Press Articles 2015
(Photo: Courtesy of Studio B/New Jersey Repertory Company)
LONG BRANCH – The New Jersey Repertory Company is another step closer to moving into the former West End School and renovating the property to turn it into a performing arts center.
"It's going to take the old school and bring it up to a level that is probably going to be unmatched along the coast," said Ed Thomas, chairman of the Planning Board.
The planning board approved the Repertory's plan on Tuesday. It calls for five theaters — two cinemas for screenings, a 150-seat proscenium theater, a rehearsal theater and a black box theater.
The center will have artisan housing for visiting playwrights, directors and performers, a visual art and exhibition museum, studio and educational space for musical and theater lessons.
The Repertory plans to reuse the existing buildings, giving them a face lift consisting of a red brick exterior.
"It's coming to the West End when the West End really needed it, suffering from our fire," said Thomas, in reference to the February 2012 blaze that claimed 10 businesses and 13 apartments on Brighton Avenue; the three lots where the buildings stood are still bare.
Robert Blakeman of Studio B in East Brunswick, the architect on the project, said features like a green roof, wood canopies, and a great lawn, among other designs, will give it visual appeal.
"We're going to have colored murals that light up the space at night. It's a very pronounced, strong image worked into the West End," said Blakeman.
Performing arts were a newly permitted use in the West End when the city adopted the West End Overlay Design this year. The West End is a mix of small businesses — pizza and ice cream shops, jewelery stores and bars — one block from the beach.
A lawsuit against the city threatens to overturn the West End Overlay Design. Among the claims in the suit brought by Scott M. Kelly — a West End attorney — is the city used spot zoning when it created the design. The city contends Kelly's claims are without merit.
"It potentially could affect (the Repertory Company). Right now we have an ordinance passed and that is what we are going by," said Martin Arbus, planning board attorney.
Marilyn Pearlman, chairperson for the Repertory, said the theater company is ready to close on a nearly $2 million deal to purchase the school from the Long Branch school district.
"We will be closing in March and in April we can start occupying the property," said Pearlman. "Hopefully the lawsuit just goes away."
At the same time, Pearlman said the Repertory will not abandon its lower Broadway location on the other side of the city. It is situated in a blighted neighborhood where redevelopment has been stalled.
"I will not desert lower Broadway. I'm committed to Broadway," said Pearlman.
The LINK News
Board enthusiastically says yes to West End Arts CenterBy Neil Schulman
Long Branch — This is one of the nicest, most beautiful and publicly benevolent uses I have seen" said Planning Board Chair Ed Thomas as he and the board unanimously approved a plan to turn the former West End School into the West End Performing Arts Center, with theaters, cinema, a museum, and other attractions.
The proposal, by NJ Repertory Company, will keep much of the basic structure of the school, but add some features and modernize the existing structure, making it more energy and ecologically friendly. It will also move the main entrances away from the north side of the building, which is opposite houses, to avoid disturbing residents.
Gabor Barabas, Executive Producer for NJ Rep, said that he envisions the project as a way to cooperate with area businesses, and bring more arts and culture to West End. NJ Rep has already been operating successfully on Broadway for 20 years.
Barabas said that the idea for NJ Rep came when his job, which required late hours, found him frequently driving down an empty downtown late at night.
"I began to fantasize about what it would take to light up the neighborhood," Barabas said.
Since then, NJ Rep has put on more than 100 plays, most world premieres. It has received numerous awards, including the American Theater Wing, distributed by the organization in charge of the Tony Awards.
They've been looking to expand, and Barabas said that West End was "the perfect place to develop a cultural renaissance."
"West End is a remarkable neighborhood, and we're very excited," Barabas said.
The plans for the arts center, which would have programs for all ages, include:
• Turning the current school auditorium into a 150-seat proscenium theater.
Barabas said that some of the other rooms in the building would be used as apartments for out-of-town actors and directors to stay for a few weeks during production; as classrooms for poetry, playwright classes, and other arts-oriented programs; and as media space. The project would generate 124 parking spaces, including some new ones on the street. Because it's no longer a school, some of the parking restrictions in the area would be relaxed too.
Part of the plan is designed to encourage pedestrians, opening up walking paths south to the main stretch of businesses on Brighton Avenue. Organizers said they are aiming to encourage foot traffic, and the new configuration will open up the center to the stores nearby.
While the Arts Center will have a pantry, it doesn't plan to do its own catering. Instead, it will foster a relationship with the restaurants in West End, working with them if it hosts and dinners — and encouraging theater-goers to dine and shop nearby.
As construction is taking place, NJ Rep plans to use the current building and trailers on the property as office and rehearsal space.
Architect Robert Blakeman said that much of the work would be to modernize the buildings, making them environmentally friendly while giving them a visually stunning look.
"We want people driving past to say, 'What is this? What's happening there?'" he said.
The existing school was "built before energy was an issue," Blakeman said, and a layer of insulating bricks will be placed around it. The box air conditioners in the rooms will also be replaced with a more efficient system.
The board heard the entire hearing in a single evening, with traffic and landscape experts saying that the site would not cause any traffic issues, and steps were being taken to keep lighting from spilling into the residential areas.
While the Planning Board is used to hearing from residents during a project, Board member Michael Destefano noted that this was the first meeting he could recall where all the comments were positive.
One of those positive comments was from Peter English, Monmouth Beach. "This opportunity, to me, is not a golden opportunity — it is a platinum opportunity which you should not let slip from your hands."
(Photo: COURTESY OF SUZANNE BARABAS)
It doesn't look like a House of Horrors; this sensibly appointed, middle-class Irish home that could exist any time within the past century. But here in the season of the witch, New Jersey Repertory Company has conjured a setting scarier than any monster's castle — plus a scenario that bests them all for raw, gaping wounds and bizarre behavior — with the world premiere of "The Seedbed."
Based (thanks to an online-shopping reference) in contemporary times, but otherwise caring little about the world outside, the drama by transplanted Dubliner Bryan Delaney uses a playwriting staple — a "meet-the-parents" summit between father, mother, daughter and fiancee — for an experience that's a far cry from "You Can't Take It With You." A couple of caged birds capture the interest of Gina A couple of caged birds capture the interest of Gina Costigan and Kevin Hogan in "The Seedbed."
Here among the planting soil and caged birds of retirees Thomas (Kevin Hogan) and Hannah (Gina Costigan), there's no chance of anything staying buried — the skeletons that rattle the proceedings are not dry old bones, but something much more meaty, fresh and visceral. They're what's coming to dinner — and even those theatergoers who divine that Big Secret within the play's first few minutes are in for something that's laced with strange business, layered with symbolism, and loopy on its own (sometimes barely comprehensible) language.
This way lies madness, deliciously served up in flying-foodstuffs fashion by director SuzAnne Barabas and a cast of newcomers to the NJ Rep stage.
A couple of caged birds capture the interest of Gina Costigan and Kevin Hogan in "The Seedbed." (Photo: COURTESY OF SUZANNE BARABAS)
Returning home for an anniversary celebration and awkward reunion with her mother and stepfather, 18- year-old Maggie (Cathryn Wake) arrives with her new love, Mick (Michael Louis Serafin-Wells) — a Londoner (and Amsterdam-based florist) more than twice her age, who's anxious to "build a brick wall" between themselves and the world.
The injection of the loudly opinionated Cockney into an already tense dynamic serves to push Thomas over the brink, and by the everything spills out, it's apparent that no one — not troubled Dad, cordial Mom, deeply damaged daughter nor vaguely sinister suitor — is unburdened by what Mick darkly hints at as "Our Things."
Whether these Things all get a fair airing is another thing entirely, as most of the play's runtime revolves around the not-so-secret central horror; the ways in which it forces itself to the surface, and the way that Truth itself becomes a thing not to be trusted.
As a father figure whose loss of identity sends him retreating to dark corners of both soul and backyard shed, Hogan offers a scary performance (as does Wake, in her quieter and maybe even more unsettling way). Far from playing straight-man, Serafin-Wells finds his own brand of berserk — lashing out at inopportune moments; spinning strange stories, singing stranger songs, and delivering it all with intonations that suggest punk-rock legend Johnny Rotten.
Costigan sculpts what should be the play's besieged rock of sanity and reason into what could be the scariest thing of all.
Offbeat as it all is, there's a universality to the horror and madness in this play that, in the end, isn't all that "Irish." The specter of the Church is absent; the demons are as likely to spring from a glass of milk as a bottle of whiskey, and there's little Celtic color beyond Maggie's Riverdance-ish dress in the first scene.
Strip away the accents; save the symbolism for the term paper, and it's a drama that can be just as devastatingly effective in a suburban Jersey setting.
Fraught with uncomfortable situations and complex emotions; challenging the audience to react to its convoluted logic and confrontational style, "The Seedbed" can best be summed up by paraphrasing Mick — it's a play that possesses a moral compass, but one hell of a twisted needle.
Family secrets exposed in 'The Seedbed'
Most families have things that pass between them that remain uniquely their own. Jokes, traditions, and stories about family members help them create a lure that becomes a part of their own history. Should they share these things with non-family members? What should stay private and what can or should be shared? A new play, "The Seedbed" by Bryan Delaney now playing at Long Branch's New Jersey Repertory Company theater seeks to answer those questions.
Playwright Bryan Delaney hails from Dublin, Ireland with an impressive background including running the New Playwrights Programme at The Abbey Theatre which is Ireland's national theatre. "The Seedbed" is directed by SuzAnne Barabas. It is set in present day Ireland at the home of a family made up of wife and mom Hannah, husband and stepfather Thomas and until recently daughter Maggie. This was a later in life marriage for Thomas and Hannah. Mom Hannah had daughter Maggie from a previous marriage. Thomas had been an active father figure to Maggie who his thinks of as his own daughter.
We are introduced to Thomas and Hannah when she gives a gift of small birds to him to celebrate their upcoming wedding anniversary. Thomas doesn't have much time to enjoy his new pets as daughter Maggie comes to visit with her fiancée Mick. Mick is much older than 18 year old Maggie and it is a concern from the start for Thomas, but not for mom Hannah. Thomas also has concerns about a dress Maggie has on when she comes into the house. "Don't let your mother see you wearing that dress" he asks of her. And so the mystery of why and what is going on begins.
There are many light moments in the show, but others that cause the audience to pause and consider what is happening. There is no dead air time at all; the play moves along a good pace with a run time of approximately 2 hours, 15 minutes with a 15 minute intermission. The cast includes Gina Costigan as Hannah, Kevin Hogan as Thomas, Michael Louis Serafin-Wells as Mick and Cathryn Wake as Maggie.
At a recent visit to see this show, the audience was treated to an after talk with playwright Delaney, the cast, and Director SuzAnne Barabas. Comments from the audience made it clear that they had enjoyed watching the layers of the plot open and display more clues that might have led to the eventual conclusion of what the problem was. It is not fair to give the ending away here, but suffice it to say that it's slightly open ended and it could be left to the interpretation of the viewer. Here's to hoping that Delaney decides to continue the saga of this family and comes back to NJ Repertory with another play to tell us what happened as life went on for this group. These characters are that interesting and the storytelling in the play makes for a most interesting visit to see this show.
A CurtainUp New Jersey Review - The Seedbed
Jesus Christ in a bib, Hannah, she's eighteen years old! She can't just take off to some foreign country to live with some stranger she's known for a few months. She's only just back in our lives. — Thomas
When it comes to creating a situation that feeds upon itself, explaining it in more ways than is absolutely necessary and with more words than you ever thought existed in a language to make your point, you can't beat the instinctively verbose characters we so often meet in Irish dramatic literature. Specifically, there are the four who do the digging in their own perverse and problematic way in The SeedbedÂ by award-winning playwright Bryan Delaney, former head of the New Playwrights Programme at the Abbey Theatre, Ireland's national theatre. Delaney has come up with a heady brew of familial discord. It's all about what happens when family members can't let sleeping dogs lie and believe the past will always be there to both haunt them.
Eighteen year-old Maggie (Gina Costigan) has returned to her family's home in Ireland after an extended sojourn in Holland. She is accompanied by Mick (Michael Louis Serafin-Wells) who appears to be at least twice her age and who she introduces as her fiance to her parents Thomas (Kevin Hogan) and Hannah (Cathryn Wake). A successful florist by profession, Mick tries hard to be ingratiating and is greeted with reserved cordiality by Maggie. Mick is, however, stunned by Thomas's lack of hospitality or rather unrestrained hostility.
Both Hannah and Thomas are taken aback by Maggie's intention to marry the older man which is made clear and given additional weight and compounding gravitas as the reason for Maggie leaving her home and the reason for her returning begin to surface. Hannah tries to put on a modicum show of support even as we begin to suspect it as a cover-up with the fear that her own marriage may be in peril. Thomas has no intention of allowing things to progress but it is only through a series of scarily manifested rages that he is able to express his feelings, as well as keep his mounting fears of the proposed union from revealing a family secret.
Superbly acted, under the fine direction by Suzanne Barabas (assisted by Adam Fitzgerald), the play is a hotbed of uncomfortable truths, uncovered secrets and unforeseeable consequences, all waiting to surface. Although the astute theater-goer will likely see where things are headed, the increasingly testy confrontations make for engrossing theater.
Delaney's characters are complicated and very compelling in their emotional diversity. The very pretty Costigan is excellent as the over anxious daughter whose reasons for marrying Mick could be as sincere as they are also twisted up in a Freudian knot. Hogan has a field day with the irrational Thomas's contentious behavior. One can see the complaisant but apprehensive Hannah's hidden agenda in Wake's subtle performance. Serafin-Wells comes close to a bravura moment with a motor-mouthed attack on Thomas, an example of Delaney gift for florid speech.
The interior of the family home in Ireland is smartly evoked by designer Jessica Parks. With its mix of predictable and volatile psycho-sexual implications, The Seedbed is a humdinger of a play and a welcome addition to contemporary Irish dramatic literature.
BWW Reviews: THE SEEDBED at NJ Rep is Fascinating Family Drama
"It all boils down to what's honest at the end of the day."
THE SEEDBED is making its World Premiere at New Jersey Repertory Company (NJ Rep) now through November 15th. This emotive family drama is written by Bryan Delaney and directed by the company's Artistic Director, SuzAnne Barabas. You will want to see this one. It is a thought provoking play with compelling twists and turns.
THE SEEDBED is set in the present at a family home in Ireland. Thomas and his wife Hannah welcome their troubled daughter Maggie home after a long absence. It's Thomas and Hannah's wedding anniversary and it should be a time of celebration, yet underlying tensions soon surface. To complicate matters, 18 year-old Maggie brings home her much older fiancé, Mick. Information about Maggie's past, Tom and Hannah's marriage, Mick's hopes for the future and so much more is revealed as the foursome comes to grips with their respective relationships.
Delaney's play is meticulously crafted, enhanced by Barabas' excellent direction and the show's stellar cast. A sense of mystery pervades the scenes. As the conflicts unfold onstage, it is unclear whether they are borne of real events or very unfortunate misunderstandings. The stakes are high with relationships that are on the edge of collapse. You get the feeling that anything can happen. Yet there are just enough humorous moments to balance this intense family drama.
