The intentions are made very clear very early on. We see a bleak set made up of gray walls that could—and will—be a prison cell, a police station, and a series of nondescript but sketchy back alleys and street corners. There are several doors and windows. Tellingly, these windows—which in other stories, other sets, would let in light and air—will never open.

Oh yeah, it's THAT smart.

Tough guy detective McQue is our guide into this shadowy land, laying out his hunches and suspicions as he fills us in on the actions of protagonist Clay Holden, the newest detective on the force. Holden has been promoted on the basis of his reputation for fearless, almost ruthless, protection of his partner. Lieutenant Norbert Grimes quickly takes a shine to Holden, making him his protégée. Holden, for his part, quickly takes more than a shine to the dazzling and enigmatic widow Helen Lydecker, whom he meets at a museum.

The plot swiftly unfolds, primarily through narrated exposition. The elements are the classic tropes of the genre: a femme fatale, a struggle between love and conscience, mistaken identity, misplaced trust, a hidden past (or two), a murder (or two). And even though the elements are familiar, the twists and turns of the plot make the piece inexorably gripping.

Playwright Stan Werse plays it straight. This is a celebration, not a send-up, of the genre. There are no cheap jokes or ironic anachronisms. The dialogue, if not quite as crackling as Billy Wilder's in Double Indemnity, is tight and cool and crisp, replete with lines like "Life is too short for maybe" and "Only the movies are black and white" and "In this world, you do what you have to do to survive." The press materials rightly call this an homage.

And the director sustains this beautifully. Faced with the challenge of a highly talky play with very little action, Geller gives us just that—very little action. The players stand tableau-still, doing little more than lighting cigarettes, inhaling, exhaling, and talking. So when an action is made—a sudden about-face, a threatening move, a looming presence appearing in a doorway—it is all the more intense and unnerving juxtaposed with the surrounding ominous stillness.

Darrell Glasgow is a handsome and properly quixotic Holden. Thomas Grube as Lieutenant Grimes is oddly, intriguingly, reminiscent of Humphrey Bogart, with his craggy face and voice. As Helen, Catherine LeFrere conveys both sophistication and sass, all the while looking stunning in beautiful black and white creations from costume designer Patricia E. Doherty. Michael McCoy played McQue in Noir's original outing at the 2011 New York International Fringe Festival, and it shows: he brings a nuanced, believable complexity to this big lug character that a less experienced performer would have missed.

But what grounds the actors to the piece, and what lifts the piece to the ambitions envisioned by Werse and Geller, are the terrific set, costume, light, and sound design. Jessica Parks, Patricia E. Doherty, Jill Nagle, and Jack Kennedy, respectively, have created a place in which Werse's words and Geller's direction can effortlessly evoke and invoke the noirs of the thirties and forties. And don't miss the very clever opening credits.

A sultry torch-song ode to films 'Noir' at NJ Rep

New Jersey Repertory drama plays like a sultry torch song

by Tom Chesek,

April 8, 2013

Catherine LeFrere and Darrell Glasgow meet on a dark street in 'Noir,' the play by Stan Werse making its world premiere at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. / Photo: Suzanne Barabas

ItIt's "a city where it's always dark and raining;" a place of the dead and the doomed where "the law of the jungle" prevails — and "you do what you do to survive."

The sunless streets of vintage hardboiled fiction can be a maze of blind alleys for latter-day authors who allow the letter of the lingo to strangle the fatalistic spirit of the peculiarly American form. In "Noir," the four-character drama by Stan Werse now in its world premiere engagement at New Jersey Repertory Company, the playwright revels in such genre conventions as the black-widow spider lady, the flawed heroes who aren't as smart (or as stupid) as they look, and the sort of language that turns even the most inarticulate gorillas into world-weary pontificators on the human condition. But in this strangely depopulated 1950 New York — a place apparently without a stick of furniture or even a telephone — pure pastiche has become a chalk outline on the sidewalk; done in by an emerging sensibility that cuts a little uncomfortably close to our current condition.

Werse — who's described his own story as something that might have been resurrected from the vaults of RKO Pictures — has obviously assimilated a lot of films noir and Dime Detective pulp fiction, and has somewhat less obviously flavored this bitter cup of joe with his own perspectives as a practicing attorney (and public defender) in and around his Monmouth County bailiwick. It's a tightly constructed, single-act script that draws inspiration from the gumshoe epics of Raymond Chandler (as well as the criminal passion plays of James M. Cain), with just enough humor and wordplay to keep just this side of the street from self-parody — although lines like "you're more Christopher Marlowe than Philip Marlowe" skirt awfully close to camp.

Director Marc Geller (NJ Rep's "Donna Orbits the Moon") keeps the action blocked like a alluring cover from a vintage bus station paperback; creating a set of pleasing tableaux on the modestly scaled NJ Rep mainstage — a space whose claustrophobic dimensions work in concert with this genre of suffocating secrets, tight situations and concrete canyons. Characters slip in and out of the action; drifting in from doorways like targets in a shooting gallery, on a highly stylized, fully unfurnished set (design by Jessica Parks) with enough forced perspective to trip up Doctor Caligari himself.

The tangled little web of a plot radiates around one Cliff Holden, a young rookie detective at large in a town that's become a colossal old-man bar. As portrayed by Darrell Glasgow, he's a "boy scout" who doesn't drink or smoke — and doesn't indulge in the sort of "good thing" that makes the cop's life attractive to many of his peers — but who arrives on this corrupt corner with a violent reputation, a secret under his hat, and a temper just barely kept in check.

Holden's superior Norbert Grimes (Thomas Grube) is an irascible veteran with a seemingly endless trove of depressingly dead-end stories to tell, a smart-ass comment for everybody and everything — and a certain wisdom to impart, to the effect that justice has nothing to do with the law, and that "Them" is everyone who ain't you.

Grimes also has some kind of long-simmering beef with his partner McQue (Michael McCoy), an enforcer type with "sausage fingers" and a keen (if largely unappreciated) intelligence that makes his legwork potentially far more dangerous than his fists. Chain-smoking and serving as narrator throughout, the big lug has his own agenda to work, and proves himself to be as masterful a manipulator as the most fatale of femmes.

Whatever equilibrium might be in place is thrown askew by Helen Lydecker (Catherine LeFrere, star of the recent "Esther's Moustache") a sultry widow whose life is being complicated by a blackmailer's advances, by her late husband's embittered business associates — and by the fact that she may be falling into something like love, with this oddball young detective who quotes poetry and spends his lunch hours at an art museum.

While a typical Agatha Christie tea-time "twister" can get away with throwing secret passageways, outlandish coincidences and blurted-out confessions into the mix, a Noir story actually needs to make some sort of sick, sad, cynical sense. Werse the public servant has surely seen his share of characters who work the angles — and here in this City of Angles, Werse the playwright has them all covered. The most casual, offhand observations and deviled details rear up to bite these characters in the aspirations, as the plot boils over, the walls bend inward, and scarves and neckties tighten like nooses around cigarette-scratchy throats.

Of course, when a lost-classic film gets rediscovered, the audience is treated to all sorts of extra features — in this case a filmed credits sequence (one that acknowledges "Gowns by Patricia" and an assurance that the narrative meets all standards of the "Hays Code") that keynotes the presentation.

There's another delightful surprise in store — an original song ("I Dreamt of You;" written by Stan and brother Eric Werse, and featuring trumpeter William Crawford and pianist Nancy Scharff) that's beautifully delivered by LeFrere in torchy late-night style. While it does little or nothing to advance the plot, the period-correct number serves both to reinforce the mood, and to serve as an all-clear interlude between some of the more tense exchanges in the proceedings.

As with all the best Noirs, however, it's the language in "Noir" that's the true vessel of the music here. For an actor, this sort of stuff can be as fine a wine as a Shakespeare soliloquy, and the cast savors every end-note of lines of lines like "If you do the right thing and get the wrong result…maybe you didn't do the right thing." But then again, "Right or wrong…what does it matter? Only the movies are black and white."

The LINK News
Theatre review

Hardboiled cops, slinking dames and thrills in "Noir"

By Madeline Schulman

Noir, written by Stan Werse and directed by Marc Geller, is a tribute to film noir, mystery films which take place in dark cities where it always seems to be a rainy night. The homage is loving and respectful, but with some playful touches.

After a brief, offstage jail dialogue, the audience is treated to credits on a movie screen. Thus plunged into the world of cinema, we can appreciate Jessica Parks foreboding set and Jill Nagle's clever lighting, which throws ominous bars like prison stripes across the actors' bodies. We are in the noir world of New York, 1950, where the soundtrack is jazz and the click-clack of typewriter keys as police reports are recorded.

Three of the characters are police officers, Lieutenant Norbert Grimes (Thomas Grube) is a bitter, nasty man, whose response to everything is a sardonic "Yeah." His partner, McQue (Michael McCoy), is tired of Grimes calling him "250 pounds of stupid," and wants to be valued for his brain and detective abilities, not just for his brawn. The third member of the team is Clay Holden (Darrell Glasgow), a rising star in the police hierarchy. Holden may be golden, but he is clay in the hands of the lady that every noir needs, a femme fatale.

Helen (Catherine LeFrere), surnamed Lydecker (possibly in tribute to Clifton Webb's character in "Laura") makes her entrance like Jane Greer in "Out of the Past," her beautiful red-lipped face and sexy dark hair framed by a black hat. Slinking about in a variety of stunning costumes by Patricia E. Doherty (one of the screen credits is Gowns by Patricia!), she soon traps Clay in a web of lies, blackmail, murder, dealing and double dealing.

From the moment she picks him up with "meaningful" chit chat about art, Clay is as vulnerable as the heroes of Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, especially since, like Edward G. Robinson in Double Indemnity, Grimes and McQue are relentless in their pursuit of the truth.

In addition to the rapid fire dialogue, excellent acting, and artfully created atmosphere, the play is enhanced by music. In one scene Catherine LeFrere reveals what we may call in 1950s film parlance a great set of pipes, as she sings, "I Dreamt of You Last Night." Noir is a nostalgic trip to a world that might only exist in dreams but is fun to visit.

Tri-City News


By Hannah Walker

The tough-talking dame who's hiding something terrible behind her red lipstick. A dramatic play of dramatic black and white and the moral shades of grey in between. And one man in the middle trying to make sense of it all, as his world falls down around him. Even if you've never seen a single noir movie, you know the tropes and trappings. company's latest world premiere production.

"Noir," the play by Stan Werse, dives into the gritty world with obvious glee. The four-person cast is tight, perfect in their timing and delivering the 50's slang without making it sound too goofy. Thomas Grube gets the most laughs and ultimately the most pity as the hardened police lieutenant Grimes. Catherine LeFrere is Helen, the dame in trouble who knows more than she's telling, irresistible even as it becomes more clear that she's hardly innocent. At the heart of every good noir is one man grappling with questions of morality and survival, and Darrell Glasgow is sympathetic and winning as the in-over-his-head Detective Holden without once seeming pathetic. Watching over everything and narrating it for the audience in a pitch-perfect streetwise drawl is the hulking Detective McQue, played by Michael McCoy, who isn't half as dumb as he seems. F

rom the faux-credits at the play's start to the silky slink of the femme fatale's dresses, this play is a practical love letter to the best of the form that inspired it. The set, always excellent in the hands of designer Jessica Parks, is a bleak maze of brick and metal, perfectly arranged for dramatic shafts of light to strike through and catch the perfect silhouette at just the right time.

All of that just helps the play's grim elements to go down easier. How to maintain integrity in a world that's just about survival, love used as a weapon, the difference between just desserts and justice - None of this is elusive to the 1950s. Watching Holden decide whether or not to sacrifice his soul to preserve his life, you have to wonder what you'd do if you were in his oxfords. The question isn't an easy one. But like they say, right or wrong, what does it matter? Only the movies are black and white.

A CurtainUp New Jersey Review


" I'm a detective. Because I'm a big guy, people think I'm stupid. Or maybe it's because I don't usually say much. Either way, I don't really care." — McQue

Catherine LeFrere and
Darrell Glasgow (Photo: Marc Geller)

The house lights dim and the credits of a black and white film are projected on the screen, the underscoring as well as the title Noir are easy clues that we are back in a movie theater in 1950. Perhaps it was a time some of us can still remember, but that some only know from the Turner Classic Movies Channel.

At any rate, there was something special about sitting in the dark awaiting the mystery, mayhem and menace that was promised and was mostly delivered in the next eighty minutes or so. Interesting, the wonderfully noir-ish new play by Stan Werse is exactly eighty minutes long and it is a surprisingly amusing and clever valentine to the genre.

Credits complete, the play's three characters soon emerge out of the dark shadows (excellently applied by lighting designer Jill Nagle) that are cast upon the grey brick-walled back streets of New York City and the arched doorways and corridors of police headquarters. It doesn't take us long to see that these three characters have their own issues, agendas, and back stories and swiftly become entwined into a convoluted pulp-detective-story.

Noir is exceedingly well calculated to keep us in suspense as it never lets us forget how far corruption, cynicism, cigarettes (herbal for sure) and most of all sex can take us into the underbelly of a society that doesn't play by the rules, especially when it comes to blackmail and murder.

In this case, the play, splendidly directed by Marc Geller, follows the efforts of Clay Holden (Darrell Glasgow), a tough, brash, thirty-something detective (Darrell Glasgow) as he attempts to keep his professional ethics and equilibrium while coping with two inquiring, resentful and distrusting detectives, Norbert Grimes (Thomas Grube) and McQue (Michael McCoy). Grube is perfect as the sixty-something older detective whose years on the force have made him callous and mean even as he mentors the unshakable, misguided Clay. A big and brawny McCoy is excellent as the much maligned, but quietly brainy McQue, who serves as the plot's narrator.

They make excellent adversaries for Clay who unwittingly becomes vulnerable to the seductive charms of a mysterious, beautiful and rich widow cum nightclub chanteuse Helen Lydecker (a wonderfully enigmatic Catherine Lefrere) with a scheme or is it a scam? She's quite a curvaceous number who not only happens to have long dark wavy hair, very red lips and a sultry voice, but bears an uncanny resemblance to noir film star Marie Windsor. Lefrere gets to sing a nice torchy ballad written by Eric Werse (Stanley's cousin).

While it would be easy and possibly apt to quote some of the funny but never corny bon mots that punctuate Werse's tense and taut and very witty text, I would prefer to keep you in suspense until you have the pleasure of seeing it.

Noir was originally produced during the 2010 New York Fringe Festival. This more elaborate and more importantly slick and polished production should have a prosperous afterlife in regional theaters.

"Noir' a world premiere now at the New Jersey Rep in Long Branch


The New Jersey Repertory Company is currently presenting the World Premiere of "Noir" by Stan Werse, directed by Marc Geller at their theatre at 179 Broadway, Long Branch, NJ. "Noir" will run through Sunday, May 5. Tickets are $40 and can be purchased by calling 732-229-3166 or by visiting

Rarely does the quintessential American genre of "film noir" appear on the live stage but Stan Werse's new play Noir is happily one of those rare exceptions. This is the playwright's homage to a style of cinematic storytelling that has had a profound and pervasive influence on our culture and has also frequently defined how our society is viewed by others throughout the world. Werse takes his audiences on a roller-coaster ride deep into the dark and shadowy world that characterizes noir.

The genre is said to have its roots in German Expressionism and one of the earliest efforts to bring this distinctive style to film was Fritz Lang's groundbreaking movie, M starring the young Peter Lorre. In the U.S. the pulp fiction of the 1930's with its strangeness, cruelty, and erotic elements, as well as its cynical and alienated characters with their moral ambiguities further evolved the genre until film brought it to its fullest heights in the 1940's and 50's. There are some basic elements that tend to characterize noir and which Werse faithfully and dutifully incorporates into his play: There is always a murder, a crime investigation, and a convoluted story, and there is always a fatalistic and doomed hero, who has a special penchant for wit and for razor-sharp observations that he somehow manages to express even as fate and defeat close in on him. And yes, there is always a femme fatale, a beautiful young woman of questionable virtue who he knows full well is bad for him, and who just happens to come along to lure him to his doom, just like all those bad girls in films such as Gilda, starring Rita Heyworth, The Postman Always Rings Twice starring Lana Turner, and Double Indemnity starring Barbara Stanwick. Taking his cue from these characters and stories Werse describes below his own play in the wry, cynical, and lip-curling manner of many a star of Hollywood from Humphrey Bogart as Dashiell Hammett's fictional detective, Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, to Dick Powell as Raymond Chandler's wisecracking, hard drinking private eye, Philip Marlow in The Big Sleep.

"Here are the facts, just the facts … New York City, 1950 … Andrews has left town, Klein is dead, and so is Lydecker. And Betty … well, she's still alive, but someone has beat the pretty off her. And Clay Holden, he has his first big chance as a detective … but this is one case that he may not want to solve. "

Werse's play follows Detective Clay Holden who has been assigned to a new post, to work with the bitter and cynical Norbert Grimes, and with his partner, the "not-so-dumb-as-he-looks" resident enforcer, McQue. As expected, there enters a mysterious young woman, Helen Lydecker. Can Clay maintain his tenuous hold on morality and remain the "good" cop when at every turn he knows only half the truth. Can he survive the corrupt world and the siren-song of the beautiful seductress who has desperately turned to him for help? His career and life are both on the line, and as in all noir stories everything is distorted through smoky mirrors as he searches for clarity, but then as Helen wryly observes, "Right or wrong, what does it matter? Only the movies are black and white."

Asbury Pulp Fact & Fiction on the Jersey Shore

The NOIR End of the Street

They told me there was a broken light for every heart on Broadway…and when the play called NOIR hits the stage in downtown Long Branch, you can take it to the bank that a femme fatale and a greenhorn gumshoe had better keep aware of their surroundings. (photo by SuzAnne Barabas)


By Thomas Chesek Special to Asbury Pulp

I. The "Middletown side of Red Bank," they call it. That place just across the river where the sidewalk races your dreams to see which one can run out faster than a rube's luck at a find-the-lady table. It wasn't much to look at — a couple of beaten-down country clubs, a little roadside joint called Nick's or somesuch — but as I slid over Cooper's Bridge I picked up a faceful of north wind that damn near knocked my hat into the drink, and reminded me that I wasn't exactly enjoying this view from behind the glass of a vodka Collins at the Pearl Lounge.

I'd come to this godforsaken little acre to check out a tip from Gabe the Hungarian, a character I knew from too many nights spent down on the dark end of Broadway Long Branch — a neighborhood that'd long since been given over to the odd bit of Leon Rainbow graffiti and the occasional zombie flick. The Hungarian and his missus, who pretty much had the whole block to do with as they pleased after hours, were in the business of putting on certain types of entertainments for certain discerning customers, at a little out-of-the-way establishment called New Jersey Repertory Company — and their "opening night receptions" were the kind of near-legendary wingdings that I for one wouldn't miss for the world.

Seems that a lawyer by the name of Stan Werse, had come to them some weeks back, with a story so far-fetched that it naturally intrigued my Hungarian friend into pondering whether he could do business with this tall stranger who drove a late-model Chrysler with a kiddie seat strapped into the back. I asked Gabe for the facts, just the facts, and he riffed to the effect that "Andrews has left town, Klein is dead, Lydecker is dead, Betty…well she's still alive, but someone has beat the pretty off her. Clay Holden has his first big chance as a detective…but this is one case that he may not want to solve."

He showed me a folder that the counselor had left with him, marked only with a single word on the front: NOIR. I told him I'd look into this Werse guy, mostly as a favor, and set off down the block to see Ingrid at the Free Public Library.

My request to grab some interwebs time was met with a little European ice, although things warmed up considerably after I paid my fine for never bringing back the Wally Stroby novel I checked out in 2009. An online once-over told me that our attorney friend was strictly on the square — lifelong Jersey guy, State Bar Association, Widener School of Law, former prosecutor, municipal public defender in places like Middletown, Tinton Falls, Union Beach — and that he "loves politics and is an accomplished Playwright."

Hot-botting the word "Noir," I landed on the Asbury Pulp site and learned that it's "a conflation of two phenomena" that says in essence, "doom is cool. You just met a woman, you had your first kiss, you're six weeks away from the gas chamber, you're fucked, and you're happy about it." I scratched the skintag on the back of my neck and stared at the screen while the Freep staff made noises about closing up. Something about this whole business had taken a turn for the Werse, and I couldn't quite put my finger on it. Sure, the public defender was hardly the first solid citizen to have developed a taste for the darker side of Noir — to slip out of the suburban house for a dance with that lurid and seedy genre of empowered temptresses and damaged anti-heroes and streets lit only by the embers of an unfiltered Chesterfield — but it still didn't add up. Why would a hard-working professional and respectable family man risk everything, just to throw in for a couple of hours with characters like a bitter and cynical cop, a mystery woman and "a not-as-dumb-as-he-looks resident enforcer?" And why in Sam Hill would he use his real name? I grabbed my hat and decided to pay a visit to our playwright.

II. The single-name shingle on the door told me that Stan Werse was a Lone Wolf in private practice — and the fact that he answered his own phone suggested it was the kind of one-man office where Philip Marlowe could make himself at home. Werse in person was a long drink of water; dressed in black like Johnny Cash and given over to pronouncements like "never trust a policeman…just when you think one's alright, he turns legit." I was about to remark how much he sounded like a character from an old movie when it hit me: The Asphalt Jungle. The cat was quoting verbatim dialogue from Asphalt Jungle, and Out of the Past and The Big Sleep and a dozen other vintage Films Noir from the 1940s and 50s.

The public servant took a bottle of something out of his desk and set it down in front of me, with the assurance that "it's a gift, for you…these guys are clients of mine." I was about to uncap it and take a swig when I noticed the grinning skull on the label, and the big lettering that read Blair's Death Sauce.

"I've been bought for less, counselor — and tempted by spicier," I jibed, playing abstractly with the little plastic death's-head that dangled like a hoodoo totem from the neck of the bottle. The counselor wasn't even pretending to laugh, however — a shadow crossed his face as he leaned back in his chair, looked past me and intoned, "We're from the generation of unfulfilled dreams and diminished returns…we never had our Woodstock. We went to the movies in Middletown."

I was about to smartphone the nearest film-quote website when it dawned on me that this wasn't a snippet of existential fatalism from some character played by Robert Ryan or Van Heflin. This was the playwright in his own words, and the playwright was talking like a man who had a story to get off his chest — a story behind a story.

I decided to drop the vaudeville act and get right down to brass tacks. "What's the skinny, Stanley? What can you tell me about NOIR?"

"Noir? Noir is about the anxiety, the violence, alienation and obsession that permeate those stories," the lawyer mused, peering through the venetians at an unseen something outside the soulless officeplex. "It's also a style…there's a certain hyperreality to the characters, and on the other hand a gritty reality that people didn't want to face."

"Actually, I meant…"

"The cataclysm of World War Two resonated with the public…violent death became commonplace," the counselor continued, standing up as if to make a summation. "The language in the Noir stories was elevated, and the lines were phenomenal."

"Not noir…NOIR!" I spat, twisting the cap off the Blair's bottle as if wringing some palookaville fink's neck. "What can you tell me about the play called NOIR? I mean, I got a heavy deadline over at the paper and all…"

The lawyer sat back down, dropping into his swivel seat with something akin to a whole-body sigh. At length he rolled his thoughts into words on his tongue, and said,"NOIR is like…it's like walking into a vault at RKO Pictures, and finding a great film that was never released."

As he talked, the whole twisted backstory behind this NOIR episode came into focus. How after winning a New Jersey Playwriting competition in 2010, he felt a compulsion to write "something more visceral" — and how his award winning "neo-noir" screenplay 1954 cemented his interest in that bygone era, as well as a sobering realization that "all noirs require a secret…and our lives today are anything but secret."

Turns out too that our Lone Wolf legal eagle had some helpers after all — including one Marc Geller, a director type who called the shots when Werse's script first went public at the 2011 New York International Fringe Festival. It's probably no coincidence that Geller's been there on the scene for this world premiere engagement in Long Branch; a gig that goes up in previews on April 4 and runs through May 5 before high-tailing it out of LB. He's apparently called in some chits and assembled a crew for this caper that features Darrell Glasgow as the greenhorn detective, Catherine LeFrere as the lady of mystery, along with Thomas Grube and Michael McCoy — the sort of pros who seem to pop up in a totally different city, under a totally different name, every couple of months.

Werse, for his part, had somehow managed to get some innocent parties caught up in this whole thing — including his brother Eric, who he talked into composing some original music and a "mood-setting" song that spotlight the trumpet playing of Bill Crawford, and even an arrangement by Middletown-based Christian singer Nancy Scharff. I mean, you kind of expect a jazz cat to be hanging around this lowlife scene…but the lady who does the big Christmas benefit shows at the Count Basie?

III. While he spilled the details, I was beginning to sweat like a hunk of rancid pork that some joker had carved into a likeness of Robin Williams — and to feel a sting that started in my fingers and worked its way into my scalp, my nose, my lips and the booger-vaults of my bloodshot eyes. Was it me, or was it starting to get hotter than fenced plutonium in here? I took an impulsive gulp from the bottle in front of me, and unfortunately lived to regret it.

"My play starts as a flashback, and has a narration," the attorney continued. "It has certain noir conventions — the spider woman who ensnares men; the sap who gets drawn into it — but the last thing you want is to lapse into camp or self-parody."

"Know what I want, counselor? I want to believe you've been watching too many of those Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake pictures," I said, playing it cool as possible as I hoisted my sweat-drenched form from my chair with a hideous sucking sound.

"I want to believe that you've got more sense than to mess around and get played the chump by the shadowy side of the street. And I want to know that when quitting time comes this evening, you'll be hurrying home to Millstone, to that beautiful family of yours, to take stock of what's real in this world, and to swear off the fatalism, the obsession, the self-doubt that can sap a Noir fan's soul."

"Self-doubt," the playwright repeated, swiveling around to face the wall as I saw myself out of the room through blazing and blinded eyes. "My moment of self-doubt has lasted from 1958 to the present."

I crashed and stumbled down to the stairs to the lobby while a symphony of delicious, white-hot agony crescendoed through every soaked fiber of my being, and the foyer floor rose up to greet me as I landed on the gift bottle that I'd hastily pocketed on my way out the law office. I watched like a dead man through pain-puffed eyes as the thick, dark red liquid oozed out of the broken bottle — and I thought, in those moments before everything went crimson, that if NOIR the play kicks ass even a fraction as much as this Death Sauce, then the Jersey Shore has anointed itself a new Philosopher King of a delightfully damned place called Noir.

His secret life

Monmouth County playwright takes a walk on the 'Noir' side

Tom Chesek For the Asbury Park Press - March 27, 2013

Michael McCoy, Catherine LeFrere, Darrell Glasgow and Thomas Grube are at the dark end of the street in 'Noir,' the play by Stan Werse making its world premiere at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. / Photo: Suzanne Barabas

The seductive "spider women" and the damaged anti-hero protagonists. The distinctions between the good guys and the bad guys that melt into the foggy halftones of its urban landscapes. The sense that no one here is getting out with their soul intact, let alone with life and limb.

It's a town called "Noir" — a dark place in the popular culture that generations have been drawn to, whether through the classic suspense films of the 1940s and 50s, or the lurid covers of the pulp genre fiction that called out to many a weary traveler from a bus-station spinner rack.

It's also a place that's gone relatively unexplored on the theatrical stage, where Murder Most Foul has more often than not been played out in the stuffy drawing rooms of politely proper country estates. When the play called "Noir" begins its world premiere engagement at New Jersey Repertory Company, the desired effect will be, in the words of playwright Stan Werse, "like walking into a vault at RKO Pictures, and discovering a forgotten film noir."

A Millstone Township family man — and an attorney whose Red Bank area practice includes work as public defender in Middletown, Tinton Falls and Union Beach — Werse is scarcely the first upstanding citizen to be lured by this shadowy world of fatalistic femmes, dirty double crossers and the peculiar brand of "violence, alienation and obsession that permeates those stories." For the 54 year old Middletown native, however, this "secret" life as an author of stage scripts and screenplays has resulted in some respectable honors at major playwriting competitions and film fests — including a coveted Encore spot for "Noir" in the 2011 New York International Fringe Festival.

Director Marc Geller, who collaborated with the playwright from the initial phases of the project, brings "Noir" to its first fully staged production at NJ Rep, where he previously helmed "Donna Orbits the Moon" in 2011. For the four-actor drama set in 1950 Manhattan, Geller works with fellow Rep returnee Catherine LeFrere ("Esther's Moustache," "The Judy Holliday Story"), as well as with company newcomers Darrell Glasgow, Thomas Grube and Michael McCoy.

The story — in which a young newbie detective (Glasgow) tangles with cynical beat veterans (Grube, McCoy) and the requisite woman of mystery (LeFrere), as he works to discover the truth behind his first big murder case — employs such cinematic genre devices as flashback sequences and narration, while working to avoid what Werse calls "lapsing into camp and self-parody."

There's also an original score and a "mood-setting" song by the playwright's brother Eric Werse, featuring the contributions of jazz trumpeter Bill Crawford, as well as an arrangement by Middletown-based singer-songwriter and music director Nancy Scharff. Most of all, there's the unmistakable language of the noir form — a lingo that captures both the "hyper-reality" of the genre and the "gritty reality" of what were once called red-meat stories.

"The language in the noir stories was elevated, and the lines were phenomenal," explains the writer who enthusiastically quotes favorite bits of dialogue from such film classics as "The Big Sleep," "The Asphalt Jungle," "Out of the Past" and others. "It was delivered in a stylized way that contrasted with most of postwar America."

The fact that latter-day producers tend to convey those same concepts through "direct statements, and lots of foul language" leads the playwright to muse over the challenges built into crafting an effective noir story in the new millennium — from the modern tech devices that would foil a once-perfect crime, to the realization that "all noirs require a secret…and our lives today are anything but secret."

"We're from the generation of unfulfilled dreams and diminished returns," observes Werse, sounding very much like an existentially musing character from one of his own stories. "We never had our Woodstock…we went to the movies instead."

NOIR: The play


LONG BRANCH, NJ – This is right up our alley.

The New Jersey Repertory Company presents the World Premiere of Noir by Stan Werse, directed by Marc Geller, April 4 thru May 5, 2013 at New Jersey Repertory Company (179 Broadway, Long Branch).

Noir and Pulp go hand in blackjack and you can bet you can put us down for a pair of front row seats. In fact, the entire month of April is looking to live up to its reputation as the cruelest month, in the best possible way and with all due respect to T.S. Eliot.

The same weekend Noir opens, "Stiletto" screens at the Garden State Film Fest, a neo-noir short film out of Chicago that stands some of the convention of the genre on its head. (You can read about it here.)

And New Jersey's own Wallace Stroby, who has staked out the Jersey Shore as his personal pulp and noir territory, will be hosting a screening of a film yet to be determined from the classic noir canon on Friday, April 19 at Asbury Park's ShowRoom as part of the Asbury Park BookFest weekend. He'll be joined by fellow author Dennis Tafoya of Philadelphia.

Stanley Werse would also feel right at home on The ShowRoom stage as well as the NJ Rep stage. Noir is something the playwright has some definite feelings about. Such as, its very definition. "It started as genre," he tells Asbury Pulp. "Now, it's art."

His Noir doesn't just pay tribute to a genre, then. The play is an original contribution to the body of work, or evidence, that noir is a member in good standing in the firmament of great literary traditions.

Werse, a Monmouth County resident and attorney, began his writing career by taking dead aim at the movies. His screenplay, "1954," was a semifinalist at the Austin Film Festival. However, he gradually felt the lure of the stage and began writing plays.

He tells Asbury Pulp he submitted Noir to NJ Rep for review and they accepted with alacrity. There, it became part of their famous staged readings series, and he and the theater company essentially entered into a collaboration to get the play ready for a full staging. It's another world premiere for the company, though a version of Noir was previewed at the prestigious Fringe(NYC) Festival.

As a primer for the initiated or a refresher for its followers, Asbury Pulp enlisted the help of writer Gabriel R. Valjan from New England to contribute an essay on the subject of NOIR. Valjan's flash fiction will soon be featured on Asbury Pulp and the piece also serves a good introduction to his own writing. You can read On NOIR: George Bailey Doesn't Live Here Anymore here.

As for Noir the play, here are the facts, just the facts … New York City, 1950 … Andrews has left town, Klein is dead, so is Lydecker, Betty … well she's still alive, but someone has beat the pretty off her. Clay Holden has his first big chance as a detective … but this is one case that he may not want to solve.

Stan Werse takes us on a roller coaster ride deep into the dark and shadowy world of film noir in this homage to the Hollywood crime dramas of the 1940s and '50s. Detective Clay Holden (Darrell Glasgow) has just been assigned to a new post, working with the bitter and cynical Norbert Grimes (Thomas Grube), and his henchman, the not-so-dumb-as-he-looks resident enforcer, McQue (Michael McCoy). A mysterious new woman has also just come into Clay's life, Helen Lydecker (Catherine LeFrere). Can Clay survive as a good man in a corrupt world in this hard-boiled crime drama? Right or wrong, what does it matter? Only the movies are black and white.

Lawyer by Day, Playwright by Night

Two River Times


By John Burton

LONG BRANCH – For Stanley Werse, a practicing lawyer and produced playwright, the black-and-white world of those 1940s and 1950s movies that dominated his youth – the world of mendacious femme fatales and world-weary protagonists – had a profound influence on him. So much so that he has formed the story and atmosphere for his most recent literary effort, premiering at Long Branch's New Jersey Repertory Company this week, around that world.

Werse's play is appropriately titled Noir, opening April 6 at the theater located at 179 Broadway.

Stanley Werse, a practicing lawyer and playwright, will have his play Noir produced at Long Branch's New Jersey Repertory Company April 4-May 5.

Werse, 55, is a Middletown lawyer whose general practice concentrates on criminal law and intellectual property. But when he's not in court and writing briefs, Werse spends his time writing for the stage.

With Noir, Werse explores the neon-lit and stark black-and-white world of film noir, a film genre that came to prominence in the years following World War II.

The world of noir grew out of a feeling of alienation and grim fatalism that for some screenwriters and directors came from their war experiences, where they sought to explore society's underbelly and the human psyche.

Those movies, which included some that have become unqualified classics like Out of the Past, Double Indemnity and The Killers, usually incorporated devices that became tried and true tropes of the genre, such as a protagonist whose tough exterior hid a damaged soul; the good and bad girls fighting for the protagonist's soul; and the oftentimes double- dealing partner in a criminal enterprise. The filmmakers, who were often hobbled by low budgets, developed techniques such as jarring camera angles, expressionistic use of shadows, literally dark sets (beginning to actually film on real locations as opposed to back lot sets and often after sundown) and pushed the limits of censorship of the time in their double-entendre dialogue and hints of sexuality. The genre's influence remains pervasive, first championed by the French New Wave cineaste (who actually labeled the genre) and can be seen in the work of such contemporary filmmakers as Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese and most pronounced in the movies of the Coen Brothers.

In his play, Werse creates a crime drama set in1950s New York City, where a cynical police detective comes to the aid of a wealthy socialite who is being blackmailed.

And true to the conventions of the genre, all characters have secrets that they would like to remain hidden but are eventually revealed and there is a pervasive moral ambiguity as it shows a world of corruption and violence.

But for the playwright, it is not just homage to a long ago style of filmmaking; but a valid and true addition to the canon, "adding to the body of work," he said.

"I hope people see it like walking into the RKO vault and discovering something new," he said, referencing the one-time Hollywood studio that made many of the best of film noir.

Growing up in Middletown, Werse was ensconced in those movies and continues to remember them affectionately. But more than 20 years of experience as a lawyer has had an impact on his perceptions as well, which is reflected in his writing. "It is about alienation and isolation," and an existential angst as people try to come to terms with a personal and broader, societal moral code, he believes.

Werse's play was produced previously, in New York City in 2011 as part of that year's Fringe Festival – North America's largest annual multiarts festival – and performed at the Connelly Theater. When it was staged then, it was a minimalist production, with bare-bones sets and a small cast.

This production, while continuing to be done in black and white, directed by Marc Geller (who directed it in New York), expands on the earlier staging with a more elaborate set and music composed and arranged by Eric Werse, Stanley's cousin; piano arrangements by Nancy Scharff and trumpet arrangement and performance by Bill Crawford, all current or former Middletown residents. "I think now it's fully realized," Werse said, in keeping with what he had envisioned for it.

"What we're looking for is some kind of compelling theme," said Gabe Barabas, executive producer and co-founder of New Jersey Rep, of the play selection process. "A play that maybe goes in directions that are fresh and challenging."

New Jersey Repertory, a 67-seat theater, was founded in 1997, with the mission of giving voice primarily to new works. It receives about 1,000 scripts a year from around the world; and through its developmental workshops pares down the 25 selected to the six that will be produced annually, Barabas explained.

The theater won the 2012 American Theatre Wing's National Theatre Company Award.

With Noir Barabas said he found "a very stylish piece," and one that uses the film noir archetypes and "language that is very witty and clipped," in that tradition, he said. "I think it captures the atmosphere beautifully," he said.

Along with this work, Werse's earlier play, Buick Becomes Electra or The Torrid Zone, was the 2010 winner of the New Jersey Playwrights Contest and was performed at William Paterson University in Wayne. Before that, his screenplay, 1954 was a semifinalist at the 2004 Austin, Texas, Film Festival screenwriting competition.

He has every plan to continue his law career, but will continue to write for the stage. He sees it as a "natural progression" of his legal work, in some regards, which requires considerable reading and writing. But these efforts allow him to flex different muscles and "You can distill real life into the essence of drama," and hopefully entertain an audience, he said.

His next effort is a play he describes as an exploration of the artistic temperament and integrity.

A little 'Ant' music in Long Branch

Review by Tom Chesek - February 13, 2013

Maria Silverman and Carol Todd are two immigrant sisters trying to stake a place in a strange society, as the world premiere comedy 'Ants' continues at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. / Photo: Suzanne Barabas

"I changed the environment," says doctoral student and dedicated biologist Mia (Maria Silverman) in "Ants," the play now in its world premiere engagement at New Jersey Repertory Company. "I triggered a new set of consequences."

In the script by Romanian-born Saviana Stanescu, Mia — a recent immigrant from Eastern Europe, and a resident in the home of her older sister Kara (NJ Rep mainstay Carol Todd) — is no dispassionate observer but an agent of change; in this case a bold little experiment in which common worker ants will be coerced into sprouting wings and becoming queens of their own newly established colonies.

Working closely alongside one Dr. Kohn (Michael Samuel Kaplan), Mia dreams out loud of Nobel glory and a cocooned career in academia — a dream that finds itself temporarily swatted to Earth when Kara, the family member who made it possible for her to come to America (and who's supported her outright) arrives home one evening and announces that she's been laid off from her job on an automotive assembly line.

Kara has another little dilemma — she's also pregnant with the child of, it turns out, that selfsame Dr. Kohn, the married (and comfortably assimilated) fellow immigrant who apparently played more of a role in the younger sister's academic career than anyone's willing to discuss. While both Kohn and Mia are full of what they believe to be well-intentioned plans for the unborn "pupa," an increasingly depressed Kara's having none of it — a development that leads go-getter Mia to jump in with a somewhat clumsy strategy aimed at helping her hard-working (and aspiring astrologer) sibling to, in effect, sprout wings.

Sprout wings Kara does — although the means by which she achieves her ends don't necessarily sit well with the other characters (and, quite possibly, some in the audience). Nationally renowned actor, director and author Jeff Zinn handles the play — a gently comedic, intimately proportioned take on the larger issues of predestiny, choices, trust and lust — with a nimble pacing that doesn't stop for hand-wringing dramatics. The action (augmented at one point by a short "educational" film) often leaps ahead by weeks or months, and the smart dialogue is put forth with vaguely "foreign" accents that lends a curious quality to lines like "You're particularly beeter today…even beetchy."

Playwright Stanescu has managed to keep that dialogue — specifically the laboratory exchanges between the scientists — framed in language that doesn't bog down in jargon, even as it works to bring the layman audience up to speed with the world of the ant people. Basically, if you're attuned to something like TV's "The Big Bang Theory," you'll appreciate this look in on a brilliant mind for whom "love is not something I'm ready to research."

There are lapses in laboratory-quality logic here, particularly the whole question of just how and when hard-working Kara — someone who takes great pains to spell out the mind-numbing details of her monotonous lifestyle — ever managed to carry on a five-year secret affair with her sister's close colleague. The characters, all of whom share some common heritage, display heightened sensory perceptions here ("you don't smell pregnant;" "I don't smell a future with you") — and the prospect of their successfully conning or flabbergasting each other seems remote.

As Kara, Todd ("Jericho," "Apple" and many others) turns in her usual fine work — painting a portrait of a woman who morphs from a tired, bitter, house-poor prisoner of suburbia to a radiant big-city gypsy, on the wings of a dream (and a dollar or two thousand of borrowed cash). As Kohn, the man of scientific principle who sees no harm in cheating on his spouse (or engaging in a lecherous bit of butt-spanking around the workplace), Kaplan turns what could have been a manipulative troglodyte-in-a-labcoat into a generally agreeable, ostensibly helpful fellow — perhaps a little too much so. We can see how Kara and Mia could each put their trust in him as a friend and colleague. What we don't get is how these two very different women could be attracted to him in such a way that they'd stake so much of their lives and being on a known rascal.

The pleasant surprise here is Maria Silverman, a first-timer on the NJ Rep stage and a player whose ever- resourceful Mia undergoes a pretty wondrous transformation from research-obsessed worker to sex-obsessed queen — with stops at crafty blackmailer, frustrated partier and "immature horny student" along the way. As socially awkward and impulsive as she is book-smart, Mia is one of those characters who are determined to put things right before curtain call — and Silverman's engaging style sounds a light keynote to a play that could easily have been viewed through a much darker prism.

Jessica Parks has designed a highly stylized, multi-layered ant-farm of a set that manages to ground the story in the "real" world, even as it represents myriad indoor and outdoor settings. Special credit to NJ Rep's intrepid costume designer Patricia Doherty, whose carefully assembled outfits convey so much of these characters' transformations and self-image, with a nuance that's downright writerly. reviews


reviewed by Nita Congress

February 9, 2013

Carol Todd and Michael Samuel Kaplan in a scene from Ants | SuzAnn Barabas

Nature versus nurture. Science versus spirituality. Control versus chance. Democracy versus totalitarianism, capitalism versus communism. The war between the sexes, the complexity of sisterhood. Feminism and factories. Laboratories and love.

And, oh yes, ants.

Mia and Kara are Eastern European émigrés whose lives revolve around the fulfillment of Mia's biochemical ambitions, as she does her graduate work guided by Professor Adam Kohn. The subject of Mia's studies is ants; she dreams of accepting a Nobel Prize for her grandiloquent notion of turning worker ants into queens: to give them wings. The human parallel is not hard to discern. Older, embittered sister Kara has worked tirelessly at the local factory to ensure the continuance of Mia's academic career: "I am so tired of American dream; I'd rather have my own nightmare." A wish that she is granted when she is unceremoniously sacked—the first of many downturns for Kara and Mia that force them to confront and question their most fundamental loves, hopes, beliefs, and fears.

The intersecting journeys of Mia the optimistic but naive scientist, the workhorse Kara whose refuge is the tarot, and the jaded academic Adam make for a fascinating story. Playwright Saviana Stanescu has developed a smart piece that roams widely but never loses sight of the three appealing humans at its heart.

The actors more than meet the play's demands, delivering literate, idea-packed dialogue and monologues with humor and honesty. The characters the playwright and actors have together developed are complex, quirky, and utterly believable as they travel ultimately logical but unforeseen arcs. Maria Silverman's Mia is sunny, vulnerable, guileless, and utterly lovable. Carol Todd has created a nuanced Kara who moves effortlessly from darkest cynicism and blackest humor to warmth and spontaneity. As Adam, Michael Samuel Kaplan delivers a character who could be despicable, but is instead charming and highly appealing.

Director Jeff Zinn—together with the able team of New Jersey Rep designers—has tamed the challenge of Stanescu's myriad scene changes (at least two locations inside the sisters' home, two outside the house, and two on campus, including the biology lab) by creating discrete coexisting sets on the modest New Jersey Rep stage. We always know where we are: the hallmark of a very good director. So the lab can be right past Mia's elbow, but she is firmly grounded in her living room talking to her sister—and we are right there with her, not the least bit interested in or distracted by the lab equipment just next to her.

The designers—Jessica Parks (scenic design), Patricia E. Doherty (costume), Jill Nagle (lighting)—have opted for predominately blue tones, which is appropriate: blue sky optimism, but the cold blue of scientific reasoning. The foremost set is similarly grounded in rock. And the set design is dominated by wonderful curling, coiling ant nests that both decorate and inform.

This play is so rich, so warm, so engaging, so full to the brim with ideas and enthusiasm, it leaves you happy, hopeful, and satisfied. And thoroughly educated on the life cycle of an ant colony.

New Jersey Stage


by Gary Wien

originally published: 2013-02-14 12:46:23

(LONG BRANCH, NJ) As a guy married to someone in academia, I never imagined the concept of a college professor sleeping with a student very funny; yet, there I was last Saturday night laughing quite often during the world premiere of "Ants" by Saviana Stanescu at New Jersey Repertory Theatre. This quirky comedy takes a look inside the world of ants, offspring, and how our two species are more alike than you'd think.

The play revolves around Kara and Mia, two sisters who have emigrated from Eastern Europe to a college town in America. Mia is a doctoral student currently working on earning her PhD in biochemistry. As the play opens, we see her practicing the speech she hopes to give someday when she wins the Nobel Prize for her work with ants. Shortly thereafter, Kara returns home. She tells her sister that she's just been fired from her job at the factory a place where she toiled for years, struggling to make payments on everything from the mortgage to her sister's education. As the two are knee deep in bills, Kara tells Mia it's her turn to be the breadwinner. Adding to the equation is the news that Kara is pregnant.

"I'm so tired of pushing toward the American Dream, I'd rather have my own little nightmare," says Kara.

As much as Mia loves ants, her sister despises them. She isn't even sure if she wants to keep the baby, but Mia does. She constantly draws parallels between the ant world and humans, and drives Kara nuts with her talk much of which does sink in. Mia says Kara is a "queen" now and promises to find a way to earn money. While doing so, she comes up with a hilarious outreach program to prevent Kara from getting an abortion. Meanwhile, Kara spends most of her time being sick or reading her fortune from tarot cards.

The pregnancy lights a fire under Mia to earn the fellowship she's been after, which would solve their economic dilemma. Meanwhile her advisor/professor teeters on sexual harassment charges with playful slaps of her butt and sexual innuendo remarks. Mia devises a plan to utilize these advances to blackmail her advisor while simultaneously changing the project she's working on with her instructor to the one she really wants radically altering nature by converting worker ants into queens -- a project she believes will ultimately lead to the Nobel Prize for her.

I'm someone that wouldn't normally find the subject of ants very interesting, but I was captivated by the project and the larger issue of nature versus nurture. Are the lives of ants really pre-determined based on their social class? Are the lives of humans? To really understand the implications of her project, Mia decides she must learn more about mating itself. With flyers around campus, she offers herself up to anyone who wishes to take part. One person responds, and the night changes Mia's life in more ways than one.

Throughout the play, Mia lives her life as one would imagine a scientist to. She feels she can control her environment and change real-life situations as easy as she does in the lab. While nice in practice, she soon learns that life doesn't work that way.

This highly enjoyable play stars Maria Silverman as Mia; Carol Todd as Kara; and Michael Samuel Kaplan as Adam Kohn, the professor. Jeff Zinn directs. "Ants" runs at New Jersey Repertory Theatre (179 Broadway, Long Branch, NJ) through March 10.

'Ants' in Long Branch

NJ Rep hosts world premiere play

February 3, 2013

'The main aspect of all my plays has been people coming to New York City from other countries — or even just other towns — and how they negotiate an identity between old and new sets of values,'' Saviana Stanescu says. / Courtesy of NJ Rep

"It's about the American Dream," says Saviana Stanescu, highway-bound to Ithaca, N.Y., on a bracingly arctic winter's night.

The playwright, poet, professor and self-described "ARTivist" — a woman whose capsule bio reads "born in Bucharest, Romania, on a cold February morning during Ceausescu's dictatorship, and 'reborn' in New York in the hot days of 2001" — was on her way back from Long Branch, where she recently spent a few days "talking, laughing and watching movies" with the folks from New Jersey Repertory Company.

It's there that Stanescu looked in on rehearsals for "Ants," her three-character play that begins its world premiere engagement on Thursday, Feb. 7.

The quirky comedy about two sisters named Kara and Mia — emigrants from Eastern Europe with widely divergent career paths — would appear at first to be of a piece with Stanescu's body of works for the theater. That folio includes "Aliens with Extraordinary Skills" (about the quest for a U.S. work visa by a clown from unhappy Moldova), "Lenin's Shoe" (in which young Eastern European immigrants in Queens get lost in a world of blogging, rapping and murderous schemes), and "Waxing West" (in which a Romanian immigrant's life is complicated by the appearance of vampire versions of Mr. And Mrs. Ceausescu).

"For this production, we've made the sisters from an East European background. ... But when I wrote it, I didn't want to specify where these people were from," says the author, who came to the United States on a Fulbright grant to NYU in 2001. "I want to see it performed by Asian casts, African casts, Latinos.

"The main aspect of all my plays has been people coming to New York City from other countries — or even just other towns — and how they negotiate an identity between old and new sets of values," she adds. "How they find their potential, make a new home, the things they keep from the old country."

In the production helmed by Jeff Zinn — artistic director of Cape Cod's WHAT stage company, and son of the late Howard Zinn, author of "A People's History of the United States" — older sister Kara (NJ Rep regular Carol Todd) is a long-suffering factory worker — sole breadwinner in a household that also includes doctoral student Mia (Maria Silverman). A brilliant biochemist, Mia is working under the supervision of Dr. Kohn (Michael Samuel Kaplan) on a game-changing scientific breakthrough — a process by which worker ants can be converted into queens.

When Kara's livelihood is threatened, however, Mia is forced to leave the insular and orderly world of her studies and rejoin the uncomfortable world of humans — putting into play "a radical solution to save the lifestyle she has almost grown to love, her sister's teetering sanity, and her beloved ants."

Despite the plot points involving worker ants and factories, however, Stanescu is quick to point out that "I don't want to draw a clear parallel between East and West, Communism and Capitalism. ... I may be pushing some stereotypes in a sense, but it's not so much political as personal.

"Basically, this play takes on big themes but keeps the focus on the sisters, on the women's choices," she said.

The faculty member at the Tisch School and Ithaca College is having the time of her life working with NJ Rep producers Gabe and SuzAnne Barabas, the veteran new-play proponents who "really understand my work. They take risks. They have a vision."

Stanescu was equally impressed by the audience who attended a 2012 staged reading of "Ants" in Long Branch, a group that she praises as "intelligent, passionate, interested in the details and the process of development." "I hope, in the process of making people think with this play, that I make everything fun," she says. "It's about love, sexuality, desire, passion — and ants!"


A World Premiere


The New Jersey Repertory Company is proud to present the World Premiere of ANTS by Saviana Stanescu, directed by Jeff Zinn. ANTS will begin preview performances on Thursday, February 7, 2013 and will celebrate its opening night on Saturday, February 9 at New Jersey Repertory Company (179 Broadway, Long Branch, NJ), running through Sunday, March 10.

Kara and Mia are sisters who emigrated from Eastern Europe and have been in living in America for a number of years pursuing what seems an increasingly elusive American dream. Kara works in a factory twelve hours a day doing backbreaking work so that she can make the mortgage payments, put food on the table and enable her younger sister to obtain her PhD in biochemistry. Mia is not just any doctoral student, however. She is brilliant, and her field of work under the watchful gaze of her supervisor, Dr. Kohn, is the world of ants. Completely unworldly and awkward with her fellow humans, Mia is very much at home with her ants, and is on the brink of a groundbreaking discovery - the ability to radically alter nature and convert workers into queens. If she succeeds the discovery would revolutionize biology and would have far-reaching implications for other species, including man. Mia is already rehearsing her Nobel Prize acceptance speech in front of her mirror when as luck would have it, fate rudely intervenes, forcing Mia to come out of her shell and improvise a radical solution to save the lifestyle she has almost grown to love, her sister's teetering sanity, and her beloved ants.

It's a Picnic; Bring the ANTS

Upper WET Side - January 31, 2013 
Carol Todd and Michael Samuel Kaplan co-star in ANTS, the comedy by Saviana Stanescu that makes its world premiere run beginning February 7 at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. (photo by SuzAnne Barabas)

Her fabulous folio of full-length and one-act plays includes Aliens with Extraordinary Skills, in which an unemployed clown from (fictional but extremely unhappy) Moldava desperately avoids deportation while bonding with other lost souls in New York City. Aurolac Blues, in which "Two Gypsy street-kids, high on Aurolac (a silver-paint that's huffed from plastic bags), dream of an America they know from movies and McDonalds leftovers." Waxing West, in which a Romanian cosmetologist's new life in NYC is complicated by the appearance of executed Soviet-era dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, who happen to be vampires.

She's Bucharest-born Saviana Stanescu, and if you're discerning a pattern in her body of work, it's probably a good time to mention that Ants, her play that goes into previews on Thursday, February 7 at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, involves a couple of sisters who've emigrated from an Eastern European country.

Beyond that, all bets are delightfully off, as the offbeat three-character comedy goes its own way, via a storyline that centers around the relationship between factory worker (and older sister) Kara, her younger, dependent student sibling (and brilliant biochemist) Mia, an academic associate, and a whole lot of endlessly fascinating ants.

Those titular critters are the subject of study for Mia (Maria Silverman) and Dr. Kohn (Michael Samuel Kaplan), who are endeavoring to perfect a process via which worker ants can be converted into queens. That lifestyle of pure research is threatened, however, when Kara (the great NJ Rep stock company regular Carol Todd) is hit by a double whammy — she's lost her job, and she's pregnant. It's up to Mia, never exactly a people person, to enact "a radical solution to save the lifestyle she has almost grown to love, her sister's teetering sanity, and her beloved ants."

Actor and director Jeff Zinn — whose late father was Howard Zinn, celebrated author of A People's History of the United States, and whose cuban-heeled shoes can be seen standing in for John Travolta in the opening moments of Saturday Night Fever — wrangles the human members of the cast in a show that's being described as a "quirky comedy…with an accent."

Your upperWETside correspondent spoke to Stanescu — a faculty member at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, as well as at Ithaca College — while she headed back to sunny Ithaca, NY following a stimulating interlude of looking in on rehearsals, laughing and watching movies with NJ Rep's Gabe and SuzAnne…

Playwright, poet, professor and "ARTivist" Saviana Stanescu — a woman whose capsule bio reads "born in Bucharest, Romania, on a cold February morning during Ceausescu's dictatorship, and 'reborn' in New York in the hot days of 2001″ — visits Long Branch in the balmy days of February for the opening of her three-character play ANTS.

upperWETside: Without knowing a whole lot about ANTS coming in to this conversation, I pick up on the fact that it has a couple of immigrants from Eastern Europe at the heart of it; a thread that runs through pretty much all of your plays and a rich vein of material that I'm sure you're still mining for gold…

SAVIANA STANESCU: The main aspect of all my plays, since coming to the United States on a Fulbright grant in 2001, has been people coming to New York City from other countries — or even just other towns — and how they negotiate an identity between old and new sets of values. How they find their potential, find themselves, make a new home; the things they keep from the old country and the things they do to find a new identity.

For this production, we've made the sisters from an East European background, with the accents…but when I wrote it I didn't want to specify where these people were from. I want to see it performed by Asian casts, African casts, Latinos…immigrants from anywhere in the world.

So when you get the germ of an idea for a script, what do you tend to draw upon from your own 'old country' background? Was there a specific experience or person who inspired the work that would become ANTS?

It was inspired by something I heard on an NPR program…some professors were talking about ants, how they reproduce, how they fulfill their roles; talking about it with such humor that it made me listen. It seems that worker ants are attacked if they try to reproduce, and the professors were wondering what would happen if those ants were allowed to have sex…it's an experiment that really happened, and it provided the basic idea for the play.

All the talk of worker ants; the whole social hierarchy of the ant colony and the attempts to radically transform a regimented system of doing things…could we take this as a comment upon the order that you grew up under, back in the Bloc?

I don't want to draw a clear parallel between East and West, Communism and Capitalism…I'm not pointing to just one way of society. I may be pushing some stereotypes in a sense, but it's not so much political as personal. And I hope, in the process of making people think with this play, that I make everything fun.

This play was presented as one of New Jersey Rep's series of script readings, which they've been doing for many years and from which so many of their fully staged productions have evolved. Did they kind of find you first, or did you approach them with your play, knowing the kind of reputation they've acquired after so many years of presenting nothing but brand new works?

I sent it to them, and it was done as a reading about a year ago, which I was there for. I was very impressed with the audience…they were intelligent, passionate, interested in the details and the process of development.

New Jersey Repertory is a highly professional environment. The people there, Gabe and SuzAnne, have great taste, and they really understand my work…they take risks; they're not following any trend. They have a vision.

They also have quite a flair for dark comedies. They've put things up on their stage, under the premise of doing comedy, that raised an eyebrow with me…and I thought I'd seen everything. Looks like ANTS could definitely take its place within that tradition of satirical, challenging, subversive works with a wicked sense of humor.

I try to bring a sense of tragicomedy to all my plays. Basically, this play takes on big themes, but keeps the focus on the sisters, on the women's choices. It's about the American Dream. It's about love, sexuality, desire, passion…and ants!

It's a wonderful 'Esther'

World-premiere comedy at NJ Rep an alternative holiday offering

Written by Tom Chesek For the Asbury Park Press

Dec 19

Uma Incrocci looks on approvingly as Catherine LeFrere and Burt Grinstead tweak the corners of cold reality and comic-book fantasy in the world premiere comedy 'Esther's Moustache' at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. / Photo: SuZanne Barabas

It probably goes without saying that most of us can use a laugh or two in this particularly challenging season — but even if you're simply searching for a viable alternative to the Scrooges, Nutcrackers and George Baileys that commandeer the local stages each year, there still exists an alternative to the alternative of Peking duck and a screening of "The Guilt Trip."

"Esther's Moustache" is the name of the new play now in its world-premiere run at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, and while the comedy by playwright and actor Laurel Ollstein opened at the end of this year's Hanukkah celebration, it really shouldn't be regarded as a "holiday" show — although it does have latkes to spare.

A surreal sitcom of a conflicted Jewish cartoonist, the fictional character who serves as her only sounding board, the young German stud with whom she's initiated a sex-based relationship — and the old-school grandmother who shows up out of the blue to further complicate her life — "Esther's" shares a few elements in common with the sort of zany-relative dinner theater fare that tends to market itself with taglines like "You don't have to be Jewish to laugh yourself silly!" Ollstein's script runs deeper than that; touching upon themes that include the ways in which we run from our past, the things we find attractive in other people's cultures, and the gifts that our families bestow upon us, whether we realize it or not. And of course, it does get delightfully silly in spots, too.

The Los Angeles-based Ollstein directs a four-player cast toplined by returning Rep veteran Catherine Lefrere as Maddie, the rather reclusive creator of adults-only comics for Raunch Magazine — and a non-observant Jew who worries that "soon I will get shorter, and tell long pointless stories." Although she lives alone in a somewhat stylized version of an urban artist's studio (detail-correct in its inclusion of boxed wine), she shares the space and maintains an ongoing conversation with Lillith (Uma Incrocci) — the sexy star of Maddie's softcore epics, and a slinky blonde Harvey equipped with shimmering red dress and a knack for fostering codependency.

Into this circle of two come a couple of unexpected guests — first of all Gerd, a buff young Aryan messenger with a pair of rollerblades, an earnest curiosity about Jewish traditions, and a second job at a bakery unfortunately named The Toasty Oven. The sheer novelty of Gerd (delightfully played by Burt Grinstead, who originated this role in a West Coast reading) is sufficient to force Maddie out of her flannels and PJs — and back into the makeup, op-art dresses and bedroom that she'd been neglecting of late. Still, it's the imminent arrival of the next surprise guest that elicits the most marked physical change in Maddie — the stirrings of an old-world hereditary moustache.

Force to be reckoned with

When Jim Shankman last appeared on the NJ Rep stage in "Jericho," he co-starred as a conflicted man whose serious explorations of his own Jewishness caused some equally serious problems with his troubled marriage. In his latest role, it's as if his previous character went so deep inside himself as to pop out the other side in the guise of Esther — Maddie's paternal grandmother, and a force of nature who rolls in with fully packed steamer trunk, mezuzah, hot plate and those curiously warm and delicious potato latkes.

Although Shankman has the comical Bubby basics down pat, this is far from a campy "Hairspray" drag outing. His Esther is a force to be reckoned with — at turns wise, contrary, sympathetic, hypocritical, manipulative, and full of contagious quantities of life, spirit and inspiration. The actor very quickly finds a comfortable rapport with both the character and the audience, the better to help Ollstein carry the story into some unexpected places.

In an unanticipated journey of a different kind, Maddie finds herself transported through the looking glass (so to speak) and into a Cartoon World of her own creation — a place of hyperkinetic pacing and heightened sound effects, where even the most over-the-top gags and skits carry the seed of a valuable lesson (and where all of the women sport luxurious 'staches).

Ollstein the director coaxes the best from her talented cast, with Lefrere really stepping up to the spotlight role of a wisecracking woman whose tragedy-scarred family spent their days "eating bad news for breakfast." Shankman and Grinstead have some wonderful exchanges as their characters form an unlikely bond, based in a sincere trust and a seductive batch of kreplach ("filled with what you need"). And while the show is never exactly a slam-bang sidesplitter, it does reach its conclusion of conciliation and discovery in a sweetly satisfying manner. reviews

Esther's Moustache

reviewed by Nita Congress

December 13, 2012

"Embrace the past—it makes you who you are."

That is the means, message, and moral of Esther's Moustache, a light, quirky comedy deftly presented by the top-flight pros at New Jersey Repertory Company.

Embittered and unhappy Maddie Sternberg has shut herself off in her home studio, drawing a weekly comic strip of the escapades of her alter ego, ditzy sex goddess Lillith. Much like Ebenezer Scrooge, Maddie needs no one and nothing. But also like Scrooge, she is awakened, annoyed, and ultimately enlivened by a series of intrusive visitors who force her to engage with her past, her present, and her future.

Leading the charge is her grandma Esther, a compendium of stereotypic matriarchal behaviors and attitudes. As she unpacks her commodious trunk, Mary Poppins–style, everything from chairs to kreplachs emerge. Esther serenely commandeers Maddie's cold, Mondrian-inspired artist's studio, fashioning a homey little corner replete with Club Aluminum, family photos, doilies, and latkes. Maddie rails and rebels against the intrusion. As does Lillith, who occupies a sparsely decorated but cartoonishly colorful boxy curtained panel just behind Esther's newly claimed territory. Blonde, beguiling, and beautiful, Lillith is not at all happy about this new visitor, and she pointedly consults a "Dummies" guidebook to get a handle on Esther's strange customs and guttural language.

Gerd is another visitor. He is the unbelievably studly, handsome messenger who has taken on the task of picking up Maddie's weekly strip and conveying her pay. Gerd is blue-eyed, blond—and German, which is decidedly off-putting to Esther. Angrily—and literally—Maddie embraces the innocent, worshipful Gerd, who skates into her arms—also literally.

These four highly appealing characters then mix it up, both in Maddie's studio and Lillith's dream world to wrestle with issues of identity, inclusion, and intervention. And because this is a comedy, everything comes out right in the end, just as it should.

Playwright Laurel Ollstein has given the cast pithy, wry dialogue that both quickly reveals character and gives the actors room to deepen their portrayals. For example, Maddie challenges Esther's reminisces with a tart: "You left Poland when you were two months old. How could you walk to Russia?" only to be met by Esther's witheringly matter-of-fact rejoinder: "You tell your stories. I'll tell mine." And the endearingly questing Gerd hopefully explains to Maddie that his family has no analogue for the colorful, vibrant Esther: "So, I'm taking your traditions; do you mind?"

The cast is warm and funny and vital. Jim Shankman plays Esther with no winks or nods to cross-dressing caricature, creating as believable a character as possible. Uma Incrocci is delicious as the insouciant Lillith, coy and playful and appropriately two-dimensional. Burt Grinstead's Gerd is a pleasure, a friendly, honest hunk with a surprisingly open and active mind and heart. Gerd is in fact so appealing that his journey almost overshadows that of Catherine LeFrere, as Maddie moves from cold remoteness to warm acceptance.

Smart staging typifies a New Jersey Rep experience, and this play, directed cleanly and clearly by the playwright, is no exception. The small stage is used intelligently to show Maddie's interactions in her real and dream worlds. And the colorful, witty, and imaginative costumes, sets, props, and projections of the design team—Jessica Parks, Jill Nagle, Patricia E. Doherty, and Merek Royce Press—bring both worlds vividly to life.

I am not sure that the metaphor that lends the play its title is particularly apt or well-thought through. Nor am I convinced that all the characters are quite real or realistic. But the play as a whole is uplifting and exceedingly well done, and fittingly apropos to a post-hurricane holiday season of hope and renewal.

The LINK News
Theatre review Esther's Moustache December 20, 2012

Huge smiles under Esther's Moustache at NJ Rep

By Madeline Schulman

In "Esther's Moustache", the hilarious new offering by the New Jersey Repertory Company, Maddie Sternberg(the charming Catherine Lefrere) is having a bad day. To start with, she has hair growing on her upper lip. Next, she is suffering writer's block. Maddie's livelihood is a series of raunchy cartoons and graphic novels, Oh My Goddess! Her creation and alter ego is the beautiful blond Lilith, who although imaginary, is visible to the audience (Uma Incrocci, sexy, funny, and resplendent in a glittery red dress). But she is out of new ideas.

Maddie's troubles are not helped by the arrival of a hunky German messenger with a huge crush on her (Burt Grinstead – who merits praise for his accent and roller blading), and they are multiplied by the entrance of her grandmother, played by Jim Shankman, hilariously channeling an old Jewish lady.

Grandmother Esther, whose genes have cursed Maddie with the incipient moustache, is prepared to stay for a while. Her huge trunk holds folding furniture, family pictures, a warm plate of latkes, and much more.

Maddie is not happy to see her grandmother. " Have you ever been satisfied Esther?" she asks, and the reply is, " I made a particularly fine brisket once."

To discourage Esther, Maddie pretends that Gerd is her boyfriend, a pretense which he is thrilled to go along with. But Esther stays, protecting the floor with plastic, nailing up a mezuzah, making kreplach and dredging up memoires Maddie would rather leave buried.

Even Lilith is affected by the news that Maddie is Jewish. She starts reading Jewish Stereotypes for Dummies, learning such wisdom as " Jews don't drink. It interferes with their suffering."

There are many delights during Esther's Moustache. There are witty screen projections in Lilith's stage area. Gerd's post-coital costume, and the clothes he wears after coming under Esther's influence are very funny, and so is a dream sequence in which Maddie tries to get rid of the moustache. The characters learn from each other and evolve, even Lilith in a cartoon character way. The actors are perfect for their roles. There is a huge smile under this mustache.

Esther's Moustache: Not Your Parents' Jewish Family Comedy

Review by Bob Rendell, Talkin' Broadway

Burt Grinstead, Jim Shankman, Catherine LeFrere and Uma Incrocci

Oy, how to describe the mishugina (crazy) world premiere comedy Esther's Moustache, which is a perfect fit for the valuable New Jersey Repertory Theatre in Long Branch, New Jersey?

Following a bit of mood setting, frenetic Klezmer music, the lights come up on Maddie Steinberg's disheveled one bedroom Venice, California, beach cottage. Maddie is a graphic artist who draws a lauded comic strip for the popular California weekly paper which goes by the name of Raunch Magazine. In place of a portion of the back wall of Maddie's work space is a life-sized comic strip panel within which we see digitally projected images of her graphic art as she creates it. The panel is often occupied in the flesh by a vapid blonde, Super Heroine Goddess of Maddie's strip who is referred to as Lilith. In ancient Jewish mythology, Lilith is a female demon who was created at the same time as Eve and was his first wife until she transgressed with an archangel ... . Enough, most Jews don't know this anymore anyway.

As Maddie struggles unsuccessfully to create a graphic novel, Gerd, a handsome, muscled young man on rollerblades with a heavy "Cherman" accent arrives at Maddie's door. Gerd is the new messenger for Rauch, and he is there to pick up Maddie's weekly comic strip. Gerd is an avid fan of Maddie's work and the sexually promiscuous "alter ego" whom she is drawing. Gerd comes on to Maddie, who is very susceptible to his advances. Maddie becomes alarmed by her perception that she had begun to grow a very noticeable and ugly moustache. Mitten'd'rinen (right in the middle of everything), Maddie's overbearing Grandmother Esther from New York drops by with luggage and warm potato latkes in hand. Esther has also brought her sthet'l (village in middle and eastern Europe where Jews were forced to live in isolation from the majority population whom they came to fear and distrust) mentality with her. She looks at Maddie and decides that Maddie is growing a moustache just as she had when she was Maddie's age. (Maddie appears to be in her middle thirties or so here.)

Maddie clearly is trying to cast off Esther as well as her remaining, seriously diminished family, along with their values, history, religious heritage, and the painful baggage of being a member of a people wearied and weighed down from having been oppressed for as long as anyone can remember. On the other hand, Esther, like most but certainly not all, American Jews born prior to the 1950s, is grateful to be an American and comfortable with and proud of her culture, heritage and religion. Now she has come to Venice, no matter how she has come, in order to save Maddie from losing her very essence.