The cast of four completely captures the essence of their roles. Kevin Hogan plays Thomas, an aloof man with a penchant for birds. His outbursts are wholly unexpected but lend real context to the family intrigue. Gina Costigan portrays Hannah, a modest, often thoughtful woman who appears to be both a loving wife and dedicated mother. Cathryn Wake plays the role of Maggie, a spirited young woman trying to understand the value of love in her life. Michael Louis Serafin-Wells plays Mick, a rather bombastic character that is often confounded by the family's dynamic.
The production team brings THE SEEDBED to life with set and prop design by Jessica Parks, technical direction by Brian Snyder, lighting design by Jill Nagle, sound design by Merek Royce Press and costume design by Patricia Doherty. Jennifer Tardibuono is the Stage Manager.
Absorbing drama 'The Seedbed' premieres at NJ RepBy JAY LUSTIG
Eighteen-year-old Maggie (Cathryn Wake) keeps saying everything is "grand" in "The Seedbed," a powerful new drama that is receiving its world premiere at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch through Nov. 15. But you know that it isn't. Her mere presence in the Irish house — where she has come to visit, mere months after leaving to live in Amsterdam — sets her mother and stepfather, Hannah (Gina Costigan) and Thomas (Kevin Hogan), on edge.
But what are those nervous glances everyone exchanges with each other really about? Playwright Bryan Delaney reveals what's really going on, little by little, as the play progresses, until the entire painful truth is out in the open, like the dirt on Thomas' shirt (he had been working outdoors before Maggie arrives, and keeps forgetting to change his clothes in the play's opening scenes).
Most of the action takes place in Thomas and Hannah's homey living room. This middle-aged, comfortably middle-class couple is meeting Maggie's fiancé, Mick (Michael Louis Serafin-Wells), for the first time. Mick seems like a reasonably nice guy. Maybe he's a little rough around the edges, but he's a successful businessman — an Englishman who owns a flower shop in Amsterdam — and he and Maggie seem very happy. No, they're more than happy: They're radiant soulmates eager to start their life together. Thomas seems to be the only one bothered by their age difference: Mick is a few decades older than Maggie.
Thomas, in fact, can barely contain his contempt for Mick. But that's just one of the things creating the constantly escalating tension in this exceedingly uncomfortable family gathering, at which everyone has a dark side that eventually surfaces, in one form or another.
Delaney and director SuzAnne Barabas do a good job of letting the tension build and build, offering small pieces of the underlying puzzle along the way — and giving their characters some startling outbursts — but not really explaining everything until the last scene, which contained a revelation I didn't see coming, but that finally made everything that came before make sense. I was totally absorbed — looking for subtle hints, trying to figure these complex characters out – and at the performance I attended, last weekend, everyone else in the audience seemed to be right there with me.
Front Row Center
This is a detective story without a detective. Or said differently, this is a story in which the role of detective is passed from character to character like a baton. Winning the race is finding out the truth.
The curtain rises on the kitchen of a well-to-do household in Ireland. As in many of our homes today, much of the discussion takes place in this room. But people keep making statements by disappearing at high moments of drama, and we are made to feel that some seminal event that darkly directs the action may also have taken place out of sight. Cleverly, part of the set transforms into a woodshed in the shadows as we go deeper into the play.
In yet another world premiere at NJ Rep Company, The Seedbed opens on a married couple about to celebrate their anniversary of 17 years. The husband has an interest in birds, and the wife has brought him a present of two rare and beautiful specimens, male and female, but we sense that as important as the birds are to the story so is the fact that they are housed in a cage.
The couple is anticipating a visit from their daughter and her significant other. The girl is the woman's daughter; this is a second marriage; the husband is a step-father. The wife expresses consternation over this pending visit and we immediately wonder why.
The next clue that captures our attention occurs minutes after the girl arrives. She enters the house alone; she has asked her companion to wait outside. In the kitchen with her step-father only, she removes her coat to reveal a dark green dress which he worriedly and quickly asks her to cover back up. At that moment, the wife enters the room, and has absolutely no reaction to what the girl is wearing. It's then that we realize that we are being enlisted as detectives, and soon enough that our clues will be strewn through the rich verbal exchanges, gestures and attitudes of the characters as they unfold before us.
The boyfriend, who owns a florist shop, is significantly older than the girl and this seems to be a clue. They are moving to faraway Holland to live and this seems to be a clue. They are in an incredible hurry to get married and this seems to be a clue. Suddenly everything seems to be a clue — what they say, what they don't say — and we are left to put it all together.
Excellent direction, once again, from SuzAnne Barabas. Powerful performances from Kevin Hogan as Thomas, the step-father; Gina Costigan as Hannah, the mother; Michael Lewis Serafin-Wells as Mick, the fiance; and last but in no way least, Cathryn Wake as Maggie, the daughter.
What happens in "The Seedbed" stays in "The Seedbed"
Scene on Stage, by Philip Dorian
Don't you love a play that sprinkles mysterious hints throughout about plot and characters before resolving its loose ends in the final scene? With an ending you wouldn't reveal to someone who hasn't seen it? You do? Then I guess you don't have to write about it.
Brian Delaney's "The Seedbed," world-premiering at New Jersey Repertory Company, is such a play. Against the background of a dysfunctional family encounter, hardly an original concept, Delaney offers up an array of implications, accusations and recriminations, many of them tantalizing, none to be disclosed here.
After a self-imposed exile in Holland, 18-year-old Maggie (Cathryn Wake) returns home with newly acquired fiancé Mick (Michael Louis Serafin-Wells) in tow. Certain of Mick's characteristics are off-putting to Maggie's parents (Gina Costigan and Kevin Hogan), and the play proceeds to examine the situation and the past from their several viewpoints. Okay, that's not so original either, but the setting, A House in Ireland, lends a degree of freshness. It also helps explain the super-intense reactions to a situation that some, this writer included, might consider more simply dealt with. (Playwright Delaney's Irish heritage is much in evidence.)
Among the contentious issues regarding Maggie's relationship with her parents are the reasons for her defection and the circumstances under which she and Mick hooked up. Ms. Wake is outstanding. Maggie has something to hide, and whatever it may be is a constant just below her surface. (Being able to read her expressive face is an advantage of an intimate auditorium.) Maggie is toting a ton of baggage, but Wake keeps her free from histrionics or artifice.
The parents are in each other's arms one minute and at each other's throats the next. Mam (the Irish Mom) is a would-be peacemaker, doomed as those efforts are; she thinks she knows what she knows, but she doesn't know what she doesn't know. She's torn between her husband and her daughter, and Costigan plays that quandary very well. The woman is sympathetic, but not for a moment pitiable.
The male characters – and actors – are less consistent. Dad goes from morosely sullen to aggressively hostile; Hogan disappears into the former and segues into the latter with abrupt bombast. Mick's charm and sense of humor (he's a non-aristocratic Brit) morph into nastiness at the slightest provocation. It may be intentional, but as played by Serafin-Wells (in rapid-speak), he's not a likable chap.
Like many new plays, "The Seedbed" would profit from some textual tightening. Granted, it's an emotionally-charged situation, but stating and re-stating points of view is not enlightening. Overall, however, director SuzAnne Barabas (assisted by Adam Fitzgerald) keeps things on pace as relationships and loyalties shift through the multi-scene two acts.
We have come to expect exemplary set design and décor from Jessica Parks, and "Seedbed"'s middle-class Irish dwelling is no exception. Here, however, there's a late-inning revelation on the premises that echoes those in the play itself. So…since we've withheld plot (and set) details, we're certainly not about to give away the ending, which, while it answers some questions, poses another that remains unanswered and open to wide interpretation. Which, ironically, might be the most satisfying aspect of this attention-holding play.
L-R: Cathryn Wake (Maggie), Michael Louis Serafin-Wells (Mick), Gina Costigan (Hannah) and Kevin Hogan (Thomas)
The dictionary defines a 'seedbed' as soil used to nourish seedlings into larger plants before transplanting them into a garden or field to grow. Bryan Delaney's world premiere at New Jersey Rep deals with a family whose only child has been away and is now returning to her home turf, so the analogy is clear. Her surprise homecoming only serves to unearth the family's tangled roots and bring home truths to the harsh light of day.
Set in an upper-class Irish dwelling, Delaney introduces us to Thomas (Kevin Hogan) and Hannah (Gina Costigan), whose 18 year-old daughter Maggie (Cathryn Wake) uses her parents wedding anniversary to introduce her husband-to-be Mick (Michael Louis Serafin-Wells), a London-born florist, who is more than a few years her senior. Thomas's reaction to Mick is less than hospitable – but it is his icy greeting of his daughter and over-wrought reaction to her low-cut dress that hints that their father / daughter relationship has not always been a rosy one. Mum Hannah is more tolerant, even encouraging of the union, for reasons that at first mystify her spouse. Even considering their May / December courtship, cockney Mick is clearly not cut from the same cloth as his future in-laws.
Delaney is a skilled writer, and the play expertly divulges the cause for their familial strife in measured doses. Although set in Ireland, the play and its characters might easily hale from wherever dysfunctional families are found. Delaney is not simply interested in truthful and compelling dialogue, however, but also in symbolism and larger themes. Thomas is a bird enthusiast, so overtones of 'nesting' and 'flight' are keenly felt. It is also no coincidence that in Great Britain women are often referred to as 'birds.' Mick is a florist, who doubtless has much knowledge of seedbeds and an appreciation of flowers, a symbol of femininity if ever there was one. Delaney's script occasionally allows these metaphors to upstage the dialogue, and it is at these times that we hear his voice more clearly than that of his characters. In Act Two, Mick provokingly engages in a litany of sexual allusions involving plant life that threatens to take things a few blooms too far. Another (probably) symbolic moment concerning some sour milk also pushes the naturalistic narrative over the top. But overall these minor miss-steps do not detract from Delaney's otherwise insightful and skilled storytelling.
As usual at New Jersey Rep, the production is first-rate; beautifully acted and designed. The play is sensitively and unobtrusively staged by SuzAnne Barabas (also the theater's Artistic Director-right) with capable assistance by Adam Fitzgerald.
Jessica Parks has designed an Irish home that is a wee bit more than a mere cottage but still has a quaint hint of the old country about it. The room is warmly bathed in Jill Nagle's spot-on lighting.
While the accents sometimes waver a bit, the cast is uniformly excellent, with Gina Costigan a clear stand-out as matriarch Hannah. Costigan (left) conveys a warmth and focus that makes her imminently watchable in every moment. Her Hannah has a self-assured tone that still allows for vulnerability - as well as the rattle of a skeleton or two in her proverbial closet. No less impressive is Cathryn Wake's Maggie (left), who brings a youthful energy and a hint of rebellious spirit to the script. The play's main asset is its ensemble acting, making unearthing this seedbed an ultimately rewarding experience.
Irish-born playwright Bryan Delaney looks to his native land for "The Seedbed," a family drama of dangerous ideas that makes its world premiere at New Jersey Repertory in Long Branch.
Ideas can be seductive, subversive, too often subjugating things in the wrong hands — but to hear Bryan Delaney tell it, even the loftiest of ideas, including the concept of Truth itself, can behave like viral infections, epidemic addictions or invasive species when they latch onto the right fertile host.
In "The Seedbed" — Delaney's play that's making an imminent debut at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch — the people of a well-to-do household in contemporary Ireland "go on a sort of psychological bender" when "one family member comes to this idea that transfers to the other family members ... it grows in each of them, and things end up with dangerous, disastrous consequences."
Speaking on a gloomy, gusty Jersey Shore day made all the more somber by the passing of celebrated Irish playwright Brian Friel ( "Dancing at Lughnasa"), Delaney had little in the way of sunshine to forecast for the characters in his "four-hander" script (father, mother, daughter, and daughter'sfiancee); a world premiere, previously presented as a reading at Manhattan Theatre Club with Ciarán Hinds, that's being pitched as "an exploration of the fine line between truth and delusion and the dangers of thinking something into existence."
In other words, the sort of wishful thinking that has more to with "The Monkey's Paw" than Tinkerbell's wings — centered around a conflict that the Irish-born, New York-based award winning playwright, screenwriter and dramaturg explains as "the Truth, versus the truth as told by one of the other characters...sort of a 'Rashomon' type structure (referring to the classic Kurosawa film of diverging eyewitness accounts), with the play on the surface running parallel to the shadow-play beneath."
None of which is to suggest that Delaney, who prior to coming to America ran the prestigious New Playwrights Programme at The Abbey, Ireland's national theatre, is anything but positively ecstatic about how things are shaping up with "The Seedbed" in its maiden production. With directorial duties in the hands of NJ Rep artistic director SuzAnne Barabas (herself an internationally recognized champion of all things edgy and new) — and a cast of fresh faces that features Gina Costigan, Kevin Hogan, Michael Louis Serafin-Well and Cathryn Wake — the playwright is clearly "delighted" by a staging that boasts "four strong performers who play gorgeously off each other."
"It's fascinating to watch the director sculpt things into shape," observes the author who's taken on a teaching gig at the University of Pennsylvania, in between his theatrical assignments and work on the upcoming feature film "Liv" with Harris Yulin. "I like to act as another set of eyes; make myself available for any questions and confer with the director rather than jump on in with my big boots."
"The only difference between fact and fiction is how you package it."
Nobody's Girl is now on stage at New Jersey Repertory Company (NJ Rep). This provocative new play is making its U.S. Premiere in Long Branch through September 20th. Written by Rick Viede and directed by Erica Gould, it has a distinctive plot with many layers. Excellent staging and exceptional performances do complete justice to Viede's revealing satire.
In the play, Anthony pens a salacious tell-all memoir titled "Nobody's Girl" and recruits a young woman, Nita to pretend to be the book's author, Currah. Enter Ronnie, an overzealous literary agent, and her assistant Tyrell. These two publishing industry professionals know just what sells. Together they promote the book and make Currah into a pop-culture media sensation. Questions about authenticity and identity create a stunning story that resonates and intrigues.
Jacob A. Ware is ideal in the role of Anthony Donnally, a rather nervous sort, who initially orchestrates the scheme. But when his plot to be a ghostwriter turns against him, he becomes an outsider to the farce he has created. Layla Khoshnoudi masters two individual roles, that of Nita Saleem who assumes identity of Currah. As Currah, the young Iranian immigrant is a natural for fame and fortune but proves to be completely unscrupulous. Judith Hawking captures the role of Ronnie Lowe, the shrewd literary agent who will engineer success at any cost. And it is Hawking's portrayal that is the most humorous. She is an over the top character, cunning and clever. Gregory Haney's does a wonderful portrayal of Tyrell Parks, the showy "queen" and Ronnie's eager assistant. His character shines a real light on true individuality and brings the plot full circle.
Bravo to the production team at NJ Rep for making the scenes in Nobody's Girl come to life with set and props by Jessica Parks, technical direction by Brian Snyder, lighting design by Jill Nagle, sound design by Merek Royce Press and costume design by Patricia Doherty. Jennifer Tardibuono is the show's Stage Manager.
Nobody's Girl has a very unique premise and exposes how people's business dealings and relationships can spin out of control when money and notoriety are at stake. It also depicts the power of social media in the arts. You will be fascinated by the circumstances as they unravel. The play tops off NJ Rep's summer of great theatre.
Front Row Center
There is entertainment and there is insight. You get both from Nobody's Girl, New Jersey Repertory Company's latest foray into the risky, rewarding world of U.S. premieres. This time there's even more danger than usual in the air – the kind of excitement its enlightened audiences have come to expect from this find of a theatre south of New York City in Long Branch.