I imagine author-director Laurel Ollstein shaking her head at how very wrong that last paragraph is. Not as to any inaccuracy in my description of the drift of her play or the attitudes of America's Jews, but because of its overly earnest tone. Esther's Moustache is a flat out, often hilarious comedy. I do not want to give too much away, but, for most of its length, Esther's Moustache is played in the style of a wildly exuberant absurdist and/or screwball comedy. It seems likely that Ollstein has correctly concluded that grim plays depicting tragic history and a helpless people are more likely to drive ever smaller new generations of American Jews further and further away from their cultural and religious roots.

Ultimately, Esther's Moustache is not an absurdist play. However, it plays like one for most of its length. While this will likely make the play less readily accessible to some older, culturally conservative members of its audience, the fresh creativity that Ollstein has brought to her subject matches the sensibility of younger generations who have been raised on the raunchy, freewheeling and anarchic humor of modern stand-up comedy, sketch comedy and youth oriented movies. It seems clear that she is on the younger generation's side of this divide. It also seems clear that she has gotten there without having to wear "someone else's clothes" (I've placed that last phrase in quotes, as it is in my head because I've been re-listening to Jason Robert Brown's CD of that name—taken from the title of one of its songs—and because, from his particular point of view, Brown often deals with not dissimilar issues). By the second act, thanks to the hand in glove artistry of Ollstein's incisively witty script and her sly, inventive direction, audiences of all ages should happily be entirely on board for her delightful, meaningful ride. I would also add in today's American culture, the issues raised by Ollstein's play are pertinent in any number of American subcultures.

Scenic Designer Jessica Parks continues her long string of amazing design work here. It is a complex, moving set which contains its own surprises. Brilliantly absurd, it amplifies the content of the play. Jill Nagle's lighting design adds to the crucial off-centeredness of the set design.

Jim Shankman's performance as Aunt Esther is superb. His casting is theatrically absurd in the sense that he is completely and obviously male, making no effort to hide it. Simultaneously, Shankman without strain or apparent effort, smoothly conveys the tranquility and strength of the immigrant mother who knew what her role was, valued it and calmly fulfilled it. Shankman manages to be as real as Esther as Irene Dunne was as a Norwegian immigrant mother in the 1948 film version of the John Van Druten play, I Remember Mama.

Catherine LeFrere lightly conveys the dissatisfaction, self-loathing and psychosis of the blocked and bitter Maddie without losing our sympathy. The key seems to be the delight she provides in exploring the comic side of Maddie which Ollstein has provided for her. Burt Grinstead brings off the largely comic role of Gerd. His Gerd is continually manipulated into changing personas by Maddie, requiring Grinstead to repeatedly change his behavior on a dime.

Esther's Moustache is a very funny, very serious play on an eternal theme made fresh by Laurel Ollstein's intelligent writing, skillful construction, rich imagination and modern sensibility.

Sex, love and latkes

NJ Rep reappears with a comical 'Moustache'

Written by Tom Chesek For the Asbury Park Press

Dec 14

Last we looked in on New Jersey Repertory Company, the professional stage troupe in downtown Long Branch was wrangling with the stuff of epic tragedy — Sandy-related storm damage, prolonged power outages, and the cancellation of weeks' worth of scheduled performances.

With the devastation and disappointments of this trying season soon to be consigned to the debris pile, the company reboots and soldiers on toward 2013, sporting a smile and a bit of year-end cheer. Of course, this being the black-comedy capital of NJ Rep, it's a smile that has a sly, mischievous, ironic twist to it.

Described as "a comic play about love, sex, heritage and letting go," the world premiere production of "Esther's Moustache" marks a rare move for the Rep team — one in which the playwright (Laurel Ollstein) is also doing duty as the show's director.

It's a decision which, the LA-based veteran of the Tim Robbins-founded Actors' Gang acknowledges, is "not such a great idea for a lot of's difficult for them to get the proper distance. Sometimes you really need another eye out there."

The idea found a champion in SuzAnne Barabas, however, when the NJ Rep artistic director was brought in to helm a reading of Ollstein's ensemble play "Cheese" as part of the Tru New Voices series in New York. Barabas was interested in seeing "a four person comedy" from the playwright — and the hitherto unproduced "Esther's Moustache" was fast-tracked into a slot as one of the theatre's popular Staged Readings events.

"They had a full house for the reading, which is definitely something you don't see every day," the playwright says. "People who go there are really invested in the process of a play's development."

As the creator of "Esther's Moustache" tells it, the play that NJ Rep selected as its refreshing holiday-season alternative "has a magic realism quality to's about a cartoonist; one who creates bawdy comics and graphic novels, who's had a lot of tragedy in her life, and who shuts herself off into her cartoon world."

"A cartoon character is basically her companion, until her grandmother erupts into her life," Ollstein continues. "It's about how her past, her Jewish family heritage, catches up with her."

As the daughter of husband-and-wife therapists goes on to explain, "Cutting off your past doesn't help your creativity…the negative experiences that we try to run away from are what feed us."

With Rep regular Jim Shankman ("Yankee Tavern," "Jericho") suiting up with wig and "warm potato latkes" as the bothersome Bubby, the proceedings promise to be anything but clinically dry — and the specialist in edgy character roles works here with fellow Rep returnee Catherine Lefrere (as the cartoonist protagonist), as well as a two players making their Long Branch debuts: Uma Incrocci (as her companion creation), and Burt Grinstead (as a German messenger boy whose presence in the play straddles both reality and fantasy).

The project represents a welcome collaboration for the theater professional, who's also written and starred in an original one-woman show about iconic American wit (and daughter of Long Branch) Dorothy Parker.

"This play, like all of them really, is my's how I've survived," Ollstein observes, adding, "humor is how my people have survived all through the years…you write funny; you tell a joke."

Drawing a 'Stache on the Season

Upper WET Side - December 12, 2012 
Burt Grinstead, Jim Shankman, Catherine LeFrere and Uma Incrocci star in ESTHER'S MOUSTACHE, the comedy (written AND directed by Laurel Ollstein) that makes its world premiere this weekend at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. (photo by SuzAnne Barabas)

It hasn't exactly been a barrel-o'-monkeys bunch of weeks over at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, the professional stage troupe who, as we detailed here in an Asbury Park Press article, spent much of the post-Sandy dark ages dealing with such headaches as physical damage to their playhouse and company guest house, the loss of their parking lot, an extended blackout — and the massive financial hit they took from Annapurna, the drama that saw the forced cancellation of eleven performances.

But hey, it's the holiday season — a time of year in which the Rep regulars have traditionally eschewed the Scrooges and George Baileys of the standard stagescape, in favor of alternative entertainments which have either dispensed with the Christian thing entirely (2009′s Two Jews Walk Into a War; 2008′s Cupid and Psyche) or had as little to do with seasonal trappings as possible (the trailer park setting of last year's Bakersfield Mist). And if it's December in the largely deserted canyons of lower Broadway LB, it's as ripe a time as any for a dose of NJ Rep's patented black-comedy cheer — in this case an ensemble study of classic Jewish guilt, dysfunctional dynamics and artistic mind-warp entitled Esther's Moustache.

Pitched as "a comic play about love, sex, heritage and letting go," the show that kicks off its month-long engagement in Long Branch is the brainchild of LA-based Laurel Ollstein — a veteran of the (Tim Robbins-founded) Actors Gang ensemble, and a bi-coastally celebrated artist and teacher who also happens to be the director of this world premiere production.

For the show that goes up in previews this Thursday, December 13, Ollstein works with Catherine Lefrere (of NJ Rep's Just in Time) as the play's protagonist, a cartoonist who's having trouble balancing a romanticized fantasy life with a rather intrusive reality. "Reality" in this case comes barging in — warm potato latkes in tow — in the person of her grandmother, played in a delightful bit of casting by Jim Shankman (acclaimed by this reviewer for his edgy, intense turns in Yankee Tavern and Jericho). Rep newcomer Uma Incrocci is the cartoon-based fantasy figure who appears to her creator, and Burt Grinstead (a cast member in the script's first public performance) plays a messenger who apparently both the real and surreal planes of the play's action.

Your upperWETside correspondent spoke to the playwright-slash-director, about how that Moustache was coming in…

upperWETside: It occurs to me that even though it's not unheard of for a playwright to direct her own work, that has not been the norm over at New Jersey Repertory. In fact, unless I'm mistaken it just might be the first time they've ever done such a thing.

LAUREL OLLSTEIN: I hadn't realized that this was the first time. A lot of people think it's not such a great idea for a lot of playwrights to do such a thing…it's difficult for them to get the proper distance.

But to me, it's not so much about me as a writer having absolute control over my work, as it is being involved with that collaborative process between me and the actors. I have a background in collaborative theater in Los Angeles and Minneapolis…I was part of the Tim Robbins's group out in LA. And I enjoy that kind of thing very much; each artist brings in a new voice to the process.

Now, you've also continued to maintain an acting career of your own…have you ever wrote AND directed AND acted in one of your works?

I actually did for this one-woman show I wrote about Dorothy Parker…but directing yourself on stage can be very difficult; sometimes you really need another eye out there.

I'm glad you mentioned Dorothy Parker, who in case you didn't know was actually born in Long Branch…in fact, Gabe Barabas from NJ Rep has coordinated several Dorothy Parker Day events in town over the years. One year the theatre premiered an original musical based on her stories; they've done readings and shown movies and even had a Dorothy Parker lookalike contest…which my wife won!

According to your website you've written not one but TWO pieces about Parker…

I enjoy writing her voice…I've done the one woman show, and a one-act piece. The short play takes place in the bathroom while a party's going on outside; she's in there thinking about killing herself.

ESTHER'S MOUSTACHE is one of many world premiere productions that came out of NJ Rep's Monday night reading series. I'm curious as to whether you shopped the script to them, knowing about their reputation for developing new work, or if they or someone in their orbit reached out to you…

It came about organically about two to three years ago…a play of mine called Cheese was being done as part of the Tru New Voices readings series in New York, and they brought (NJ Rep co-founder and artistic director) SuzAnne Barabas in to direct it…she really loved it, but it just had too many characters for New Jersey Rep to be able to do a full production. She said, I wish you had a four person comedy…and it just so happened that I did!

They had a full house for the reading in Long Branch, which is definitely something you don't see every day. People who go there are really invested in the process of a play's development.

Okay, I'm looking right now at a publicity shot for the show, and I'm going back and forth over whether I should even ask you to explain it for our readers. We've got a young guy who's sporting a monocle and a Hitleresque moustache…we've got a sexy blonde in a glittery gown, a dark haired woman in a paint-stained smock, and what appears to be a guy dressed as an old lady. Oh, and all of the female characters are also sporting moustaches.

Well, without giving away too much of it…although once you see the pictures there's not much of a secret about Jim's character being played in drag…the play has a magic realism quality to it. It's about a cartoonist; one who creates bawdy comics and graphic novels, who's had a lot of tragedy in her life, and who shuts herself off into her cartoon world. A cartoon character is basically her companion, until her grandmother erupts into her life. And the guy in the picture is a messenger who also enters her world; who complicates things because he's German.

It's about how her past, her Jewish family heritage, catches up with her. I guess that if there's a message involved it would be that cutting off your past doesn't help your creativity…the negative experiences that we try to run away from are what feed us.

The part about the German boyfriend and the Jewish grandma coming to visit sounds like it could be the stuff of wacky small-town dinner theater…but the part about the artist who exists in a kind of reality/fantasy inter-zone gives me every reason to believe that your comedy will run a little deeper than a Neil Simon-ish, New York sitcom farce.

I am actually from LA! I have family in New York…my parents are from there; all my relatives, aunts, uncles, everybody. But my parents are the ones who decided to move to the West Coast. They're both therapists!

Yikes, so then we're talking more Woody Allen than Doc Simon…

Ha! I guess I have a little bit of both in me. You could say that this play, like all of them really, is my therapy…it's how I've survived. And, you know, humor is how my people have survived all through the years. You write funny; you tell a joke.

Every light on Broadway, Long Branch

NJ Rep's Lumia Theatre is luminous again, after some dark days and nights

Sign of the times: The post-Sandy blackout forced New Jersey Repertory Company to cancel nearly three weeks' worth of performances at its Long Branch playhouse, a situation brought to the attention of the local utility by this marquee display. / Photo courtesy of New Jersey Repertory Company

The Show Must Go On. It's a guideline that couldn't be any clearer, a policy as set in stone as the mail going through or the captain going down with the ship.

Of course, there are exceptions to every granite-etched policy — see last winter's Costa Concordia maritime disaster — and for an extended interlude in the wake of superstorm Sandy, it looked as if the elements and the furies had conspired to ring down the curtain on one of the Garden State's most innovative performing arts venues.

The downtown Long Branch homestage of New Jersey Repertory Company was scarcely the hardest-hit professional playhouse in Sandy's sprawling path — the landmark Surflight Theatre in beleaguered Beach Haven was forced to abruptly conclude its 2012 season and to look ahead instead to a blown-clear-into-next-year rescheduling of "White Christmas."

A dark interval
As NJ Rep co-founders Gabe and SuzAnne Barabas explain, however, the company's Lumia Theatre building on lower Broadway (which sustained water damage to its ceilings and extensive damage to its rear marquee) found itself adrift, like so many other businesses and residences in the region, without lights, heat, power, phone or Internet service — a dark interval made all the more frustrating as the staff watched neighboring streets and even next-door storefronts light up around them.

"It got to the point where we used our front marquee to make an appeal to the power company," SuzAnne Barabas says. "That managed to get us noticed. … They got us back online, and we agreed to take down the sign!"

By the time the Lumia's light grid flickered back to life, the theatre had endured a full 15 days without power (and another three days before the storm-damaged heating system was addressed) — a period during which NJ Rep was compelled to cancel 11 scheduled performances of the two-character drama "Annapurna" and a month's worth of entries in its popular Monday evening readings series.

As a not-for-profit enterprise dedicated exclusively to producing new and often challenging works for the stage — never exactly a license to print money, even in the best of circumstances — the year-round company took a serious hit to its operational momentum, effectively writing off half the run of the show, which resumed for a final weekend of performances on Nov. 15. As a professional troupe functioning under Actors Equity guidelines, NJ Rep was committed to paying the contracted salary, health benefits and pensions of two actors, a stage manager and assistant stage manager, regardless of whether or not the scheduled performances took place.

It's also common policy for an Equity playhouse to house its cast for the duration of the show — an arrangement that for the past several years has been fulfilled through the company's ownership of the "Buffalo Bill House," the historic home and cottage (once owned by Nate Salsbury, manager of legendary Wild West showman William Cody) that hosted to 19th century celebrities, including Sitting Bull. While the seven-bedroom main house took its share of exterior battering, the incursion of nearby Troutman's Creek into the two-bedroom cottage may have resulted in irreparable damage to the structure's foundation.

'An interesting time'
With the "Annapurna" stage manager staying at the Barabas family residence, and the company's board president taking in actors Peter Galman (who would eventually need to be sent back to his home in Chicago at company expense) and Gina Bonati, the aftermath of the storm was one that Gabe Barabas describes as "an interesting time to say the least. … We were getting calls forwarded to our cellphones from so many people who wanted to come to the theatre, to escape the darkness for a little while."

With the bulbs of Broadway gone dark — and the municipal parking lot that serves the theater commandeered by National Guardsmen — it was not to be. The community where NJ Rep staked out its beacon of light and culture was braving its way through a crisis of extraordinary dimensions, and for once the show would not go on.

Restoring momentum
While there's much ground to recover, the NJ Rep family is getting out the word that the trademark momentum has been restored to the company whose year-round schedule has often made it difficult to reckon where one season ends and another begins. Things are right on schedule for the imminent premiere of "Esther's Moustache," a new offering (written and directed by Laurel Ollstein) that's described as a "comic play about love, sex, heritage and letting go" (and latkes!). Auditions for the February production of "Ants" are proceeding, and the NJ Rep website soon should be displaying updated information on the rescheduled readings.

"We're grateful to our subscribers ,and to people we've never met before, for helping us get back on track after a trying time," Gabe Barabas says. "We're here to help our audiences escape their troubles and get back on track as well ... and we're deeply committed to our community for the year ahead."

In the meantime, "Esther's Moustache" is coming in quite nicely and is set to make its debut in previews on Dec. 13, with opening night Dec. 15 and the world premiere engagement continuing through Jan. 13. For ticket reservations, showtimes and additional information on upcoming offerings at NJ Rep, call 732-229-3166 or visit

More trailer, less camp, in NJ Rep's 'Annapurna'

Gina Bonati and Peter Galman are a long-estranged couple thrown back together by life, death and something like love, as 'Annapurna' continues onstage at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. / PHOTO: SUZANNE BARABAS

Attend enough new plays, and you may go away with the impression that one out of every three people in America is a faded former academic, and/or a brilliant but frustrated poet-novelist-artist who's battling suicidal impulses, bottled demons, dashed expectations or a combination of all three.

While that statistic has more to say about the spawning grounds of our nation's playwrights than it does any Census Bureau reality, it can be a handy guideline with which to approach a lot of new dramatic works — and it's up to the dramatist, the director and the actors to transcend the template; to find some different music there. Ulysses, the character portrayed by gray-bearded actor Peter Galman in Sharr White's "Annapurna," might seem at first to fit the profile to a fare-thee-well. An ex-professor of English turned published (but none too terribly prolific) poet, the former family man has successfully quit drinking — although years of heavy smoking have taken a fatal toll. Living minus phone or friends, the recluse whiles away the time between assistance checks, slowly dying of lung cancer inside a squalid Colorado trailer park.

In the one-act play now making its East Coast premiere at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, the poet's stultifying routine is jolted into "holy crap" territory by the unannounced appearance of Emma (Gina Bonati) — his long-estranged former wife, and the mother of his son Sammy. It's a milestone moment that finds Ulysses standing there holding a frying pan of tainted sausage; wearing nothing but an oxygen tank, slippers and mini-apron — an altogether appropriate sight in a place he calls "the asscrack of the Rockies."

Armed with several suitcases, a fruit bowl, flower vase, some nasty-looking upper body bruises and over $7,000 in mysteriously obtained cash, Emma has come to "the ugliest, saddest accidental nudist colony you ever saw" to care for her ex in what are surely the final weeks of his life, to herald the impending arrival the now grown-up Sam — and to rattle some barely remembered family skeletons. To say that Ulysses — a man who lives with ant infestations, buys dubious meat from the dollar store, and almost never puts on pants — does not look to be up for the fight, is an understatement.

Opening with a handful of brief blackouts, before settling in for a couple of significantly longer scenes, White's dialogue-driven duet plays with the idea of memory — the differing versions of the terrible things that happened on the night that Emma and son walked out of Ulysses' life; the ways in which alcohol writes its own story; the old likes and habits that trigger long-dormant emotional responses. As the third(!) NJ Rep production of 2012 with a trailer park setting (after "Bakersfield Mist" and "American Stare"), "Annapurna" offers a little less humor (and a lot less violent action) than its double-wide neighbors, putting its intimately scaled tale across through story threads that don't always lead anywhere — or through earnestly rendered revelations that might have benefited from the outlandishly impassioned attitude of last summer's sensational "Stare."

Where "Annapurna" (the script directly references the Himalayan peak of that name, and its ill-starred conquest expedition) packs a degree of surprise is in the ways in which the characters fail to stay comfortably inside their assigned pigeonholes. Take-charge Emma — while a godsend when it comes to keeping her "defiantly impoverished" guy fed and cleaned and dressed — reveals herself to be quite the needy soul; abused and fatally bored in her second marriage, and in search of something that can apparently only be found at this ugly little place with the spectacular mountain view.

Seemingly far too robust at times for a "zen master" whose life's breath is being stolen by terminal disease, Ulysses is a curmudgeonly eccentric who is still capable of great tenderness. Under the direction of NJ Rep's SuzAnne Barabas, the play finds its real resonance not in its bickering exchanges or heavy emotional moments — but in the gentle touch of a cooling washcloth on sweltering skin, or the poet's reading of his cocktail-napkin "epic" dedicated to the woman for whom he still cares very deeply. While it might be tough to reconcile the lovely words of this damaged romantic with the guy who buys all that bad meat, it's the power of those words that brings "Annapurna" safely back from the treacherous slopes of "injuries, altitude sickness and avalanches," to a place of peace and redemption.

Annapurna: Love May Not Die, But It Sure Can Kill You

Review by Bob Rendell, Talkin' Broadway

Just because you leave someone doesn't mean that you are not in a relationship with them in some way for the rest of your life.

Annapurna is the interrupted love story of the alcoholic Ulysses, a truly gifted American poet, and Emma, an ambitious Barnard girl with artistic ambitions of her own. Emma fell in love with and married Ulysses because he was "the real thing." After ten years of marriage, there came a night so horrific that Emma took their five year old son Sammy, and left. They have not seen Ulysses in twenty years.

Today, after having learned that Ulysses has a terminal illness and is living hermit-like in a trailer in an inhospitable, oppressively hot desert area near the Colorado Rockies, Emma appears at his door.

The ties that bind Ulysses and Emma are deep and abiding. Ulysses is a selfish, irresponsible alcoholic who heedlessly has ruined his own life along with the lives of his wife and son. Emma will always love him unconditionally. Over the course of an hour and a half, humorously and painfully Ulysses and Emma reconnect with each other and find their own selves.

It is not so much author Sharr White's cautionary message about the profound danger of committing oneself to an all-consuming passion that sticks and makes Annapurna so compelling. What does, is the ability of White, along with his cast and director, to enable us to understand and share Emma's passion, and share her joy in their relationship. We know that Ulysses is a poor excuse for a human being. We even see him gadding about with a towel across his loins while his plug ugly butt hangs out, and he gasps for breath with the aid of a sketchy oxygen tank precariously perched in a backpack that he is wearing. Still, Ulysses delights us as we listen to the language and wit of his repartee with Emma, and share the glow of their emotional intimacy. White has provided the quality dialogue for Emma and Ulysses that makes you feel that you are listening in on intelligent people whom you would enjoy having as friends.

Gina Bonati embodies the exuberantly rough-hewn, intellectual urban girl (who would be a perfect fit for Barnard) in wearying early winter. Bonati smoothly unveils Emma's increasing happiness as she and Ulysses draw closer. Peter Galman is thoroughly delightful as he learns to again accept the warmth of human relationships.

Annapurna is a legendary, treacherous mountain in the Himalayas with a magnetic attraction for climbers which has a large rate of fatalities.

SuzAnne Barabas' insightful direction suggests that she knows her characters well. Jessica Parks provides a realistic open-walled set of a complex and crowded jumble of a park trailer.

Sharr White impresses as a young writer to be watched as he fills in the details of his well worn structure with felicitous language, thought provoking ideas, compelling characters, and a darn good play.

In January, another play by Sharr White, The Other Place, will open on Broadway at the Samuel Friedman Theatre (MTC) following a successful production at MCC Theater.

A CurtainUp New Jersey Review


"It's just that I kind of see it up here as a fitting purgatory on earth for me, see. A direct reflection of the sum a' all my sins, which have brought me here, and on which I am now required to sit and ponder before I am allowed to die." — Ulysses

Gina Bonati and Peter Galman (Photo: SuzAnne Barabas)

Ulysses (Peter Galman) isn't a pretty sight to behold when his ex-wife of twenty years Emma (Gina Bonati) barges unexpectedly into his equally unsightly mobile home high in the mountains in Paonia, Colorado. Aside from the medical backpack and oxygen tank strapped to his back and the bandage covering the center of his chest that suggests he has recently had an operation, he is standing virtually naked with only a pathetically small apron tied around his torso. This, he explains later is more than he usually wears living in semi-seclusion, except when it affords protection to his privates from the grease that spits from the pan when he fries sausage. His first words, however, to the woman whom he is seriously not happy to see is, "Holy crap." It's the best he can do and he repeats it a number of times as the unfazed and undeterred Emma drags in a pair of suitcases with a look and attitude that implies that she is here to stay.

Sharr White's two-hander is about the reuniting and possible reconciliation of a divorced couple whose marriage had come to a terrible end with an unforgivable event. There are many questions that will be answered and just as many that won't be during this disturbing and also confounding play in which two people who had once had a passionate and committed attachment to each other had subsequently become resigned to living with their rage and their willingness to find and affix blame.

The real circumstance that has evidently prompted Emma to seek out Ulysses is that their adult son whom Ulysses hasn't seen since Emma ran away with him twenty years ago is coming to see his father after hiring a detective to find him. Emma is determined to prepare Ulysses for the visit, and to also jar his apparently permanently lapsed memory as to what happened twenty years ago. Ulysses, who claims to have no idea why Emma left, has however been sending letters to his son whom we learn has a physical impairment. The letters, sent to Emma's mother, were never answered.

It is soon enough revealed that Ulysses is not only a recovering, violence-prone alcoholic terminally ill with cancer, but also that the bruises that he sees on Emma's arms and shoulders have been caused by the man she subsequently married and has just run away from with a stash of his cash. The thrust of the play is devoted to defining their volatile relationship in the context of what they are going to do and how they reconcile their feelings for each other now.

Although the play's metaphorical title obviously alludes to Ulysses' aspirations as a poet and writer, it is the complexity of the physical attraction as well as the metaphysical bond between him and Emma, a staunch, unsentimental New Englander that gives us plenty to think about. It certainly remains for the two players to scale some very emotionally draining, physically demanding terrain symbolically not unlike that undertaken by the climber Maurice Herzog in his horrendous experience ascending and descending the famous Himalayan peak in his book with same name.

Although Galman has to defiantly bellow as much as bemoan how he has yet to atone for something he has done but can't remember, his performance is centered in a gritty practicalist's reality, one that is slowly and painstaking taking form in an epic poem that he has been writing on bits of paper over the years.

White's play, under the attentive direction of Suzanne Barabas, probes relentlessly and uncompromisingly into a tortured relationship that some will find it, as I did, adventurous. Others may be inclined to see Ulysses and Emma as incorrigible and the play inscrutable. In any case, it is sure to initiate conversation and controversy.

Later this season, White will be making his Broadway debut with the Manhattan Theater Club's production of The Other Place, previously produced Off Broadway with Laurie Metcalf repeating her acclaimed performance.

In addition to sharing with the audience the news that The New Jersey Repertory Company was among the 2012 recipients that won an award given by the American Theater Wing to theater companies that "have articulated a distinctive mission, cultivated an audience, and nurtured a community of artists in ways that strengthen and demonstrate the quality, diversity, and dynamism of American theatre", Executive Director Gabor Barabas, announced that NJ Rep will be producing eight new plays within the next fourteen months. Now that's scaling the peak.

Climb Every Mountain at NJ Rep

Upper WET Side - October 10, 2012 
Gina Bonati and Peter Galman star as an estranged couple reuniting under less than romantic circumstances, when Sharr White's ANNAPURNA goes up this week at New Jersey Repertory Company. (photo by SuzAnne Barabas)

It's the trip back down that's the real bear: just ask the members of the 1950 expedition to the Himalayan peak Annapurna I — a team that was notoriously light on supplies when it made its ascent, and even lighter on digits and appendages when they made it back to France.

Better still, ask Emma and Ulysses, the long-separated spouses at the heart of Annapurna, the play by Sharr White that makes its East Coast premiere this weekend at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. Reunited after decades under less than ideal circumstances, the couple have left the emotional summit of their relationship far behind — and are just trying to negotiate the home stretch of their journey along a treacherous downward slope of sickness, need and unfinished business.

"Home" in this case is a dismal trailer park in rural Colorado, where terminally ill Ulysses (Peter Galman), "a recovering drinker who in a past life was a Western cowboy-poet and professor of English," whiles away his hard-luck final days in the dubious care of "his ungrateful dog and his relentless do-gooder neighbor." Enter Emma (Gina Bonati), the wife who walked out on him twenty years ago, and you've got one of the character-driven, darkly comic slices of wounded Americana that NJ Rep Artistic Director SuzAnne Barabas has long specialized in.

Annapurna originally debuted in San Francisco, where White recently looked in on a West Coast production of his acclaimed drama The Other Place — a work that comes to Broadway (complete with Tony-buzzworthy star Laurie Metcalf) for an engagement that begins in December. Before the critics start in to engraving the award nameplates, local audiences have the opportunity to tune into the work of this playwright that we'll surely be hearing more of in the months to come — and upperWETside took the opportunity to speak to Sharr White at his home in Cold Spring, NY.


Sharr White discusses the East Coast premiere of ANNAPURNA, the second of his plays to be produced at NJ Rep — the first being 2010′s Sunlight, a drama set amid the treacherous peaks and rarefied air of big-time tenured academia.

upperWETside: So what's the significance of the title ANNAPURNA? I'm aware that the play is set in a remote trailer park, but it's not quite THAT remote, is it?

SHARR WHITE: The play has a mountain setting, but what it has to do with Annapurna is in a metaphorical sense, and it comes from a book that I read.

My brother, who's an avid back-country snowboarder, into extreme sports, gave me a copy of the book Annapurna by Maurice Herzog. It's a really epic story, from a time when guys like Herzog and his team would set up base camp and drink whiskey, smoke cigarettes. They didn't dress properly, they didn't bring extra oxygen, they exhausted their resources and they were completely unprepared for the descent. Herzog lost one of his gloves, and would wind up losing most of his fingers to frostbite.

What struck me most was the final line of the book: 'there are other Annapurnas in the lives of men.' I found in that a metaphor for the relationship between this couple, who are estranged and come back together after years and years.

Our curiosity's also piqued by the choice of Ulysses for the male character's name…would that be a nod to Homer or to James Joyce?

Definitely not Joyce — I thought it would be fun to give the character the name of an epic adventurer. Something that suggests poetry and myth. His life has been all about punishment — it's the nature of Ulysses to be self-destructive — but as flawed as he is, he's also brilliant and beautiful.

And I have to ask about the female character Emma, as well. Are we in Jane Austen territory here?

No, nothing like that. I just thought the name fit the character; she's a sensible person who left in the middle of the night years ago and took their son with her — and now she's gone back to this place at the end of the earth; way out on the western slopes of the Rockies in Colorado. She's someone whose single moment of weakness was falling in love with Ulysses.

The idea that there's something that persists in even the most damaged relationship, that continues to bond two people together, is something that a lot of dramatists have debated through their characters. Without knowing how this plot plays out, I'm thinking that you've come down firmly on the side of those who believe that a commitment is more than just a ceremonial vow.

Sometimes an estranged spouse will come back and care for a former spouse in their hour of need…a lot of the idea behind the play is based on an old friend of mine, who moved back to Florida, to care for a husband with emphysema.

There really is this idea that every major relationship is based on commitment; the same kind of commitment you find in extreme sports. There's always a moment — in sports, in mountain climbing, in relationships — where you've gone so far that you can't go back. And that's kind of what's at work here.

The trip back down

Written by Tom Chesek Oct 12


They share a common title and a mountainous setting — but at first glance, "Annapurna" the book and "Annapurna" the play don't seem to have a lot to do with each other.

The way that playwright Sharr White explains it, however, Maurice Herzog's account of his history-making 1950 climbing expedition to one of the most treacherous peaks in the Himalayas played a big part in the evolution of his script — a comedy-drama (about an estranged couple reunited in the Colorado Rockies) that's poised to enter previews as the latest mainstage production at New Jersey Repertory Company.

"It's a really epic story, from a time when guys like Herzog and his team would set up base camp and drink whiskey, smoke cigarettes," says White of the controversial best-selling book that was introduced to him by his avid snowboarder brother.

"They didn't dress properly, they exhausted their resources and they were completely unprepared for the descent," the playwright observes. "Herzog lost one of his gloves, and would wind up losing most of his fingers to frostbite."

What made the biggest impression on White was the book's final declaration that "there are other Annapurnas in the lives of men" — a string of words in which the playwright found "a metaphor for the relationship between this couple, who are estranged and come back together after years and years."

The couple in question would be Ulysses (Peter Galman), a recovering drinker "who in a past life was a Western cowboy-poet and professor of English," and Emma (Gina Bonati), the wife who walked out on him 20 years ago and a woman "whose single moment of weakness was falling in love with Ulysses."

As White sees it, those residual feelings can sometimes mean that "an estranged spouse will come back and care for a former spouse in their hour of need" — and that's precisely what Emma does in "Annapurna," as she joins her seriously ailing, friendless ex in his lonely trailer somewhere on the western slope of the Rockies.

"It's the nature of Ulysses to be self-destructive," says the playwright who "thought it would be fun to give the character the name of an epic adventurer."

"His life has been all about punishment — but as flawed as he is, he's also brilliant and beautiful."

The show under the direction of NJ Rep co-founder SuzAnne Barabas marks the second staging of a Sharr White work at the professional playhouse in downtown Long Branch (following "Sunlight," an ensemble drama set in the rarefied summit air of entrenched academia). It's also the East Coast debut of a work that premiered in San Francisco, where the resident of Cold Spring, N.Y. recently oversaw a production of "The Other Place," his acclaimed drama that initiates an off-Broadway run in January 2013 with star Laurie Metcalf.

"It's great to watch her work," says White of the actress known both as a co-star of the sitcom "Roseanne" and as a founding member of Chicago's fabled Steppenwolf group. "She's willing to work through every iteration of a role until she finds something she's satisfied with."

Aside from its nods to mythical heroes and pioneering explorers, "Annapurna" also draws much of its inspiration from an old friend of White's who "moved back to Florida, to care for a husband with emphysema" — as well as a surprising connection to the sort of extreme sports that his snowboarding sibling regularly enjoys.

"There really is this idea that every major relationship is based on commitment; the same kind of commitment you find in extreme sports," says White. "There's always a moment — in sports, in mountain climbing, in relationships — where you've gone so far that you can't go back."

The company they keep - Relationships at the heart of White's 'Annapurna'

By Ronni Reich/The Star-Ledger

Galman and Gina Bonati star in Sharr White's 'Annapurna' at NJ Rep in Long Branch

'The best stories end with the unconscious phrase, 'and nothing was ever the same again,' "a poet once told the playwright Sharr White.

"I really took that to heart," White says. "The stories I'm interested in are the ones that start at a very important place for people and end where everything is different."

White's "Annapurna," directed by SuzAnne Barabas, opens at the New Jersey Repertory Company on Saturday. The play begins when Emma (Gina Bonati) visits her ex-husband Ulysses (Peter Galman) for the first time in 20 years. Following some kind of mysterious, awful event the last time they saw each other, Emma had taken their child and left.

By the time Emma returns, Ulysses is terminally ill. But in spite of the time that has passed and the dire circumstances, "they fall right into step where they left off," White says.

"It's about the importance that one keystone relationship can have in a person's life, to the extent that even when they leave each other they never really leave each other.

"I think all of us have that one relationship — or sometimes several relationships — that seem to define us when we move through the world."