You also get tour-de-force performances from all four actors. At times, the rapid fire repartee resembles the improvised motions of a basketball team passing the ball around the court, each response astonishingly fresher than the last. And then somebody goes up for the shot.
This is a media story. It's about the commercial value of "true" feelings – the more shocking the greater the value. It begins with a simple story with the appearance of truth that spins out of control on a wayward path to unimagined success.
Judith Hawking, who previously blew the place apart as socialite Pamela Churchill Harriman, is worth the price of admission. As literary agent Ronnie Lowe, she once again shows us what I can only call "genius of attitude" – by which I mean her words, gestures, body language and facial expressions collude to imprint on your consciousness another unforgettable character. Nothing about her performance seems like it could or should be any other way.
Tyrrel (Gregory Haney), Ronnie's assistant, calls himself outre (pronounced "oo-tray") and just in case you don't have your French dictionary handy the word means outrageously excessive and he is. His character's performance is a performance. In an interview, the Australian playwright Rick Wiede called this character gender fluid. Haney pulls it off. Sometimes you can see the observation he is about to deliver expressing itself through his physique before it sallies forth.
Nita/Currah (Layla Khoshnoudi) blossoms. That's the only the word for it, even if the blossoming is into a dark flower. Her two names trace the path of her ascent/descent into a kind of success that is completely contemporary which tells us as much about ourselves as it does about her. Sure, the character (and the actress) have a head start (someone else has written the script) but she (the character) is the one who completes the makeover sending a nasty plot in an unthinkably nastier direction to the delight of the cynical Ronnie Lowe and the chagrin of its author, Anthony Donnally (Jacob A. Ware) who prefers to be called Ant.
Often in drama it seems that those parts where the character is playing a role have more energy about them and offer greater possibilities to the actor. The literary agent and her assistant are consciously playing the roles of being themselves, clearly a daily performance, and Nita has had a role thrust upon her which she embraces with gusto, then extends. Only the author of the plot himself is not creating a character. But Ware, with his hesitations, self-doubt and disappointment, renders his character completely believably, without being handed the tools of extravagance by the playwright, no small achievement.
Then there is the audience. That's our part. We know it well, as we scan the humdrum television news daily, waiting for that next unbelievable but true story to which we'll eagerly give our attention for a few days.
'Nobody's Girl' explores the exploitation of truth in today's culture
How sensational does a writer have to be in order to attract attention and become a best seller? How far can the truth be stretched before the public catches on and if they do, how will they handle it or will they want more? These question provide the basis of a new comedy that opened on Aug. 22 from the New Jersey Repertory Company titled "Nobody's Girl." It is a play that explores how the exploitation of the truth, when done well, can allow a total unknown to rise to the heights of popularity and fame and fool everyone around her. Well, fool them at least for awhile.
The audience gets clued in to the scam that is being spun very early on in the play. It is important that they do because watching it pick up speed and then unravel is the basis of the conflict. The person in question is Nita Saleem who changes into a character named Currah. Currah is supposed to be a young Muslim woman living in America who has written a book about her life. She hints that something happened in the basement with her father but the first draft of the manuscript leaves it at that. Agent Ronnie Lowe is entranced with the work and with Currah when they meet. She convinces Currah to "beef up" the section about the basement which she does and the book takes off.
Also in the picture is Anthony Donnally who poses as Currah's guardian. He "reluctantly" agrees to sign the very lucrative contract Ronnie Lowe has drawn up for the book and sits back as Currah enjoys her growing fame. Tyrell Parks is Ronnie Lowe's assistant who helps with all the glitz and is awestruck by Currah's courage to disclose what seems to be the truth but in reality is not.
To give any more details about the story would ruin some of the twists and turns that audiences are certain to find interesting and intriguing. The characters move around, in, and out of the story as they help to establish what is true and what is not. Layal Khoshnoudi is very convincing as she plays Nita Saleem who changes into Currah and becomes obsessed with success and all its rewards. Nita enjoys the lifestyle Currah has obtained and bitterly resents the truth of who she really is. Jacob A. Ware plays Anthony Donnally with just the right amount of shiftiness needed to show a man who has been through a lot of rejection in his life. He concocts the idea which sets the lies into motion and then gets jealous along the way of the attention Currah is receiving rather than him. Ronnie Lowe is played by Judith Hawking with loads of flashiness critical to someone trying to get clients to believe in her. Her ability to convince and connive is so believable that one just can't image what she will come up with next. Gregory Haney plays Tyrell Parks. His style and demeanor make him a character you cannot take your eyes off of but then he provides one of the biggest surprises of the show as a side of him surfaces in an attempt to salvage the real truth.
Directed by Erica Gould, "Nobody's Girl" was written by Australian playwright Rick Viede. When discussing the play in a recent interview with BroadwayWorld.com, Mr. Viede said "Does the truth matter? Or is it more important to 'feel' true. The play is really a satire of that."
"Nobody's Girl" will run at the New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch, NJ through Sept. 20, 2015. Regular Performance Schedule includes Thursdays and Fridays 8 p.m.; Saturdays 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets may be purchased by calling 732-229-3166 or at www.njrep.org.
Nobody's Girl Has A Shocking Story To Tell
NJ Stage, by Gary Wien
The play tells the story of Anthony Donnally, an unsuccessful writer whose latest novel is a tell-all memoir about a young Muslim-American girl. The twist is that he not only writes the book from the perspective of the woman, he uses a female pen name as well. And this time, he's able to catch the eye of Ronnie Lowe — a powerful agent who shot down all of his previous submissions.
So he decides to go for it.
From his work as a social worker, Anthony knows of a Muslim family from Iran. He pays Nita Saleem from the family to become "Currah" - the author and subject of his novel, assuming she will simply play the role as it is written. The girl, who has always wanted to break out of her skin, has other plans though.
Ronnie and her flamboyant assistant, Tyrelle Parks, are intrigued by the girl's story, but especially fascinated by a short part about "the cellar." The book makes it sound like a horrible experience took place down there between Currah and her father. Ronnie and Tyrelle are convinced Currah was raped. But when they press Currah for an explanation, she gives them an answer they never expected and one that lands a book deal.
Her father not only had sex with her in the cellar, but she enjoyed it.
This was the moment Nita sees the potential in Currah. Anthony is opposed to the change, but as Ronnie says, "Bad things are just opportunities waiting to happen."
And Nita makes the most of her opportunity as Currah. She completely leaves her life behind and becomes the character 24/7. Thanks to her charisma and the story, the book receives an enormous amount of buzz throughout the industry. For Anthony, the night is bittersweet. He reads her the first reviews, which praise the book; yet even though the words being praised are his, he feels like an outsider.
"I wanted this moment my whole life and now you get to live it for me,"
Anthony tells her. What should have been the greatest moment of his life becomes the moment Currah truly becomes in charge. She uses the book release press conference as her coming out party with a shocking monologue that ends the first act in amazing style.
The question for the second act is will Currah and Anthony be able to keep the lie going or will everything blow up in their face as her character comes to life in ways the author never imagined?
The fantastic cast is led by Layla Khoshnoudi as Currah who appears so natural in this role that it hardly appears she is acting at all. She has been seen on New York stages in productions such as Men on Boats (Clubbed Thumb), Wyoming (Lesser America), Engagements (Ensemble Studio Theater), and My Daughter Keeps Our Hammer (The Flea). Layla is wonderful in a role that truly creates a disturbing universe for her to explore.
Gregory Haney as Tyrelle is hilarious in a role that changes the definition of supporting actor with a transformation that is nothing short of amazing. Haney originated the role of La Cienega in the Tony nominated Bring It On, the musical. He has also been seen on Broadway in Memphis and Tarzan.
The rather bitchy agent, who doubles as a mother figure, is Judith Hawking. A familiar face in Long Branch, Hawking has previously been part of NJ Rep productions like Swimming At The Ritz and Saving Kitty. She has an extensive New York, regional theatre, television and movie resume and even pokes fun at her recurring role on "Law & Order" during one scene.
Even though the book was created by Anthony, it doesn't take long for Currah to no longer need him and neither Ronnie nor Tyrelle want him in the picture as well. Ware, who was seen as Agent Selby on HBO's Boardwalk Empire, has a rather limited role in the first act, but is offered a chance to shine in the second.
The play is ultimately a satire on today's media, how people will do anything to get their fifteen minutes of fame, and the extent they will go to hold on to it. Directed by Erica Gould, the play is highly recommended.
Nobody's Girl runs now through September 20th at New Jersey Repertory Company (179 Broadway, Long Branch, NJ). For performance dates and times, visit www.njrep.org.
The 'girl' in the title of Rick Viede's new play currently onstage at NJ Rep is Currah, a young Muslim who claims horrific abuse at the hands of her father in an Iranian cellar. Her world also includes Ant, a scheming social worker, Ronnie Lowe, a slick literary agent, and Tyrelle, Ronnie's campy gay assistant. When Currah's controversial memoir (also titled Nobody's Girl) hits the bestseller list and vaults her to mega-stardom, the power struggle between the foursome twists and turns as they ruthlessly play the fame game – for keeps.
Viede's play is actually a revised version of one he wrote in his native Australia. Now a New Yorker, the play has been re-tooled, re-titled, and re-thought for American audiences. An award-winning young writer and performer, Viede takes on the monstrous topic of fame – questioning who we choose to put on a pedestal in our Kardashian-crowded world. To wield his dramatic sword, he utilizes the recent phenomenon of the 'misery memoir' – biographical tomes so horribly bleak that we question their authenticity as well as the veracity of their authors. Luckily, in Nobody's Girl, precious few bother to question Currah's tale of abuse and redemption. We soon learn that the social worker has aspirations to be a famous writer - at any cost – and NJ Rep audiences quickly put the puzzle pieces together (even if Currah's adoring public doesn't). Complicating matters, Viede has Currah claim she actually enjoyed being sexually abused, making it difficult to imagine a world where Nobody's Girl (Currah's biographical tome and perhaps the play itself) might earn favor with the public. Viede chooses razor sharp wit to put forth his themes (at least in Act One) and it is his first-rate cast that help him achieve his vision.
Nobody's Girl is vaguely reminiscent of the work of playwright Douglas Carter Beane, especially his 1997 pop culture satire As Bees In Honey Drown. Beane's most recent exercise in quip-filled satire was Shows for Days at Lincoln Center Theater. Lincoln Center had Patti LuPone - NJ Rep has Judith Hawking (photo right). Hawking plays fast-talking Ronnie Lowe, who eagerly (one might say greedily) helps Currah transform from wide-eyed waif to media darling. Physically and vocally, however, Hawking's take-no-prisoners style owes more to Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada than Ms. LuPone. Greg Haney
Teamed with Gregory Haney's Tyrelle (a self-hating homosexual fashionista- photo right), they deliver Viede's dishy dialogue with the split second timing of a gold-plated Rolex.
Jacob A. Ware's Anthony (or Ant, as he constantly insists on being called), is a mass of nervous tics about his behind-the-scenes role in the plan. Viede's skillful writing allows Anthony / Ant to put forth the most despicable deception imaginable, yet remain a charming loser at the same time. Layla Khoshnoudi
As Currah, Layla Khoshnoudi (photo right) grows from a scrappy climber to a manipulative schemer who allows fame and fortune to go to her pretty (but empty) head. Khoshnoudi more than capably holds her own against powerhouse Hawking, especially in the play's grimmer second half, where the fame game escalates to life-or-death mode.
The show is billed as "a provocative new play for American audiences." Perhaps the description refers to the play's earlier origins down under, or perhaps it is a sly condemnation of our national fascination with the sordid stories that fill our media. Either way, Nobody's Girl certainly lives up to its claim of being provocative.
Layla Khoshnoudi (left to right), Jacob A. Ware, Judith Hawking and Gregory Haney star in "Nobody's Girl," the dark comedy that makes its American debut this weekend at New Jersey Repertory in Long Branch. (Photo: Courtesy of SuzAnne Barabas)
It takes place in a world pretty much like our own — one where a shocking account of the most unspeakable sexual scandal hijacks the 24-7 news cycle — and where the whole thing threatens to come crashing down, when the "victim" in the story departs from the standard script.
If playwright Rick Viede has learned one thing in the three years since moving to the U.S. from his native Australia, it's that America's celebrity-obsessed, conflict-crazed media culture is even more "ridiculous" and "feral" than the one he left behind — no mean feat for the land that gave us Rupert Murdoch. The realization that "the temptation is always there to twist the volume way up" inspired Viede to revisit his play "Nobody's Girl," a "dark comedy" that makes its stateside premiere this weekend at the Jersey Shore's edgy-play incubator, New Jersey Repertory Company.
According to the playwright, it's a "completely reinvented and improved" version of the show (formerly titled "A Hoax") that makes its bow on the Long Branch stage this weekend, under director and fight choreographer Erica Gould — one that asks "why do we want stories to be as negative as possible...and why do we look to shoot people down with sanctimonious retribution, after they've delivered just what the market wanted?" Where the original production centered on a young Aboriginal woman, here the action swirls around a "dirty, gripping, salacious tell-all" book, ostensibly authored by a Muslim-American girl (Layla Khoshnoudi) who's got a stop-the-presses story of sexual abuse to share.
Of course, the behind-the-scenes presence of a frustrated writer named Anthony (Jacob A. Ware) serves to complicate the situation — and when high-octane agent/ guru Ronnie (Judith Hawking, star of NJ Rep's "Swimming at the Ritz") gets her hands on the manuscript, whatever kernel of truth existed threatens to be blown into "A Million Little Pieces" (to borrow the title of a best-selling hoax "memoir" that proved inspirational to the playwright). Gregory Haney completes the cast as Ronnie's "very camp" assistant Tyrell; a character described by his creator as "bordering transgender ... almost gender-fluid."
"This play pulls no punches ... as a satire of modern media, and the darkest of dark comedies, it actually speaks to the truth," says the author, who found the arts scene in his native land "suffocating" versus his adopted New York City home. "And New Jersey Rep has been an absolute dream to work with ... while my work has often been diluted by other companies, they've really embraced my voice here."
"You're not crazy, you just can't stop hoping."
Closure, a suspenseful World Premiere drama, is now on a limited engagement at the New Jersey Repertory Company (NJ Rep) through July 19th. This captivating mystery by renowned playwright Richard Dresser has inspired, artful direction by Joe Cacici. And with the show's all-star cast, it is a gripping theatrical event.
In Closure, Jane and Peter's teenage daughter disappears while on a spring break vacation in the Bahamas. Roy Hadley, an island detective, takes charge of the investigation. Personal dilemmas and surprising disclosures surface as the case becomes more and more complex.
The four-person cast is so stunningly talented, it seems like Closure is happening in real time. Wendy Malik stars as Jane, the distraught yet hopeful mother whose sole mission is to find her daughter. Victor Verhaeghe plays Peter the father, a serious-minded businessman who seems ready to move on with life. Gary Cole portrays Detective Roy Hadley, a tough and smart law enforcement official, seemingly very dedicated to locating the missing young woman. Biniam Tekola plays Ken, a native islander and a "person of interest" who was last seen with the missing teen. The company's incredibly skillful portrayal of this mystery keeps you perplexed to the very last moment.
The design team have done an extraordinary job of bringing the ambiance of the Caribbean islands to the Long Branch stage with scenic design by Jessica Parks, lighting design by Jill Nagle, costume design by Patricia E. Doherty, and sound design by Merek Royce Press. Jennifer Tardibuono is the show's Stage Manager.