White describes "Annapurna" as exploring intense emotion through a comedic lens. The play's Colorado setting and writing style drew comparisons to the work of Sam Shepard from critics when it premiered at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco last year. The writer accepts the association and also names Eugene O'Neill as one of his primary influences.

Although it takes place in the Rocky Mountains, "Annapurna" takes its title from a Himalayan peak. In a book of the same name that inspired White, Maurice Herzog details his ascent to the summit and back. He drops his glove and has to climb bare-handed, and loses fingers and toes as he completes his trip back down. Mountaineers like Herzog, White says, refer to their pursuit as committing.

Herzog achieves his conquest but, "in a lot of ways, it ruins him," White says.

"These great adventurers don't give themselves a way out," he adds. "With the word 'committing,' I thought about relationships."

White, 42, lives in Cold Spring, N.Y., with his wife and two children. He keeps a day job in advertising even as his writing is becoming increasingly prominent onstage. In December, the playwright makes his Broadway debut with "The Other Place."

"The Other Place" ran off-Broadway last year. Laurie Metcalf earned strong reviews as Juliana Smithton, a scientist turned pharmaceutical saleswoman who suffers a mind-altering medical episode. Throughout the play, reality gradually comes in and out of focus for Juliana as she begins to confront a traumatic event from her past.

Both plays start at what may initially look like conclusions — Ulysses is near the end of his life, Juliana is at the end of life as she knows it. This serves a dual purpose. In addition to mining key pivot points of the life cycle, White prefers to work with characters who have a long history together.

"For me, that's where theater gets to do its most important and most beautiful work— it's when the layers of the onion are peeled away from relationships," he says. "People discover themselves through the people they're with."

Issues of Control, at NJ Rep

Aug 25, 2012

Michael Irvin Pollard is a sidelines coach plotting a return to the game, as Jenny Vallancourt looks on in Gino DiIorio's drama RELEASE POINT, now onstage at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. (Photo by SuzAnne Barabas)


"I have a disease…I'm a monster," states Mike (Michael Irvin Pollard) during a confessional moment in Release Point, the intense little play now in its world premiere engagement at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

To the veteran baseball coach, it's all about limits — the petty deceptions and parlor tricks that enhance a pitcher's effectiveness; the threshold of the human body's endurance; the insurmountable barriers that keep even the most talented "freak" from throwing a ball any much faster than 100 mph.

The central character of Gino DiIorio 's one-act drama is himself a man who labors under an imposing set of limits — not least of which is a court-imposed order under which the Third Tier sex offender is expected to stay at least 500 feet away from the neighborhood baseball diamond. It's this rule that brings the ex-convict and former suburban family man to the wooded hilltop trail of NJ Rep's shadowbox stage, where he monitors his son Mikey's home-game exploits through a pair of binoculars. At the same time, it's that obsessive interest in Mikey's pitching technique — and the limits of his own will power — that will cause him to plot his way back into a ballgame in which he no longer belongs.

The monster in the woods has a frequent visitor, and it's his twentysomething daughter Kerry (Jenny Vallancourt) — a talented softball player in her own right, and a budding assistant coach who has cautiously and surreptitiously re-connected with her estranged dad, in hopes of helping her emotionally troubled brother find some success (and solace) in sports.

In the fast-moving staging under the direction of Joel Stone, these multiple meetings between father and daughter play out as vignettes within a late-season playoff chase; a series of exchanges in which the firmly opinionated Mike shares his considerable expertise with the young woman whose own skills have seldom been noticed. DiIorio's savvy script is heavy on discussions of weight shift, muscle memory, torque and other fundaments of pitching mechanics — and audience members who don't happen to be dyed-in-the-pinstripes baseball fanatics could conceivably be as baffled by the mention of Miller Huggins, as Kerry is by her dad's vintage pop-culture references.

Of course, all that pitching-mound shop talk is merely a starting point for Mike and Kerry to salvage something from the devastated dynamic of their relationship — and where Release Point really makes its pitch are the sequences in which the still-prideful coach opens up about his experiences in prison; his current existence on the threadbare fringe of life's mainstream, and his ultimate coming to grips with just who and what he is.

A featured player in numerous NJ Rep productions (including DiIorio's Dead Ringer), Pollard puts his impressive arsenal of pitches to work in this largely unsympathetic, dialogue-heavy role; throwing heat in several of the later speeches, but keeping it over the plate when things threaten to go a little wild. In a long-overdue return to the Long Branch stage, Vallancourt presents an open and engaged character who nonetheless carries her own set of unspoken frustrations and fears — including a heartbreaking late-innings confession that lays open the twisted scar tissue left behind when a loved one has done something truly awful.

There's a third, brief but not insignificant, role in the play — that of a teenage girl who chases an errant baseball into the monster's wooded lair — and she's being portrayed by a rotation of six young Monmouth County actresses that include Gillian Andresen, Felicia Aschettino, Emily Capriotti, Tina Siciliano, Isabel Wallace, and, at the performance reviewed here, Laura Diorio (despite the similar surname, no relation to the playwright).

A modestly scaled but emotionally weighted drama that offers no easy answers — although it does allow a ray of light to pierce the treetops — Release Point continues until September 23 with performances Thursdays through Sundays.

The LINK News Aug. 23 thru Aug. 29, 2012
Theater Review

'Release Point' a profound look at a more than just troubled family

By Madeline Schulman

Michael Irvin Pollard and Jenny Vallancourt are a father and daughter struggling to salvage a devastated family dynamic in 'Release Point.'

Release Point takes place on a hillside overlooking a baseball field. There Mike (Michael Irvin Pollard), a former pitching coach, and his daughter Kerry (Jenny Vallancourt), a gifted athlete, meet to observe Kerry's brother Mikey pitching for his high school baseball team so that Mike can give Kerry pointers to improve Mikey's skills.

Immediately questions arise. Why aren't father and daughter down on the field, where Mike would not have to use binoculars to see pitching details? Why can't he talk to his son directly?

Before long, the audience finds out that Mike is a convicted sexual offender, who cannot be within 500 feet of the playing field, and whose family wants no contact with him. Only Kerry, desperate to insure that her brother earns an athletic college scholarship, has reached out to her father for help.

Both actors have difficult jobs, and fulfill them superbly. Michael Irvin Pollard is playing a monster, who has lost everything through his sick compulsions. He shows us the monstrosity and the humanity that accompanies it, and actually wins the audience's sympathy for a man who has lost so much through his own behavior. Jenny Vallancourt has to portray a tangled skein of emotions. She loves, hates, and needs her father all at once. Both performances are outstanding.

The third character is Kayla. I take her to be a younger version of Kerry, untouched by tragedy. Kayla will be played by a rotating slate of young actresses, and I am sure they will all be as charming as Laura Diorio.

The scenery (Jessica Parks) brings the outdoors indoors, and the lighting (Jill Nagle) and sound (John Emmett O'Brian) are equally effective. I was particularly taken by a brief lightning storm. Release Point is a profound, emotional play. Gino DiIorio has much to say about family ties, guilt, forgiveness, and baseball as a metaphor and mechanism for coping with life.

High and outside

A 'release point' for a troubled relationship, at New Jersey Rep
4:47 PM, Aug 16, 2012

Michael Irvin Pollard and Jenny Vallancourt are a father and daughter struggling to salvage a devastated family dynamic in 'Release Point.'

At a casual glance, it's about the "love of baseball" — and the power of the Pastime "to heal and to find salvation through the unbreakable bonds that connect parent to child."

Ask playwright Gino DiIorio about it, however, and he'll allow that "if I told you the whole story of how this play came about, it'd keep people away."

In other words, we're not in the high-fructose corn syrup world of "Field of Dreams" here — we're at the elegantly edgy New Jersey Repertory Company in downtown Long Branch, where DiIorio's drama "Release Point" initiates its world premiere engagement beginning Saturday night, August 18.

In the script under the direction of Joel Stone, a young woman (Jenny Vallancourt) ventures to a hill overlooking a suburban baseball field, in an attempt to salvage something from a severely damaged relationship with her father. The dad (Michael Irvin Pollard) is a former pitching coach who spends his days observing the kids from afar because, well, he's done something terrible — and he's forbidden to get any closer to the game.

"He's been in prison for ten years, and he can't be within 500 feet of the playing field," the playwright explains. "Of course, he's measuring it from home plate."

While the phrase "ripped screaming from today's headlines" comes to mind in light of the game-changing scandals at Penn State, the play actually made its first appearance at NJ Rep as a script-in-hand reading in March of 2011 — and, as DiIorio tells it, the idea was set in motion by the revelation that an old college acquaintance had been convicted of inappropriate contact with a minor.

"I just couldn't get my head around the fact that this guy I knew was now doing time…I wondered how he'd come to grips with what life would be like when he got out; how someone could ever have a relationship with their family again when they've done a terrible thing," says the playwright.

"I felt that I had to write this piece; to humanize the monster…to a writer, it's part of the job."

Michael Irvin Pollard and Jenny Vallancourt are a father and daughter struggling to salvage a devastated family dynamic in 'Release Point.' / Photo: SuzAnne Barabas

For DiIorio, it's also another chapter in a longstanding collaboration with NJ Rep, the professional showcase of new and original works that has previously presented more than a half dozen of the playwright's works in progress, one-acts and full-length dramas — most recently the Western gothic horror "Dead Ringer."

Co-starring in that 2009 production was Pollard, a frequently featured Rep regular who's transitioned over the past several seasons from broad comedies to impressive dramatic turns in "Apple," "Night Train" and "Yankee Tavern." As the old-school baseball man who can't pitch around his past, the character actor is joined by fellow Rep veteran Vallancourt (a major factor in "October 1962," which this space proclaimed "the Shore area's best play of 2007") as the daughter whose own star-quality softball skills are probably the only thing these two have in common.

With the year's first classroom bell due to ring imminently, manager Stone will platoon a group of young school-age performers — Gillian Andresen (Oceanport), Felicia Aschettino (West Long Branch), Emily Capriotti (Howell), Laura DiIorio (Middletown), Tina Siciliano (Lincroft), and Isabel Wallace, a Little Silver resident acclaimed for her performance as Time in Two River Theater's "Melissa Arctic" — in the supporting role of Kayla.

'Release point' communicates through baseball

Published: Friday, August 17, 2012, 8:15 AM
Michael Irvin Pollard and Felicia Aschettino in a scene from Gino DiIorio's "Release Point" playing at NJ Rep in Long Branch.

If a member of your family committed an unspeakable crime, what would you do? Would you cut the person off completely? Send an invitation to Thanksgiving dinner? Something in between?

These are the questions at the heart of Gino DiIorio’s “Release Point,” the playwright’s fourth work produced by New Jersey Repertory Company. The show opens this weekend in Long Branch.

Directed by Joel Stone, the play takes the form of a baseball coaching session.

Kerry, the daughter of a man who has recently been released from prison, asks her father to help her baseball star brother perfect his pitching technique. The son refuses to communicate with the father, so Kerry is to relay the advice.

As the father diagnoses the flaw in the title move — the moment at which the ball leaves the glove — he and his daughter begin to rebuild their relationship.

“The play is about action,” DiIorio says. “I think you learn more about a person in an hour of play than a year of conversation.”

“It’s no different from dating — if you cook dinner with somebody or go play mini golf or go bowling, you see people in moments of stress, you see how competitive they are, if they have a sense of humor.”

The “Release Point” cast includes local regular Michael Irvin Pollard, who previously appeared in DiIorio’s 2009 “Dead Ringer,” as well as Jenny Vallancourt. Six young New Jersey actresses rotate as Kayla: Gillian Andresen, Felicia Aschettino, Emily Capriotti, Laura Diorio, Tina Siciliano and Isabel Wallace.

When DiIorio began writing the play in 2008, he was trying to teach his then 10-year-old son how to pitch, so the technical aspects of the sport were on his mind. And as a beleaguered but avid Red Sox fan, he says, “Who doesn’t love baseball?”

But what made the playwright know that he needed to write “Release Point” is more complicated. That year, a friend of his from college was convicted of an act that DiIorio describes as heinous. The friend was a father of three who otherwise had a “pretty normal life.”

“He wasn’t a bad guy,” DiIorio says. “I just didn’t know how to deal with it and I was trying to come to grips with it.”

He understands those who would never speak to the friend again, but he “just can’t throw away an entire lifetime,” he says.

During the writing process, DiIorio and his friend exchanged letters, and the playwright read extensively about criminal behavior and consulted with psychologists. As with “Dead Ringer,” which detailed the world of horse training, DiIorio sought to create as complete, accurate and immersive a portrait as possible.

DiIorio admits that his subject matter could be considered “a little bit touchy” and he expresses concern that viewers could be driven away by it.

Yet despite any controversy, at readings of the show, he says he has had many audience members approach him to discuss how they related to the work. Whether or not the specific offense that viewers have experienced matches the main character of “Release Point” precisely, the grappling with the aftermath seems to have touched a nerve.

“I don’t know what to do with you,” Kerry tells her father.

“It’s about how to reorganize someone’s family after taking a blow like that,” DiIorio says.

Playing Catch and ‘Release’ at NJ Rep

by Tom Chesek - Upper WET Side - August 13, 2012 
Michael Irvin Pollard is an ex-baseball coach whose past has overtaken him on the basepaths — and Jenny Vallancourt is the daughter who make a pitch to understand him — in RELEASE POINT, the world premiere play going up this week at New Jersey Repertory Company. (photos by SuzAnne Barabas)

Ah, the healing powers of baseball — and the power of a crackerjack story to transcend the speedball/ moneyball realities of the millennial Game when we're looking for that high. The ability to bring together an estranged father and daughter on the playing surface of family dynamics, here in the late-summer season when the shadows grow foot-long and the increasingly convoluted pennant race heats up.

Of course, this being edgy-as-all-getout New Jersey Repertory Company — and this being a new work by playwright and professor Gino DiIorio — Release Point enters into its world premiere engagement this week from an off-speed, unpredictable place that's likely to have more to do with the baser aspects of human nature than anything resembling The Natural.

In the script under the direction of Joel Stone, a young woman (Jenny Vallancourt) ventures to a hill overlooking a suburban baseball field, in an attempt to salvage something from a severely damaged relationship with her father. The dad (Michael Irvin Pollard) is a former pitching coach who spends his days observing the kids from afar because, well, he's done something terrible — and he's forbidden to get any closer to the game.

Pollard, who starred in the 2009 premiere run of DiIorio's bizarre Western gothic horror Dead Ringer — and whose transition from broad comedy to dramatic versatility has made him one of the most valuable players on the NJ Rep roster — is joined here by Vallancourt, herself a young veteran of past productions like the musical Bookends and the scary-amazing domestic drama October 1962.

There's a third role in the script — that of a little kid named Kayla, and here on the cusp of a new school year she's being played platoon-style by a bullpen of six young actresses that include Isabel Wallace (a hit in the role of Time in Two River Theater's Melissa Arctic) and next-generation talent Laura DiIorio.

Six Kid Rotation: Platooning in the role of Kayla — and appearing alongside Michael Irvin Pollard during the NJ Rep engagement of RELEASE POINT — are (clockwise from top left) Isabel Wallace of Little Silver, Emily Capriotti of Howell, Felicia Aschettino of West Long Branch, Tina Siciliano of Lincroft, Gillian Andresen of Oceanport, and Laura Diorio of Middletown. (photos by SuzAnne Barabas)

UpperWETside spoke to the playwright about baseball, theater, and more baseball as part of a twi-night interview doubleheader. More with Joltin' Gino DiIorio after this stretch…

upperWETside: We understand that this play involves a father and daughter using the Healing Power of Baseball to come to some reconciliation. Now, I've seen the other plays you've done at New Jersey Rep (Winterizing the Summer House, Apostasy, Dead Ringer) and I'm wagering that we're venturing into edgier territory than the high fructose corn syrup you find in something like FIELD OF DREAMS…

GINO DiIORIO: It's one of those plays where if I told you the whole story of how this play came about, it'd keep people away. I got the idea when I asked about an old college friend from 20 years ago, and I found out that he'd been convicted of being a pedophile.

I just couldn't get my head around the fact that this guy I knew was now doing time…I wondered how he'd come to grips with what life would be like when he got out; how someone could ever have a relationship with their family again when they've done a terrible thing.

So the dad in this play has a similar thing in his past, which is why he's no longer coaching the kids' baseball team.

The play takes place on a hill outside of a baseball field, where a daughter seeks out her father, who's been going up there to watch the kids play ball. He's been in prison for ten years, and he can't be within 500 feet of the playing field. Of course, he's measuring it from home plate! So the daughter, who's really a star at softball — she throws underhanded of course, so he doesn't take her seriously as a pitcher — is out there just trying to figure things out; to see if there's any sort of relationship that can be salvaged there. And they use baseball to find some common ground.

Whenever I've tried to use baseball as common ground, the conversation usually devolves into a donnybrook over some pathetic bit of theory or minutiae. It sounds like the dad is an old-school type who won't even accept his daughter's ballplaying skills and knowledge.

He's old school; he preaches pitching downhill, to a landing point…like a lot of guys who coach kids, he's very much against the curve ball. Fastball, change up…the rest of the stuff can come later.

Well, having been in lockup for ten years, he managed to miss the whole modern obsession with pitch counts. We're veering a little far afield from talking about the play here, but while we're on the topic I'm interested in your take on the whole strict pitch-count thing.

There are managers and pitching coaches out there who will almost never let anyone pitch a complete game anymore…they'll yank a guy off the mound even when things are going swimmingly, and then you watch the whole dynamic of the game shift from that point on.

Then there are guys…I'm thinking of when I was watching Yankees vs. Tigers the other night; Justin Verlander was just kicking Yankee ass, 14 strikeouts, allowing two unearned runs…he's out there throwing over 130 pitches, and in the eighth inning he's still being clocked at a hundred miles an hour. 

It's more about pitching motion…a lot of kids in high school have a wide variety of pitches, but pitching a baseball is just such an unnatural, complicated process in the first place that everyone obsesses over every little thing when it comes to someone's arm. Some guys are really only good for 100 pitches, and some guys seem to have a rubber arm — it used to be you'd see someone like Juan Marichal throw 200-plus pitches in a game.

Well, we're gonna need to pick up the conversation later, but getting back to RELEASE POINT, this was one of several plays that you workshopped as readings there at NJ Rep…

It went from readings to a full production…it was done as a reading just last spring at New Jersey Rep; it was done at HotCity Theatre in St. Louis, and as a reading at Berkshire Playwrights Lab.

I've had a few readings done there in Long Branch, in addition to the handful of plays that have gone on to full productions there. I appreciate the audiences they get for those readings, too…they don't hold your hand; they tell you up front what they like and don't like.

I feel really blessed to know Gabe and SuzAnne; it's a great home for original plays, and it's really only one of two theaters in the entire country that does what they do.

They are also just about the only people who would put forth a summer entertainment about a pedophile! And you know from experience that you can present an honest piece of work to them, on a squeamish sort of topic, and have them trust your instincts.

I felt that I had to write this piece; to humanize the monster…to a writer, it's part of the job. I've always been one to talk to the weirdo!

LINK NEWS - Theatre review

Comedy takes unblinking look at American society  
Summer Crockett Moore as "Margaret" has some sage advice for young "Jonatha" (Becca Ballenger) who looks on in 'American Stare.' / Photo: SuzAnne Barabas

American Stare by Tony Glazer is billed as a "ferocious new comedy." The ferocity outweighs the comedy in this thought-provoking play.

There are humorous situations and funny lines. Clark Felix (Trey Gibbons), an accused pedophile, says he was unfairly blamed because of his dyslexia. He thought his online date was 31 not 13. Margaret Bowie (Summer Crockett Moore) offers to make her neighbors a "bacon fluffer-nutter quiche." But these laughable moments are offset by many opportunities to reflect on the difficulty of life in modern America, particularly the struggle between community and solitary greed.

Jonatha Mooney (Becca Ballenger) is an idealistic teenager (her exact age, perhaps deliberately, is ambiguous). She fervently believes that community is more important than individual gain. Her parents, Charles (Shane Patrick Kearns) and Allison (LeeAnne Hutchison) are balanced on a financial knife edge, so that Charles losing his job is cause for immediate panic.

Life has been hard for Charles. We learn in his second act monologue that he became a father at 16, and has always struggled at menial jobs. Margaret's husband has died of cancer caused by a lethal chemical, and she is struggling to make ends meet with only her increasingly irascible dog for family. Clark Felix has been physically and mentally destroyed by an angry crowd after being singled out by "To Catch A Predator."

Into this community of damaged souls comes Robert Stimptner (Brad Holbrook) looking sharp and prosperous in his nice suit, offering Margaret $200,000 for the rights to her DNA. Jonatha, who looks to Margaret for moral guidance, finds sinister clauses in the contract, and tries to talk Margaret out of the deal. The most thought-provoking scene is between Jonathan d Mr. Stimptner, as she tries to justify her view of a world as unified as the lemniscates she loves to draw in chalk (the lemniscates resemble the symbol for infinity, prompting the skeptical Clark to ask why infinity can't get its own symbol instead of turning 8 sideways), and he fights back with his vision of a world destroyed by the absence of war and big business.

The dialogue is reminiscent of the scene between the military industrialist Andrew Undershaft and his daughter in Shaw's Major Barbara, written in 1907. Things have not changed much in 105 years.

The scenery by Jessica Parks is a marvelous evocation of Sunshine Villa, the rundown trailer-park complete with abandoned car seat and many beer bottles. Evan Bergman has directed so dynamically that I was surprised there was no coordinator listed for the fight scenes.

A CurtainUp New Jersey Review

American Stare

And I'm a person. I didn't come here on a space ship. I'm a human being who works for a human corporation with other human beings who have connections to human politicians who pass laws protecting my profits while being re-elected by human voters who happily ignore the rest of humanity in order to keep eye-sucking their flat screens and fist-pumping their remotes. We are all "in this together," you know? It takes a village to rape a pygmy. — Robert Stimptner

Summer Crockett Moore and LeeAnne Hutchison (Photo: SuzAnne Barabas)

Condescendingly referred to as trailer trash, these less economically flourishing, but nevertheless often feisty, ferociously articulate folk who live in trailer parks provide playwright Tony Glazer with his formidable cast of characters in American Stare. This gritty, well-acted and directed play, now having its world premiere, teeters entertainingly between being a sociopolitical polemic and an earthy domestic comedy-drama.

Glazer has set his play on a cement patio used as a common ground for the surrounding trailers. He may not know where to stop when it comes to making the characters sounding boards for Brechtian-styled agitprop and where to let them simply get back to their more immediate misfortunes and eroding interpersonal conflicts. What he does know is how to keep his characters punching and politicizing through thick and thin. As a message play, it's more than a bit obvious, but it still works through the sheer force of the playwright's mission.

We are engaged with a series of amusingly strident as well as darkly comedic conflicts among five of the residents and accelerated by a well-dressed, smooth-talking visitor Robert Stimptner (played with garter-snake appeal by Bard Holbrook), a representative of a major industrial corporation bearing a certified check for $200,000. The recipient is Margaret Bowie (Summer Crockett Moore), a struggling but resilient widow who has been left, since her husband's untimely death from some kind of chemical contamination, with mountains of debt and one vicious and mercifully unseen locked-up dog.

That the slick, seemingly up-and-up rep has with him a contract for her to sign with a provision that denies her the right to sue for the husband's death is noticed by Jonatha (nice work by Becca Ballenger), an unusually bright teenager. Jonatha may be only 14, but she is admirable in her regard for ethics as is her commendable efforts to keep her localized community together during tough economic times. "We're all in this together" is a standard she continually remind the others.

The others include Jonatha's parents, Charles (Shane Patrick Kearns), a hard-scrabble construction worker, Allison (LeeAnne Hutchison), a clerk in a grocery store, and Clark (Trey Gibbons), a live-alone bachelor who has been castrated by a vengeful local mob after being recognized from a TV news broadcast. While Clark fills his colostomy bag, sometimes to disastrous effect, he also fills his days sitting on the porch drinking tall beers and watching things go badly for his fellow guzzler Charles who loses his job to a crew of Hispanic workers, relatives of his employer.

Kearns is almost scary as he brings Clark's accumulating rage to the surface and directs it toward the equally combative Allison. Hutchison is terrific as Allison who seems to enjoy overreacting to everything, sometimes with cause, particularly the way her husband recklessly solves his unemployment problem.

This delights in posturing and preaching about the loss of American values. A climactic scene in which Charles and Clark pontificate on Americans' pursuit of money, the absence of a caring God, and the general misery of their lives is more blatant than its needs to be. More dramatically effective is the scene in which Jonatha and Stimpter have a face to face with Stimpter smugly upholding the rights of the corporation to supersede those of the people ("Money speaks. The rest of us squeaks."), as Jonatha just as determinedly refuses to cave in "just because people are asleep doesn't mean they can't open their eyes."

There is no question that director Bergman's vigorously enforced direction/staging (not easy considering the small space allotted to designer Jessica Park's compact set) brings an eye-opening reality to what is essentially a dramatized rant. Regional theaters, however, should have fun with this play, flaws and all. The full house at the performance I attended (one week after the official opening) responded very enthusiastically to the play and to its players. reviews

American Stare

reviewed by Nita Congress

June 14, 2012

Pictured: Trey Gibbons, LeeAnne Hutchison, and Shane Patrick Kearns in a scene from American Stare; photo © SuzAnne Barabas

American Stare is a hard look at a number of conflicts we as a nation are engaged in now: the 99 percent versus the 1 percent. The community versus the corporation. The expedient versus the ethical. The play's premise—and its conclusion—is not the comfortable, familiar one: that there is no easy answer. Rather, playwright Tony Glazer suggests that the answer lies in savage, swift, decisive action.

Which can be oddly comforting too: a clarion call to take a stand, to make a move, to strike a blow.

This is not in any way to imply that American Stare is an unremitting, bitter polemic. Far from it. This is a warm play, with hot passions underlying, filled with loving and lovable characters. The people who make up the world of American Stare are the marginalized denizens of a southern Florida trailer park—scruffy outcasts to be sure, but the by-products of the American dream: Work hard and you will succeed.

Or not.

Our point of entry into the story is Jonatha Mooney, a budding adolescent on the cusp of the absolutism of childhood and the ambiguities of adulthood. This is nicely symbolized by her beginning each act of the play by making sidewalk chalk sketchings of infinity.

Jonatha believes in community, one for all and all for everyone. And her parents, Allison and Charles, their own relationship threatened by economic insecurity, instill in her, both wittingly and un-, a sense of honor, responsibility, and kinship. The complex characters of her extended family, the other denizens of the trailer park—Clark, a presumed child molester with a keen moral streak, and Margaret, a wise earth mother whose recent bereavement and impoverishment lead her to equivocating compromise that disgusts Jonatha—make for a rich and unexpected set of contrasts.

Catalyzing the action is the outsider, Robert, a slick smart corporate representative, peddling the snake oil of the easy way out to the vulnerable Margaret, whose husband's death from cancer was likely directly caused by Robert's company.

The play's highlights for me were the showdown debates between the polar opposites of Jonatha and Robert. These abound with ringing, zinging statements: "Around here, all we have is community." "There's no real money in cures." It's an unfair match-up, but Robert admires Jonatha's spunk and savvy, even while he deplores her naiveté. He jeers, "It takes a village to rape a pygmy." But he has reckoned without her determination, which is as strong as his own.

The players—Becca Ballenger, Summer Crockett Moore, Trey Gibbons, Brad Holbrook, LeeAnne Hutchison, and Shane Patrick Kearns—breath life into complicated characters, never losing sight of their humanity. And New Jersey Rep and its technicians and artists have again mounted an intriguing and eloquent play, grounding it with a solid set design courtesy of Jessica Parks, naturalistic costumes by Patricia E. Doherty, and realistic light and sound from, respectively, Jill Nagle and John Emmett O'Brien.

Playwright Tony Glazer has perhaps taken on more issues than can be resolved in a single play, but his ambition and fearlessness are to be admired. If you are looking for escapism, this is not the evening's entertainment for you. But if you are trying to set your heart and mind to the important—indeed, vital—task of grasping the disturbing polarities that increasingly define our American landscape, American Stare affords that opportunity in spades.

American Stare: Would-Be Trailer Park Social Treatise Morphs into Engrossing Gothic Melodrama

Review by Bob Rendell, Talkin' Broadway

The Housewives of Manheim
Trey Gibbons, LeeAnne Hutchison and Shane Patrick Kearns

Inadvertently, the central issue which emerges from American Stare, a melodrama now on view in its world premiere production at New Jersey Repertory, is "Are the poor social outcasts and misfits pissing their lives away in a crummy South Florida trailer park, abused, salt of the earth, victims of cruel, debased and dishonest capitalism who are in need of salvation from a community organizer, or are they self pitying victims of their own uncontrolled passions and cretinous behavior?"

It is highly unlikely that author Tony Glazer ever intended for anyone viewing American Stare to come away with that question in mind. However, given the dichotomous, at times, reprehensible behavior of the five trailer park residents depicted here, it is the question which American Stare screamed at me across the figurative footlights. Only viewers with the pre-determined view that the poor are so shackled and abused that they cannot be held in any way morally or socially responsible for the most heinous and irresponsible acts will not consider that question as being on the front burner here. As I commit these thoughts to the page, it dawns on me that Glazer takes this as a given

Three of the trailer park residents are a no longer compatible husband and wife: the sporadically employed, alcoholic Charles Mooney and his hard working (as a grocery clerk), bitterly disappointed and dispirited wife Allison; and their inexplicably brilliant and societally aware 14-year-old daughter Jonatha. Charles nurses a foolish bias toward minorities and immigrants whom he blames for his employment difficulties. Charles' education stopped abruptly after he impregnated the older Allison, chose to marry her, and got a job to support her and their child.

Jonatha is nurtured by Margaret Bowie, a good hearted, recently widowed youngish woman who has been worn down by her struggles to pay her bills. Her husband had died of a cancer which resulted from the dumping of a toxic chemical on their "land in Homestead." Margaret's lawsuit against the dumping chemical company was dismissed because her not having developed cancer made it "inconclusive" as to whether the chemical caused cancer. Left with her late husband's hospital bills and attorney bills, Margaret doesn't have the resources to pursue an appeal. Oh, and Margaret has a barking monster of a vicious dog who bites off the heads of intruding raccoons. Now don't forget about that dog. We may never see him, but he has a real role here.

Just to carry us a bit more over the top, another trailer park denizen on view is the castrated lay-about Clark Felix. Revealed as a child sex predator by the television sting operation "To Catch a Predator," Felix was castrated by the voracious customers at the Blue Star Buffet. Felix, who maintains his innocence ("My dyslexia is how I got all mixed up in that show ... I thought that girl was 31, not 13"), sued NBC and received a large settlement. He's cantankerous, but also a warm soul, but don't get in the way of his overflowing urinary bag.

The true lowlife on view is visitor Robert Stimptner, the representative of corporate capitalist America. Stimptner represents that his company wants to buy permission to file a patent for Margaret's DNA sequences as that sequencing appears to produce a firewall which prevents the development of cancer. Of course, when Margaret signs that contract she will be giving up the right to sue the chemical dumping company for a relative song.

Author Tony Glazer effectively employs the familiar, obvious clichés inherent in his story to produce a rousing agit-prop melodrama with sympathetic victims and a fully fledged villain easy to hate. However, not feeling any need to smooth out unsympathetic traits and behavior in his victims, Glazer ups the ante by creating confrontations and actions for them which turn the second act of American Stare into a lurid and powerful Grand Guignol entertainment.

Director Evan Bergman and his strong cast have wisely chosen to emphasize the heightened and lurid tone of the writing. Resident Scenic Designer Jessica Parks, who repeatedly performs miracles on the NJ Rep's narrow stage, here has to crowd her three trailers into a tight space. However, Parks manages to provide a realistic, large and fluid space for the outdoor area in which the entire piece is played out.

Shane Patrick Kearns is particularly effective in conveying the ineffective child-man who is Charles. LeeAnne Hutchison is fiercely and hurtfully monstrous in her confrontation with Jonatha. Her insight and regret immediately following her outburst are not fully convincing. However, here the performance is more honest than the writing. Becca Ballenger in the role of Jonatha fully captures and maintains the carriage, movement, and physical attitudes of a 15-year-old adolescent as she skillfully navigates the dramatic waters in which Jonatha finds herself.

Trey Gibbons is smooth and believable as the erratic and uncentered Clark Felix. Summer Crockett Moore is a stoic Margaret. Brad Holbrook is a very persuasive Robert Stimptner. This is quite something, given that Holbrook has to mouth the argument that war is good because without it there would not be enough food for everyone.

Although he is not Voltaire, Tony Glazer's skillful intelligence, theatrical flair, and confident passion are effectively on display in American Stare.

American Dream - or nightmare?

NJ Rep stages a darkly comic 'Stare' into the abyss
Jun 20, 2012
Written by Tom Chesek

Brad Holbrook (center) has a proposition for Summer Crockett Moore, as Becca Ballenger looks on in 'American Stare.' / Photo: SuzAnne Barabas

"God Bless America," reads the motel sign that's visible from South Florida trailer park Sunshine Villa. "Defeat the terrorists. Come grill out by our pool."

Every so often, the folks at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch offer up an example of the sort of thing they do better than pretty much anybody else — the kind of darkly comic, devastatingly satirical ensemble piece that other "suburban" companies would hesitate to go near. In Tony Glazer's "American Stare" — currently in its world premiere engagement at NJ Rep — the doublewide duchy of Sunshine Villa is a microcosm for all that's gone cattywampus with the American Dream.

Everybody's business

As framed in the compact set design by Jessica Parks — a claustrophobic version of the Great Outdoors, detailed down to the last plaster gnome, empty "tallboy" and car-seat settee — the "community" is a place where the Terror Alert is always a hot and stifling "orange" — where differences of opinion are hashed out with punches and kicks, and where everybody's business, in every sense of the word, is out there for all to see and hear.

It's there that the good people of Sunshine — including the recently widowed Margaret (Summer Crockett Moore), teenaged neighbor Jonatha (Becca Ballenger) and neighborhood "perv" Clark (Trey Gibbons) while away their back-deck days; whether in anticipation of the escape promised by first-crush romance, or escape from past setbacks by way of the bottle.

This being drama on a trailer-park scale, those setbacks take the shape of Margaret's having lost her husband to radioactive chemical waste, while being saddled with a mountain of debt, a possibly rabid dog and a raccoon's head in her freezer. Clark, meanwhile, is a bag-wearing disability case; an unwitting guest star on TV's "To Catch a Predator" and an unfortunate victim of angry-mob justice at the local Buffet.

It doesn't end there. Jonatha's not-terribly-nurturing home life includes dad Charles (Shane Patrick Kearns), a freshly unemployed construction guy with serious ethnic issues, a possible drinking problem and an in-your-face notion on how to support his family. Mom Allison (LeeAnne Hutchison) is the kind of character that would be described as "sassy" up until the too-frequent points at which she explodes into verbal abuse and outright violence.