Mystery lovers and many more will be intrigued and entertained by Closure. NJ Rep is presenting an excellent summer production for New Jersey theatergoers.
The LINK News
Theater Review: Open your schedule to see 'Closure'By Madeline Schulman
Long Branch — Opening night of the world premiere of Closure, by Richard Dresser, at New Jersey Rep was a dreary, rainy evening at the Jersey Shore, but inside the theater the audience was transported to various locations on a sunny, pretty Caribbean island (design by Jessica Parks), including a cafe, a hotel room, and (more ominously) the police station.
Jane (Wendie Malick) and Detective Ray Hadley (Gary Cole) open the play drinking at a cafe table. Jane has a week off from her job as a fifth grade teacher, but she is not here for pleasure. Three months ago, her teenage daughter vanished while on a school trip (reminiscent of the disappearance of Natalee Holloway in Aruba 10 years ago), and she is on her fifth visit since the disappearance to find out what progress the policeman has made in solving the case.
He is evasive; he has a "person of interest" but he will not say who it is, although he hints it may even be their waiter, Ken (Biniam Tekola). Ken, with his youthful attractiveness and charming British accent, seems an unlikely suspect, but there are only four characters to deal with.
The fourth is Jane's businessman husband, Peter (Victor Verhaege), who seems less committed to the investigation than Jane. Perhaps he is more ready to give up searching and try to go on with their lives. He sets up an office in the hotel room with his computer and phone and fills the uncomfortable silence with chatter about his hateful boss.
Their daughter's disappearance has put a strain on their marriage, and the situation is not improved by the perceived attraction between Jane and Ray. Why has she made so many trips to the island? Why does Ray seem to be dragging out the investigation? Is it in order to spend more time with Jane?
With such powerfully charismatic and good-looking actors as Wendie Malick (whose TV work includes Hot In Cleveland) and Gary Cole (star of HBO's VEEP), the mutual magnetism is evident.
Another intriguing duo is Ray and Ken, where the older, White policeman has all the power over a young Black waiter living on tips.
That is all that can be written without giving away the many plot turns, as the spotlight of doubt shines on one man after another and more and more secrets and lies are revealed. Jane longs for closure, but will finding her daughter's fate heal the hurt in her heart or make it permanent? Closure is an intriguing mystery, with a core story to touch any parent.
A CurtainUp New Jersey Review - Closure
I don't want much, I just want something I can hold onto. I don't care if it's stupid or crazy or wrong. But you've given me nothing. You don't even have the decency to lie to me. — Jane (to Roy)
Richard Dresser's Closure, now having its world premiere at the NJ Repertory Company, is the equivalent of a summer read, a fast-moving page-turner. In this case, however, it's a ninety-five minute quick-scene changer. Increasingly incredible, but also constantly intriguing, this is that rare-to-surface genre of dramatic literature known familiar if also somewhat condescendingly as a mystery pot-boiler.
Dresser, author of Rounding Third in 2003, has come up with an entertaining whodunnit. Its not especially surprising revelations are rather deftly calculated to keep us intrigued and engrossed.
An emotionally unstable teenage girl has disappeared while vacationing with friends on a Caribbean island. No one seems to have a clue what happened to her but after three months there is still no hard evidence of any foul deed. The girl's mother Jane (Wendie Malick) has determinedly made frequent trips back to the island to keep tabs on her last hope and retainer Roy (Gary Cole), the island's one and only remaining police detective. He has agreed to not let this mystery go unsolved. The visits to the island to consult with Roy have become as frequent as are the notably infrequent ones made by her husband Peter (Victor Verhaeghe.)
The play builds up it steam as its characters of interest become expectedly complicated —and also as the plot becomes effectively more contrived. Peter, who seems resigned to not finding his daughter, may or may not have more incriminating information regarding her disappearance than he is willing to divulge. This is also true for Ken (Biniam Tekola) the young, good-looking native waiter whose side line appears to be supplying ganja (marijuana) and a little romance on a moon-lit beach to adventurous young women.
A series of short confrontational scenes reveal that Jane and Peter's marriage is on the skids. Jane, a fifth grade school teacher has become a heavy drinker and frustrated by Peter's lack of support. Peter, a management consultant, is as suspicious of Jane's relationship with Roy as he is of Roy's method of investigation. Is Ken, a part-time student anxious to get back to his London home for his studies, afraid to tell what he knows? And is Peter afraid to tell Jane what Roy has already found out? Just how long will it take for Jane to put two and two together?
The answer you will probably figure out long before the characters, is less important than watching the skilled performances. An ensemble member of the Steppenwolf Theater Company and a veteran of film and TV, Cole gives a fine and steely persuasive performance. Malick is terrific as the overwrought Jane. Vernaeghe is convincing as the amoral Peter, as is Tekola's Ken.Kudos to scenic designer Jessica Parks for her high-end tropical resort setting.
Prolific director Joe Cacaci (his many hats include that of writer for theater, TV and film as well as co-founding co-Artistic Director of Berkshire Playwrights Lab in Great Barrington, MA) permits the stakes to appear higher even as they get wobblier and more exposed with every twist and convolution.
The audience at the performance I attended seemed to buy into it completely, as I did, allowing for a few audible gasps as predictable perhaps as the trap that finally snaps for full disclosure.
New Jersey Repertory Company must be the proudest 'parent' in the theater world. When giving birth to each of their world premiere plays, they regale them with the greatest birthday party a playwright could imagine. Richard Dresser's CLOSURE, the 105th play of their remarkable 18 seasons, is no exception.
First, the party guests – a cast that Broadway might envy. To their recent list of world-class actors like Jill Eikenberry, Dan Lauria, Michael Tucker, and others, add Wendie Malick and Gary Cole. Their amazing contributions toward making CLOSURE a must-see summer show cannot be over-stated. Although currently known for their work on small-screen comedies (she on "Hot in Cleveland" and he on "Veep"), both do compelling work in this primarily dramatic stage play about parents whose teenage daughter has gone missing on a Dutch-run Caribbean island. Malick plays Jane, the teen's distressed mom, and Cole is Roy, the island's police detective. They are ably joined by Victor Verhaeghe as Peter, Jane's distant husband, and Biniam Tekola as Ken, the waiter selling something more than drinks. Cole anchors the play with a self-assured confidence, skillfully dealing with Jane's rum-soaked search for closure. Malick and Cole have a palpable chemistry that makes it clear that Dresser's narrative has some twists and turns in store.
Then there's the party favors – an absolutely stunning physical production designed by Jessica Parks. The play's action requires several different locations and Parks skillfully gives us a tropical setting that takes full advantage of every inch of the theater's shoe box stage without ever looking cramped. Parks even manages to hint at a neo-noir vibe in Roy's office, outfitting it with a rotary fan, metal file cabinet, coffee maker, and old school black phone – all without looking dated. Jill Nagle's blue and green infused tropical lighting and Patricia E. Doherty's skillfully complementary costumes are equally impressive. Merek Royce Press supplies steel drum-based music to blend with the sounds of the surf. All of this is under the skilled and focused direction of Joe Cacaci.
The much-expected twists in the plot will come as no shock to any viewer of "Cold Case." With only four characters, the play's 90 intermissionless minutes provide plenty of time for pondering the possibilities. Dresser's script sometimes meanders and misfires, but Cole and Malick manage to make even the less compelling moments watchable. While considering the actual fate of Jane's daughter, you can be forgiven for imagining a brand new prime time detective series starring Cole and Malick - a sort of island "Hart to Hart." Like CLOSURE, it would be well worth watching.
A DREAM CAST, A NIGHTMARE SCENARIO, A SLOW-SIMMERING NOIR AT NJ REPUpper WET Side - June 30, 2015
Summertime is noir time — a fact borne out by the programmers of Turner Classic Movies, and by the crime-thriller authors who rush to ready their latest page-flippers for beach-blanket consumption. There are many more of us for whom the seemingly celebratory season of sun and surf instead conjures thoughts of temperatures-rising passions "touched by fire;" of lost hours spent disappearing into the crowd and cacophony of a blackout night-before…and of the harsh morning-after light that hammers its way past the dusty venetian-blind barricades of a small and stifling room.
Here in what's normally a season of rest for new dramatic productions in the region, New Jersey Repertory Company has stepped up with a slowly simmering noir scenario that's in sync with the coastal currents, cocktail-fueled confessions and sudden storms of a Jersey Shore July — one that jettisons the signature concrete settings of the naked city for the patio furniture, potted palms, pastels and deceptively laid-back pacing of a small (and not terribly specific) Caribbean resort island.
Written by Richard Dresser (Rounding Third) and tautly directed by Joe Cacaci of of LA's legendary Playwrights Kitchen Ensemble, the regional premiere Closure makes for a tense but tight fit with the similarly claustrophobic confines of the Long Branch playhouse's shadow-box stage. Its quartet of characters — the parents of a college-age young woman who's gone missing; the American expatriate police detective charged with investigating the disappearance; a "person of interest" hotel worker — are castaways in a curiously depopulated place that offers little room for hiding, and no apparent options for escape from the personal demons that cruise like sharks in the unseen waters beyond. Too caught up in the lethally languid spell of this oppressive "paradise" to do what they know to be the right thing, they make another excuse, put another drink on the tab — and help turn what could have been a turgid potboiler into a darkly compelling piece of theater.
Having upped the name-actor ante considerably in several of its recent shows, NJ Rep and director Cacaci have convened a dream cast for this noirish nightmare, highlighted by two awesomely accomplished veterans of variously scaled screens. As Jane, mother of the missing person, Emmy nominee Wendie Malick uses the nuanced skills she's brought to her acerbic comic characterizations in Just Shoot Me and Hot in Cleveland to delineate a woman who is "just being myself, which isn't very appealing these days" — a woman who, mired as she is in a fog of life-and-death uncertainty, is anything but a victim. Frustrated by the apparent inaction of the investigating officer; unwilling to return to the soul-killing normalcy of her deteriorating marriage, Jane disdains even the hoped-for "Closure" of the play's title in favor of a last-ditch attempt at divining her daughter's whereabouts — inserting herself into the investigation in a way that, handled by lesser hands, would have been the stuff of a made-for-Lifetime quickie…or, horror of horrors, another episode of idiot-box evergreen Criminal Minds.
Cacaci and Dresser are far from lesser hands, however — and for the role of the "legendary" Detective Roy Hadley they've gone directly to the multi-faceted character ace who's made a particular specialty of law-enforcement types whose concealed-weapon backstories range from vaguely sinister, to downright Satanic (as in the short-lived and "ahead of its time" series American Gothic). Currently a regular on HBO's Veep — and with an astonishing resume that's seen him perform laser-etch memorable turns in both comedic (Office Space, the Brady Bunch movies) and dramatic settings (The West Wing, Fatal Vision) — Gary Cole has a stage role here that's right in his proverbial wheelhouse. Trading the city-slicker suit and tie for polo shirts and khakis (and the straight-up bourbon for a succession of hotel-bar "old lady drinks"), Hadley is nonetheless a classic-noir Cop With a Past; a refugee from his own former life on the mainland, whose well-modulated sense of control butts up against a personal experience that makes him strangely sympathetic to Jane's situation…perhaps even to an unhealthy degree.
As Jane's husband Peter — a traveling businessman-type who's somehow never where he's supposed to be at any given moment — Victor Verhaeghe (Boardwalk Empire) puts a friendly face on a family man whose own involvement in this case runs deeper than that grieving-dad surface. Newcomer Biniam Tekola makes a vivid impression as Kenny, a waiter whose sideline source of income (and tendency to be at or near the scene of anything shady going down around the resort) put an island-style spin on the noir stock character of the street-punk fall guy. Each of these four characters are keeping their share of secrets; from themselves as well as from each other — and together they're so many misfit toys, stranded largely by choice in a place where the fruit-punch sweetness of the tourist-friendly diversions masks a rotgut kick of moral corruption and squalor.
You won't be able to secure tickets to the NJ Rep production of Closure if you haven't done so already — all performances in the limited engagement that runs through July 19 have been sold out — but there's talk afoot of castmates Cole and Malick bringing this play to a big-city stage in months to come, and as such we'll refrain here from any spoilers regarding the drama's climactic plot twists (a chain of occurrences that also tantalizingly tease this story's prospects as an opened-up screen adaptation). Take it here for more info on upcoming events in the neverending New Jersey Repertory season; a schedule that resumes on August 20 with the return of Judith Hawking (Swimming at the Ritz) in the US premiere of the drama Nobody's Girl.
ClosureBy Nita Congress
Your eighteen-year-old daughter is missing. Your husband is preoccupied and alternately indifferent and discouraging. The one-man police force on the Caribbean island where the missing girl was last seen has been dragging his feet for the past three months, seemingly clueless, frustratingly evasive. But the obliging waiter at the hotel thoughtfully replenishes a steady stream of drinks. What's a distraught mother to do but keep swilling them down and hoping for the best?
New Jersey Rep's world premiere of Closure by playwright Richard Dresser offers an intriguing evening of mystery and first-rate performances. Wendie Malick, Gary Cole, Victor Verhaerghe, and Biniam Tekola create a tense, taut evening of suspense and black humor in a stylish whodunit. Their top-flight efforts are aided and abetted by skillful director Joe Cacaci and the magnificent design team of New Jersey Repertory Company. In particular, scenic designer Jessica Parks and lighting designer Jill Nagle have brought the colors and sensibility of the Caribbean to the Jersey shore; you can hear the palm trees swaying offstage in the ocean breeze.
Malick, Cole, Verhaerghe, and Tekola deliver nuanced performances as suspicion is cast upon first one, then another. As with a good engaging book, Cacaci's direction keeps us turning the pages, never looking up or away until the denouement. In all, a satisfying evening.
NJ Rep Continues To Lure Big Stars
NJ Stage, by Gary Wien
For nearly two decades, New Jersey Repertory Company has been on a mission to bring new plays to life. To date, the theatre has produced over 100 works with many seeing their world premieres at the tiny playhouse along the Jersey Shore. The company's dedication to new plays has always been respected in the industry, but is beginning to attract the attention of stage, film, and television stars who rarely are seen in theatres this size.
Last September the theatre had the premiere of Dinner With The Boys, which starred Ray Abruzzo (The Sopranos) and Richard Zavaglia (Donnie Brasco) alongside Dan Lauria (The Wonder Years) who also wrote the play. In the months that followed, NJ Rep had the world premiere of The M Spot featuring Michael Tucker and Jill Eikenberry from L.A. Law. The streak continues with the company's current production which stars Gary Cole (Office Space) and Wendie Malick (Just Shoot Me!).
So, how does a tiny theatre located in an area surrounded by boarded up buildings manage to attract such talent? All signs points to Dan Lauria.
"Dan just raved about how kind everyone was there and I love theatres that still support new plays," explained Wendy Malick. "I would always laugh at Dan and say I'm not going to work in the middle of nowhere and do a play and he'd say, I bet you will. NJ Rep is a little under the radar and a good place to see what you have. I met Gabe (Barabas) and his wife (SuzAnne) and they are just lovely people. It's nice to be able to support the people out there who are trying to do good work who don't get a lot of attention for it."
Barabas says that the company has developed a reputation as a theater that focuses exclusively on the production of new works. In doing so, they have been able to develop relationships with other theaters that have led to subsequent productions for the plays and which have provided broader exposure for the works.