It's not exactly an idyllic existence, but whatever delicate balance there is gets thrown off its axis when the Devil enters the scene, in the person of Mr. Stimptner (Brad Holbrook), a very slick and persistent chemical-company representative with a rather strange contract for Margaret to sign. Dripping with the snake-oil undercoating of a thousand televangelists and politicians, the suit-and-tie stranger is a lightning rod for the playwright's palpable anger, and a catalyst for a set of plot points that careen from sitcom surrealism, to straight-to-Redbox horror.

That said, this is no "Squidbillies" cartoon, amped up at the expense of Glazer's fellow South Floridians. His characters wax philosophical (sometimes with a gentle nudge from Mr. Jack Daniel), and show flashes of genuine virtue and wisdom ("It's always the good ones who have it hardest…in the end they're the ones who keep us honest") — although even the smartest among them (that would be Jonatha) is not immune to impulsive decisions that pack a wallop of consequences.

Hard-working cast

Director Evan Bergman, who's shown such a sure hand in the past with such dynamically complex ensemble shows as "Jericho," keeps this dialogue-rich but surprisingly violent show on a track that's fast and, yes, funny — turning what could have been one of the "jokes with no punchlines" that Jonatha enjoys into a pointed parable that seethes with the playwright's projected frustration over an America seemingly lost to the ages. The entire cast of Rep newcomers works hard, stays on message and puts it all across with bracingly salty language that still won't fly in the proverbial family newspaper.

Of course, any playwright worth his pillar of salt knows that a loaded gun (or its proxy) introduced at the play's outset must go off by the end, and if the Devil's going to walk among us, then the Devil must get his due — namely, the best speech in the play. It's a task that Holbrook is more than equal to in his tense second-act scene with Ballenger; a harrowing sermon on the State of the Union that could only climax with a splatter (no less effective even if you see it coming). Only the final line of the show's denouement — the kind of sickly-sweet thought that would be skewered and hung out to dry on "Family Guy" — smells fishy in the context of all that's come before.

Unabashedly opinionated, outlandishly willing to push the envelope of the audience's comfort zone, "American Stare" is NJ Rep hitting on all cylinders — a little light summer entertainment for the End of the World As We Know It.

Trailer park life

Published: Tuesday, June 19, 2012, 6:53 AM
Summer Crockett Moore, Brad Holbrook, Becca Ballenger in a scene from "American Stare" at NJ Rep.

It's a rare play in which a man has had his manhood removed by angry vigilantes.

But if any theater in the state is going to produce such a work, it will be New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. The scripts it routinely mounts are so edgy that the actors must get paper cuts just reading them.

To be fair, "American Stare," the latest hard-hitting drama, only uses that vigilante victim as a minor character. Clark Felix mostly sits in front of his Florida trailer park home, complaining a good deal and giving unsolicited opinions to other residents.

These include Charles Mooney, who's been fired as a construction laborer because of nepotism and racism. That he's standing around complaining instead of heading to unemployment infuriates his wife, Allison.

A theatergoer mourns that young Jonatha has been born into this family. She's such a bright girl, who takes an interest in local politics and state laws. Jonatha will even be helpful to Margaret, their neighbor, who now may get an unexpected windfall, thanks to Robert, a visiting city slicker.

Trailer park residents know down deep that there's no such thing as a free snack, let alone a free lunch. So does playwright Tony Glazer, who convincingly creates this slice of low-life. Director Evan Bergman has his cast continue to talk matter-of-factly when a brutal dogfight occurs, or a police siren pierces the air.

"That's why we all have to stick together" is the party line for this quintet. Trouble is, Jonatha believes it and interprets it too literally for everyone's taste. The residents of the "Sunshine Villa" will do anything for money — because they've been left little choice.

"American Stare" seems to start out as a satire, but both Glazer and Bergman care too much about these people to mock them. What's miraculous is that there are no over-the-top performances here to elicit cheap laughs. When the two women trade notes about life, it's an honest conversation, spoken at real-life pitch. There's the sincerity that good friends have when making their bond stronger. Bless Summer Crockett Moore and LeeAnne Hutchison for respectively bringing such integrity to Margaret and Allison. When Charles and Clark get together, they too reveal more about themselves than they might have anticipated. Shane Patrick Kearns excels as Charles, trying to find his emotions as best he can. And as Clark — whose neck is as red as the Coca-Cola T-shirt he wears — Trey Gibbons does exceedingly well. Gibbons displays the nervousness of one who knows that such a conversation is beyond his reach. He knows that he may be too stupid to understand what Charles means, and hopes he can keep up.

And Jonatha is marvelously portrayed by Becca Ballenger. She can give a sharp retort when it's called for, but she'd just as soon be nice to everyone. To watch Ballenger try to maintain her composure when events conspire against Jonatha makes for a heartbreaking performance.

Glazer, Bergman and all the characters make clear how much they admire Jonatha. So will many who make their way to "American Stare."

Play asks political questions by looking at lower-class life

Published: Friday, June 08, 2012, 7:50 AM
From left, Trey Gibbons, LeeAnne Hutchison and Shane Patrick Kearns co-star in the dark comedy "American Stare," at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

The Garden State Turnpike.

It's the road that Evan Bergman says he takes from his New York City home when he drives to New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

When his mistake is pointed out to him, Bergman is quite embarrassed and quick to compensate. "Exit 105, Route 36, take a right onto Broadway."

Well, one might expect a director to know directions. And Bergman has directed quite a few shows at the tiny theater at 179 Broadway. They include "Jericho," one of the theater's biggest hits, which moved to New York. Now, Bergman takes on Tony Glazer's new "American Stare."

The dark comedy "takes a look at the lower-class citizens who have been pushed to the side — the common people who try to be self-reliant as the world tries to run them over," he says.

Five of the six people that theatergoers meet live in a trailer park. There's a mother who works in a convenience store, a father who is a construction laborer and their teenage daughter.

In addition, there's the neighbor who drinks too much and a widow who is having a hard time dealing with creditors since her husband died.

"Then there's Robert, a businessman who drops by," says Bergman. "Let's just say he has an agenda."

Bergman says that what he studied at the University of Colorado has genuinely helped him with this play. And while one might assume that means theater, it doesn't.

"I was actually a political science major," he says, sounding a bit astonished that he was ever in that academic circle. "This play certainly makes us ask questions about government and politics. Even more, though, political science allowed me to have an overview of the disenfranchised."

Bergman can trace the roots of his social consciousness to one of the first plays he ever saw: "Ceremonies in Dark Old Men," a 1969 drama about lower-class blacks who hang out in a barber shop.

"I was only about 11 years old," he says. "The Negro Ensemble Company brought the show to our local library and just did a few scenes from it. I liked it so much that I asked my parents to take me. And they did."

It changed his life — although political science did seem like a more secure route. But Bergman was soon finding himself acting here and there.

Then, a few years after he graduated from college, he went to see a few friends who had a restaurant at the Jane Street Hotel in Lower Manhattan.

"And what I found was the ballroom where the survivors of the Titanic had been taken had been turned into a theater," he says. "It hadn't been used for years, so I got this idea in my head that it could be revived."

It was, and so was his theatrical career — but this time as a director.

"I even directed a play called 'The Director,' " he says.

And now, "American Stare."

"The title refers to the glazed look people have on their faces when they believe they're going nowhere," he says.

Meanwhile, Bergman is hoping that the facial expressions of those in the audience will change from apathetic to involved before Glazer's play ends.

Comic Stage Revision of Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles

Review by Bob Rendell, Talkin' Broadway

The Housewives of Manheim
Wynn Harmon, Rich Silverstein and Gary Marachek

A 2007 British stage comedy version of The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901-1902), the classic Sir Sherlock Holmes novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, has found its way to the New Jersey Repertory Theatre where it is providing pleasant light entertainment suitable for all manner of audiences.

It appears to have been inspired by its slightly older cousin, the 2005 British stage comedy version of the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film The 39 Steps which has achieved wide popularity on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond. Both plays had developmental productions at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds prior to their West End productions.

Baskervilles is designed to be performed by a comedy troupe of three male actors, each of who plays one of the three Baskerville lead roles. The dozen or so other roles are portrayed by the trio, and each one portrays "himself" (actually the actor whom he is playing who bears his name). It was written by Steven Canny and John Nicholson with Nicholson's veteran English comedy stage troupe, Peepolykus, in mind.

Here in New Jersey, the three leading Baskerville roles are portrayed by Wynn Harmon as Sherlock Holmes, Gary Marachek in what he thinks is the lead role of Dr. Watson, and Rich Silverstein as Sir Henry Baskerville. As "themselves," they are three somewhat obtuse and preening provincial players who sometimes wreak havoc with the play as they break from their Baskervilles roles when they squabble, foul up, or, one of them simply decides that there is something that he has to say to another actor or to the audience.

As the play begins, Sir Charles Baskerville is on the moor near Baskerville Hall when he hears howling, wind, and other eerie night sounds. He is running in when he turns and sees a scary presence. He cowers in fright and raises his arms to ward off his attacker, only to be knocked to the ground. He clutches his heart and dies with an expression of fear contorting his face. Gary Marachek rushes on stage from the wings, and speaks, "Stop! Stop! Stop! Turn the lights up. Ladies and gentlemen, I'm extremely sorry to have to interrupt the performance. There should have been a safety announcement before the show began ..." And we are off to the races.

When we get back to the Baskervilles, we find that Holmes and Dr. Watson are intrigued by the case and a legendary curse involving a hellhound who has been seen on the moor seeking the blood of Baskervilles. Holmes and Watson meet with Sir Henry Baskerville, Sir Charles' nephew newly arrived from Canada ("I don't know how to do a Canadian accent"). Sir Henry is worried about a note which has been delivered to his hotel warning him to stay away from Baskerville Hall for his own safety, but is determined to go there. It is agreed that Watson will accompany Sir Henry there, and that Holmes will join them later. This frees Wynn Harmon (our Holmes portrayer) to portray the lion's share of the men and women of Baskerville Hall and its environs. It is amazing that Holmes' delay in arriving at Baskerville Hall is taken directly from the novel.

The funniest scene occurs just after the intermission when Wynn Harmon angrily tells us that he has discovered that a member of the audience ("Red Bank Larry 65") tweeted that his slow-paced performance had made the first act drag. Harman mockingly insists on repeating the first act to the tweeter's satisfaction. The trio then given us a first act redux, including fumbled and partial and muffed costume and wig changes, all in the space of about four minutes. It has been done before (most notably at the close of Ken Ludwig's Lend Me a Tenor; Ludwig then did it again later to perk up the finish of his The Fox on the Fairway), but the only question to ask is "does it work and add to the evening's pleasure?". The answer is a resounding "yes." In fact, the clever manner in which, the rapid redux has been so well integrated into the play is pleasurable in and of itself.

The entire cast performs sharply to maximum comedic effect. Wynn Harmon finds the humor in Holmes' intensity and self congratulatory attitude without undermining the authority which his skills have earned him. Harmon's deliberately corny caricatures of the Baskerville suspects are right on target. Harmon portrays Baskerville Hall's servants, the butler Barrymore, and his Spanish femme fatale wife Mrs. Barrymore, as well as the mysterious, moor lurking Stapleton and his sister Cecile. Gary Marachek holds his own as a loyal Dr. Watson who is unaware that his observations are often quicker than those of Holmes, who manages to co-opt them. Rich Silverstein is in tune with his play mates, particularly scoring with the dose of cluelessness which he brings to the role of "himself".

Baskervilles has been written and directed so as to feel improvisational in its framing provincial theatre sequences. And there does appear to be room for the director and actors to improvise throughout in rehearsal. For example, pre-West End and in the West End, Holmes was played by Spanish actor Javier Marzan, and the intercepted tweet which angered him related to the alleged difficulty of understanding his Spanish accent.

As is often the case at New Jersey Rep, the scenic design and properties provided by Jessica Parks Paris is distinctive and enriches the production. For Baskervilles, Parks has design an evocative false proscenium framing a set which is designed to appear to be a stage setting. It includes various elements which detach and swing in from the basic set to delineate various locations.

Director Mark Shanahan has directed a difficult and complex comedy smoothly, and integrated the performance in which a manner which feels totally in tune with the light hearted, enjoyable silliness which Canny and Nicholson have brought to Baskervilles.

Shanahan was an understudy in the original Broadway cast of The 39 Steps, and has directed a number of touring and regional theatre productions of it. His acclaimed production for the George Street Playhouse opened the same weekend as his Baskervilles opened at New Jersey Rep. As noted above, Baskervilles emerged in Leeds as a follow-up to The 39 Steps.

The entertaining and agreeable play within a play adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles should be winning over audiences in regional theatres, summer stock and community theatres for some time to come. It is in good hands for its New Jersey debut.


Al Letson scores more than he misses in one-man 'Sanctuary'

A 'dreadlocked savior' finds Sanctuary at NJ Rep
Mar. 14, 2012
Written by Tom Chesek

NPR radio host, performance poet and playwright Al Letson recaptures a "Summer in Sanctuary," in his solo show now onstage at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. / File photo

As Al Letson tells it, he was "not athletic, or even particularly smart" when he was growing up the son of a Baptist minister in a "paradise" called Plainfield — "but I could talk."

That gift for words, whether on the page or on the stage, would carry the young Letson from a childhood as a dyslexic underachiever, to national Poetry Slam championships and his own series on NPR, "State of the Re:Union." Still, as the performance poet and playwright professes, all his wordsmithing ways could never have prepared him for life in Jacksonville, FL, where he relocated with his family while in his teens.

It was in that northern Florida "annex of Hell" where Letson discovered that his close-knit "Cosby Family" upbringing and "too proper" way of speaking made him an outsider among local kids both black and white — and it was in Jacksonville's poverty-pummeled Springfield neighborhood where the part-time educator spent a "Summer in Sanctuary," the title of the one man show now onstage at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

The real deal

"Sanctuary" in this case is the real-life Sanctuary on 8th Street community center, where the man who sarcastically refers to himself as a "dreadlocked savior" endeavored to teach creative writing to a group of inner city teenagers in 2006. Whether he was ultimately successful or not (Letson appears to believe that he was not) is a subjective thing, shaded by the playwright-performer's peripheral perceptions of the violent "beast" that pushes its tentacles into each young person's life — and of the "fingers of gentrification" that threaten to uproot what fragile sense of community remains on the streets of Springfield.

Performed on a sparsely furnished set over the course of some 90 intermission-free minutes, "Sanctuary" invites comparison to Nilaja Sun's "No Child…," a solo show that enjoyed an extended run at Red Bank's Two River Theater last year. While Sun's similar tour de force (inspired by a semester spent teaching drama to kids in the South Bronx) was a linear story framed with more of an emphasis upon its various female and male characters, Letson shifts between the events of that Sanctuary summer and some significant scenes from his earlier days — his first fight, the football-game humiliation that cost him his first crush, his sobering recollections of a cousin lost to the streets.

Working here with director Rob Urbinati, Letson uses his vocal versatility to delineate such Springfield people as "gentle giant" Alonzo; big-mouthed Little Chris; "queen bee" Danita; unreachable Devon — and Biko, an African immigrant whose reluctant initiation into Springfield's culture of violence and retribution sits at the heart of this often moving solo.

Man in motion

Although an onstage desk brings to mind the works of the late Spalding Gray (whose monologues served as a major inspiration for "Sanctuary"), Letson remains a man in motion throughout; evoking crucial basketball games, chilling street scenes and frustrating classroom sessions with an ear for speech and the easy grace of the athlete he never claimed to be. The action is punctuated with projected stills and video images of the students (a movie project made by The Sanctuary's primary-school kids serves as a cute palate cleanser after some tense interludes), and recorded music is used intermittently (replacing the live DJ used in the show's New York run) — but the effect is ultimately just window dressing for a piece that ultimately draws its simple power from its author's way with words.

The veteran Slam poet, creator of several "Poetical" mash-ups of drama and verse, is at his best in several sequences — a riff on the poetry of basketball; a stylized account of a gun incident; a recognition of the "songs" that reside in all of us — that inject his award-winning performance game into the narrative. Facing the audience one-on-one, Letson dazzles with language, employs moves to keep us off balance, and ultimately scores far more than he misses.

A Rewarding Summer in Sanctuary

Tangled Skirt
Al Letson

You may know Al Letson from National Public Radio where he is the host of the program "State of the Re:Union," which is now in its third season. A Poetry Slam performance artist who has successfully plied his trade on stages throughout the country as well as on HBO, Letson has now brought his 95-minute, one-man autobiographical play Summer in Sanctuary to New Jersey, where he is now performing it in a New Jersey Repertory production under the direction of Rob Urbinati.

The centerpiece of the piece is Letson's stint in the summer of 2006 as teacher of writing and counselor to a group of underprivileged and emotionally needy teenagers in a summer program in the poverty stricken black section of Jacksonville, Florida. What is unusual and most interesting is Letson's emotional response to the situation in which he had placed himself.

Unlike most plays and movies which depict similar experiences which show deeply sympathetic and achieving educators relating to their charges and providing hope and sustenance to them, Summer in Sanctuary presents a much more nuanced and subtle picture.

Letson lays the groundwork by telling us much about himself and his upbringing. Letson is the son of a Baptist minister who was first raised in a secure and loving home in a "homey, safe" black neighborhood in Plainfield, New Jersey. Furthermore, Letson never experienced the alienating effects of, nor was taught, racial prejudice. That is, until his father's vocation brought the family to Jacksonville, where they lived in a middle-class neighborhood where there were a tiny handful of black families. Still, it appears implicit here, that the racism was not pervasive and that Letson had the support and strength not to be undermined by it. Vicki, a white teacher who brought her students to one of Letson's performances, then recruited him to come to Sanctuary. At Sanctuary, Letson found himself faced with alienated, disobedient, insufficiently educated, emotionally troubled and often downright hostile youngsters. He desperately set about trying to reach them and help them to found the meme (I'm encompassing a whole lot of things into that one word) which would allow them to function successfully and avoid failure and pain. When he realizes that one of the youngsters, a boy named Biko (pronounced "BEE-ko) may use a gun to try to avenge or protect himself from some street thugs, Letson, along with Vicki, takes the youngsters with him up I-95 to Baltimore where he is performing a gig.

Letson has all the concern and sympathy in the world for his charges, and is an advocate for providing the help necessary for saving their lives. However, he also doubts that his efforts have had a sufficient or lasting effect on them. Most interestingly and unusually honest is Letson's acknowledgement that there is a cultural chasm between himself and these youngsters that affects his and their ability to connect both intellectually and emotionally. There should be nothing startling about this, but in a society where cultural and political ideologues want to emphasize and exploit racial disharmony, Letson cuts through the noise to make it clear that it is the culture of poverty, hopelessness and alienation that most divides Americans today. Which is not to deny the relationship between such cultural differences and race. A vivid example is when Letson, driving the group in a van, is stopped by a Baltimore police officer in an act of racial profiling, and Letson, using the good sense which mainstreamers teach their children, teaches his passengers how to efficiently and effectively defuse the situation.

Al Letson, bless him, banishes pedagogy and teaches us all of this with arresting storytelling, heartfelt passion, and self deprecating humor. I am not convinced that he is as hopeless at shooting hoops as he would have us believe, but have no doubt that it was a bridge too far for him to properly pronounce that terrible word, ending with an "a" instead of an "er"—spoken by those born to it "with a mixture of pride and shame"—when he proffered it in an attempt to get them to relate to him.

Letson imitates some of his charges—most notably, the hostile Danita and the troubled African born Biko whose family escaped horrible times in the Congo—holding down caricature to a minimum, and never leaving us trying to sort out whom he is portraying. Biko's back story and the details of his street problem could be presented with greater clarity.

The wide and narrow stage of the NJ Rep studio theatre has a teacher's desk at stage left with a desk and a chair, and some student art on the wall behind the desk to mark a classroom at the Sanctuary. An advertising blurb for this play describes Letson as telling his story through monologue, poetry, song and multimedia (on a few seemingly random occasions, some slides and video are displayed on a screen at center stage) is not inaccurate; the overriding style of Al Letson's play and performance is effectively that of the traditional theatre monologue.

With his Summer in Sanctuary, Al Letson has provided us with a rewarding evening of theatre.

'Summer in Sanctuary': Learning from failure

Published: Thursday, March 15, 2012, 7:41 AM
Al Letson re-examines his life in his one-man show, Summer in Sanctuary
at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

New Jersey has been called many things — but have you ever heard it called "paradise"?

You will at the New Jersey Repertory Company. "It was paradise," Al Letson insists, speaking of his childhood in Plainfield.

"We were the Huxtables, and I was Theo," he says in his arresting one-man show, "Summer in Sanctuary."

Of course, Letson didn't realize how lucky he was until his family had moved to a less desirable neighborhood near Jacksonville, Fla., where the 9-year-old Letson was forced to grow up in a hurry.

"I wanted to fit in," he says, so he turned to his new schoolmates with this request: "Teach me how." He quickly learned that just having black skin did not automatically endear him to his African-American classmates.

His youthful struggles make up the first third of his 90-minute presentation. (The N-word is used liberally.)

But this is no doleful lecture. As Letson goes on to high school and beyond, there's much fun to be had in hearing about his misadventures on the school's gridiron.

In addition to dabbling in sports, Letson becomes a poet — and after he makes a particularly dramatic recitation, he is approached by the director of the neighborhood settlement house known as The Sanctuary.

She asks him to work with the kids there, and he, with the best of intentions, agrees to spend a summer with 150 underprivileged youths.

He expected to become "the Dreadlocked Savior of 8th Street," he recalls — but what he encounters puts a few gray hairs among those dreadlocks.

Every day turns out to have an unexpected challenge, teaching him to unleash some pre-emptive strikes. "Every day, I have to win," he admits. "Or else I lose."

When he urged the kids to write, one girl flatly proclaimed, "I don't write." Letson, who expertly adopts the voices of the many young people that he taught, conveys that lass' haughty attitude that writing is beneath her.

While getting kids to put pen to paper during the school year is murderously hard, asking them to come up with poems and compositions during the summer strikes them as punishment.

He tries to relate to them through music.

How out of touch he is with music the kids enjoy makes for some hilarious confrontations.

Letson's efforts do not result in unmitigated success. Nevertheless, he proves a point that many in power need to hear again: The arts can empower kids and give them self-esteem.

While Letson doesn't promise that arts education will be a panacea — "You can't save everyone," he admits — the strengths and assets of such programs are well-detailed. At Sunday's matinee, Letson held the audience spellbound. Such remarks as "There's no turning the other cheek when someone already has a bruised face" received grunts of agreement from many.

But it was the rapt silence the crowd maintained for most of the afternoon that underlined how vivid a picture Letson was painting. reviews

Summer in Sanctuary
reviewed by Nita Congress

March 8, 2012

At its best, theatre takes you out of yourself. At its best, theatre takes you to a different place. At its best, theatre leaves you ennobled, enriched, enlightened.

Summer in Sanctuary is theatre at its best.

The summer of the title is 2006. The Sanctuary is a community center in a poor black neighborhood in Jacksonville, Florida. And the playwright before us, performance poet Al Letson, was there to teach creative writing to day camp kids.

“We are not the same.”

This statement, made early on, applies to the thirty-something Letson—who grew up the son of a pastor in what he remembers as a Cosby Showchildhood “when things made more sense than they do now,” a dyslexic who fell in love with words—as he confronts these hard, sad, tough, embattled, embittered, bewildered and bewildering children of poverty, crime, drugs, and marginalization.

Letson explains “I have to win.” Win their hearts and minds, teach them, reach them.

But as the ninety-minute odyssey he takes us on vividly shows, it isn’t as easy as Hilary Swank or Sidney Poitier make it out to be. Letson achingly confesses that he soon became “so tired of trying to help people who didn’t want to be helped.”

And does he try. Letson shows us how he used every tool, every trick, every angle to get to these kids: writing, talking, lecturing, admonishing, wheedling. And when those failed: basketball. Music. Video. A handshake. And a wild road trip. And love. And love. And love.

And he shows us those kids, effortlessly becoming the naïf Biko, the inscrutable Devon, the ultimate mean girl Danita. We watch transfixed as Letson takes us through innumerable shifts in time and personality.

And as we watch, we find out how we are all the same. How acceptance and tolerance and compassion and understanding and love can and do break down barriers.

Letson is a spellbinding storyteller, and when he segues into poetry, he is even better (see more of his work at His basketball poem literally soars, with its hip-hop rhythms and transcendent imagery. There are wondrous places this piece goes, in wondrous ways. Letson freezes and stops time to flash back to illustrative points in his past, then picks the action back up in the “present” in a manner that is nothing short of incredible.

And, as always, New Jersey Rep shines too, with Jessica Parks, Jill Nagle, and Patricia E. Doherty turning in solid and supportive scenic, lighting, and costume design work, respectively. Director Rob Urbinati keeps the show flowing seamlessly, steadily focusing on Letson and his magic.

Magic and wonder aside, Letson doesn’t believe he succeeded with these kids. And whether that’s true or not, the problems—and they are very big problems, of poverty, of racism, of access, of inequality—still exist. There in Sanctuary, as well as here, and throughout the United States. The gaping hole in these children is not easily filled.

But one way to start filling that hole is to bring them to this piece, and to the message of hope and healing that Al Letson so sincerely offers up.

A CurtainUp New Jersey Review

Summer in Sanctuary

The playroom has the distinct odor of feet, with a dash of sweat for good measure, and the bathrooms smell like, well like public bathrooms. You get the picture. And then there's the homework room where I teach a class on creative writing-and this room has it's own scent. And no matter how many times I'm here, I can never remember what it reminds me of. — Al

Al Letson

Al Letson's solo-play is not dissimilar from the raconteur style and informal format that defined the monologues of Spalding Gray (an acknowledged inspiration.) Gracing and embellishing an emotionally impacting real-life experience with poetry, rap and videos, as well as with exuberant demonstrations of hip body-language, the casually-dressed, good-looking Letson demonstrates with Summer in Sanctuary that he knows how to not only make words sing but also make them resonate with honest conviction. Although it is a rather sad dramatic song that he has written/composed to chronicle his unsettling, marginally effective experience working at a summer camp for disadvantaged children, it is also a realistic consideration of the difficulty that many outsiders have to make a difference to those who may have no idea that a difference is an option.

Letson was decidedly the outsider when, in 2006, he accepted an offer to teach creative writing at a community center in the economically challenged Jacksonville Florida neighborhood of Springfield. Just as the children, mostly young adults, were challenged to survive in an almost constantly life-threatening black ghetto, Letson was challenged to implant a love of words in his charges.

As the son of a Baptist minister, Letson was determined to bridge the educational, social and economic divide that separated him from the unreceptive students. Discouraged but not a quitter. He gives us a dramatic blow-by-blow account of a tumultuous summer in which his efforts are thwarted at every turn. A breakthrough occured during an unexpected encounter with the police while on a road trip with his supervisor and a group of students on Route 95 North. Not being a plot spoiler, I won't divulge what it is that Letson unexpectedly discovers and what it is that sparks in the students' a collective enthusiasm.

With Letson's talents, more recently turned towards playwriting and as host of the National Public Radio show State of the Re:Union, he seems to have found a very effective frame for his very individualized performance style, under the direction of Rob Urbinati. The rarely used single stage prop is a desk (a la Gray). He's a stand-up guy who lets his mouth, as well as his hands and feet, drive his concise prose, lyrical digressions, and the many vivid impressions that define his compelling presentation.

What it is about this good-deed-doer (pardon this cliché) who slowly, despite all odds, becomes committed to finding some way to activate the creative urge in his charges who otherwise openly mock, defy, and resent him for his role as a mentor? It doesn't take long to see what it is. While Letson losses little time convincing us that he is a darn good story-teller, focusing on the confrontations he has with the most belligerent students, particularly with one sassy young woman ("What attitude? I have no attitude!").

Often quite funny as he gives many of his students distinct voicse, he is even funnier when recalling his own youth and his lack of skill on the basketball court (unheard of for a black youth). The memory of his first romantic crush is a hoot. First and foremost, Letson always insures that he has the audience firmly in his grasp even with an occasional (unnecessary) aside ("You're normal.") This personable performer needn't worry that we might require more to win us over than his pungently poetic text.

As contender during the 1990s on the slam poetry circuit, Letson's ability to communicate is a given, and the audience at the performance I attended, were with him all the way. One plus for the close rapport with Letson is that he is performing in the 50-seat studio theater, smaller of the two spaces at NJ Rep. Despite Letson's proximity to the audience, lighting designer Jill Nagle works wonders in providing him with exactly the right atmosphere at the right time —often taking on a poetic tract of its own.

NJ Rep produces second show at 59E59 Theaters in Manhattan

New Jersey Repertory Co. takes the stage in Manhattan
Mar. 8, 2012
Written by Tom Chesek

John Little returns to the role of a prominent professor under attack in the New York production of New Jersey Repertory Company's "Poetic License" at 59E59 Theaters. / FILE PHOTO

A few years ago, the Long Branch-based professional stage troupe New Jersey Repertory Company made its first foray onto the New York theater scene, exporting one of its best-received world premiere properties, "The Housewives of Mannheim." Here in 2012, the company that's long made a specialty of focusing on new and original works returns to 59E59 Theaters in Manhattan, with a new production of Jack Canfora's drama "Poetic License" that starts previews Friday night (Feb. 10), opens Feb. 15 and continues through March 4.

First seen in Long Branch in the summer of 2008, "Poetic License" is being presented anew as a partnership between NJ Rep and NYC's Directors Company — with Evan Bergman, who directed the play in its Rep engagement (as well as Canfora's "Jericho," seen at NJ Rep in 2011) working with a cast of four professional players that includes Welsh-born Geraint Wyn Davies, best known for the vampire-cop TV series "Forever Knight."

Set in the household of a prominent academic and author (and a quite-possible appointment to the post of Poet Laureate of the United States), "Poetic License" details the slow-fuse explosion that occurs when Professor John Grier and his wife Diane — a woman who has effectively dedicated every ounce of her being to her husband's success — host a get-together with their adult daughter and her new boyfriend, a young man whose interest in meeting the professor goes far beyond making nice with the parents.

It goes without saying that by the end of Canfora's script — reportedly revised to a considerable extent since the play's premiere at NJ Rep — family skeletons are rattled, dirty laundry is aired, and both the pillar of the community and his supportive spouse find the foundations of their world turned to quicksand. The review that appeared in The Asbury Park Press found it "a play of complex emotions, with no guarantee of closure," and noted that "the cast, tight-lipped and far from exuberant at curtain call, seemed emotionally drained by the experience of wrestling with these deeply unhappy characters."

John Little, who starred as Grier in Long Branch, will be stepping into the role of the patriarch under siege, and the New York cast is completed by Ari Butler, Natalie Kuhn and Liza Vann. The NJ Rep design and tech team of Jessica Parks, Pat Doherty, Jill Nagle and Rose Riccardi lends its talents to the production at the performing arts complex at (as you might have guessed) at 59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison avenues.

NPR's Al Letson finds 'Sanctuary' at New Jersey Repertory

Mar. 8, 2012 Written by Tom Chesek

NPR radio host, poet, playwright and Plainfield native Al Letson recaptures a "Summer in Sanctuary," opening at the New Jersey Repertory in Long Branch. / NJREP

His documentary radio show "State of the Re:Union" is heard nationwide on NPR stations. His prowess as a Poetry Slam champion has gained him exposure in outlets ranging from the 2004 Final Four Pre-Game to cable's "Def Poetry Jam." He is, by most people's estimation, a success.

Al Letson's resumé boasts credits as an actor, playwright, producer and educator. But ask him about his latest play and he'll tell you that it's a work rooted in a sense of failure — a one-man show in which "the bad guy is me…the person named 'Al' is the anti-hero."

Speaking from Jefferson City, Mo., where the "Re:Union" crew is assembling an hourlong episode on the Ozarks, the 39-year-old Letson strikes a candid tone even as he expresses excitement over "Summer in Sanctuary," the solo stage piece that he brings to New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch for an engagement that opens on Saturday, March 10.

In preview Friday, March 9, "Sanctuary" (the title refers to the Sanctuary on 8th Street community center for inner city youth in Jacksonville, Fla.) details the poet's perspective on the three months in 2006 that he spent teaching creative writing to a group of kids from the southern city's Springfield section; a neighborhood wracked by poverty and its effects.

To the Plainfield native who grew up as the son of a Baptist minister in a close-knit family, the Sanctuary experience was "a real eye opener… my life was foreign to them; it became more about my having to learn where these kids were coming from, and understanding how poverty changes everything."

"Rather than think of myself as a dreadlocked Jesus, come to save their poor Negro souls, it helped to realize that I play just one part in a greater machine," says Letson of his students, a majority of whom came from households in which one or both parents were absent. "My job was to open the door of possibility…(their) job was to walk through."

As the playwright explains, it also helps to not expect the sort of neatly wrapped ending served up by such inspirational Hollywood product as "Dangerous Minds" and "Freedom Writers" — scenarios in which "everyone sings 'Kumbaya' at the end and paints a mural on the wall." "In real life, the kids just look at you when you're done like 'So?'…at the end of my time there I felt like I'd failed."

Poetry and song

That feeling of a job left uncompleted spurred Letson to develop "Summer in Sanctuary," an autobiographical piece told through monologue, poetry, song and multimedia and a self-described "poetical." The work joins such previous Letson stage endeavors as "Chalk" (a commissioned piece that examines relational aggression among a group of school-age girls), "Julius X" (an ambitious mash-up of Shakespeare's 'Julius Caesar' with African-American storytelling forms and the life of Malcolm X) and "Crumbs"(a comedy based on the author's experience "working undercover in a bread factory").

Inspired, according to its author, by the work of the late monologist Spalding Gray, "Sanctuary" premiered in Baltimore ("I finished the first draft an hour before I went onstage"), and enjoyed a New York exposure courtesy of Abingdon Theater Company and director Rob Urbinati. Regarding that engagement, Letson says, "By the end of the run I felt really good about it…I'm forcing myself not to fiddle with it anymore!"

Urbinati, who directed NJ Rep's controversial "Minstrel Show: or The Lynching of William Brown" a few seasons back, returns to work with Letson here in the show's Long Branch run, with all performances presented in the playhouse's intimately scaled Second Stage space.

"I still keep in touch with most of the boys I worked with that summer," says Letson, citing the example of an aspiring engineer who "just needed a little help getting there…I like to think I helped each of those kids, and that with loving people in their lives things can happen for them."


"Bakersfield Mist" a Clear Winner

December 6, 2011

The setup is simple enough. Maude Gutman has been led to believe that the painting she bought at a yard sale for three dollars might be a Jackson Pollock original. She sends an inquiry to an Art Foundation, which sends expert art appraiser Lionel Percy to evaluate the painting. The two characters comprise the cast of Bakersfield Mist.

Linda S. Nelson and John FitzGibbon clear up "Bakersfield Mist"

In the 100 minutes of Stephen Sachs's new play at New Jersey Repertory Company, Maude and Lionel discover more about each other – and about themselves – than they do about the painting. (Don't bother skimming down; the verdict isn't revealed here.)

The play is a Network World Premiere, with several scattered theater companies introducing it around the same time. It's difficult to imagine it better directed and acted. That doesn't mean it's perfect, but here its story unfolds naturally, with particulars of plot and character revealed in non-forced exposition. It's a damn interesting play.

Bakersfield is based on a real woman's thrift-store purchase of a painting that mimicked Pollock's "splatter" (or "action" or "drip") technique. The actual case, still undecided, is documented in the film "Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock." But playwright Sachs could just as well be motivated by any number of recent art-origin disputes. (New cases were detailed in the New York Times and the Asbury Park Press – on the very day the play opened.)

Maude (Linda S. Nelson), a woman of imposing girth, lives in a trailer, another superbly detailed, if overly tidy, setting by designer/furnisher Jessica Parks. Maude is unkempt but hardly slovenly…and she's no dummy. Neither is Ms. Nelson, of course, whose performance is spot-on. Her Maude is self-aware and, beneath a deceptively slapdash veneer, shrewd.

Lionel (John FitzGibbon) is Maude's polar opposite (dig their names). He's a sophisticate [pseudo] with social airs [pretentious] and an impressive art-appraisal background [questionable]. Mr. FitzGibbon nails all those qualities, including the ones in brackets. His wavering accent elides over consonants ('aht' for 'art,' for example), but his carriage and attitude are consistent. He's haughty, yes, but not quite snotty.

Two-character plays* are threesomes during rehearsal, with the director an equal partner until the actors bond as a couple. It seems clear that SuzAnne Barabas was very much in the mix and backed off at the appropriate time.

I attended the final preview, but pointing out two blemishes is legitimate criticism: Maude's dialogue is laced with more f-bombs than I heard in the Army. Why do emerging playwrights do that? Easy, because they can. The word can be a powerful device on many levels, but not when it's as commonly spoken as "the" or "and." Second, both characters down enough straight shots of Jack Daniels to put them on the floor. Them getting tipsy serves the narrative, but these two would be in the ER. Both factors detract and distract from an otherwise worthwhile play.

*Years ago, just before opening night of an under-rehearsed "Owl and Pussycat," director Gennaro Montanino gave Barbara Ann Teer and me sage advice. "Remember," he said, "when one of you shuts up, the other one better say something."

A CurtainUp New Jersey Review

Bakersfield Mist

"I gotta thank you. Taking my case. Flying all the way out here. Such an important, busy man. You must have better things to do." — Maude
"You have no idea." — Lionel

Linda S. Nelson and John FitzGibbon (Photo: SuzAnne Barabas)

Stephen Sachs's comedy-drama Bakersfield Mist is an out-of-the-ordinary, almost out-of-the-blue —, but more importantly, outstanding— two-hander. Based on a true story, the play pits Maude Gutman (Linda S. Nelson) a foul-mouthed, out-of-work, boozing bartender and rummage-sale collector against Lionel Percy (John Fitzgibbons) a snobby professional New-York-City-based art historian/connoisseur. Maude, who has remained living alone in the crummy trailer park since being deserted years ago by her husband and the death of their only son, has hopes for a better life.

Obligated to appraise the painting, Lionel is invited into Maude's cluttered living room (a work of cheesy artistrty created by designer Jessica Parks) only to believe after meeting her and looking at her collection of objects d'art that it is Maude who is more off-the-wall than the painting she wants him to validate as a genuine Jackson Pollock. It is clear that Maude has no taste for or knowledge of fine art. Yet, in a moment of folly she purchased what she considered to be a rather ugly painting for three dollars at a backyard sale as a joke on a friend.

Evidently spurred on by the opinion of a local art teacher, Maude now has hopes that the painting might be worth lots of money. She is depending on its authentication to change her life that is currently drowning in a sea of Jack Daniels.

As robustly played by Linda S. Nelson, the determined Maude is certainly no fool and is able to prove herself more than a match for the doubtful and demeaning expert. Lionel is marvelous played by John Fitzgibbon with an air of haughty condescension that goes a long way to make him the perfect target for the determined Maude. Their caustic interaction is a fine example of how two excellent, well-cast actors are able to spar, bait and tackle (literally) each other and also deliver two individually high-stakes performances.

Although the play is largely a verbal contest between a dismissive know-it-all and a desperate go-getter, it does segue into some very physical encounters .It quickly begins to delve deeper into the personal and private issues and losses that have brought Maude and Lionel to this juncture in their lives.

What is most delightful about their contentious battling is how many surprises arise as Lionel's expertise and background in his specialized field is challenged again and again by the no-holds-barred, standing firm resolve that is Maude's forum and her strength. Lionel won't even allow himself to consider the possibility that a genuine Pollock could ever find its way into this woman's home. With his supercilious smugness plastered on his face, Lionel is as determined to prove it a fake as the insistent Maude is to prove it the real thing — with her own evidence.

What also makes Bakersfield Mist so astute is how a potential work of art is used as the vehicle by which two people who couldn't be more different break through the barriers of class consciousness, intellectual prowess, and emotional pain. The laugh quotient is high. Half comes from Maude's combustible personality; half from the repressed nature of a teetotaler, soon to be unwittingly lured off the wagon. If Lionel's rigidity has been his fortress in the face of Maude's onslaught, he also captures our hearts as he delivers an increasingly wacky, almost spaced-out soliloquy about his first rapturous contact with a work of art. You could say that Maude has the viewers on her side as they see how she artfully and calculatingly breaks down Lionel's defenses and at the same time poignantly begins to break down herself.

This stringently funny play is laced with a snappy balance of down-to-earth and highfalutin dialogue, and buoyed by an undercurrent of bitter irony, a not-so-bad combination. Under the crackling direction of SuzAnne Barabas, it should create the kind of enthusiastic word-of-mouth that will keep the seats at the New Jersey Repertory Company filled for the entire engagement where Bakersfield Mist is having its world premiere as part of the National New Play Network

'Bakersfield Mist' at NJ Rep explores the complex world of art

A true-life 'Mist'-ery fuels the discussion in NJ Rep premiere

November 28, 2011

Linda S. Nelson and John Fitzgibbon share a scene in the New Jersey Repertory world premiere of "Bakersfield Mist.''

In the oft-revived ensemble play "Art," the purchase of a very expensive (and very white) painting is the catalyst that strains some lifelong friendships to the breaking point.

In "Bakersfield Mist," the purchase of a large and passionately paint-splattered canvas — for three bucks, and more or less as a gag — brings together a couple of strangers from completely different walks of life, when it's thought that the abstract painting might be an authentic Jackson Pollock worth more than $50 million .

Inspired by a stranger-than-fiction real world art mystery, the two-character dramedy by Los Angeles-based Stephen Sachs makes its Garden State debut in the first days of December, courtesy director SuzAnne Barabas and her team at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

Set in the mobile home of one Maude Gutman — heavy drinker, unemployed bartender, collector of yard-sale kitsch and dumpster-dive décor — "Bakersfield Mist" displays the dynamic between Maude (Linda S. Nelson) and the smug city slicker Lionel Percy (Rep regular John FitzGibbon), a curator at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and professor at Princeton who's traveled to this art-forsaken place to appraise what just might be the biggest find since Melvin Dummar produced the last will and testament of Howard Hughes.

"This is a play about a relationship between two very unlikely people," says FitzGibbon, the urbane character ace seen most recently as Erich Maria Remarque in NJ Rep's "Puma."

"It acquires a force as it goes along … and it unfolds quite nicely, taking some surprising turns."

Nelson, making her mainstage debut at NJ Rep, adds that "the playwright has done a terrific job, putting together these two characters from opposite ends of the world."

"Maude's a simple salt of the earth type … honest, funny, very gutsy," the actress says of her role. "She's a person who goes from knowing nothing about what she's found, to researching the fine details of the art business and art community."

As part of their preparation for taking on the Sachs script, the actors viewed the film "Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock?," a documentary on the real-life "Maude" (actually a former truck driver named Terri) and her still-ongoing struggle to have her thrift-shop find recognized as the work of the American abstract expressionist who pioneered the technique of "action" painting.

"Seeing the documentary reinforced my belief in her story," says Nelson. "Art experts have said it's not authentic, but they did so out of intuition and their own historical knowledge."

FitzGibbon, for his part, points out some of the credible evidence that's been put up against the claims of the Pollock-possessing granny — including the inconvenient fact that a leading Pollock imitator was based in the area around Bakersfield for years.

"It isn't as easy as you think to paint like Pollock," says the actor, recalling his time in an art gallery that once presented a retrospective of work by a convicted (and critically acclaimed) forger.

"It's said that as many as 40 percent of the paintings at the Met are fake," FitzGibbon observes. "The truth is that the world wants to be fooled!"

As for the tale of the "trailer trash" queen and her treasure, "the truth lies somewhere in between," according to Nelson.

"If a work of art moves you, does it really matter if it's done by Joe Blow or Michelangelo?" she asks, adding "This play lets the audience figure these things out for themselves."

In the Spotlight: Playwright Stephen Sachs

High culture collides head-on with low in "Bakersfield Mist," in which ex-bartender Maude Gutman tries everything — and we mean everything — to persuade a snooty art expert that a painting she bought for a few bucks at a thrift store is a long-lost Jackson Pollock.

Why did you write this play?

I loved the idea of bringing these two wonderful characters together — this bawdy, salty-tongued, boozy lady and this sophisticated art expert from New York — and have them butt heads. The conflict in the play is that both of these characters, who come from opposite ends of the social and economic spectrum, have a deep personal relationship with art. It means something very profound to both of them for very different reasons.

Were you a fan of Jackson Pollock before "Bakersfield Mist"?

I was a fan but didn't know much about him. Doing research for the play, I grew to appreciate him even more. His kind of demonic spirit, his inner storm, is very much a character in this play.

The play is getting a lot of attention. When you were writing it, did you ever think to yourself, "This is good"?

This was one of those instances when the characters really came alive for me. I was channeling them, almost like taking dictation. It's a blessing when that happens, because it doesn't always happen that way.

Have you ever been in a situation like Maude's, believing in something's value against all probability?

Doing theater at all — whether you're in Los Angeles or anywhere in this country — can be an uphill battle. Part of the energy goes into creating the art, and the other half goes into screaming to the world that the art matters.


Breaking Bread (and Walls) in  JERICHO

October 17, 2011

Corey Tazmania, Jim Shankman and Andrew Rein prep for a train-wreck of a Thanksgiving in JERICHO , the world premiere dramedy now onstage at New Jersey Repertory Company.

“Is this a tissue play?” the theatergoing ladies asked New Jersey Repertory Company’s SuzAnne Barabas at the door, during last Saturday’s opening night of Jericho — to which the NJ Rep artistic director replied, “It’s an issue play — but maybe keep a tissue handy.”

What playwright  Jack Canfora and director Evan Bergman have accomplished with Jericho, the ensemble piece now making its world premiere run in Long Branch, is ruin Thanksgiving — just as they previously made a shambles of New Year’s Eve (Place Setting) and whatever the happy occasion was supposed to be in Poetic License. But if the Bergman-Canfora partnership has proven itself adept at domestic dramas of agita-inducing devastation, then with Jericho the team turns in its strongest effort to date by balancing the truly gut-wrenching emotional fireworks with a bitterly snarky sense of humor.

If anything, it’s the most fun you’ll have this season with such rib-tickling topics as grief, guilt, divorce, depression, mental illness, religious dogma and 9/11.

Carol Todd and Jim Shankman sit and watch the walls of their marriage come tumbling down, in Jack Canfora’s JERICHO .

All issues and tissues aside, Jericho is really a people play — sharply written, rollercoaster paced and performed as a series of extended blackouts by a cast of pros who are repeatedly being called upon to relive one of the most hellish holiday dinners any of us have ever experienced. Set for the most part in the Long Island hamlet of the same name, and at least tangentially connected to the Holy Land sister city where the walls came tumbling down (the “fourth wall” between players and audience is breached numerous times), it all takes place on a stylized set by Jessica Parks; a precarious topple of tables, chairs, lampshades and drooping drop ceilings that, for the second time in as many NJ Rep productions, brings to mind this reviewer’s own home (note to self: make house not so like expressionistic production design).

The welcome injection of humor here derives organically from the show’s two lead female characters, blessed as they are with Canfora’s best lines and a pair of actresses who really make them sing. Beth (Corey Tazmania, sensational in NJ Rep’s Housewives of Mannheim) is a 9/11 widow of Palestinian-Irish heritage; a wisecracking Manhattanite who’s seeing a therapist, seeing her late husband Alec (Matthew Huffman) all over the place, and seeing Ethan (Andrew Rein), a nice young Jewish guy with monogamy issues and a mom (Kathleen Goldpaugh) who expects Beth at the Thanksgiving table.

Meanwhile, Jessica (Rep regular Carol Todd) is a woman whose penchant for wine and one-liners helps her to deal with the apparent end of her marriage to Josh (the ever-intense Jim Shankman) — a tormented 9/11 survivor who’s become obsessed with his own Jewish identity, to the point of planning a move to Israel without his wife.

The fact that Ethan and Josh are brothers — and that the looming Thanksgiving summit of ethnic culture clashes, Twin Towers horror stories and merlot-marinated bile is a slow-motion train wreck you see coming a mile away — still barely begins to prepare you for the tears, anger and confessions that are the tart and staining cranberries in the store-bought holiday stuffing.

The play does switch between heavy-duty drama and genuine laughs with disarming ease — Beth is “as fucked up as a Japanese game show,” while ghostly Alec remarks that her latest dinner-table bombshell has “invented the world’s most depressing drinking game” — and for every zinger that the actors toss out, there’s a line that “zings” the other way; wiping the smile from one’s face in a flash.

Standouts in an equally weighted cast include Shankman, rising to the demands of one of Canfora’s emotional-scapegoat characters; Todd, scary-good as always in a display of well-oiled extreme mood swings, and Tazmania, a solid (if admittedly unstable) center to it all. Only the play’s closing moments — the kind of late-innings stab at “closure” and cure best left to the movies — fail to hit the spot; so much syrupy pie filling, attempting to mask the bitter aftertaste.

But go; go see Jericho and let a team of talented grown ups show you how a bracingly adult, contemporary play can be a thrill-ride in itself. And if Bergman or Canfora ever invite you to one of their family get-togethers — then run the other way, long and far into the night. reviews

Riveting, Humane Jericho at New Jersey Rep
reviewed by Nita Congress


Jericho, the ever-helpful Wikipedia explains, "is known in Judeo-Christian tradition as the place of the Israelites' return from bondage in Egypt." Jericho is where the fabled walls came tumbling down: "The city was completely destroyed," notes Wikipedia's entry on the Battle of Jericho, "and every man, woman, and child in it was killed." Jericho is a hamlet in Nassau County, New York. Jericho by Jack Canfora is a smart, startling, and soul-stirring play that—not surprisingly—wrestles with issues of exile and return, apocalypse and peace, devastation and domesticity.

It's about 9/11.

It's also funny, sharp, bright, sad, and very thought provoking.

"There are some things it should be impossible to recover from," says protagonist Beth near the play's start. She tells us—actually she tells her therapist, Dr. Kim, who appears to her, and thus to us, as her late husband Alec who was lost in 9/11, leaving her lost after 9/11—that she is still numb: her "life coated in Lucite like a museum exhibit not to be touched."

But Beth has met someone. Four years after being widowed, four years of only intermittently being able to connect before drifting anew into pain and bewilderment, Beth has met Ethan. A nice Jewish boy. With a nice Jewish mother in Jericho. Beth accepts Ethan's invitation to a family Thanksgiving in the suburbs. She'll bring Alec along; he is her perennial baggage.

Ethan has no particular baggage, but he has a brother, Josh. Josh is a 9/11 survivor. Since those walls came tumbling down, Josh has spoken of little but his fervent desire to return to Israel. Not that he was ever particularly religious before, and not that this is in any way appealing or desirable to his wife Jessica. 9/11 has made Josh a different person, with different values and a different perspective. He, like Beth, has been upended, drifting too and unable to connect meaningfully. At least not here and not with the people who love—loved—him.

Canfora sets all this up in Act I, and then puts his six characters together to mix it up in Act II around the dining room table. Layers are peeled back, dots are connected, holes are filled in.

But with 9/11, as with any unreasoning tragedy, just understanding more doesn't make the understanding better.

I'm afraid I've made this sound a sad play. And it's not. It crackles with humor, wit, and sarcasm. The writing is smart; I would love to read this play to better savor its intricacy and intelligence. Ethan describes his family as a "kind of emotional pyramid scheme"; and familiar, funny conflicts of mother/son, brother/brother, mother-in-law/daughter-in-law, husband/wife are slyly presented. The pain and bewilderment wouldn't register were in not for the easy normality Canfora presents. For example, there is a very warm scene in Act I between Jessica and Josh, while they evade a call from Mother and talk of domestic things, that points up the bond of trust and friendship that exists between the two. Which of course makes the drifting apart all the more poignant.

The acting is uniformly excellent. Corey Tazmania as Beth evinces more than a little of the quirky, dissociative style of Mary-Louise Parker, which is quite in keeping with the complicated, conflicted character. Jim Shankman's Josh never loses our sympathy, despite his character's flaws, missteps, and foibles. And Carol Todd's Jessica, as the betrayed, embittered wife who has been widowed by the event every bit as much as has Beth, lets forth a howl of pain and rage and despair in Act II that brought the house down for me. Andrew Rein gives us a warm and funny Ethan. Matthew Stephen Huffman is an immensely likeable ghost, particularly when Beth sees Alec, but is actually interacting with someone else: Huffman evokes both characters in one—a neat trick indeed.

Canfora's play, is—as always at New Jersey Rep—exceedingly well served by both the director, Evan Bergman, and the design team of Jessica Parks, Jill Nagle, Patricia Doherty, and John O'Brien. In particular, Jessica Parks has established a perfect set. We walk in to the theatre and are confronted with a mish-mash of chairs, tables, rocks, shoes, desks, objects in a disarrayed stack occupying almost half the stage. It's the rubble of 9/11 of course, always there, always visible, never coherent. The metaphor is further developed by the fact that it is from this heap that the actors pull the props they need for each scene. So smart, so elegant.

In October 2001, an acquaintance of mine showed up at back-to-school night without his spouse. When I remarked on this, he explained that she had been at the Pentagon on 9/11. She wasn't killed, she wasn't injured. But a few days later, she left him.

That's the sort of 9/11 story that Jericho tells. That's the sort of story that surrounds us every day in everyday people up against big, scary, incomprehensible events. And it's because that pretty much sums up life in general that we need to see plays like this. They help us not understand, but maybe appreciate that we're all just muddling through best as we can.

'Jericho,' the new production at the New Jersey Repertory Company, outshines the rest

Published: Thursday, October 20, 2011, 7:23 AM
Carol Todd and Jim Shankman star in "Jericho" at the New Jersey Repertory Company.

Before each show at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, company producer Gabor Barabas offers witty observations about the world at large and theater in general. Even when he asks his audience to buy subscriptions or give donations, he has style and charm.

Barabas always mentions how many productions his company has presented.

“Jericho,” he points out, is the 85th show he’s produced in Long Branch.

And this play, by Jack Canfora, is the best of the bunch. Although the acting and direction here are almost always solid, Evan Bergman has seen to it that each reaches an even higher level.

“Jericho” has an attention-grabbing opening line; lead character Beth tells her analyst: “My husband’s being killed is the least of my problems.”

Audiences will soon see her point when they discover that Beth’s husband, Alec, died in the World Trade Center on 9/11. The ensuing years haven’t been easy.

For the past three months, Beth has been dating Ethan. With Thanksgiving coming, he’s asked her to meet his family in Jericho, Long Island. Beth, however, has spent post-9/11 Thanksgivings with Alec’s family.

If Beth knew how Ethan’s family was faring this year, she undoubtedly wouldn’t want to go. These aren’t good times for Ethan’s brother, Josh, and sister-in-law, Jessica. Ethan’s Mom will have some dynamic news to dispense, too.

writer at work

“Jericho” may not seem to be the play’s logical title. Canfora may be citing the famous Battle of Jericho in which Joshua fought, given that he chose that name for one of his characters. But at least metaphorically, the walls do come a-tumblin’ down in this two-hour play.

Canfora’s dialogue shows a true writer at work. Mother is said to clean “with a Howard Hughes intensity.” Ethan says he’s so inured to constantly keeping the truth from her that, “I lie to her about weather forecasts.” When Jessica complains about her mother-in-law’s answering machine messages, she gripes about their “Russian novel length.” Audiences only need to hear one of them — and Canfora mercifully includes only one — to find that they will nod and agree with Jessica.

And yet, Canfora doesn’t make this Jewish mother a stereotype. Rachel can be maddening, but in different ways from the ones to which inferior writers gravitate. Adding to the freshness of the character is the sincere and honest performance by Kathleen Goldpaugh.

Josh believes that he has every one of the answers to life’s questions. He too has had a traumatic, life-changing experience which has led him to this single-mindedness. Actor Jim Shankman shows us a man who staunchly believes in his decisions.

And those decisions greatly impact his relationship with his wife. Carol Todd is magnificent in showing all of Jessica’s many feelings toward her husband: impatience, anger and devastation. The way she delivers her question to Josh — “What’s the point of us if I can’t help you?” — brings tears to her eyes, and will undoubtedly yield many from the audience, too.

Andrew Rein provides an eloquent voice of reason as Ethan. Making an equally strong impression is Corey Tazmania’s Beth. She makes the 9/11 widow’s brave smile seem close to collapsing at any second. That’s true when she speaks about dealing with friends and neighbors: “People wonder why I don’t have the decency to go away.”

Luckily, “Jericho” will be with us for the next four weeks.

A CurtainUp New Jersey Review


"You know, there are times, if I’m honest about it, I think my husband being killed is theleast of my problems."— Beth

Jim Shankman, Kathleen Goldpaugh, and Carol Todd
(Photo: Jill Nagle)
In his opening night greeting, New Jersey Repertory Company’s Executive Director Gabor Barabas reminded the audience that the theater which he co-founded with his wife SuzAnne fourteen years ago was presenting its fiftieth world premiere with Jack Canfora’s Jericho. Even more significant is that Canfora’s sad, funny, and insightful play about loss, remorse, guilt, survival and recovery (yes, all that) is way at the top of the list of fifty. NJ Rep. has previously produced two of Canfora’s plays – Place Setting and Poetic License which due to open this February Off Broadway at 59E59.

My enthusiasm for Jericho stems from the clever, pro-active and impassioned way that the play’s four main characters seek to address their problems, mainly in dealing with their psychological and emotional blocks and traumas stemming from 9/11. Although it is 2005, Beth (Corey Tazmania) is still having a hard time dealing with the death of her husband Alec, who was unable to escape from one of the burning towers. She is so emotionally distraught and haunted by his memory that she isn’t able to physically consummate her several months-long relationship with the very patient and understanding Ethan (Andrew Rein).

Ethan would like to bring Beth to his home in Jericho, Long Island where his widowed mother Rachel (Kathleen Goldpaugh) lives and traditionally anticipates a reunion at Thanksgiving time with her boys Ethan and his brother Josh (Jim Shankman) and his wife Jessica (Carol Todd). Beth feels she isn’t ready to be introduced as Ethan’s girl friend and is hesitant about joining the family gathering. We begin to understand the extent of her hesitancy as well as a deep-seated guilt in relation to her marriage in scenes with her therapist Dr. Kim (Matthew Stephen Huffman), in reality a 43 year-old Korean woman, but whom she (and we) can only see as Alec.

Taut and engrossing, Jericho mainly revolves around Beth, who, as the central character and the catalyst for the familial dramatics, finds a surprisingly circuitous way to move forward. Beth may be trying, but she has not been successful in letting go of Alec.

The same can not be said for Jessica, who has completely given up on the self-absorbed Josh, and on any hope that their strained relationship/marriage is salvageable. Josh is not only consumed by guilt stemming from the way he survived 9/11, but has channeled his feelings into an increasingly fundamentalist approach to Judaism. Without regard for Jessica’s feelings, he has completely reconsidered his mission in life after a trip to Israel where he now plans to move.

At first unawares of the unstableness of Josh and Jessica’s marriage or that Beth is not ready to make a commitment to Ethan, Rachel proceeds to play the part of the welcoming Jewish mother. It only takes a few revelations like Beth announcing that she would like to visit Israel, by dropping a curve that adds another dimension to the familial fireworks.

It’s difficult, perhaps impossible for a play to have a Jewish mother who doesn’t conform to the stereotype. Praise to Canfora who has made Rachel a very sensible and rational character, one with whom Goldpaugh, seems to be completely at home. Tazmania is terrific as the hallucinating, emotionally tentative Beth. Ethan doesn’t have the over emotional baggage to carry yet Rein’s performance offers a good look at someone caught in the crossfire.

Todd meets the challenge of being both credible in her unhappiness and heart-breaking in her rage. She makes it easy for us to see how the once sturdy walls of her life, like those of Jericho in the Bible story, are crumbling in the wake of Josh’s irrational and irresponsible actions. The uncompromising intensity of Shankman’s performance, as Josh, is a bit unnerving, but it also serves the play. The metaphoric mountain-of-rubble setting by Jessica Parks suggests the aftermath of destruction.

Although Jericho, under the splendid direction of Evan Bergman, is often a very moving and compelling play, it could stand a little judicious pruning throughout, especially at the end with Beth’s extended and much too florid aside in a reverie in which she allows Alec to finally say “goodbye.” We would know everything we need to know, if she were just allowed to say a final and perfect “Shalom.”

Walls Come Down, Curtain Goes Up

Upper WET Side, October 9, 2011

Busy playwright, sometimes actor and even occasionally bar-band musician Jack Canfora is back at New Jersey Repertory with a new drama, JERICHO, kicking off its world premiere engagement in Long Branch beginning October 13.

He chuckles when we call him The Prophet of the Suburbs — but neither does Jack Canfora dispute the observation that he finds his dramatic subject matter behind the large and meticulously decorated doors of the upper middle class enclaves; the manicured exteriors that just barely conceal the lies and deceit and outright treachery that paid for these happy homes.

The last time that New Jersey Repertory Company invited the Long Island based playwright into their house, it was for the world premiere of a drama called Poetic License — an angst-filled domestic drama, in which a seemingly upbeat occasion results in a respected academic standing exposed as a fraud (and worse) to the family who thought they knew him. As directed by Evan Bergman, it was a study in unrelenting emotional brutality, in which characters are stripped clean of everything they held true and precious — in our review for the Asbury Park Press, we called it “a play of complex emotions, with no guarantee of closure…the cast, tight-lipped and far from exuberant at curtain call, seemed drained by the experience of wrestling with these deeply unhappy characters.”

About a year and half prior to that, Canfora invited NJ Rep audiences to a different sort of get-together — a dinner party for three couples, drinking, fighting, fucking and laughing in the face of uncertainty on New Year’s Eve 1999. Directed once again by Evan Bergman and featuring an ensemble cast highlighted by Carol Todd (as a scarily organized wife for whom even domestic upheaval must occur on a tightly delineated timetable) and Canfora himself, the seriocomic Place Setting elicited our observation that “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.”

It’s enough to have sent most souls scurrying out of the suburbs and back to the relative safety of the Bard’s bloody battlefields — but here in the October Country of 2011, the Upper Wet Side’s only playhouse dedicated entirely to new and challenging works for the stage returns to Castle Canfora for a third time (and with Bergman manning the megaphone once more), with the world premiere of the drama Jericho.

While Place Setting had as its dramatic catalyst the foolishly fizzled fearmongering over the dreaded “Y2K Bug” (you remember…planes fell from the sky; markets crashed and took every desktop Dell with them), Jericho has at its heart a much more sobering catastrophe — the 9/11 attacks that many playwrights are even now just beginning to grapple with. In Canfora’s script, a handful of characters in and around Manhattan (i.e., the burbs) wrestle with their different reactions to devastating tragedy and senseless loss — and you could read the title as both a reference to the Nassau County hamlet, and to that Biblical place where Joshua set the walls to tumbling down.

Returning to the NJ Rep stage in this show (a so-called “rolling premiere” from the National New Play Network) is Carol Todd, one of our favorite actresses working the regional scene and one whose powerhouse performances have supercharged such Rep offerings as Apple and Whores. She’s joined in the cast by returning Rep veterans Kathleen Goldpaugh, Andrew Rein, Jim Shankman and Corey Tazmania, as well as relative rookie Matthew Huffman. Meanwhile, on the eve of Jericho’s first previews and opening weekend, upperWETside tracked down Jack Canfora for a glimpse behind its walls…

The sensational Carol Todd stars in Jack Canfora’s JERICHO — reuniting the two former castmates (third and fourth from left in group shot) from NJ Rep’s 2007 production of PLACE SETTING.

upperWETside: Good to have you back, Jack. We’re here to talk about JERICHO, which is a play about which I know next to nothing.

JACK CANFORA: Well, it’s basically about how different people deal with trauma in their personal lives…how we respond to grief and loss in different ways. Two characters in the play suffer direct losses from 9/11…they question the comfort and the consolation they get, and question the nature of their connections.

Sounds pretty sober and serious, right? But there are places where people deal with this sort of thing by using humor — sometimes it’s the best approach.

So, audiences will be leaving the theater humming the 9/11 jokes?

Well, not exactly. I didn’t start out trying to write a 9/11 play, but it became the thing through which the characters are forced to deal with inescapable, harsh realties. I’m talking about humor here in the sense of having that detached, glib, ironic outlook that so many people in my generation have gone through life with. For me, growing up in the 80s meant that most people worth knowing had that cool, ironic attitude — and if you were sincere about things, you were a sucker.

I’m very guilty of that myself, but as you get older, all that irony becomes kind of hollowing. And the character in Jericho finds that the ironic approach just doesn’t quite work in dealing with this situation, processing all the personal pain. Whereas another character has a reaction that’s as different as can be — he’s a man who was there at the Twin Towers; one of the lucky ones who made it out, and his way of dealing with the pain, of searching for authenticity, is with violent rage.

One of the things that’s most interesting to me is the fact that you’re working once more with Carol Todd, who’s just been so amazing in everything we’ve seen her in. She won me over with this one play, the name of which escapes me all of a sudden, in which she’s a jilted wife who’s dying of cancer. Every now and then you come across a performance that rings so true to you personally that it literally comes across as something aimed just at you…what she did on stage so perfectly captured this good friend of mine who went through the same thing, this almost elegant sort of serenity in her last days. 

You’re thinking of Apple, which New Jersey Rep did a few years back. Carol is absolutely on fire here…if you’re a fan of hers, you are not gonna be let down. She really takes the ball and runs with it, and she’s been closely involved with the script from the start.

You’ve worked closely with her in the past, both as a writer and a fellow cast member, so did you write this script with her in mind?

I can’t out and out tell you that I wrote the play with her in mind specifically, but I had a very early draft of the script together around the time that I got to act with her in Place Setting…I asked the cast if I could buy them all a beer, and if they could be so kind as to read this early draft of the play out loud around the table.

When she read it, something really clicked and I found myself thinking more in terms of Carol as that character, rather than this undefined person. In fact, originally the character was not quite within her age range; I found myself thinking how I could push it more towards something that would be perfect for her.

Being an actor yourself part of the time, and a musician; just being someone who knows what it’s like to stand in front of an audience — has that informed the way you write? Have you made a conscious effort to stay mindful of the rhythms of speech; how it all sounds rather than how brilliant it looks on the page?

Being an actor has helped me to write for people; to write not so much in a ‘writerly’ way, but in a way that actors can really make work on stage. Even when you’re talking to an interviewer, as I’m doing right now, you find yourself talking more thematically, in more conceptual sort of language than the words that you would put in the characters’ mouths.

But, yeah, it’s great to experience the process from the actors’ side of the equation, and it’s something I really should do more often. I think Place Setting was the last thing I did, and that was several years ago — I want to make it clear that I’m still available for work! It’s something I’d love to continue doing.

And, he’s available for kids’ birthdays, sweet sixteens and quinceañeros.

Well, you know what you have to do — write that one star vehicle that you and ONLY you can pull off. Anyway, it seems as though your writing work has been going forth and getting noticed outside the greater New York region. 

Well, this is a National New Play Network production; what they call a rolling premiere, so there are a few other theaters doing it…Phoenix Theatre in Indianapolis, Florida Studio Theatre. Place Setting, meanwhile, has had readings in London — and a very different version of Poetic License is coming to Off Broadway this winter.

Over the summer I got to work with the actor Harris Yulin on a program commemorating the centennial of Tennessee Williams, at Guild Hall out in Montauk — Tennessee at 100, it was called. We had people like Mercedes Ruehl, Eli Wallach involved, so that made for an interesting experience. Also over the summer, I worked with Evan Bergman, who we’ve got as director again, on a screenplay, which we’re shopping around now — such a different sort of experience; a new, fun, enjoyable sort of challenge.

I’m sure it’s no coincidence that you find yourself reunited with people like Evan Bergman, Carol Todd — and of course NJ Rep, who’ve always been great believers in your work.

There’s something to be said for working with people you’re comfortable with — it makes things easier. And the people at New Jersey Rep, SuzAnne and Gabe and everyone, are really like family by this point. It’s such an unusual place — I’ve been lucky to find harbor there.

That said, there are some creative people out there who thrive on conflict and tension; that’s how they prefer to get the results they desire. 

I’ve worked with artists who I didn’t love as people — but of course, you don’t have to have zero conflict with everyone to make great art. Anyway, I’m internally conflicted enough as it is…I can create all the misery I want all by myself!

Well, misery loves company and all that, and while we look forward to opening night, we wonder just how much JERICHO is gonna bum everybody out with your 9/11 and your personal trauma…

I think it’s hopeful in a way; there’s a certain amount of humor sugaring the medicine. It’s been said that the perfect play is one where you’re laughing and feeling good while you’re watching it — and after you leave the theater, you realize that you’ve been stabbed!

Donna Orbits the Moon review
Nita Congress ·
September 8, 2011

Out of the dark, in a crackling, crashing thunderstorm, a brightly smiling pixie of a woman—Donna—appears. Her demure manner and good Midwestern upbringing are belied by her first sentence. She apparently slapped a woman at the Rainbow Foods, slapped this nice little old lady who had been reaching for the same grocery item as she. And now she has to shop much further away, where she doesn't even like the produce.

We are thus brought, intrigued, into the off-kilter world of Donna.

Donna is a mom. She drives a minivan, goes to church, does macramé, and loves the Mall of America. She's a bake sale celebrity, noted for her gooseberry blondies (a confection that—tellingly—sounds rather alarming).