"This is especially important because most new plays, no matter how wonderful, die on the vine after the first production," said Barabas, Executive Producer at NJ Rep. "Our receiving the National Theater Company Award in 2012 from the American Theater Wing that sponsors the annual Tony Awards for Broadway also brought us attention and wider recognition."
On stage from June 25 through July 19 is Closure by Richard Dresser. The playwright describes the work as a thriller about parents dealing with the disappearance of their 18 year old daughter on a class trip in the Caribbean. The mother enlists the help of a mysterious detective to find out what happened, and the story details the rather dark journey they embark on together.
"Wendie Malick has been involved with Closure from the start, when we did a workshop at Berkshire Playwrights Lab (which is run by Joe Cacaci, the director of Closure, along with Matt Penn and Jim Frangione)," said Dresser. "Wendie has been a driving force in the development of the play as it evolved from that initial workshop through numerous rewrites. And of course having Wendie on board was instrumental in assembling this remarkable cast."
In addition to Cole and Malick, the cast includes Biniam Tekola and Victor Verhaeghe. With everyone working in different parts of the country, the rehearsal schedule for Closure was a bit crazy. Malick said that the cast got together in New York for a few days to go over the script and then split up for a few weeks before getting together again at Malick's ranch in California where they actually rehearsed in her garage.
"I think we've all realized this is actually a great way to do it," said Malick. "We just kind of go wherever we can with whoever is available and it's been pretty great. I actually loved this process. This is a garage troupe!"
"After all is said and done we will have had a good three weeks rehearsing together," added Cole. "And actually in the same room. It wasn't easy, and the schedule was a little more broken up than usual but we got it done. Can't rehearse a play alone. You're always playing off each other, and those moments are found in rehearsal, and continue for the run of the play."
There aren't many theatres in America as dedicated to producing new works as NJ Rep -- a mission that has helped attract talented playwrights such as Dresser to premiere their work in Central New Jersey.
"Theatres like NJ Rep that are dedicated to new work are absolutely vital in keeping theater alive in the USA," stated Dresser. "And there aren't enough of them. Readings and workshops are extremely important in the development of new work, but it takes a full production with all that entails to find out if a play works. Launching new work is a huge, terrifying risk, which is what theater should be all about."
The mission is also very attractive to actors who get the rare opportunity to define a role that has never been performed on stage before and to work alongside the director and playwright in a collaborative way that you don't have for most revivals. In fact, in the case of many revivals, the playwrights have long since passed away.
"At this stage in my career it's exciting to be 'in on the ground floor' so to speak," explained Cole. "There's no precedent for the character, so it's a clean slate. It's also fulfilling to be rehearsing with Rick involved with the process. It's an opportunity you don't always have."
Malick agrees. "There is something absolutely thrilling about being the first person to tackle a character and being able to work with a playwright. That's the most delicious part of this. All of us have been allowed to enter this collaboration with our director and our playwright and I think that is just something you cherish because it doesn't happen all that often."
Director Joe Cacaci, who is an old friend of Cole's asked him to consider the play. Cole said he didn't know much about NJ Rep, but once he read the play he was sold. "For an actor to be successful, it all begins with material, and this play hooked me when I read it," recalled Cole who was a member of Steppenwolf's ensemble for many years. "Hopefully Closure can help play a part in NJ Rep's continuing commitment to new work. Any theater devoted to new works is vital. Plays have to be realized. It's always a gamble because there is absolutely no way to know what will connect with an audience. New plays will not be produced unless certain theaters make that their primary objective. That has to be their philosophy regardless of financial considerations."
For NJ Rep, that has always been their philosophy and in 2017 they hope to open a new theater, which will house several performance spaces, an art gallery, studios, classrooms, and environments for a wide range of arts. They are developing plans to renovate the West End School (Long Branch) property, which was purchased earlier in the year.
"Our acquiring the West End School property for expansion is the result of 18 years of work and oftentimes struggle," said Barabas. "We have been operating in a neighborhood where there is hardly any foot traffic and just one block away from our building thirty buildings are boarded up. Our audiences come from significant distances and represent a certain sub-set of audience that is adventurous and attracted to new work. In essence, we are a niche theater. Our 'success' has been the cumulative result of all the fine actors and directors who have gravitated to us, our design team that has worked together on over 50 plays, the vision and esthetics of our Artistic Director in selecting plays, and our involvement in championing plays that we give birth to way beyond our theater into New York City and into other regional professional theaters. All of these things are involved in broader foundation support as well as support in individual giving. We have always planned to expand at some point but did not realize that it would take 18 years. It has been a slow-build."
The theatre is proof that success can come to those who keep their dreams alive no matter what circumstances are faced. Tickets for NJ Rep shows are becoming a rather hot item, reserve your tickets for Closure while you still can and see for yourself how this tiny theatre is growing into a major force in the region.
Wendie Malick and Gary Cole in "Closure" at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.(Photo: Courtesy of SuzAnne Barabas)
To cut to the question, what inspired a couple of instantly familiar faces and voices from screens big and small — actors with some frankly awesome credentials in feature films and TV series — to spend their summer seeking "Closure" in Long Branch; doing a play at little-but-loud New Jersey Repertory Company? To hear Gary Cole tell it, the deal was made through "Dinner" with a couple of "connected" guys.
"Joe (director Joe Cacaci) is an old friend," says the Emmy-nominated ace who's currently a regular on HBO's "Veep," and who's reprised his cult-favorite character of "Office Space" boss-from-heck Lumbergh in a series of HipChat spots. "He and Dan Lauria ran Playwrights Kitchen Ensemble in L.A., where they'd gather whatever actors they could, and just get new work out there...I did several of their readings."
"Wonder Years" veteran Lauria had established a link to NJ Rep with the premiere of his mobbed-up comedy "Dinner with the Boys" (now wrapping an off-Broadway run) — and when Cacaci presented Cole with a script entitled "Closure," the Long Branch launchpad for new plays seemed an ideal venue for the drama that the actor calls "compelling, unusual...a great piece of writing." Now in previews (and making its world premiere this weekend), the play by Richard Dresser centers around what Cole calls "every parent's nightmare...a child gone missing." Playing Hadley, a detective who arrives at the resort-island home of the college-age young woman — and who may just have some ulterior motives of his own — Cole enters into a noir-infused scenario that evolves into a study of "how people deal with this weighty circumstance...it's dark, but there's humor in it; the kind of humor that arises under duress."
The versatile actor who jokes that "they call on me when they're looking for someone skeevy" has portrayed law enforcement types both suspicious ("A Simple Plan") and downright Satanic (the "ahead of its time" series "American Gothic"). He's worked extensively in comedies, cartoons ("Harvey Birdman"), and series TV ("The West Wing"); having convincingly conjured both America's go-to family man Mike Brady, and real-life family killer Jeffrey MacDonald. What's more, for the first time since the Playwrights Kitchen days, he's sharing a stage with an actress of whom he professes to be a big fan — fellow Emmy nominee Wendie Malick.
Reprising her role as the mother of the missing student (a part she played in a workshop reading two years ago), the comedic specialist best known for her series work in "Just Shoot Me," "Frasier" and "Hot in Cleveland" joins Cole and fellow Rep newcomers Victor Verhaeghe ("Boardwalk Empire") and Biniam Tekola in a project about which little more can be revealed, apart from the fact that the plot "takes its twists and turns."
BWW Interview: Playwright Richard Dresser and CLOSURE at NJ Rep
The World Premiere play, CLOSURE by Richard Dresser opens at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch on June 25th and will run through July 19th. Directed by Joe Cacaci the show stars Wendie Malick, Gary Cole, Victor Verhaeghe and Biniam Tekola.
In the play, Jane and Peter's daughter mysteriously disappears while on spring break. Detective Roy Hadley steps in to save the day but the detective may have plans of his own that complicate this intriguing drama that is set on an exotic tropical Caribbean isle.
Broadwayworld.com had the opportunity to interview Richard Dresser about his career and CLOSURE.
Richard Dresser's plays have been produced in New York, regional theater, and Europe. They include ROUNDING THIRD, BELOW THE BELT, GUN-SHY, SOMETHING IN THE AIR, THE DOWNSIDE, ALONE AT THE BEACH, WONDERFUL WORLD and a trilogy about happiness in America: AUGUSTA, THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS, and A VIEW OF THE HARBOR. A new play, TROUBLE COMETH, is currently at the San Francisco Playhouse and another new play, WAR STORIES will be work-shopped at PlayPenn in Philadelphia in July. He wrote the book for the musical JOHNNY BASEBALL (about the Curse of the Red Sox) and also a new bluegrass ghost musical, THE HOLLER. Both appeared at the Williamstown Theater Festival and featured music by Rob and Willie Reale. He teaches at Rutgers and is on the board of the Writers Guild Initiative, which does writing workshops with veterans and caregivers among other groups.
When did you first become interested in writing?
I started writing in fifth grade at Jefferson School in Holden Massachusetts, although it was several years before I made a living at it. We had a teacher, Alan Court, who encouraged us to write short stories which I found tremendously exciting, especially compared with things like arithmetic. I didn't write a play until my late twenties when I was forced to take a class in theater--sadly, the only one I ever took--and I found that when I started writing dialogue I couldn't stop, although a number of people along the way have tried.
Have you had any particular mentors?
I can't say I have any mentors, possibly because I started in the theater rather late. Or maybe it's my personality. There are many people who have been tremendously encouraging and supportive of the plays I write but there isn't that wizened, weather-beaten soul at the tiller guiding my ship. Which should be obvious by now.
What playwrights have you found inspirational?
When I started writing plays I thought I should perhaps read a few and the first ones I read were Orton, Osbourne, Pinter, and Becket which might explain the path I've taken.
Tell us a little bit about CLOSURE.
CLOSURE is quite different from my other plays. It's a thriller, with a rather intricate story, but the story is driven by the gradual revelation of who these people are and what they might have done. I wanted to write about something unimaginably horrific--the disappearance of a child--but tell the story from inside a marriage. And as the play unfolds it's clear there are two mysteries: What happened to the girl and what will happen to the marriage. And you have to stay to the end to find out.
How does teaching compliment your work as a writer?
I teach television writing for graduate playwrights at Rutgers, and it has been great for me to get to know and work with such a wonderfully diverse and talented group of writers. And of course discussing craft means challenging one's own notions, so it is a very healthy process for everyone. (I'm hoping the students feel the same way.)
How do you like working with NJ Rep?
This is my first experience working at NJ Rep although I have a lot of experiences with other theaters in New Jersey. It's been a great ride and it feels like the absolutely right venue for launching CLOSURE. I love the intimacy of the space but more than that I love the passion they have for new work. I don't mean this as a threat, but I hope to be back.
Do you have any advice for aspiring playwrights?
I don't really have any advice for aspiring playwrights other than to write. Every day if possible. And don't try to write a good first draft. Write a wild and unmanageable and possibly actionable first draft. There's nothing that can't be solved by time and craft. But if the insane passion isn't in the first draft it won't ever be there. And if there is anything else you can do career-wise, jump on it. The reason to devote one's life to writing plays is because anything else would be unsatisfying. Sorry, I guess I did have advice after all.
Wendy Malick: From One Hit Series To Another
NJ Stage, by Gary Wien
Wendy Malick stars alongside Gary Cole (Office Space) in Closure at New Jersey Repertory Company this month. Born in Buffalo, NY, Malick has an extensive resume of roles on stage, films, and television, including three long-running series (HBO's Dream On in the early 90s, Just Shoot Me! in the late 90s, and TV Land's Hot In Cleveland which began in 2010 and had its series ending episode in June. With a role in the upcoming show, Rush Hour (based on the hit film franchise), there's a good chance the Golden Globe and Emmy Award Nominee might be part of another long-running series. New Jersey Stage caught up with Malick to find out what it's like for the cast when a show ends after a long run.
Hot In Cleveland literally just aired its last episode and now you're getting ready to do Closure at NJ Rep.
Yes, we just had our series finale of Hot In Cleveland Wednesday night in New York and we were all there, staying in a lovely hotel with everything first class all the way. I was saying I guess I better not get used to this, I'm about to move into an old Victorian house with five guys to do a play in New Jersey. It's kind of like going back to your roots. I feel like we're going back to college!
You've had a bunch of tv shows to last five years or more. What is it like when you have a cast you've been with for that long and then you hit the goodbye period? You were part of such a wonderful crew alongside Betty White, Valerie Bertinelli, and Jane Leeves.
It's pretty emotional. You're always a valuable part in each other's lives and actually my cast for Just Shoot Me! still gets together for dinner three or four times a year, and some of us see each other individually. But with this group of women (Hot In Cleveland), I think we are in it for the long haul because we did form this kind of sisterhood. We're going to see if there's something else we can do together — we're toying with several ideas.
This was just such a great learning curve for all of us, understanding how you could be mentored by women both younger and older than you are. Betty (White) is such a remarkable role model. It reminded me that it's not until you turn 60 that you get to start your third act. It's just about appreciation and being in the moment and fully committing yourself and finding joy in everything you do. It was a real privilege to be with all of them.
It's remarkable the career that she's had.
And she's had so many resurgences. She started when television started and has continued to this day!
It didn't take you very long to jump into a new series. Do you think your winning streak will continue with Rush Hour?
It's funny, the executive producer said, 'My gut feeling is this thing will either be a huge hit or it's going to die very quickly!' It is a pretty huge, ambitious undertaking. The pilot had a helicopter chase, it was like a movie - it was crazy! I think my stuff will all be pretty much in the police department when I read them the riot act every week for various reasons.
These young actors are very impressive and so enthusiastic. They have great energy and are so thrilled to have this opportunity. They're fun to be around.
It's got great name recognition from the film franchise.
Yes, and I understand that John Foo is a big martial arts star in China and Korea, which are huge markets for American television to tap into. I'm sure that's part of the appeal.
Tell me about Closure.
I love the piece and I am so excited about this cast. I love the way Rick Dresser writes and I had met him several times over the years. He came to me with the play as we did a workshop of it at the Berkshire Playwrights Lab a couple of summers ago. The plan was to do it last summer up there and then my series went back earlier than expected so we had to postpone it.
It's a suspenseful noir — who done it — and it has a lot of emotional ups and downs, but a lot of dark humor too. Like in all things, there is humor even in the darkest of moments. The play is about a couple whose daughter went missing during a school vacation in the islands. And it's been three months and the wife is still determined to find her and the husband is kind of giving up on it. It's about the relationship that is developing with the detective that has been helping the wife. It sort of surprises you at every turn.
"Don't spoil the end. We have to wait and see what happens" -The Realization of Emily Linder
The Realization of Emily Linder is now on the New Jersey Repertory Company (NJ Rep) stage through May 24th. This World Premiere play is written by award-winning playwright Richard Strand and directed by the theatre's Artistic Director, Suzanne Barabas. Strand has created a compelling story with very relatable characters. And with Barabas' excellent direction, this play is a must-see for the metro area audience.
The Realization of Emily Linder blends comedy and drama as it centers on Emily (Marnie Andrews), an eccentric, retired French professor who believes she knows exactly the date and time she will die. She calls upon her two daughters, Margaret (Dana Benningfield) and Janet (Corey Tazmania), to execute her final wishes. And much to Emily's chagrin, Janet has brought a new caregiver, Jennifer (Jenny Vallancourt) into the home to assist her ailing mother. Emily is in for some real surprises as she tries to control her earthly departure.
Set in Emily's living room, the play has well-crafted dialogue that the cast of four delivers seamlessly. The story captures the essence of family conflict, the differences in each of the women's personalities.
Marnie Andrews does a perfect portrayal of Emily mastering the determined, brutally honest character who struggles with the strain of poor health and a fear of dependency. Corey Tazmania completely captures the role of Janet, an austere, hyper-organized attorney. Dana Benningfield shines as Margaret, a sensitive thoughtful individual who tries tirelessly to please her family. And Jenny Vallancourt is ideal as the caregiver Jennifer, sensible and the voice of reason.
Each of the actresses fine portrayals compliment the tenor of the play, one that reveals a great deal about mother/daughter relationships, their struggles and triumphs.
NJ Rep's production team has once again done a wonderful job withset design and props by Jessica Parks, technical direction by Brian Snyder, lighting design by Jill Nagle, sound design by Merek Royce Press, costume design by Patricia Doherty and stage management by Jennifer Tardibuono.
The Realization of Emily Linder is a play that you will think about long after you leave the theatre. Aging, love, loss and compassion are themes that make it a very special theatrical event.
The LINK News
Theater Review: Everyone can relate to The Realization of EmilyBy Madeline Schulman
It is likely that nearly all of us will end up caring for older dependents, become older dependents ourselves, or both. This general rule makes The Realization of Emily Linder, the new play by Richard Strand at NJ Rep, universally recognizable and relatable.
Emily Linder (Marnie Andrews) is taken home from the hospital by her daughter Margaret (Dana Benningfield). Emily has fired her home health aide, fallen down in the shower, and been taken to the hospital, where the doctors found that all of her toes needed to be amputated. So she must use a wheelchair, which neither woman knows how to handle, leading to some physical comedy while Emily awkwardly transfers to her recliner, from which she likes to watch her favorite (and only) DVD, Cat Ballou.
The next arrival is Emily's other daughter, Janet (Corey Tazmania), a sleek lawyer with buckled power suits and no nonsense hair, accompanied by a young assistant, Jennifer (Jenny Vallancourt). Now that she has her daughters together, Emily tells them her realization: she is going to die early Friday morning, and since it is now Wednesday, she has a list of tasks for the women to accomplish.
Margaret and Janet are reluctant to believe her, but Emily insists she has second sight which tells her when someone is going to die, and her time is coming. Some of her requests are reasonable, such as for Margaret to write a eulogy, but others are not, such as asking that Janet find a way to reunite Emily with her toes. She insists that Janet can do it, because Janet is a lawyer, causing Janet to demand exactly what her family thinks a lawyer does.
While the funny discussion goes on, and the sisters fall into competitive squabbles, Jennifer sits reading in the background so long and quietly that one might think the author forgot there were four characters, but when she finally stands up and takes command, she is a dynamo. At least she knows that wheelchairs have brakes!
The second act has many plot twists and revelations, some humorous and some poignant, as well as the suspense of waiting to see if Emily's realization is reality. The actors are all excellent: Dana Benningfield as sweet, put-upon Margaret, Corey Tazmania as clever Janet, and Jenny Vallancourt as Jennifer of hidden depths. As written by Richard Strand and acted by Marnie Andrews, Emily Linder is the brilliant realization of all the irritating, demanding, hypercritical old ladies that we know and can't help loving. After the play, you won't forget Emily Linder, and you won't be able to get the theme from Cat Ballou out of your head.
The Realization of Emily Linder Rewards the Patient Viewer
Review by Bob Rendell, Talkin' Broadway
Emily Linder is a retired University of Iowa French Professor. She is also a lonely and unhappy widow, the mother of two daughters whom she has alienated, a cold, cantankerous and domineering control freak, a toeless person because of her unwillingness to let anyone know that she had a circulation problem and her toes were turning black, and she insists that she has psychic powers.
As the play begins, Emily is returning to her house following her hospitalization for the removal of her toes. She gathers her daughters around her and informs them that she has had a premonition that tomorrow after midnight she is going to die in her sleep. Emily is certain this will happen because she had fulfilled premonitions of the times of death of both her mother and her husband. Emily also dispenses orders to her daughters, Janet and Margaret, as to who will write the funeral eulogy, what information will appear in her obituary, where the services will be held, and who is not to attend her funeral, as well as what preparations her daughters are to make for the upcoming party for her birthday, which they insist on planning despite Emily's insistence that it will not occur because she will predecease it.
Silently present in the parlor during this conversation is Jennifer, a young woman just hired by Janet to be Emily's new home aide caregiver. This was necessitated by Emily's having fired her last caregiver after unreasonably not allowing her to do her job. Experienced and alert theatergoers will know to keep a sharp eye on Jennifer.
Throughout the first of its two acts, Realization struck this reviewer as a depressing play about an unpleasant topic, particularly so for older viewers, such as myself. However, the second act contains a stream of revelations which are so surprising and engrossing, so wittily and cleverly set-up, and so intelligent and satisfying as to turn matters around a full 180 degrees, and turn Realization into a smart, richly satisfying entertainment.
There is a major revelation, which author Richard Strand has adroitly constructed, that must remain for the penultimate scene (after all, there remains Emily's fate for us to learn in the final scene). However, there is such a great deal of information in the second act "stream" of revelations that moving a portion of it into the first act in order to enrich its content and broaden its focus would likely benefit the play. Richard Strand, whose popular Civil War play Butler (which world premiered here last summer) defied expectations by developing into a comedy, continues his genre-defying ways with Realization, a mystery of which we are unaware until it is solved.
In the role of Emily, Marnie Andrews delivers a smooth, ingratiating performance. However, a bit more snappishness in interpreting the role would make it more interesting. Still, the clarity of the writing fully defines Emily for us.
Corey Tazmania portrays Emily's daughter Janice, a high powered Chicago lawyer who has made one of her rare trips home to Iowa because of her mother's hospitalization. Tazmania's masterful interpretation of a deadly shark of a lawyer crackles with electricity and is a damn good show in and of itself. Thus, it is with trepidation that I note that we would likely care more for Janice if the role were interpreted to include more of a gap between the carriage and tone of the Chicago legal beagle and the concerned daughter and sister.
Dana Benningfield perfectly captures the frailty and debilitating lack of self-confidence which has been seared into her being by the disdain with which she is treated by Emily and Janet. It is painful, as it should be, to see her appear to literally shrink before our eyes beneath their onslaught. Jenny Vallancourt is adorable perfection as the too good to be true Jennifer.
Director SuzAnne Barabas has matched author Richard Strand in deftly concealing and delivering the clever and satisfying surprises that are in store for the viewer of the world premiere of The Realization of Emily Linder.
Mother may not know best in 'The Realization of Emily Linder'By JAY LUSTIG
If you're looking for a Mother's Day present with a macabre twist, consider tickets to "The Realization of Emily Linder," which is at NJ Rep in Long Branch through May 24 (with two shows on Mother's Day, May 10).
In this world-premiere comedy-drama, written by Richard Strand (who premiered his "Butler" at NJ Rep last year) and directed by NJ Rep artistic director SuzAnne Barabas, an elderly retired professor — who is not in perfect health but not terminally ill, either — tells her daughters that she has had a premonition that she will die in her sleep, two days later. It's a great premise for a play, taking us out of the realm of the ordinary but also creating a scenario where characters' true natures can come to the surface, and Strand, Barabas and the small cast make the most of it.
Emily (Marnie Andrews), who taught French at the University of Iowa, doesn't seem to have any doubt that the premonition will come to fruition. She had a similar premonition about her husband's death that came true, she tells her daughters Margaret (Dana Benningfield) and Janet (Corey Tazmania). She wants to make the arrangements for her funeral with them, and edit the eulogy and obituary that she commands them to write.
Margaret and Janet reluctantly go along with their mother's wishes. They reserve a space for the ceremony (under the premise that they are having a party), have the dress their mother wants to be buried in dry-cleaned, and buy helium for the balloons she wants to use for funeral decorations (instead of flowers).
t's not that they believe that their mother will die as predicted. But Emily is not the kind of woman you want to say no to. She's a pitbull who won't rest until she gets her way.
Family photos fill the walls of her living room, but she doesn't seem to have much love for her daughters (or her deceased husband, for that matter). She's one of those people who claims, with a shrug, that she's just speaking her mind, but her bluntness can comes off as cruel.
This is more of a problem for Type B, sensitive Margaret than it is for Type A, no-nonsense Janet, who embraces the chores her mother gives her as a way to prove how competent she is. When Janet tells her mother about an ingenious plan she devised to keep a relative her mother dislikes away from the funeral, Janet glows with pride.
Margaret takes on the task of writing the eulogy, but after she reads it to Emily, Emily reverts to professor-from-hell mode, telling Margaret it's a "Hallmark card of clichés." Margaret, understandably, is devastated.
There is a fourth character, too: Emily's health aide Jennifer (Jenny Vallancourt), who spends much of her time seated in a corner reading a book, seeming oblivious to what is going on. But Jennifer's professionalism and resolve are crucial to two important scenes, and Vallancourt skillfully snaps her character into fiery action when necessary.
Old family tensions continue to surface as we get closer to the night when Emily expects to die. Of course, I won't tell you what happens then, but I can say that Strand brings everything to a satisfying resolution that has a touch of sentimentality, but is still realistic enough that Emily herself might approve.
"The Realization of Emily Linder" in Long Branch, NJ
Scene on Stage, by Philip Dorian
Which would you rather see: a celebrated play, even a classic (think Shakespeare), ineptly performed, or a pretty good play, short of a masterpiece, elevated by sterling acting? Me too. Well, that's what's on stage at New Jersey Repertory Company. Richard Strand's "The Realization of Emily Linder," a pretty good play, short of a masterpiece, is being marvelously acted. The play will be fine-tuned; that's NJ Rep's laudable raison d'etre. But I cannot imagine a more in-tune cast.
Strand knows from four-character plays – of both genders. His award-winning "Butler," last year's entry, concerned a quartet of men in a Civil War setting. "Emily Linder" features four distaff actors, each an exceptional talent, blended into a fine ensemble under the intuitive direction of NJ Rep's overall artistic guide SuzAnne Barabas.
Emily (Marnie Andrews), invalided from an affliction that necessitated the amputation of her toes (diabetes?), announces to her daughters Margaret (Dana Benningfield) and Janet (Corey Tazmania) that she will die on Friday morning. It is neither a diagnosis, she tells them, nor a prediction. It is a realization, and she has drawn up a list of requirements for her funeral, among them helium balloons, a levity-free eulogy, Uncle Alex excluded from attending, and, um, her loose toes buried with her.
Emily is incapacitated, yes, but presumably only until she's able to perambulate toeless. (Maneuvering her from wheelchair to recliner and back becomes a plot point.) Margaret, needing to get back to her family, and Janet, a Chicago power-attorney, decide to humor mom by complying with her particulars. (Janet has brought along an assistant, Jennifer (Jenny Vallancourt), who goes on to serve a pivotal function.)
That's the surface of the play. Simmering underneath is a theme of conflicting family values, exacerbated by the sisters' clashing personalities and their relationships with mom, who seems to favor one over the other (unlike you, reader, who holds each of your children in exactly equal regard). I am not alone in my admiration for the cast. I mentioned to a woman at intermission that I believe sisters to be the closest bonded of all relations. She agreed, noting that these two, as played, project that closeness despite their "unresolved issues" (a cliché, but never more apt). As their characters require, Benningfield exudes emotional reality without lapsing into melodrama (her tears are genuine), and Tazmania's devilish, take-charge Janet is tough and insecure in equal measure.
The daughters are matched by mom. Andrews embodies the woman with a tenuous grip on reality. Her acceptance of her impending demise as simple fact spills over into the audience, enhancing our immersion in the family dynamics. It is also the source of much of the play's considerable humor. As different as the three actors may be in appearance, one never doubts that the three characters are mother and daughters.
Then there's Vallancourt's Jennifer, who sits quietly reading Marcel Proust's "Remembrance…" (in the original French, of course), until called upon to inject order into the proceedings. Jennifer's – and Vallancourt's – strengths, having been held in reserve, end up serving the play.
Whether or not Emily's realization comes to pass will not be revealed here, and pointing out that the ending is overly tidy risks annoying its admirers, of whom I suspect there will be many. But it is. Out-of-the-blue revelations from unexpected sources might be a way to tie up loose ends, but ultimately it is a weak device. What is anything but weak is the immersive acting by what I'm dubbing "The 'Emily Linder' Four." Go watch them at work.
(LONG BRANCH, NJ) -- The first realization of the evening comes when Producer Gabor Barabas welcomes the audience, informing them that New Jersey Rep has given life to 106 new plays; a truly remarkable achievement. The realization revealed by the title character in Richard Strand's new play is quite a different matter: she knows she is going to die. Not just a foreboding feeling of fatality, mind you, but the exact date and time of her demise. And it's soon.
As the play begins, retired academic Emily (Marnie Andrews) is coming home from the hospital after having all of her toes amputated. Just why this drastic measure was taken we never quite learn, but the former French professor has quickly bounced back to her usual irascible self. She is accompanied by her two 40-something daughters: a wan housewife named Margaret (Dana Benningfield) who tearily retreats to her old bedroom when things get tense; and her uptight sister Janet (Corey Tazmania), a tightly-wound lawyer who strides around barking orders into her cell phone. Janet brings along Jennifer, her mother's new care-giver (Jenny Vallancourt), at first introduced as Janet's new assistant. For most of the first act Jennifer sits quietly in a corner reading Proust.
Soon after Emily announces her imminent demise she assigns her daughters a list of tasks to accomplish before her death. (Emily abhors euphemisms like "passed away" and "goes to her reward" so I will eschew them as well.) In addition to writing her eulogy and obituary, Emily insists that Janet retrieve her recently amputated toes, leaving the audience to wonder about her mental stability. Lots of stage time is spent on the completion of the 'bucket list' tasks and it becomes clear that Strand is more interested in the dysfunctional family dynamic than Emily's prescient predictions or its outcome. Just before intermission the mousy Jennifer turns into a youthful Nurse Ratched and yet another dynamic is introduced.
At times the script is darkly reminiscent of Marsha Norman's "'night, Mother" and at other times it exudes the funny familial friction of "On Golden Pond." The last ten minutes of the play finally get around to explaining several key plot questions – mainly surrounding the Proust-reading carer in the corner. Strand's writing often meanders around its central themes and ultimately never fully gives Emily the firm foothold she needs on the intriguing play.
The well-spoken Andrews is appropriately patrician as the title character and there is more than a passing physical resemblance between Benningfield and Tazmania, adding greatly to their sister act. Vallancourt at first seems way too young and mousy for her role, but Strand puts the pieces together in the play's final moments that make sense of the incongruities. Due to Emily's toe-less immobility, the action of the play is mainly restricted to a pair of front-facing recliners, but they are set amidst a smartly-appointed Iowa City living room designed by Jessica Parks.
As Barabas introduces the evening's fare he reminds us that very soon NJ Rep will have three productions on area stages simultaneously: "Butler" (also by Strand) at Barrington Stage in Massachusetts, "Dinner With The Boys" (by Dan Lauria) off-Broadway at the Acorn Theatre, and "The Realization of Emily Linder" here in Long Branch. Add to that the company's recent announcement that they have purchased a brand new building to house their theatrical incubator and the realization is clear – NJ Rep is one of New Jersey's most valuable cultural assets.