In a long, friendly conversation with us, narrated from her comfy living room recliner or up among the photos in her attic, or floating in a starry night sky of what she calls motor oil, Donna tells us recent episodes of her life, drawing in and assuming all the characters as she goes: her handsome husband Gil, who's been working a lot of overtime recently; her slightly self-righteous daughter Terry; the obnoxious Meryl who covets her blondie recipe; her raucous friend Cheryl. She rhapsodizes over the Rainforest Café at the mall: "I imagine that's what the real Amazon is like." She longs for a good pair of sneakers. She bakes. She goes to rummage sales. She vacuums.

With affection, humor, and an indomitable cheer, Donna blithely talks about trips to the library, the school, the church. All perfectly normal destinations, all told in a perfectly reasonable manner.

But something is very definitely not right with Donna and her world. And we watch, rapt, as the truth cathartically emerges.

Writer Ian August, actor Andrea Gallo, and director Marc Geller have created a wonderful character. Donna is the lady next door, your friend's mom, a familiar presence you see all the time in lots of places—but when you come down to it, a total stranger whose inner life is a mystery to you.

And to her, it turns out.

Donna's orbit soars in the capable hands of the New Jersey Rep designers. From Jack Kennedy's opening storm sounds undercut with shards of broken glass, to Daniel Dungan's twinkling inky sky, to Jessica Parks's lovingly detailed, character-revealing knick knacks that line the outer edges of the set, to Patricia E. Doherty's spot-on perfect costume (sneaks, comfy pants, and a June Cleaver strand of pearls), every element reinforces the character and explains her world.

There is something sweet and vulnerable yet cosmic about Donna and her plight that reminded me of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's plucky Little Prince. And I think the production team intended this resemblance. The small protagonist, face upturned in the dark to a black sky studded with wondrous dots of light, adrift and floating—a beautiful image. It matters not at all that Donna is a woman of middle age, her spaceship an old recliner, and her universe lined with clutter. August tells us, and Gallo and Geller show us, that there is profundity in muddle and Middle America and midlife. This is a play that discovers and celebrates the cracks in the façade, the unknowable in the ordinary, the humanity in the humble.

A dark-side 'Moon' landing

Andrea Gallo shines in one-woman show at NJ Rep

Andrea Gallo is a housewife who's losing her grip on planet Earth in "Donna Orbits the Moon'' at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. / NJ Rep

Heartland, we’e got a problem. One of your native daughters — the sort of loving spouse, devoted mother and church volunteer who forms the very bake-sale backbone of this thing we call the Midwest — is apparently losing her footing on Planet Earth, and there seems to be nothing that anyone can do to bring her safely back home.

In “Donna Orbits the Moon,” the one-woman play now in its world premiere engagement at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, a middle-aged, empty-nester Minnesota homemaker lets down her guard and addresses a roomful of strangers with the details of a rather bizarre journey she’s just taken — a trip that, while it didn’t carry her any farther from home geographically than the Mall of America, stands as something of an epic odyssey across oceans of outer and inner space, starring a most unlikely voyager.

As envisioned by former NJ Rep actor (turned prolific playwright) Ian August, and made manifest by director Marc Geller and fellow Rep regular Andrea Gallo, it’s a journey that begins with some curiously uncharacteristic anger-related episodes for Donna — a supermarket slapdown, a road rage incident, a “bit of a moment” in church (and please don't get her started on that time she scrubbed the floor with a steak). Accompanied by telltale heartbeats and red lights, these hulk-out interludes are as disconcerting to Donna (one of a long line of women who proudly disdained the whole notion of therapy) as they are to the people in her orbit.

Inside a mind

You don’t need to study the set design by Jessica Parks — a rubble-strewn den decorated with broken appliances, bleach bottles, Christmas ornaments, car parts and other items that make cameo appearances in the text — to know that you’re spending some 110 intermission-free minutes inside Donna's mind, and that things are getting pretty rocky in Donnaville. Without that stock supporting character of the “therapist,” however, it’s entirely up to Donna — guided to some extent by that voice in her head — to “land” back on terra firma.

About that disembodied voice. It's neither a benevolent ancestral spirit, nor a quasi-mystical "Field of Dreams" plot shenanigan, but a Donna-fied version of a real-life (and really still very much alive) famous person — a person who, whether knowingly or not, holds the metaphorical key to the metaphorical box in the metaphorical attic.

Single-actor scripts — at least those that aren't about recognizable figures like Mark Twain, Golda Meir or Harry Truman — can often be as challenging and exhausting for the audience as they are for that brave lone performer, which is why it helps when the actor is one for whose rhythms, inflections and body language the play has been tailored. Fortunately, that's the case here with August and Gallo, friends and frequent collaborators who obviously worked very hard on making this brief but difficult piece function within linear time (and whatever passes for objective reality these days).

Phantom signals

It would seem almost a mater of policy to call this a "tour de force" for Gallo, but the diminutive dynamo actress really proves her mettle not with busy bursts of pantomime and mimicry, but in the heartbeats between words and bits of business — those patches of deep-space black velvet from which emerge phantom signals, and faint but palpable clues as to how we came to be where we are.

Adopting an accent not unlike the Marge Gunderson character in the film "Fargo," Gallo handles the comedic aspects of the script with expected flair — but any orbit of the moon necessitates spending some time on the dark side, and it's in the hidden shadows of her own bruised psyche and tragic family history that Donna ultimately finds resolution, closure, maybe even something resembling joy.

At this post-Space Shuttle moment in time — a moment in which too many Americans feel permanently grounded in lives spent fending off earthly catastrophes and marking grim anniversaries — August, Gallo and Geller have crafted a modestly scaled meditation on the devastation of despair and the power of hope; one that suggests we may have lost our cold and dusty moon, but we've regained the ability to wish upon a star.

Tightly scripted 'Donna Orbits the Moon' defies gravity

The Mirror

Ian August's one-woman show premieres at N.J. Repertory through Sept. 25th

Sunday, September 11, 2011

What happens when an otherwise normal midwestern housewife turns into a Raging Bull? Donna's gooseberry blondies win kudos from the PTO bake sale to the state penitentiary. Her house cleaning skills are exemplary -- until she nearly decapitates her daughter with a vacuum cleaner, and starts pummeling a fellow churchgoer with her Holy Bible.

Donna is more used to shopping at the Mall of America with her friends, than cursing at other drivers. But not only is she mad, she has certainly gone mad, and her reasons are very different than you might have guessed. For once, drudgery is not the enemy and Donna wouldn't mind going back to being a domestic goddess.

Donna Orbits the Moon is a seamless, well-written jewel that blasts off at New Jersey Repertory, in the intimate space that was formerly their main stage. It is playing though September 25 and Gallo, a veteran member of NJ Rep, once shared the stage with playwright Ian August in Tilt Angel, a surreal Southern gothic that bonded them as mother and son.

August and Gallo worked on his new play together from its conception, and this very much fuels the tight performance by Gallo. (The play, while it was in developmental production at Utah Contemporary Theater, won the Thomas Barbour Memorial Playwrights Award this year.)

Scenic designer Jessica Parks gives a hint to Donna's inner derangements even before we meet her: luggage, old lamps, and books explode against the back wall, while framed photos orbit the ceiling over a tidy recliner. Sound effects by Jack Kennedy and lighting by Daniel Dungan nicely unsettle the audience as the world transforms into a rocket ship. With these absurd effects we begin to get a glimpse of what ails Donna -- and its not all the dusting and crumbs she's had to wipe up.

So just what is ticking Donna off? Things move from funny to serious when Donna picks up a children's book from the library about Apollo-era astronaut Buzz Aldrin, and begins her own space journey. After she begins hearing Aldrin's voice that repeats over and over again like her own private mantra, "You have to go up, to be able to land."

Without giving too much away, August gives us many twists and turns. Larger than life in a frumpy string of pearls, Gallo's character falls just shy of obnoxious like a Betty Crocker commercial. We are at first almost sickened by her 1950s world dominated by the joys of Minnesota sprawl, and it seems her madness will be another tired tale of too small a life.

But under the tight staging and nuance to lines by Gallo and director Marc Geller, her vivid stories about her family, friends, and annoying neighbors bring August's words alive. Much of what she says becomes poetic rather than mere punch lines or commercial jingles, the starting point for this one woman moon flight currently orbiting Long Branch.

Donna Orbits the Moon gives this suburban mother, whose chief tools are feather dusters and baking sheets, a heft that caused many in the audience to shed a few tears. Donna's anger is well deserved but it's not getting her anywhere. A worthwhile afternoon or evening of theater from an actor turned playwright who, like Ibsen and Shaw, finds the humanity in small domestic corners.

Donna (and Andrea Gallo) orbit the moon…

Posted on September 12, 2011 by Philip Dorian

After seeing Andrea Gallo in the one-woman play Donna Orbits the Moon, I told New Jersey Rep Producers Gabor and SuzAnne Barabas that if I ever call them for Gallo's phone number, they'll know I've written a play. Later I learned that Ian August wrote Donna with her in mind. The play is good. It's mysterious and emotionally moving, with a generous smattering of humor. Ms. Gallo is terrific.

Donna is concerned about her own erratic behavior. She's not off her rocker, but she periodically loses control of her impulses, like when she slaps a woman in the supermarket for no reason. (Her altogether sensible solution to the attendant embarrassment? Change markets.)

When she drops a steak in the kitchen, she uses it as a floor-wipe before serving it to her husband. (At least she finally cleaned behind the fridge.) Later, smashing an uncooperative vacuum cleaner against the wall prompts her daughter to suggest therapy sessions.

Sometimes, the play seems to say, the best therapy for Donna's particular imbalance is coming to grips with whatever impairs that balance. In the course of one 80-minute act, Donna's therapy, both professional and within herself, takes shape. Telling much more of Donna's story would be a spoiler, so you'll learn little more here.

Ms. Gallo, alone throughout except for the disembodied voice of Buzz Aldrin, second man to walk on the moon, holds the audience in the palm of her hands. Hands that flutter some, point some, and go to her face occasionally as if to blindly identify herself. Gallo's face, and the ever-so-slightly lispy voice that emanates from it, are palettes upon which an infinite variety of expressions are drawn.

Donna's family is important to her story; Gallo impersonates them all. Her husband Gil, who handles life's 'stuff' differently from his wife, is especially vivid. (It's no spoiler to reveal that different people coping with the same challenge in different ways is a theme of the play.) Then there are Donna's concerned daughter Terry, her son Charley and her best frenemy Meryl, whom Gallo incarnates as a baritone Carol Channing. And her brief take on a four-year-old in the library is a gem.

It's a common misconception that directors are relatively unimportant in a one-person play. The opposite is true. Marc Geller's guidance is obvious – and invisible. (There's probably a better way to say that, but there it is.)

The play isn't perfect, although Ms. Gallo makes it seem so. The foreshadowing needs work, but the playwright's choice of Buzz Aldrin to co-star in Donna's imagination is inspired. How much easier it is to relate to the second to accomplish something special than to the first.

August Star, Sept. 'Moon' Rising at NJ Rep

upperWETside, September 5, 2011

Andrea Gallo keeps house at New Jersey Repertory Company, during the world premiere of DONNA ORBITS THE MOON, the one woman show by NJ playwright Ian August.

It was very nearly six years ago that New Jersey Repertory Company — the Upper Wet Side's only playhouse dedicated entirely to new and challenging works for the stage — hosted the world premiere of a "gritty, blues infused fairytale" called Tilt Angel.

A nightmarishly surreal, absurdist Southern gothic about a socially reclusive young man, his neglectful father, his pining for his lost mother (who somehow manages to get reincarnated as a large house plant) and a divine intervention in the form of a tattered, filthy seraph, the Dan Deitz play offered up such jarring imagery and literalized phobias as a giant black telephone, a home-crafted prosthetic claw, travel by telephone lines and an evil "garden" of seething tubes from which a big skeletal hand emerges to drag our hero to his fate.

Of course we couldn't rave enough about the show — still one of the most amazing things we've seen on local stages in our years as a professional theater critic — to anyone who wouldn't cross to the other side of the street when we approached. But, as NJ Rep executive producer Gabe Barabas noted with a wry chuckle years later, this Angel laid a big old deviled egg at the box office as nothing before or since. Like, TILT, game over.

We only dredge up these painful memories because the production, in its own way, served to plant the seed for Donna Orbits the Moon, a show that enters its world premiere engagement this week as the latest in the "neverending season" of original entertainments at the downtown Long Branch oasis of culture. Written by actor-turned-playwright Ian August and starring Andrea Gallo — respectively the son and the mother on Tilt Angel's family tree — the one-woman play goes up for two days of previews on Thursday, September 8; opens on September 10 and continues through September 25.

Directed by Marc Geller (who recently helmed an acclaimed NYC staging of Noir, by Middletown's own Stan Werse), Donna also serves to inaugurate the re-branded Second Stage performance space at NJ Rep — a space formerly named after local newsmaker Solomon Dwek (and sanded off in the tradition of things named after Michael Ritacco, Enron and Saddam).

For Highland Park resident Ian August, the new play would appear to launch the second stage of his career — but, far from representing a rookie effort by an earnest wannabe Williams or Starbucks Stoppard, Donna is one of FIVE full-length, award-winning scripts that the busy writer has completed and seen performed in public since he more or less retired from acting five years ago (this in addition to dozens of one-act playlets).

One of those previous plays, the drama Missing Celia Rose, was chosen for staging at NYC's prestigious Summer Play Festival from a field of more than a thousand submitted scripts — and another, the showbiz-insider comedy Submitted by C. Randall McCloskey, just wrapped a critically lauded stint at the New York International Fringe Festival in a production that starred Brian O'Halloran of Clerks and other Kevin Smith specialties.

As for Donna Orbits the Moon, well, it's being pitched like so: "Something is not quite right with Donna: She's a loving mother, a devoted wife, and a minor celebrity to all the bake sale planners in town — but something is making her spacey, and she's not sure what it is. Therapy is out of the question — and church isn't the place to share one's distress. Donna will need to pass through space and through time — all the while listening to an unlikely voice — and try to break free from her gravitational pull to learn just how she can land."

We reckon that the above description still only scratches the surface of this piece, and as for the author, well, he's only going to drop a few tantalizing hints as to what we can expect to see as we move beyond the namesake month of August and into a new moon of September. A few Qs and As with Ian August, coming right up.

Ian August the playwright (right) was once Ian August the actor — co-star, with Andrea Gallo, in NJ Rep's surreal oddity TILT ANGEL.

upperWETside: Well, Ian, it seems that since the first time we met you've lived a whole 'nother lifetime as a successful playwright — I'm sure you're having the time of your life too, but speaking both for myself and some other theatergoers, we're hoping that you haven't completely shut the door on stage acting. Seeing you in things like TILT ANGEL and ROBBER BRIDEGROOM, I can say that some of us miss Ian August the actor.

IAN AUGUST: And I miss acting sometimes — but as a writer I feel that I get the opportunity to play all of the roles in my head. Plus, I get to eat salty, fatty foods again! I still make myself available for voice work. But I love writing, to the extent that I literally can't wait til my next opportunity to do it. I work a full time job, and a lot of times I come home and immediately get down to working on a play. I'm also working on my first novel — oh, and I started working on a graphic novel as well!

Sounds like you got the bug, bigtime. Whatever happened to the archetype of the writer as embittered, frustrated alcoholic, burning his Great American Novel that he struggled with for thirty years?

What can I say — I love being prolific and productive. And the response that I've gotten for my writing has convinced me that it's really where I should be at this point.

All of my full length plays have had readings and won awards. My first play Missing Celia Rose was workshopped at the Summer Play Festival, at the Orlando Shakespeare Festival…and it got produced in Bermuda! They paid me to do my play, and they flew me out to Bermuda — then the next year, those same people wanted me to judge their festival, so they flew both me and my partner out to Bermuda! I've also done about 25 ten-minute plays, one of which, Le Supermarché, was published in 2007 — it went on to win a Samuel French award.

You've had some of those shortie works performed at New Jersey Rep also.

I wrote one for one of their "Theater Brut" short play programs in 2005 — the theme of the night was "Sacrifice," and I did something called Abraham on the Mount: The Week Before. It showed Abraham, prior to offering up his son as a sacrifice to the Lord, bringing a goat up the mountain as an offering. I played the Goat, as a Bugs Bunny sort of character who tells Abe, 'If you wanna really impress God, kill your son.'

NJ Rep also did a reading of C. RANDALL McCLOSKEY, as did Holmdel Theatre Company. In fact, if I'm not mistaken, pretty much everyone from the Holmdel company reprised their roles at the Fringe Festival.

Just about everyone; I got five of the six actors from the Holmdel show to do it in New York — Brian, Carol Todd, Bob Senkewicz, Rebecca Harris Flynn…the play was actually written for Brian, and with a lot of these actors in mind. I'm inspired by my friends, and I'm writing predominantly for my friends these days.

One of those friends being Andrea Gallo, for whom I'm assuming you wrote DONNA ORBITS THE MOON?

I had a phenomenal experience working with Andrea on Tilt Angel, which, you know, was a difficult play for a lot of people — I never knew if the audience was getting what was going on in the show. Then after one performance a woman came up to me and told me that she had lost her mother in an accident at sea — sort of similar to how my character loses his mother in the play; a strange, inexplicable accident — and she told me she understood exactly where everything was coming from; that this weird little play resonated with her on a very real level. It just reinforced for me how even a very stylized, surreal kind of story can have a deep emotional connection to the audience at its heart. I worked with Andrea several times — she performed a supporting role in my first Fringe Festival play, as an abusive mother, and she was brilliant. I did rewrites all through the rehearsal process, and she was able to work so well through all that pressure. When I started thinking about Donna, I immediately thought of her — I have no doubt she'll be sensational in this show.

I'm a little unclear as to what to expect with this show; what do you feel like telling us about it?

Well, Donna is a Midwest housewife, a loving spouse who discovers that she has anger issues, and she's not sure why…she begins to hear a voice inside her head. I don't want to give too much away, but this voice in her head is a specific individual's voice; not a heavenly voice. I don't write characters that don't take some sort of a journey, and Andrea and I talked repeatedly about what works in the play — we met in Central Park one day to discuss it, and she's been involved all the way in helping it all come together.

Well, we look forward to opening night, then, and we'll tell you to "break a pencil point" on this and McCLOSKEY and all the other projects you're currently juggling. We'll see what the next step will be. For now, I've been getting a great response to all of my writing, and I want to continue to focus upon it. I'm loving this!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

nj arts maven


judyhollidayThe idea that all blondes are dumb owes its existence to Judy Holliday, an actress in the fifties and sixties who, with her bleached hair, squeaky voice and fluttering eyelashes, created the stereotype we so quickly assign to every woman with golden tresses (be they natural or dyed). But how many people who use the epithet "dumb blonde" know that the original had an IQ of 172, loved to do crossword puzzles and play word games, and yearned to be a writer instead of an actress?

That irony is the premise of Bob Sloan's nifty musical play, Just in Time: The Story of Judy Holliday, receiving a winning and winsome debut production at New Jersey Repertory in Long Branch. Directed with great energy by SuzAnne Barabas and starring four talented actors (two of whom do yeomen's duty playing a myriad of roles—most of them recognizable famous people), Just in Time is a bittersweet comic drama. Bittersweet because Judy Holliday never realized her dreams; comic because, well, she was a funny lady and parts of her life are hilarious; and drama because the Hollywood star system doomed her marriage and stunted her talent by pigeon-holing her as a dumb blonde before she died at the age of 43 from breast cancer.

Born onstage—literally, at the Ziegfeld Theatre where she was delivered by Fanny Brice as her mother attended a performance—Judith Tuvim graduated first in her class from high school at the tender age of 16. When Yale Drama School rejects her because of her youth, Judith takes a number of menial jobs and teams up with Adolph Green and Betty Comden to justintime 3 reviewersform "The Three Reviewers," performing original material satirizing show business and Hollywood at the Village Vanguard, accompanied on the piano by Lenny Bernstein (yes, that Lenny Bernstein). Discovered by a talent scout, Judith is whisked to Hollywood, undergoes a name change to Judy Holliday (Tuvim means Holliday in Yiddish)  and wins the 1950 Oscar for Best Actress for “Born Yesterday.” Along the way, she is questioned by the House Un-American Activities Committee (and black-listed) and wins a Tony Award for Bells Are Ringing (written for her by Comden and Green) before being cut down in her prime. Her career was meteoric and all too short; unfortunately, she is remembered mostly for being a "dumb blonde."

justintime phoneLuckily for us, the very talented Pheonix Vaughn conveys the complicated psyche of Judy Holliday very well. With her adorable dimples, squeaky voice and big blue eyes, it's easy to think this Judy is really dimwitted, but in her character's private moments, Vaughn gives us a glimpse of the real woman inside, the woman who considered acting "a very limited form of expression," a woman who wanted to change the world with her writing. Vaughn is hilarious as she juggles three conversations at the switchboard of the Mercury Theatre (good training for Bells Are Ringing!) and learns the lines at a week's notice for Born Yesterday, when star Jean Arthur leaves the production. Her phone conversations with her son Jonathan are heartbreaking, as is her rendition of the only song in the show that isn't written by Nate Sloan, "The Party's Over," Judy's big hit.

justintime table

Bonnie Black as Helen Tuvim, Judy's mother, is appropriately controlling and very annoying; she is the quintessential stage mother, but her daughter has a mind of her own, which complicates their relationship. Mark T. Evans provides terrific piano accompaniment as Leonard Bernstein.

Adam Harrington (Adolph Green and 13 other characters) and Catherine LeFrere (Betty Comden and 12 other characters) are absolutely wonderful, morphing from a famous person into an ordinary person and back again in split-second costume (and accent) changes without blinking an eye! They tackle each role with relish! (Below: Harrington as Nick Ray and Pheonix Vaughn as Judy)

justintime nick raySloan's plot doesn't always proceed chronologically, but "The Three Reviewers" (top photo) act like a Greek chorus, providing bridges between scenes and commenting on the action. It's through their satiric songs that we learn about the havoc Hollywood's contract system wreaked on a young woman's sense of worth, self-respect and family relationships. It is not a pretty picture. 

Just in Time: The Judy Holliday Story had a brief introductory run last year at the New York Fringe Festival where it received top accolades and played to sold-out audiences. Playwright Bob Sloan's subsequent tweaking includes adding some new scenes and new songs to what one critic called "the best show I saw at the Fringe this year. . .the red carpet event of the Festival."

Judy Holliday may have been a star of a bygone era, but this luminous production makes us realize just what we missed when she left us too young and too soon. Take a ride to Long Branch (go early and walk a bit on the boardwalk) to recapture the magic that is The Judy Holliday Story. New Jersey Rep has a winner on its hands.

See a bit of “Just in Time: The Judy Holliday Story” here

Judging JUDY, at NJ Rep

Pheonix Vaughn (right) is the Oscar winning comic actress Judy Holliday — and Adam Harrington is anyone from Jimmy Durante to Orson Welles — as JUST IN TIME: THE JUDY HOLLIDAY STORY makes its Garden State debut at New Jersey Repertory Company. (photos courtesy SuzAnne Barabas)

It was just a few months ago that New Jersey Repertory Company — the Upper Wet Side’s only playhouse dedicated entirely to new and challenging works for the stage — premiered a little show called Puma; a look at the life, loves and legacy of the late Marlene Dietrich that the theater critic for the Asbury Park Press (ahem, us) hailed as “a brief and shining portal into a bygone world of backlit luster, sparkling repartee and extraordinary personalities who crackled with charisma…at the very least, it’s something to dress up for.”

Here in the season of dressing down for the weather, the NJ Rep team offers us get-a-life fans of golden-age Broadway and Hollywood another platinum-plated star to ooh and aah over — this one a portrait (in dialogue, memory vignettes and song) of a blonde (smart)bombshell who’s nonetheless not so much of a household name these days: the dynamic Judy Holliday.

The performer who took home a Tony (as Best Lead Actress in a Musical) for Bells Are Ringing may not ring too many bells with the millennials these days, but when you consider her most lasting legacy — the peroxide perennial Born Yesterday, and her role in turning the whole dumb-blonde archetype on its bleached head — the salvaging of Judy Holliday’s public profile comes just in time. As in Just in Time: The Judy Holliday Story, previewing this week and opening July 9 in Long Branch.

Stage mom Bonnie Black harangues young Judy Holliday (Pheonix Vaughn), as Adam Harrington and Catherine LeFrere look on, and Mark T. Evans plays on.

Although the latest Broadway revival (with Jim Belushi, the guy who plays Wilson on House and a semi-unknown Nina Arianda) didn’t make it past the end of June, the script by Garson Kanin (in which a corrupt tycoon hires a journalist to “smarten up” his ditzy showgirl moll, with unforeseen consequences to his wheelings and dealings on the Washington lobby-go-round) has long had legs in community theater circles, and even got adapted as a vehicle for then-marrieds Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson. But it’s Judy Holliday as Billie Dawn — the role that won her a 1950 Best Actress Oscar in her first starring flick —  who single-handedly fuels any continuing interest in Born Yesterday, and who you walk away remembering.

Although she’d do some fun turns in other pictures like It Should Happen to You and The Solid Gold Cadillac‬‏ — and no, that’s not her in ‪Singin’ in the Rain, but Jean Hagen doing her best Judy — Holliday didn’t leave behind a vast body of work, and her last Broadway production, the short-lived Hot Spot, was her flop final project (despite the contributions of Bob Fosse, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents) before cancer cut her down at the age of 43 in 1965.

Thus, Just in Time. The script (by Bob Sloan, among other things a prolific writer of cookbooks and detective thrillers) made its well-received debut as part of the 2010 NYC Fringe Festival, and two of the cast members from that production — Adam Harrington and Catherine LaFrere — are making the trip to Long Branch, portraying a parade of real-life figures who include Orson Welles, Katharine Hepburn and Jimmy Durante, to songwriting specialists (and Holliday pals) Betty Comden and Adolph Green.

Also in the company under the supervision of NJ Rep artistic director SuzAnne Barabas is Bonnie Black as Judy’s suffocating stage mother, Helen Tuvim, along with musical director/ accompanist Mark T. Evans — and cast in the title role is the dazzling Pheonix Vaughn, a frequent favorite of NJ Rep audiences whose past efforts have ranged from the frothy myth-o-musical Cupid and Psyche, to the paranoiac pub-crawl Yankee Tavern — to a sensational stint as a lonely WWII-era homemaker coming to grips with her sexual identity in The Housewives of Mannheim, a play in which she starred in New York, Indianapolis, Santa Barbara, and Long Branch.

Even as magnetic a performer as the rising star Pheonix has her work cut out for her in summoning Holliday’s level of skills, savvy, and genius (literally — the woman who redefined the “dumb blonde” possessed a Mensa-level IQ), and if the stars align as they did with Puma, NJ Rep will once again be offering classic film buffs a degree of magic they’ll never tap into at the mallside megaplex.

Previewing July 7 and 8 at 2 and 8pm ($35), and opening with a catered reception on July 9 ($60), Just in Time continues Thursdays through Sundays until August 14, with all regular performances priced at $40, and reservations available right here.

The Judy Holliday Story review

Nita Congress · July 14, 2011

Bonnie Black, Mark Evans, Pheonix Vaughn, Adam Harrington, and Catherine LeFrere in a scene from  <em>The Judy Holliday Story</em>

Pictured: Bonnie Black, Mark Evans, Pheonix Vaughn, Adam Harrington, and Catherine LeFrere in a scene from The Judy Holliday Story (photo © SuzAnne Barabas)

Bouncy, bubbly, and bright. Smart, sophisticated, and sweet.

These words describe to a T the latest offering of the New Jersey Repertory Company, The Judy Holliday Story. Not coincidentally, they could all be applied to the eponymous protagonist, the gifted singer and comedienne fondly remembered for her star turns in Bells Are Ringing and Born Yesterday.

Bob Sloan’s witty script lightly, lovingly, sketches in the friends, family, career highlights, and all-too-short life of Judy Holliday. And the appealing Pheonix Vaughn has captured Holliday’s trademark ditzy blonde intonations of slow dawnings, brisk retorts, and blithe bemusement.

The play weaves through Holliday’s life, progressing sequentially with flashbacks and flash forwards, stopping repeatedly at her earliest success at the Village Vanguard with co-performers and future legends in their own right, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and Oscar night 1950, arguably the pinnacle of Holliday’s career. We meet Judith Tuvim, high school valedictorian at sixteen and eager to make a difference in the world, follow her to her first job—switchboard operator at the Mercury Theatre, humorously absorbing the larger-than-life personages of John Houseman and Orson Welles—and from there to a stint as a union-extolling summer camp counselor meeting fellow counselor and friend for life Adolph Green as they rhapsodize on the non-anagramability of “Tuvim."

It is a dizzy, giddy, and glorious path to stardom, filled with clever songs and patter at the Vanguard, a short string of eligible bachelors and wolfish producers, and first-rate glittering talents including Peter Lawford, Tallulah Bankhead, Gloria Swanson, Dorothy Kilgallen, Arlene Francis, John Daly, Katharine Hepburn, Leonard Bernstein—a veritable who’s who of the 1940s and ’50s.

The play is well served—no, exquisitely served—by the extremely talented Adam Harrington and Catherine LeFrere, playing with vim, wit, and vigor some dozen notables between them. While it is initially disconcerting to see the pixie-ish Green portrayed by a skinny six-footer, and LeFrere similarly looks not one whit like Comden, these actors quickly eliminate the need to rely on outward resemblances as they build believable and recognizable characters with a few deft strokes. And droll Bonnie Black keeps Judy’s mother Helen from caricature through a deeply displayed mother’s love—cut through with a sharp sense of humor—for a precious only child.

Director SuzAnne Barabas brings a lively, snappy pacing to the clever dialogue, and keeps the transitions flowing clearly and seamlessly through the flash forwards and back in time. Costume designer Patricia E. Doherty has outdone herself with a beautiful and bounteous display of flattering fifties clothes—stylish, elegant, and mood-evoking. Jessica Parks has created a snug, predominantly backstage set that, like the play itself, takes us behind the scenes of the Judy Holliday story. A standout effect of lighting designer Jill Nagle’s is the camera flashbulb that harkens back to an earlier, simpler era with bigger, clumsier technology. And through it all, musical director and pianist Mark T. Evans effortlessly summons the accompanying soundtrack of these more glamorous, more sophisticated times.

Ultimately, that is what The Judy Holliday Story celebrates: a time when wits were sharper, songs sweeter, clothes and manners lovelier, celebrities more celebrated. Whether that was really the case or not, this play makes it seem so. And for a couple hours, it’s nice to go to a time and place when smart, talented kids who passionately loved words and music could thrive, blossom, and prosper.

Throwing drama from the 'Train' at NJ Rep

Michael Irvin Pollard (left) finds his ride on the "Night Train" interrupted by uninvited stranger Philip Lynch, in the play now making its world premiere run at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. / Photo courtesy of NJ Rep

Written by TOM CHESEK


LONG BRANCH — Several months back, the people at New Jersey Repertory Company staged a noirish thriller called "The Tangled Skirt," a claustrophobic little duet set in a desolate, dead-of-night bus station. With "Night Train" — the world premiere play now on the track at the Long Branch playhouse — NJ Rep has taken that same kismet-deadly fatalism, added a fair amount of laughs, and sent it hurtling down the rails on the sort of long, strange trip in which all weird things come to he who waits patiently in his assigned seat.

Set entirely within the confines of a first-class train compartment, during a nocturnal journey between two unspecified (but vaguely European) points, the script by New Orleans playwright John Biguenet places two unlikely fellow passengers in uncomfortably close proximity: the uptight, well-dressed banker (Michael Irvin Pollard) who paid for the travel arrangement, and the chatty, unruly and unwelcome stranger (Philip Lynch) who makes himself at home in that same space.

"One hears stories about these night trains," offers the wild-bearded interloper Max, a refugee from the second-class car who lugs an ominously heavy suitcase, a picnic basket with a big knife inside, and a hip flask full of cheap whisky that only seems to find its way down the hatch of bald, bespectacled businessman Alex. Himself the possessor of more baggage than is stashed in the overhead, Alex reveals himself as a man of conflicted relationships, compromised ethics and concealed secrets when the mismatched companions inevitably get to talking.

From the outset, the man with the nice watch and tailored suit is no match for his wilier counterpart, a self-professed smuggler (and possible pimp) whose inscrutable agenda comes to a head with the introduction of his "cousin" Marta (Maria Silverman) — she of the unplaceable accent and assurances that "I make you to forget everything, you'll see."

What Alfred Hitchcock might have made into "Strangers on a Train" diverts instead onto a "laugh" track, under the direction of black-comedy sorceress SuzAnne Barabas and her three-player cast.

In the course of their extended first-act dialogue, Rep regulars Lynch and Pollard riff beyond their basic Odd Couple characterizations, into exchanges that carry trace elements of some classic comic duos — a little Abbott/Costello here; a bit of Groucho/Chico or even George/Kramer there.

Add newcomer Silverman for a kiss of Gracie Allen, and Pollard (who's onstage from the play's first moment to its last) is one busy foil — although of course, only a performer of his proven comedic skills can truly grasp the greatness of a superior "straight man."

Unanticipated stops

This is not to suggest that it's all "throw drama from the train" time here. Biguenet's script carries with it a smoldering undercurrent of class-warfare anger that's all but ripped screaming from today's headlines. That comes home to roost without waking up the neighborhood on arrival (it ought to be noted that Lynch is so perfectly attuned to the play's peculiar rhythms that he stakes absolute ownership of its final moments).

It's no spoiler to suggest that "Night Train" makes more than a few unanticipated stops, and that by the time it reaches the end of the line it will probably conjure thoughts of Hitchcock once more — not features like "North by Northwest" or "The Lady Vanishes," but the sardonic humor and plot twists that were a specialty of The Master's old TV anthology series. Just don't ask about the "MacGuffin" in the suitcase.

Set designer Jessica Parks' impressive cutaway railroad car — its deco-ish outer layer creating a proscenium that frames the action within — becomes a cinematic experience with the addition of videographer John Breitzman's passing-lights projections, and the hypnotic beat of a real-time train trip soundtrack; the actors choreographed to its every glitch, screech and stagger.

Amazingly Deceptive Night Train Speeds into Long Branch

Tangled Skirt
Michael Irvin Pollard, Philip Lynch and Maria Silverman

The less that you know about Night Train before you board the better that you will enjoy it. Even telling you how or why it works, or even the genres which it encompasses, will reduce your pleasure. It is extremely intelligent fun. The fun is of the variety which derives from watching the sleight of hand and brilliant quirkiness of a master magician. You certainly don't want to know in advance how it is done, and I'm not going to give a lot away. However, if you are in a position to get to NJ Rep this month, I suggest that you just go without reading further because anything said about Night Train has the potential to remove some of the edge from the proceedings. This world premiere play by New Orleans playwright John Biguenet was developed on a Studio Attachment at the National Theatre of Great Britain, which you may want to take as a further endorsement.