Front Row Center
The Realization of Emily Linder
There are all kinds of laughs and "The Realization of Emily Linder" at the New Jersey Repertory Company gives us the best kind – the laughter of recognition.
We know these characters. We know them from our own families – with all of the usual tensions, rivalries and see-saw emotions. We know them because they are so deftly introduced. They draw themselves so clearly from the very start that we can't help but keep recognizing them in their actions and interactions throughout the play. This gives us pause and makes us laugh out loud, along with everyone else in the audience.
Congratulations to NJ Rep on another world premiere. This theater in Long Branch has a remarkable record for introducing plays that go places. Well-conceived, well-written, well-directed, well-acted, well-staged, no one will be surprised if "The Realization of Emily Linder" extends that reputation.
Everything is set in motion when the mother, Emily, played with expertise and cunning by Marnie Andrews, makes an unusual request of her two daughters, Margaret (Dana Benningfield,) and Janice (Corey Tazmania). At first glance, the daughters could not seem to be more different. Because casting has chosen two women who physically resemble each other the way sisters often do, we see their differences — body language, clothing style, verbal attitude — as choices the sisters have made that express their inner character. They grew up in the same environment why such different approaches to everything? It's a mystery we recognize from our own lives.
The entire play is about recognition and realization, where that second word means more than one thing. Among them, it means the sudden understanding of something about one's self. The play unfolds the characters with incredible efficiency for our pleasure, amusement, and understanding. It is surprising what can be made with building blocks that are mere words.
The play is also about lack of recognition, about not being able to recognize what is there standing right in front of you, because of the blinders of preoccupation with yourself. Names keep coming up, a theme; naming is another kind of recognition. See if you don't agree with me that the kindest, most telling words Emily speaks are these: "Because Margaret is Margaret and Janice is Janice."
Margaret is the seemingly more sensitive of the two sisters, wife and mother and Janice the hard-edged lawyer, competent, worldly, proactive. Both Benningfield hand Tazmania are excellent in their roles. The fourth character is Jenny (Jenny Vallancourt), Emily's hired caretaker who we meet sitting off to the side, reading a book. Suffice it to say that the reveal sometimes comes from an unexpected corner and Vallancourt manages her role expertly.
As always, SuzAnne Barabas' directing carries the day.
I hope I've told you enough to make you want to see it, but not so much that you feel you already know what happens – what I consider the role of a reviewer who truly wants you to have this experience.
"How come you can get to be the real you, but I can't get to be the real me?"
New Jersey Repertory Company (NJ Rep) continues their successful season with The M Spot on a limited engagement now through March 29th. This World Premiere play by is written by Michael Tucker who also stars in the show with his real life wife, Jill Eikenberry. Phoenix Vaughn rounds out the show's three person cast. With fine direction by Evan Bergman, this original, provocative and very adult story is sure to bring metro area audiences to the Long Branch stage.
Tucker has written a truly unique piece of theater, one which reveals a great deal about a couple's marital relations. Maddie (Jill Eikenberry) and Jerry (Michael Tucker) have been together a long time. Their daily routines, personal habits and sexual practices are called into question as they seek to move their relationship forward. It is Jerry who wishes to take a trip to a new age spa to invigorate their marriage. And when they arrive, the charming and vivacious masseuse, Star (Phoenix Vaughn) introduces Maddie to stimulating healing techniques.
The M Spot is a window into a couple's ups and downs but also has its share of comedic moments. The first act starts with Walter and Maddie in their apartment speaking individually to the audience about themselves and their relationship. When they come together in conversation, they are contentious but loving. Tucker and Eikenberry have an on stage chemistry that makes for a captivating performance. In the second act, when the couple visits Humboldt Hot Spring Spa, the character Star is introduced. The play takes on a very different tenor as we come to understand even more about Maddie and her trials. Vaughn is ideal in her role as she explains her massage practice and its "menu" with a positive and somewhat witty attitude. Looking for resolutions is only part of Maddie and Walter's journey. The M Spot captures a slice of life rarely seen.
The NJ Rep design team creatively brings The M Spot to life with scenic design by Jessica Parks, lighting design by Jill Nagle, sound design by Merek Royce Press and costume design by Maria Hooper.
The Two River Times: 'The M Spot'
Scene on Stage, by Philip Dorian
You may have heard of the G-spot, but probably not the M-spot. My hunch is you'll hear a lot about it from anyone you know who sees "The M Spot" at New Jersey Repertory Company.
For starters, the M-spot is closely related to the G-spot, but in Michael Tucker's play about sex-and-marriage-and-sex, the M outranks the G on the satisfaction scale, despite what you might have heard. Metaphorically, in fact, sensitivity to M opens the pathway to G.
The first "M Spot" act is alternating monologues between longtime married couple Jerry (Tucker) and Maddie (Jill Eikenberry). At first amusing (his more than hers), the solo spots become more and more personal, leading to a two-scene that centers on their interest (his more than hers) in spending a weekend at a sex-therapy resort.
Act Two finds Jerry and Maddie at the resort, where he is on a pre-massage wine-run, and she is confronted by masseuse Star Markowitz (Pheonix Vaughn), whose New-Age approach turns out to be life-changing. Superbly acted by Eikenberry and Vaughn, the two women's relationship develops over a half-hour from a cautious introduction to a true bonding. Within the scene, brief total nudity is staged and enacted so naturally as to negate any hint of prurience and, indeed, reveals as much about the clothed character as the un-clothed one. (That the intimate, female-centric scene is so well written by Tucker and gracefully directed by Evan Bergman says a lot about both of those men.)
Jerry returns, only to be baffled: What to make of Star's presence and Maddie's transformation? What emerges will not be revealed here, except to say that the resolution is totally believable, and that the last few moments – and spoken lines – are perfection.
I asked Tucker what prompted his first-ever written play. When original writers of "L.A. Law" left that show, he told me, they were replaced by writers charged with maintaining the tone of the series. Assuming that "there's no drama in a happy marriage," they wrote-in the divorce of the married characters played by Tucker and Eikenberry.
Later, the real-life married couple spent a few years exploring self-realization sessions at various sites in Northern California. Those experiences, and the fictional "divorce," inspired "The M Spot," which debunks those writers' faulty rationale in no uncertain terms.
AN INTIMATE PREMIERE HITS THE "SPOT" AT NJ REPUpper WET Side - March 13, 2015
Long ago and far away, on a broadcast-network landscape far removed from Netflix, Showtime and HBO, the characters of L.A. Law mined comic gold from an unspecified, life-changing boudoir maneuver known as "the Venus Butterfly." Here in 2015, on the stage of New Jersey Repertory, a pair of L.A. Law castmates have gone far beyond the Butterfly with "The M Spot," the unorthodox and frankly refreshing play now in its world premiere run.
Written by actor and author Michael Tucker — and pairing Tucker with Jill Eikenberry, his longtime partner in life, love, series television, book tours and the olive oil business — this study of a marriage at the crossroads (and an unexpected detour that marks the way home) could perhaps only have been successfully realized by the veteran couple known as The Tuckerberrys. It almost certainly could never have been brought before area audiences by anyone other than the Long Branch-based NJ Rep company.
Directed by Rep regular Evan Bergman — whose past credits include the ensemble piece "Jericho," a New York production of which co-starred Eikenberry — The M Spot casts the two performers (best known as L.A. Law associates Ann and Stuart) as Maddie and Jerry, a long-running partnership whose diminishing sex life and diverging interests have left them "becoming each other's mothers." In the play's first act, claustrophobically confined to an edge of the tiny Rep stage, the audience is invited ready-or-not to listen in, as the couple scroll through a litany of complaints, confessions, and conflicting accounts of trivial (but pivotal) incidents from a decades-long relationship that began as a thrilling extramarital affair.
Addressing the audience one by one — in a manner not unlike how TV lawyers stand up and argue their cases — the middle-aged marrieds harp on each other's annoying habits (her overuse of "I know;" his refusal to give up smoking pot), lament the betrayal of their own bodies (her recurrence of breast cancer; his inexplicable rash), and can't help but summon up the ghosts of their parents (her dad, his mom) on their way to grappling with the nature of truth ("an aphrodisiac," as Maddie sees it).
It's a session that's colored — the stars' assurances to the contrary — by the publicly private experiences of Eikenberry and Tucker (there's even a sly plug for his novel After Annie). It's also an entertaining interlude, in the way that something like Christopher Durang's Laughing Wild can be when done properly — but it's not really The M Spot, and observers who sense that there's much more to be discovered on the other side of that wall are proven correct in the play's second half.
It's Jerry's idea that he and Maddie book a weekend at a rustic, new-agey retreat equipped with clothing-optional hot pool, private "sensual masseuse," and a hoped-for "three-way" that should re-stimulate their sex lives "all the way to assisted living." But with Jerry disappeared on a time-consuming search for a liquor store — and Maddie unsure of exactly what's expected of her — things are hardly in order for the unexpectedly early arrival of that masseuse; a vaguely hippie-ish, gregariously cheerful young woman by the name of Star Rabinowitz (Pheonix Vaughn).
On her way to a babysitting commitment with her niece (and coming off a "tantric orgasm class"), Star makes the most of her limited time with her anxious client; recommending a special "sacred spot" massage ("It's more like an exorcism") that's designed to delve deep into the physical site where the accumulated hurts and fears of a lifetime collect and reside. What happens from that point is that Star works her magic — the wise and reassuring young professional guiding the older woman to a place she never imagined existed, and the play finding a hushed and deliberate rhythm that's unlike anything else you'll likely encounter on the suburban stage.
Having kicked away the fourth wall entirely in the first act, Tucker and Bergman invite the audience to witness what truly seems like an intensely private moment between real people; not as seedy voyeurs but as sharers in a special experience. It's the director's genius here that the scene feels anything but orchestrated, blocked and rehearsed. And while we briefly get to see very much of Pheonix Vaughn — the production comes with a cautionary regarding "adult themes and nudity" — her formidable acting gifts convey the fact that it couldn't be anyone up there but the supremely skilled Star (there's nary a trace of the repressed 1940s homemaker she played in one of NJ Rep's most successful past productions, The Housewives of Mannheim).
The re-appearance of a hurt, confused and "lost" Jerry results in a dramatic exchange that's resolved (if such things are ever resolved) on a hopeful note — and The M Spot sends homeward-bound theatergoers back to their cars with the sense that they've gotten a bracing bit of therapy for the price of their ticket.
TRI CITY NEWS March 5, 2015
Hitting "the M Spot" at Long Branch's NJ Rep
By Hannah Walker
LONG BRANCH- Here's the basic summary for "the M Spot," making its world premiere at the New Jersey Repertory company, much good may it do you:
After decades of happy and fulfilling married life, Jerry and Maddie have hit a bit of a rut. To start working out their issues, Jerry suggests they go to a 'clothing optional' new age spa, with their 'sensual masseuse'. Maggie is skeptical about the whole things, but ends up getting the most out of the weekend after connecting with young masseuse Star.
Written by Michael Tucker (of LA Law fame), the play takes all of Act1 to set this up. For the first 45 minutes, Jerry and Maggie don't speak to each other at all, taking it in turns to present their perspective on their marriage and each other directly to the audience. When their cases have been made, only then do they directly interact, and you see the reality of their marriage. Their revelations tiptoes around heaviness, but the overall tone is frank and playfully sharp.
The second act comes as something of a shock. Jerry has the first say and seems to steer the course of the play. Played by Tucker with irascible likeability, he's got control of the first act. But he vanishes after intermission, shifting the focus almost entirely onto Maggie. Jill Eikenberry (also of LA Law) carries the shift with such power that you kind of forget that this play wasn't always entirely about her. Where sex was funny in Act 1, it gets bigger and more complicated in Act 2. There are still great laughs, but Star and Maggie are circling ideas that go beyond boner jokes, ideas about consent, about women's bodies, female sexuality illness, trauma, and the idea of the 'sacred' and what that means. As Star, Pheonix Vaughn balances charm and healing energy while avoiding caricature.
The shifts in tone and focus between acts almost makes "the M Spot" feel like two different plays. Fortunately, they're both excellent plays And Maggie and Jerry are worth sticking with, even as their dynamic shifts dramatically. As disorganized as it can fell, there's enough meat in this play to mull over long after the curtain call.
The LINK News
Theater Review: L.A. Law stars win their case with The M SpotBy Madeline Schulman
Multi-talented Michael Tucker, who with his beautiful wife Jill Eikenberry played married lawyers on the hit TV show L.A. Law, has written an entertaining and thought provoking play, The M Spot, which once more displays them as a married couple.
In the first act, half the NJ Rep stage and a minimal amount of furniture indicate Jerry and Maddie's New York City apartment, and they take turns addressing the audience.
First Jerry talks about his therapist's scary use of animal metaphors (snakes wriggling backward out of their skins, hermit crabs scuttling naked toward a new home under the eyes of hungry gulls), his inexplicable rash, and Maddie's objection to his pot smoking.
Meanwhile, Maddie practices an impressive array of yoga poses. Then Maddie gives her view of their marriage, including the narrative of a sexy drive home from the Jersey Shore to Washington D.C. while they were still an illicit couple (later matched by Jerry's saucy tale of Maddie initiating sex with freshly washed and blow-dried hair), while Jerry tackles the Wednesday New York Times crossword puzzle. We learn that Maddie is a two time breast cancer survivor.
After a few monologues, Maddie tells the audience that now they will hear how it sounds when Maddie and Jerry talk to each other, and they resume arguing about various topics, including whether they should go to a new age spa in Humboldt Springs, California, to indulge in nude couples massage.
The second act is entirely different from the first, but the two acts go together perfectly like the two halves of a long-married couple. Now the entire stage has opened up to show us the beautiful room in the spa (set by Jessica Parks).
The actors no longer address the audience. The first act was divided evenly between Jerry and Maddie; Mr. Tucker has gallantly given the major part of the second to Ms Eikenberry.
Maddie is waiting for Jerry to come back from buying wine. She is joined by Star Rabinowitz (Pheonix Vaughn), a lovely young masseuse, whose hippie chick, manic pixie dream girl exterior hides a core of empathy and wisdom. Maddie is a little unnerved at first, but after hearing the menu of massage choices offered, her apprehension turns to intrigued interest.
In the scene that follows, under Evan Bergman's carefully nuanced direction, the two beautiful and brave actors bare body and emotion in an encounter that mixes the erotic and the spiritual. Maddie is healed of pains she did not even realize she was suffering.
Due to over-whelming demand, New Jersey Repertory Company, located at 179 Broadway in Long Branch, has added extra performances of The M Spot by Michael Tucker, star of TV's L.A. LAW, through April 5, 2015.
Five new shows have been added to handle the demand: Thursday, April 2 at 8:00 pm Friday, April 3 at 8:00 pm Saturday, April 4 at 3:00 pm and 8:00 pm Sunday, April 5 at 2:00 pm
Jerry and Maddie have been married–forever–and are looking for something to recapture the former vitality of their marriage. They've been through the mill when it comes to therapists and well-meaning advice, so when the opportunity arises for them to go on a retreat to a new-age spa, complete with nude massages, Jerry is all for it. Maddie, on the other hand, is a bit more reserved, and is naturally skeptical about the process and her husband's motives. But when Maddie finally let's go of her inhibitions with the aid of a lovely young masseuse, Jerry is left scratching his head wondering what he missed.