This is the story of three people in a first class compartment on a European style train in the middle of the night. Nothing happens that you haven't seen before, and you have a reasonable chance of figuring out what is going on here. However, if or when you do, you will have to be very steely to keep your compass. It is more likely that your compass will move in the right direction from time to time, only to veer wildly off course again.

The well dressed and well heeled Alex Hampton is joined in his first class compartment by a dodgy Max who is seeking refuge from the overly crowded and uncomfortable second class. Max is a smuggler, and is carrying bags filled with contraband from which he attempts to make some sales to Alex. It develops that Alex is a high finance banker with the National Bank. Max brings in his niece (she call him "Uncle Max"). She is ....

Under SuzAnne Barabas' astute direction, Michael Irvin Pollard (Hampton), Philip Lynch (Max) and Maria Silverman (Marta) each give necessarily tricky, complex performances. Most impressive is their intricate interaction which amuses us with its improbabilities as their identities and characters shift along with the ground under them without ever tempting us to throw up our hands and mentally disengage from the ride. Night Train likely would play best without an intermission.

As she does with uncanny regularity, resident set designer Jessica Parks has designed a crackerjack set which hurtles Night Train right into our laps. Parks has created a plush, anamorphic compartment with an effectively enormous width and narrow depth, and a sense of real presence to the corridor and train window and outside night. The result is that the auditorium feels as if it is an extension of the compartment. The illusion is completed with what appears to be digital projections simulating the area outside the train being passed in the night. The excellent work of Lighting Designer Jill Nagle is an integral part of the outstanding design. The costumes of Patricia E. Doherty are central to the delineation of the characters. In the case of costuming Maria Silverman (Marta), the costume designer combines with her canvas to define character.

Night Train is a Harold Pinter-esque nightmare with more than a soupçon of pulp fiction.

A CurtainUp New Jersey Review

Night Train

Well, you probably noticed this car is nearly deserted. Just you and me and that old couple in the compartment down at the other end. It's always the same. There's never anybody in first class at night. Like I said before, if you can afford the best, then why not wait until morning? And let me tell you, the thieves knowhow empty these cars are at night. What if you were to fall asleep and the conductor — or whoever, I don't mean to spread rumors — were to slip a little gas in here. — Max
Yankee Tavern
Maria Silverman making her New Jersey Repertory Company debut in Night Train (Photo: Suzanne Barabas)
he stage at the New Jersey Repertory Company is set for an old fashioned, enjoyably hokey mystery melodrama. It is most likely the present. The scene is an exceptionally roomy 1st class sleeping compartment on a train moving through the night to some unknown destination presumably somewhere in Eastern Europe. The elegance of first class is designated by the plush red velvet daybeds. The effect of the train in motion is created by the passing lights and shadows that flash by from the countryside (thanks to Jill Nagle's expert lighting effects). Nicely atmospheric, this is a nifty frame for the unsettlingly eerie doings that are about to happen on this Night Train a new play by John Biguenet. 

Alex (Michael Irvin Pollard), a well-dressed American business man isn't destined to be the compartment's sole occupant for very long. Max (Philip Lynch) a bearded, poorly attired man, presumably a native of the region, intrudes. The eyes of this admittedly second class passenger have a look of desperation as he suddenly proceeds to prompt and provoke responses from the unassuming and somewhat bewildered Alex. We can sense that his full-steam-ahead rather digressive chatter seems to be a ploy to put Alex off guard. Are they meant to be a devious conduit to entrapment? It is apparent to us, if not to Alex, that Max is a master at drawing the unsuspecting into a carefully woven web of subterfuge from which there may be no escape. 

We can, of course, detect from the outset that there is some sinister plot afoot. But what can it be? And what is Alex to do when Max brings Marta (Maria Silverman), an unhappy woman with a thick Polish (?) accent to his compartment. Left alone with Alex, Marta wastes no time, however, complicating matters by entreating, beguiling and seducing him. Are we surprised when Max returns to find Marta and Alex in . . . well, you know where this is going under SuzAnne Barabas's commendably abetting directing. 

This is exactly the kind of we-are-one-step-ahead-of-you-everybody's-in-on-it plot (except the antagonist) that fueled many B-movies during the 1930s and 1940s. Produced to accompany the main feature, those films were more often than not little more than an hour in length, modestly creepy and devilishly diverting. To be sure, it was a class of films that pre-dated and later defined the beginning of the Film Noir. 

The Night Train as written in dramatic form by Biguenet isn't the first or will it be the last to pay homage to that genre that also includes such vintage radio dramas as I Love a Mystery and Suspense. I was very conscious of Biguenet's deliberately synthetic writing style, its vivid implausibility being its main characteristic and also it main source of amusement. 

Lynch is standout as the slippery-tongued provocateur/perpetrator/enabler/survivor who has figured out every angle to make his life better for himself and his family in a country where life is undoubtedly hell. Silverman, who made her Broadway debut in Michael Mayer's revival of A View from the Bridge and now is making her N.J. Rep. debut, is terrific as Marta, an alluring conspirator without a conscience. Pollard's fine performance as the incomprehensibly susceptible Alex makes us suspect that what is happening to him may well be a dream. 

Biguenet, best known as an award-winning (O'Henry Award) author of short stories, has devised a nightmarish diversion that may not be as spine-chilling a mystery as we might prefer, but he has afforded us the opportunity to think about locking our compartments at night, especially when traveling on a night train.

On an airplane, many of us have found ourselves seated next to a fellow passenger who talks incessantly to us during the entire flight. At most, the situation is no more than a major annoyance; the plane is usually full of other people, and a flight attendant is just a button signal away should things get out of hand. Not so for Alex Hampton, the dapper banker at the heart of John Biguenet's engrossing comic-thriller, Night Train, now receiving its world première at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

Alone, late at night, on an old-fashioned European-style train, Alex Hampton finds his first class compartment invaded by Max, a disheveled, bearded, long-haired traveler who has left his crowded, noisy second class compartment for Alex's, there to ensconce himself for the rest of the journey. No use calling the conductors; Max informs him that they are probably asleep and, besides, they could be behind the gassing and robberies that often occur on night trains. Speaking nonstop, Max identifies himself as a "native of these parts," a member of the lower classes who doesn't have it as "cushy" as Alex, with his London-tailored suit and Argentine leather shoes. He stokes Alex's fears of robbery, suggests that Alex's young second wife is cheating on him with the gardener, and tells wildly contradictory stories about himself, his aspirations and his occupation.

With Alex's confidence in himself and his way of life quickly ebbing, Max brings his sultry, sexy "niece" Marta into the compartment to keep Alex company: "No point in living in a fool's paradise," he tells Alex. Multiple twists and turns ensue as the story speeds along before coming to an abrupt, and surprising, stop where all of our expectations—and Alex's—are stood on end.

Like the train that chugs along at a steady pace, SuzAnne Barabas has directed this surreal play so that the suspense never flags. Set designer Jessica Parks's spacious—yet claustrophobic, given the malevolent goings on—train compartment; Merek Royce Press's effective sound design; and Jill Nagle's atmospheric lighting add to the verisimilitude.

Barabas has assembled a first-rate cast to portray the trio involved in this intricate, bizarre dance. Michael Irvin Pollard's Alex Hampton morphs from a smug, rather snooty bourgeois banker into a cringing victim right before our eyes. He's ripe for the web of uncertainty and doubt deftly woven by Max. Philip Lynch's portrayal of his chameleon-like nemesis is nothing short of masterful. I got a headache just listening to him jabber on, jumping from one pronouncement to another, but his transformation from harmless chatterbox to malicious occurs in increments, thus taking us by surprise. Indeed, listen carefully to his yammering, for playwright Biguenet has sown his script with several clues as to what will eventually happen. And as Marta, Maria Silverman is surprising, as well. We feel sympathy for her at first but soon realize that she's not a woman to be tangled with.

This was my first visit to New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. Billing itself as "a Boutique Theater for Passionate Theater Goers," the tiny auditorium (if it can be called an auditorium, with fewer than 100 seats!) enhanced the feeling that we were stuck on the Night Train with Alex Hampton, with no way out. It's a chilling thought.

'Puma' review: Portrayal of celebrities is on target

Published: Wednesday, March 02, 2011, 8:00 AM
By Peter Filichia/For The Star-Ledger


SuzAnne Barabas     

Chris Vettel as James Stewart, John FitzGibbon as Erich Maria Remarque and Ylfa Edelstein as Marlene Dietrich in Puma.

F. Scott Fitzgerald believed that “The rich are different from you and me.”

Playwrights Julie Gilbert and Frank Evans aren’t so sure about that — even if the rich in question are celebrities.

In “Puma,” their play at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, the scribes show us Marlene Dietrich, James Stewart, Erich Maria Remarque and Paulette Goddard, all acting oh-so-civilized about the partners they’ve been bedding.

They’re not the only stars of yesteryear portrayed in a not-so-flattering light. Quite a few other famous names are matter-of-factly mentioned in the recitation of this quartet’s salacious pasts: “Tyrone and Spencer,” says Dietrich, “are last year’s models.”

But pretty soon, there’s an end to the civility. Ultimately, these star get as jealous as anyone else. Well, who knows how to handle love?

Younger theatergoers may need an explanation as to who these glamorous lovers are. Dietrich and Goddard were once movie stars — although the former was far more celebrated than the latter. Remarque wrote one of the world’s best anti-war novels, “All Quiet on the Western Front.” Those unaware of Stewart don’t have their TV sets on the right channel during Christmas season, when his most famous vehicle, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” is inescapable.

The playwrights give Remarque’s side of the story. He’s turning 65, and current wife, Goddard, is throwing him a party. Hitting that significant birthday makes Remarque assess his life, and that leads him to remember “my favorite poison: Puma” — which is his pet name for Dietrich.

Since the story focuses on stars of the black-and-white era, Jessica Parks’ handsome Art Deco set and costume designer Patricia E. Doherty’s sleek outfits use those colors, too. Only Dietrich gets colorful ensembles — so many, in fact, the company could probably mount another play with the budget they spent on her wardrobe.

Ylfa Edelstein is worth it. Under SuzAnne Barabas’ tasteful direction, she makes Dietrich a person, eschewing a camp variety show impersonation. Edelstein speaks with a sublte German accent. She has that oh-so-slow bat of the eyes that tells a man “I’m interested,” followed by the intense gaze that says “Do you dare?”

Gilbert and Evans have characterized her well. This Dietrich knows that sex will get her what she wants, so she hands it over with the same emotion she uses in removing a ketchup bottle cap. And yet, she goes to church almost as often as she goes out with men.

Christopher Vettel avoids doing a Jimmy Stewart “impression,” too. While he calmly lays out Stewart’s vocal tics and mannerisms, Vettel shows us a Stewart who isn’t performing for the camera; he’s off-duty, and just being himself. Vettel’s performance alone is worth the price of admission.

John FitzGibbon has been a mainstay of N.J. Rep for years, but here as Remarque, he gives his best performance yet. He’s a suave narrator — until he’s drawn into the action. Then he shows all the frustrations of a man in love with a woman he wishes he’d never met (on certain days of the week, anyway). “She will not be faithful to me,” he says with a brave and resigned smile. The look that follows shows how powerless he is.

As Goddard, Natalie Wilder doesn’t quite convey a siren who “took the starch out of Chaplin’s shorts.” Yet she does have a nice way with a line.

And there are so many funny lines that “Puma” threatens to become a comedy, if not a bedroom farce. It also feels crammed full of facts that the authors felt they just had to include. “Puma” ultimately may have succeeded better as a doorstop-thick biography — but FitzGibbon, Edelstein and Vettel ultimately make the experience worth watching.

"Puma" is a class act at NJ Rep

Mar. 2, 2011


John FitzGibbon and Ylfa Edelstein share a scene in "Puma," being staged in Long Branch by the New Jersey Repertory Company. / STAFF PHOTO: BOB BIELK

Written by TOM CHESEK


Time was, a first-night at the theater conjured visions of fur stoles and tuxes; of one's best jewels and top-shelf cocktails. While things haven't been that way for a while — not on Broadway, not anywhere — the folks at New Jersey Repertory Company have managed to open a brief and shining portal into a bygone world of backlit luster, sparkling repartee and extraordinary personalities who crackled with charisma. It's called "Puma" — and at the very least, it's something to dress up for.

That the fantasy land of this world premiere production exists in real-world space within the hard-luck downtown of its host stage is impressive enough. What's more amazing still is the realization that "Puma" is drawn as much from fact as from fantasy, if we're to take the play's lead character and inspiration at his word.

"Since this play is based on my diaries, I reserve the right to tell it my way," declares Erich Maria Remarque (John FitzGibbon) at the outset of the ensemble piece by Julie Gilbert and Frank Evans. "And since I'm a writer, I may take some license."
The author of "All Quiet on the Western Front" and other best-selling novels was a refugee from Nazi Germany who made his way to Paris, New York and ultimately Hollywood; a chronicler of a continent and a generation uprooted by two world wars — and, over the course of many years, a lover and "soul mate" to the great Marlene Dietrich (Ylfa Edelstein).

The screen goddess and stage chanteuse famously claimed some 5,000 male and female partners in her long life, and any one of her personal or professional relationships (actors Jean Gabin and Yul Brynner, director and mentor Josef von Sternberg) would have made a play in itself — but this is the story of Remarque and the points at which his life intersected with that of Dietrich, the very private public figure he liked to call "Puma," A name he also gave to his favorite car).

It's "Daddy" Remarque of whom the larger-than-life star says "you keep me mortal" — although that scarcely stops her from trysting with co-stars like rising young leading man James Stewart, a familiar figure who plays a prominent role in this decades-spanning story.
Christopher Vettel has the unenviable task of channeling the aw-shucks, all-American Jimmy Stewart; conveying the complex nature of the man behind the household face and voice, without lapsing into Rich Little casino impressionist shtick. It’s an assignment at which the actor succeeds on all counts — and he excels as well in a brief but memorable bit as a German passport agent.

As the equally iconic Dietrich — the kind of character who could only be credibly scripted by real life — Edelstein conguers a similarly daunting task with breathtaking panache. Looking every inch the radiant and glamorous ideal in her formal wear, lingerie and studio costumes, she’s also entirely comfortable as the apron-clad “very loyal mistress” who fusses with the schnitzel in the kitchen. Under the direction of SuzAnne Barabas, the formidable performer captures all facets of this unique gem — from her devil-may care sophisticated wit, to a jealousy and vulnerability that few were likely privy to.

Natalie Wilder, another frequent flyer in the NJ Rep stock company, appears here in three very different roles — as Remarque’s “sour-faced buttermilk Belgian waffle” of a first (and second) wife, as Stewart’s wife Gloria, and as the vivacious starlet Paulette Goddard, seen first on a “studio date” with Stewart and ultimately as the final Mrs. Remarque. The scene in which Wilder-as-Goddard dances with (and professes an encyclopedic knowledge of) the debonair man of letters is a particular high point in a play that’s engorged with them.
Since the real Remarque’s face and voice are hardly as stamped upon the cultural consciousness as those of the movie stars in his life, FitzGibbon has sufficient license to craft a characterization that plays to his strong points — not the least of which is an easy elegance and a marvelous voice that would not have been out of place on a golden age Hollywood sound stage.

There’s another star-quality ensemble at work here, and its presence is felt the moment the audience sets eyes upon the grand, deco-infused set by Jessica Parks — a representational (but somehow quite luxurious) environment in which the shimmering gray curtains and plaforms come alive with color under the lighting of Jill Nagle, who bathes her stars in otherworldly glows and sheens that would have seemed impossible outside of the movies.

Patricia Doherty — in perhaps the finest work of her long career — dresses the cast in a dazzling array of stylish and sophisticated period evening wear and casuals, and recreates the work of big-studio costume departments on what’s surely a tiny fraction of their budget.

Together with sound designer Merek Royce Press, the veteran NJ Rep family of designers and tech artists has puller out all the stops; enbracing this project with evident passion and transforming the modestly scaled stage into a brilliant escape from a grim and gritty Jersey Shore winter.

Puma review

Nita Congress · February 25, 2011

Pictured: John FitzGibbon and Yifa Edelstein in a scene from Puma (photo © SuzAnne Barabas)

“Rubies always put me in such a good frame of mind,” purrs Ylfa Edelstein as Marlene Dietrich, languidly admiring the latest loot from suave lover Erich Maria Remarque, smoothly played by John FitzGibbon.

That tells you everything you need to know about Puma, the 85th offering of the New JerseyRepertory Company: it’s hot, it’s dishy, it’s voluptuous.

Puma, in fact, sizzles. This true-life story of tempestuous, misbegotten lovers Dietrich and novelist Remarque (All Quiet on the Western Front) drips with passion and is staged with cool elegance. With four actors and one set, we span two continents, three decades, and innumerable licit and illicit love affairs.

The story is told from Remarque’s point of view. He narrates and comments on the action, then, through seamless theatrical magic, steps back in time to take part in the proceedings. In this way, he shows us scenes of his long relationship with Marlene -- whom he calls “puma,” for her careless, wild catlike manner—beginning in 1938 and ending with his death in 1970. Along the way, we meet in the flesh his current, then ex-, then next wives; and another of her lovers (Jimmy Stewart) and his wife. Implied is a whole passing scene of Hollywood in its Golden Age—Garbo and Davis, Jack Warner and Olivia de Havilland, Ingrid Bergman and Tyrone Power are among the many legends who parade by, primarily as the gleeful objects of Marlene’s pillow talk “shmutz” to Erich.

Against this glamorous backdrop, these two landsmann (Marlene’s characterization) in permanent exile from their native Germany, come together to shtup (again, Marlene’s characterization), shop, cook, eat, gossip, and—increasingly over the years—antagonize and upbraid. From the start, their relationship is unconventional and chaotic: both are married to other people, a circumstance they casually accept and do little over the years to change. They catalogue this unseen but acknowledged entourage shruggingly in their conversations: “the husband” (hers), “the child” (hers), “the mistress” (her husband’s).

The play fluidly, brilliantly, illuminates the arc of their relationship. Drawn to each other in Europe by pure sexual attraction, they come together in America as strangers in a strange land, sharing strudel and a cosmopolitan sensibility. As they acclimate and settle down and in, their differences come to the fore. Ostensibly, the arguments are about love and commitment. He calls her his “favorite form of torment” and tells us how he is “loving every hateful moment of it.” While she taunts him with her many amours—“I don’t sleep with a new one each night: I double up!”—it is she who gets to the crux of their problem, astutely telling the hard-drinking playboy (who earlier had ruefully noted that “Puma was still making movies, and I was still making love to movie stars”) that “where we disagree is work.” Ultimately, there is no sympathy in the Prussian Dietrich outlook for Remarque’s Young Werther, and they move on. But oh, when they burned!

Many talents have come together to make this smart, sexy, and sophisticated play work as beautifully as it does. First credit must go to the playwrights: Julie Gilbert (whose great aunt was Edna Ferber) and Frank Evans have written an intelligent, incisive, and insightful play, firmly based on Remarque’s diaries. Director SuzAnne Barabas, New Jersey Rep’s artistic director, has created a magical place for the drama where just a few steps downstage takes us to the mountains of 1930s Switzerland, a half-turn upstage takes us to a Hollywood bungalow of the forties, a sigh and a step stage left take us to Cartier’s. Barabas does wondrous things with time and space, but never does the time lag or the space lose us. The designers serve her exceedingly well, reinforcing my impression of New Jersey Rep’s consistently high-quality design work: The team of Jessica Parks (scenic design), Jill Nagle (lighting), and Patricia E. Doherty (costume) create a glorious art deco–flavored time of black, white, and chrome, sleekly complementing the action. And Merek Royce Press’s evocative Marlene Dietrich soundtrack played before curtain and during intermission had many of the audience singing “Falling in Love Again” as they left the theatre.

But it is the actors who bring this all to life, through seemingly effortless effort. A more debonair and charming European lover, shot through with perhaps a touch of self-loathing and despair, would be hard to find than John FitzGibbon in the central part. Ylfa Edelstein creates an utterly seductive, desirable, and unobtainable Marlene Dietrich. Their chemistry is palpable. They are ably supported by the quite remarkable Christopher Vettel, who has Jimmy Stewart’s boyish yet shrewd demeanor (and voice) nailed, and Natalie Wilder, who tackles several female roles including Paulette Goddard and Gloria Stewart. 

Puma: A Sophisticated, Adult Entertainment

Tangled Skirt
Chris Vettel, Ylfa Edelstein and John FitzGibbon

Puma is the title of the new play by Julie Gilbert and Frank Evans which depicts the three decade long passionate and tempestuous love affair between "All Quiet on the Western Front" author Erich Maria Remarque and international film star and chanteuse Marlene Dietrich. According to the play, Puma, the Latin name for the feline cougar or American mountain lion, was Remarque's affectionate nickname for Dietrich.

Puma is based upon the diaries of Remarque, and is told through his eyes. We are warned right up front that Remarque will fashion the story as he chooses to remember it. This disclaimer allows the authors the creative license to bend events and character to heighten the dramatic and emotional impact of their story. They accomplish this with remarkable effectiveness without undermining our belief.

The play begins in 1964 at the Ritz Towers Hotel in New York where Remarque is reluctantly partaking in a party celebrating his 65th birthday. He directly addresses the audience, taking us back to his remembered first meeting with Dietrich in the early 1930s at a cafe on the Lido in Venice. Both are married to others, but, within a short time, the pair are soon cohabitating in Paris and Switzerland, exiles from Germany and avowed enemies of its fascist Fuhrer. As the 1930s came to an end, Remarque and Dietrich had emigrated to the United States and settled in Hollywood where Dietrich had already become a reigning screen star and Remarque contributed to screenplays and continued to write novels.

Although they did not marry, in effect, throughout all their years together, the form of their relationship was that of an "open marriage" with both having many affairs and, in the case of Dietrich, extended to members of both sexes. Most predominantly featured in Puma are Dietrich's dalliances with her Destry Rides Againco-star James Stewart and Remarque's relationship with a coquettish Paulette Goddard, who is likely best remembered today for her role in Chaplin's The Great Dictator.

I am certain that many people, and not exclusively those under middle age, are not aware of these and later events in the lives of these former icons of our popular culture, so I'll refrain from any spoilers as to the ensuing years of their relationships. Suffice it to say that Julie Gilbert and Frank Evans recount the tale with sophistication, humor, pain and dimensionality. Dietrich and Goddard each get the short end of the stick. Dietrich and Remarque's strong attraction is mutual, but it is Dietrich who has the voracious sexual attitude that determines their relationship and combines with a streak of cruelty to undermine it. Goddard is depicted as a calculating, money hungry predator vixen. On the other hand, Remarque is a sophisticated, albeit hard drinking, gentleman who loves and is supportive of all the women in his wife. Even Jimmy Stewart is pretty much shown with his nice fella, unsophisticated screen persona as he apologizes to Remarque for getting into the sack with Dietrich. Remember, this is putatively the world according to Remarque.

Director SuzAnne Barabas has assembled an unusually strong cast whom she has directed in high theatrical style. John FitzGibbon brings continental charm and the sweetest German accent to the role of Remarque. He subtly shows us the pain in his voice and eyes which his passion brings him without ever abandoning the smooth facade with which Remarque presents himself. Ylfa Edelstein fully conveys the reserved, mysterious-appearing seductive beauty of the silver screen Dietrich. This is, believably, a Dietrich whose screen persona accompanied her through her private relationships.

Christopher Vettel is quite a pleasure as he successfully walks a very thin tightrope in recreating the distinctive voice and "ah, sucks" speech pattern and gestures of the real Jimmy Stewart while providing a dramatic persona which goes beyond being a mere impression. He also briefly plays an immigration officer. Natalie Wilder plays three featured roles, carving out distinct portrayals for Paulette Goddard, Jutta (Remarque's first wife) and Gloria (Stewart's wife).

A glamorous bedroom and sitting room set (Jessica Parks) with built-in art deco style lighting effects (Jill Nagle) serves for Puma's various locales. It simultaneously provides a sense of Hollywood and high style European glamour which enhances the production.

Remarque and Dietrich provide one another "schmootz"—scandalous stories about celebrities of the day—but Pima is not "schmootz". It is a stylish and sensitive account of the painful complexities of freewheeling, glamorous lives.


at New Jersey Repertory Company

Reviewed by Erik Haagensen, BackStage

FEBRUARY 28, 2011

  Photo by SuzAnne Barabas

"Puma" was German writer Erich Maria Remarque's nickname for his on-again, off-again lover of more than 30 years, Marlene Dietrich. Remarque's diaries have only recently been translated, after being kept in a bank vault since his death in 1970. Playwrights Julie Gilbert, author of several acclaimed biographies and a niece of "Show Boat" scribe Edna Ferber, and Frank Evans have used them as the basis for this new play, currently at New Jersey Repertory Company, in Long Branch. The promising script is in need of focusing and cutting, but thanks to SuzAnne Barabas' confident and seamless direction, a talented cast of four, and the imaginative work of design team Jessica Parks (set), Jill Nagle (lights), Patricia E. Doherty (costumes), and Merek Royce Press (sound), "Puma" is already a diverting experience.

When Remarque and Dietrich met—in Venice in 1937, according to the play—he was already the internationally lionized author of "All Quiet on the Western Front," an antiwar novel dramatizing Remarque's experiences fighting for the Kaiser in World War I. She, of course, was well on her way to becoming a film goddess. He was a restless exile, his views unwelcome in Nazi Germany, and she would soon join him in that status. Both were married, but that was no hindrance to their pursuit of sexual pleasure, especially for Dietrich, virtually voracious in taking endless lovers of both sexes, frequently simultaneously. 

The two live together in Paris until Dietrich can help Remarque get into the U.S., then must separate for appearances' sake in socially conservative America. He writes screenplays and becomes known in Hollywood. But after he suggests her for the lead in "Destry Rides Again," she responds by starting a serious affair with co-star Jimmy Stewart. Remarque and Dietrich periodically talk of marriage, but in the end neither really seems to want it. Ultimately, he divorces his first wife, weds fading film star Paulette Goddard, and returns to Europe, though he maintains a correspondence with the woman he considers to be the great love of his life.

Gilbert and Evans tell their story in flashback, setting the opening scene at Remarque's 65th birthday party. This allows the excellent John FitzGibbon to play the role, which he does with style and subtlety, navigating faultlessly between delivering narration and playing scenes. Effortlessly convincing in Remarque's European sophistication and piercing intelligence, FitzGibbon also excels at charting the character's journey from vibrant youth to health-challenged old age. He is matched by Ylfa Edelstein, as Dietrich. She has the unenviable task of playing a legend as a human being and succeeds admirably. Though she sounds uncannily like the star and physically evokes her to great effect, Edelstein's specific choices prevent any lapse into caricature.

Christopher Vettel is an intriguing Stewart, whose behavior here is considerably at odds with his public persona. Vettel employs the star's famous vocal cadences while highlighting an intriguing selfishness and darkness that suggest some of the actor's rather neurotic late-career work in films such as Hitchcock's "Vertigo." As Remarque's two wives and Stewart's eventual spouse, Natalie Wilder differentiates her characters cleanly.

The show's central problem is that the playwrights haven't decided why they are telling this story. Though these are fascinating people living in turbulent times, that's not enough. To properly soar, "Puma" needs to be more than just another showbiz tale. Still, kudos to the intrepid New Jersey Rep for giving Gilbert and Evans the opportunity to see what they've got. This scrappy company has produced 85 shows in 14 seasons, most of them original scripts. Judging from the packed and devoted audience at the show I attended, it is clearly doing something right.

'Puma' preview: Relationships of the rich and famous examined

Published: Friday, February 25, 2011, 7:56 AM
By Peter Filichia/For The Star-Ledger


SuzAnne Barabas     

John FitzGibbon as Erich Maria Remarque and Ylfa Edelstein as his longtime lover, Marlene Dietrich, in "Puma," at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

Here’s a question for women.

How would you feel if the man in your life had the same cute little nickname for you that he had for his car?

According to playwright Julie Gilbert, Marlene Dietrich, the former star of stage and screen, knew the feeling. “Erich Maria Remarque,” she says, citing Dietrich’s longtime lover, “called his Lancia ‘Puma’ — and called Marlene that, too.”

To add a second insult and injury to the first insult and injury, Remarque called the car “Puma One” and Dietrich “Puma Two.”

One would think that Remarque’s nicknames would mean that, to paraphrase the name of his most famous work, all would be not quiet on the western front. “Yes,” Gilbert simply says, making that one word sound definitive and speak volumes.

But conflict is what makes the stuff of good drama, which is why Gilbert and her writing partner Frank Evans have written a play about the notorious couple — called, fittingly enough, “Puma.” It’s the current attraction at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

The seed for the idea was planted in Gilbert’s head a few decades ago. In 1978, she had finished writing a biography of her great-aunt, Edna Ferber, the novelist (“Show Boat”) and playwright (“The Royal Family”). Harriet Pilpel, who had been Ferber’s lawyer, suggested that Gilbert next tackle another of her former clients: Erich Maria Remarque, best-known as the author of “All Quiet on the Western Front.”

“I didn’t do anything until 1990, when I stumbled on the obituary of Paulette Goddard,” Gilbert says, citing the Hollywood actress who had a flourishing career from the ’30s through the ’50s, and who once had been married to Remarque.

The obituary spurred Gilbert to further research Goddard. “I was the first person allowed to see her diaries,” she says. They contained so much fascinating information that Gilbert soon was working on a biography of the two. “Opposite Attraction” was published in 1995.

“What I found in the diaries,” she says, “is that while Goddard was married to Remarque, he had never got over his feelings for Marlene Dietrich.”

Further research showed that Dietrich and Remarque had a turbulent 45-year relationship. They had met while she was filming arguably her most famous film, “The Blue Angel,” in 1930.

“Starting in 1935, they lived together in Paris when they were already both rich and famous — and when she was already married,” Gilbert adds drolly. “Her husband Rudolf Sieber knew all about it, too. Marlene was a person who did everything she wanted.”

Gilbert then discovered that in the late ’30s, Remarque talked to his friend, movie producer Joe Pasternak, who was planning a film version of Max Brand’s novel “Destry Rides Again.” Remarque suggested Dietrich for the role, and Pasternak took the advice.

“The irony,” says Gilbert, “is that Paulette Goddard was originally sought — although Remarque didn’t know her yet, and certainly had no idea that she’d be his future wife.”

“Destry” is where the plot substantially thickens. “Dietrich met James Stewart, and they fell in love, too — and Stewart was seeing Olivia de Havilland at the time,” says Gilbert.

Now Dietrich, Remarque, Goddard and Stewart are all represented in “Puma.” The play starts at Remarque’s 65th birthday party in New York. There are flashbacks that take the audience to Paris, Germany, Beverly Hills and Hollywood. Befitting a story about people who worked in film, the approach is cinematic.

Says Gilbert: “And don’t think that everyone’s as civilized as Dietrich’s husband was about Remarque. Dietrich and Goddard hated each other.

“And I mean hated,” she says, hissing the verb with a sound worthy of a puma.

"Puma" brings Marlene Dietrich back in the flesh

From left: "Puma" features Christopher Vettel as Jimmy Stewart, Ylfa Edelstein as Marlene Dietrich and John FitzGibbon as Erich Maria Remarque. / STAFF PHOTO: BOB BIELK

Her films of the 1920s and 1930s stamped her indelible image and distinctive voice upon the cultural consciousness of two continents. Her concert audiences ranged from crowned heads and heads of state, to battle-weary GIs at the front lines of the Second World War.

She was hissed in her native Germany as a traitor. She was awarded the highest honors in her adopted American homeland. Her talents included the musical saw — and she numbered among her collaborators, co-stars and alleged conquests everyone from John Wayne, Joe DiMaggio and JFK to Burt Bacharach, Yul Brynner and David Bowie.

She was Marlene Dietrich (1901-1992) — and while we'll most certainly never see her like again, we're forever fortunate to have dozens of classic recordings from her signature "Falling in Love Again" to three different language versions of "Where Have All the Flowers Gone." There are, as well, such silver screen treasures as "The Blue Angel," "The Scarlet Empress," "Touch of Evil" and "Marlene," the amazing 1984 documentary produced with her full, if unseen, participation.

As proof of the iconic entertainer's power to reach across the decades, one need look no further than SuzAnne Barabas, artistic director and co-founder of New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. Young SuzAnne was present, seated next to her grandmother, at one of Dietrich's Tony-winning Broadway concerts in the 1960s — and nearly 20 years after the star's passing, Barabas pays tribute to Marlene, as director of the world premiere play "Puma."

Scripted by the play writing partners Julie Gilbert and Frank Evans (whose previous collaborations include a musical version of the 1930s hit "Dinner At Eight"), "Puma" presents a portrait of the private Dietrich, spanning the years in which the star transitioned from Hollywood goddess to tireless supporter of the Allied war effort, to New York based and internationally revered star of cabaret, casinos and concert halls.

"It was a very intriguing, bygone era," says Barabas about the carefully cultivated mystique maintained by the public-yet-private legend. "Nowadays of course, no celebrity can do anything without it going all around the world in seconds."

As aloof and secretive as Dietrich could often be, her star was not the sort to be dimmed by the rumors of lesbian liaisons, or of sexual partners that reportedly numbered more than 5,000 during her long life. To make things even more interesting, those one-night stands are placed into perspective by her 50-year marriage to assistant director Rudi Sieber, and her long-running relationships with the great filmmaker Josef von Sternberg and French actor Jean Gabin.

Still, when it came time to write about Dietrich, the playwrights referenced not their own imagination and conjecture, but a reliable first-person source — the diaries of best-selling novelist Erich Maria Remarque, Marlene's lover.

Remembered for his classic anti-war novel "All Quiet on the Western Front," Remarque came to the United States as a fellow German in exile. He was a dashing and celebrated man of letters whose 30-year affair with Dietrich would run from their first meeting in 1938, through his marriages to German actress Jutta Zambona and American screen queen Paulette Goddard.

Julie Gilbert, who previously drew from portions of the author's diaries for a book on Remarque and Goddard, came into possession of the unpublished journals as a member of a literary family (her great aunt was novelist and playwright Edna Ferber of "Showboat," "Giant" and Algonquin Round Table fame).

For this premiere production of "Puma" — the title refers to Erich's nickname for Marlene — Barabas cast New Jersey Rep newcomer Ylfa Edelstein as the dazzling Dietrich. She's joined by Rep regulars John FitzGibbon in the role of Remarque and Natalie Wilder doing triple duty as Zambona, Goddard and the wife of Jimmy Stewart.

Yes, that Jimmy Stewart — the all-American, good-guy Hollywood legend who co-starred with Dietrich in "Destry Rides Again." He figures prominently in "Puma" as well. He's portrayed by Chris Vettel in a way that the director characterizes as "doing justice to the man, without necessarily doing Jimmy Stewart the way that an impressionist would."

"I've learned a lot about these people, directing this play — a lot about Remarque, about Dietrich and Jimmy Stewart," Barabas adds. "They got along — let's put it that way!"