The cast includes Michael Tucker, Jill Eikenberry and Pheonix Vaughn is directed by Evan Bergman. Sneak preview performances to this limited engagement begin Thursday, February 26 with opening night Saturday, February 28 at New Jersey Repertory Company (179 Broadway, Long Branch, NJ), and will run through Sunday, March 29. Tickets may be purchased by calling 732-229-3166 or online at www.njrep.org.
The production team includes: Jessica Parks (Set Design & Props), Brian Snyder (Technical Director,) Jill Nagle (Lighting Design), Merek Royce Press (Sound Design), Maria Hooper (Costume Design), and Jennifer Tardibuono (Stage Manager).
THEIR FAVORITE THINGS: "L.A. Law" Star Jill Eikenberry Shares Her Theatregoing Experiences
Playbill.com's feature series Their Favorite Things asks members of the theatre community to share the Broadway performances that most affected them as part of the audience.
This week we spotlight the choices of "L.A. Law" star Jill Eikenberry, who will be seen with husband Michael Tucker in New Jersey Repertory Company's world premiere of Tucker's The M Spot, which will play the Long Branch venue Feb. 26-March 29.
'The M Spot' explores a sensitive area
The Newark Examiner
As the weather starts its first warming trend, Jersey residents start to dream about going to the shore. If you are contemplating a trip, consider going to Long Branch and make a visit to the New Jersey Repertory Theatre to see an exciting new play. In residence for the remainder of this month through to April 5, 2015 is "The M Spot" by Michael Tucker. The show is billed as a story about a married couple looking to recapture the former vitality of their marriage. They go to a new age spa with each person having their own sense of what it might be. The plot sounds very easy and fairly cliché; however, the play is skillfully written by Mr. Tucker who also acts in the play. Direction is by Evan Bergman. It is beautifully performed by him, Jill Eikenberry, and Phoenix Vaughn as they bring out a deeper meaning.
In the first act, we meet Maddie and Jerry. In a clever approach to storytelling, each character is on opposites sides of the stage as they each tell their stories. They never interact throughout the entire first act as each tells their side of the story. This couple, who has been married for a number of years, is experiencing some issues effecting their sex lives. But scratch deep beneath the surface watch as Mr. Tucker introduces tense elements which include the after-effects on a woman after having breast cancer and how it affects her sexuality. Gently explored, we learn that Maddie had a re-occurrence of breast cancer 23 years after her first bout with it. It returned to the same spot where had been before and it was treated with a lumpectomy. We assume it was treated the same way again as there is no mention of a breast removal or even chemotherapy. But as people who have survived breast cancer know, the return to a normal sexual life can be difficult. Interesting to note: Maddie mentions it and Jerry barely alludes to it. At this stage of the play, Jerry appears to be the stronger of the two.
The second act opens to a complete new setting because the couple has gone to the new age spa. Jerry has left the room to go to buy some wine when Maddie opens the door for Star. Star is a new age massage therapist who tells Maddie that she has a menu of services that she offers. Maddie is gently guided through the process by Star and eventually she becomes receptive to the idea of trying a Tantra styled massage. Star considers herself more of a healer than a sexual masseuse because she feels she can find areas of pain in that M area of a woman and loosen them allowing a flow of well-being to permeate throughout the woman's body for long periods of time which will allow the woman to be more open to sexual pleasures and enjoyment.
Star removes all her clothing as she prepares the message table for Maddie. When Maddie reenters the room modestly covered in a long sheet, she asks the young well-built girl to put her clothing back on. It would seem as though the reminder of what her own body used to look like pre-surgery days might be too much for her to bear. As the massage begins, Maddie begins to work through the internal sexual pain she has been experiencing. And as the pain dissipates, she feels free again to enjoy sex and looks forward to Jerry's return. Oddly, it is not a highly sexually charged scene; rather it is a very healing moment that prevails. When Jerry returns, he notes the change in Maddie who he says "is glowing." But he is puzzled as Star leaves. He needs more information about what happened and cannot seem to get it.
However, the play leaves viewers with a positive feeling that this couple will progress forward in their relationship and enjoy each other again as they had in the past. The power though has shifted to Maddie rather than Jerry as she finally has accepted her body again as breast cancer survivors know is no small feat. Watching this unfold is quite moving.
Since seeing this play, an extension to the current April 5th date was made and additional shows each week have been added. It is proving to be popular for many reasons. Tucker and Eikenberry, former television stars from "L.A. Law," are exciting and moving to see in this two hour live show. And besides, well written plays with strong issues addressed don't come along very often.
DUELING PREMIERES: New plays at New Jersey Repertory Company and Two River Theater
Scene on Stage, by Philip Dorian
You've probably heard of the G-spot, but maybe not the M-spot. My hunch is you'll hear a lot about it from anyone you know who sees "The M Spot" at New Jersey Repertory Company.
For starters, the M-spot is located in the same general area as the G-spot, but in Michael Tucker's play about sex-and-marriage-and-sex, the M outranks the G on the satisfaction scale, despite what you might have heard. Metaphorically, in fact, M might well be the gateway to G.
The first act alternates monologues between long-time married couple Jerry and Maddie, played by long-time married couple Tucker and Jill Eikenberry. The somewhat repetitious solo turns, at first amusing (his more than hers), become very personal. The act concludes in a two-scene that centers on their interest (his more than hers) in spending a week-end at a sex-therapy resort.
Act two finds Jerry and Maddie at the resort, where he is on a pre-massage wine-run, and she is confronted by early-arriving masseuse Star (Pheonix Vaughn), whose New-Age values turn out to be life-changing. Superbly acted by Eikenberry and Vaughn, the relationship between the two women develops over a half-hour from a cautious introduction to a true bonding. Within the scene, brief total nudity is staged and enacted so naturally as to negate any hint of prurience and, indeed, reveals as much about the clothed character as the un-clothed one. (That the intimate, female-centric scene is so well written by Tucker and gracefully directed by Evan Bergman says a lot about both men.)
Jerry returns, only to be baffled: What to make of Star's presence and Maddie's transformation? What emerges will not be revealed here, except to say that the resolution is totally believable, and that the last few moments – and spoken lines – are perfection.
I asked Tucker what prompted his first-ever written play. When original writers of "L A Law" left that show after the fifth season, he told me, they were replaced by writers charged with maintaining the tone of the ongoing series. In the belief that "there's no drama in a happy marriage," they wrote-in the divorce of the married characters played by Tucker and Eikenberry.
Later, the real-life married couple spent some time exploring self-realization sessions at various sites in Northern California. (Where else?) Those experiences, and the fictional "divorce," inspired "The M Spot," which debunks those writers' faulty rationale in no uncertain terms.
front row center
The M SpotBy Raphael Badagliacca
The M Spot is a play about an awakening.
At NJ Rep Company in Long Branch, the play is always about more than the words. With excellence we have come to expect, Jessica Parks' unusually spare set in Act I transforms into a welcoming, richly detailed space in Act II, paralleling the action of the script. The lighting, expertly selected by resident designer Jill Nagle, also tells the story, moving from a cool blue-gray sheen to the warmth of reds and browns.
This play may not be for you — unless you are a man, or a woman. If you've been married or in a relationship without ever having had a single bad or empty day… this play may not be for you. Otherwise, I hear dates are selling out fast. The Box Office has extended the run for two additional weeks through April 5.
You will recognize two of the actors as real-life husband and wife Michael Tucker and Jill Eikenberry of L.A. Law fame. They play Jerry and Maddie, a married couple for more than forty years. The third actor is Star, the outgoing young masseuse, played by Pheonix Vaughn. Tucker wrote the play.
If "enlightenment" is too big a word, maybe "discovery" is more like it. Discovery can come from an unlikely source. In fact, it may come from someone who has not done all the right things, the way you have. But if doing all the right things has brought you to this point — a dull stasis, a comfortable/uncomfortable routine, what Jerry calls "diminishment" — then were those the right things? Clearly, I am not going to tell you the story of the play because I don't think that's what a review should do. I prefer that you experience it.
This is an adult comedy, with what the ratings services call brief nudity, always a welcome sight on the right body. If that scares you, this play may not be for you, but I think I know you, and I feel sure you will be fine with it.
Oh, and did I say there are lots of laughs? There are lots of laughs.
PHOTO: SUZANNE BARABAS
On the long-running TV series "L.A. Law," they spent eight full seasons (1986-1994) in the roles of the somewhat nebbishy tax attorney Stuart Markowitz and the elegant legal eagle Ann Kelsey — colleagues whose complicated onscreen relationship (remember the "Venus Butterfly?") was initially deemed far-fetched by fans, even after it was revealed that the co-stars Michael Tucker and Jill Eikenberry had actually been married to each other since 1973.
In fact, the story goes that during one of the show's final seasons, a new team of writers suggested that Ann and Stuart's characters might best be energized by a dramatic divorce subplot — to which Tucker replied, "there's already plenty of drama within a happy marriage."
The wrap-up of that acclaimed Steven Bochco ensemble drama — a run during which the power-couple known as "the Tuckerberrys" also produced and acted together in several TV movie projects — saw neither the end of their marriage, nor any slowdown to their professional collaborations. The decades since have found Jill and Michael engaging in a panorama of activities that have ranged from performing in the venerable stage duet "Love Letters," to serving up live cooking demos. They've written songs together; produced a PBS documentary on artist Emile Norman; and have grown, personally picked and bottled their own olive oil from their second home in the Italian countryside.
With Michael staying busy as "the writer of the family," the Tuckerberrys have remained highly visible on the printed page, through books like "I Never Forget a Meal" (a foodie's account of a lifelong love affair) and "Living in a Foreign Language" (a diary of the Manhattan-based couple's arrival in Italy). The memoir "Family Meals" recounted the efforts of the family (including chef daughter Allison and musician son Max) to rally in support of Jill's aging mother as she slipped into dementia — and the 2012 novel "After Annie" mined comic gold from such less-than-likely inspirations as Eikenberry's real-life battles with breast cancer.
Beginning this weekend, the husband-wife team with the Sonny-to-Cher height ratio is once more highly visible — in contexts both familiar (as co-stars in a new stage play) and, in Tucker's case, scary-new (as the first-time playwright of said script). The occasion is the world premiere of a full-length show called "The M Spot" — and the host venue is none other than that Shore-based incubator of cutting-edge theater, New Jersey Repertory Company.
Directed by frequent NJ Repertory associate Evan Bergman ("A View of the Mountains" and many others), the play casts Eikenberry and Tucker as Maddie and Jerry — a long-wed couple "looking for something to recapture the former vitality of their marriage." Their ongoing quest for some effective therapy has led them to a New Age spa — equipped with a "sensual masseuse" named Star (the skilled and glamorous Pheonix Vaughn, of NJ Rep's "Housewives of Mannheim" and more), a specialist in nude massages and sexual healing. It's a retreat that has Jerry "all for it," even as Maddie remains "skeptical about the process and his motives."
"This is not The Mike and Jill Story — although I've certainly drawn inspiration from us to some extent," explains Tucker, heading off the obvious question. "We weren't even intending to act in it originally — so you're not necessarily seeing 'us' on the stage — although our sense of intimacy will certainly come through at times."
"It's a brave exposure of a relationship…a lot of things come up that most people don't ever get to in public," says Eikenberry, who worked previously with director Bergman on an Off Broadway production of Jack Canfora's "Jericho."
"Maddie is not Jill — it's up to me to discover exactly who Maddie is — and yet some things about her feel very close to me."
Tucker, who takes the tack that marital issues aren't things to be "resolved" ("you don't 'resolve' something that goes on til you die") sees his "M Spot" characters as people who haven't so much encountered a brick wall, as "a narrowing of the chute…they're getting to the age where they really need to define themselves."
The Tuckerberrys, who plan a return to their Italian olive grove following the conclusion of the play's run, are of course in perfect agreement about their relationship with NJ Rep, a forum that Jill calls "amazing…they're so nurturing of challenging and risky works. It's reminding me of why I got into theater in the first place."
Featuring "adult themes and brief nudity" — and recommended for audiences 18 and older — "The M Spot" offers preview performances tonight and Saturday (and opens on the night of Feb. 28), following with a matinee performance on March 1, then continuing until March 29 with performances Thursdays through Sundays. For tickets and more information, call 732-229-3166 or visit www.njrep.org.
BWW Interviews: Jill Eikenberry in THE M SPOT at NJ Rep
The M Spot, a provocative new play by Michael Tucker, will be at New Jersey Repertory (NJ Rep) from February 26th through March 29th. This World Premiere is directed by Evan Bergman and also stars Michael Tucker and his real-life wife, Jill Eikenberry. Broadwayworld.com had the opportunity to interview Eikenberry about her impressive theatrical accomplishments and the upcoming show.
Eikenberry has a vast array of stage, movie and television credits. She has been seen in Broadway shows that include Moonchildren and Onward Victoria. She received Obie awards for her Off-Broadway performances in Life Under Water and Lemon Sky and a Drama Desk nomination for her role in The Kid. Her film performances include roles in Between the Lines, Arthur and Young Adult. Eikenberry received a Golden Globe Award and five Emmy Nominations for her role in the television show L.A. Law that she starred in for eight seasons.
In The M Spot, Jerry (Michael Tucker) and Maddie (Jill Eikenberry) have been married-forever-and are looking for something to recapture the vitality in their marriage. They've been through the mill when it comes to therapists and well-meaning advice, so when the opportunity arises for them to go on a retreat to a new-age spa, complete with nude massages, Jerry is all for it. Maddie, on the other hand, is a bit more reserved, and is naturally skeptical about the process and her husband's motives. But when Maddie finally lets go of her inhibitions with the aid of a lovely young masseuse, Jerry is left wondering what he missed.
We asked Eikenberry about her earliest interest in theater. "I played Snow White in French class in the 5th grade. As I got older I did high school plays and musicals in community theater. At Barnard College, I majored in physical anthropology and kept telling myself that theater would just be an avocation. I played "Iolanthe" at Barnard, and was Margaret of Anjou in Henry VI Part 2. Then I got cast as Ophelia in the Columbia production of Hamlet. One night in my dorm, as I sat learning her monologue "Oh what a noble mind is here o'erthrown..... I noticed I had huge tears running down my face. I was shocked. I'd never been able to open up like that. And I loved it. That was the moment. A friend told me I should audition for Yale Drama School and I was off and running."
Eikenberry told us about some of the mentors who have encouraged her career. "At Yale I had a remarkable class with Paul Sills, who taught us to improvise and trust our instincts even when we had no idea where we were going. I loved the freedom it gave me. But my favorite acting teacher was Mira Rostova, who's technique came out of Stanislavsky. I took class with her in New York long after I left Yale. I wanted to be like her best student - Zora Lampert."
We asked Eikenberry about some of her favorite roles and those that have been distinctive in her career. "My favorite role was Alma in Eccentricities of a Nightingale by Tennessee Williams, which I did at Playwright's Horizons in the late 70s. Tennessee came to a dress rehearsal and decided he wanted to add to the play. So he wrote 2 new scenes that we put in during previews. He also gave me some invaluable acting advice - about having the courage not to play the outer manifestations of Alma's eccentricity until I understood what was going on inside. On opening night he came up on stage for the curtain call, turned to the audience and said 'I want to thank this wonderful cast for helping me to finally finish my favorite play.' A career highlight for sure."
Eikenberry is working alongside her husband in the show at NJ Rep. She told us more about their current experience together. "I'm really enjoying working with Mike on The M Spot. We've acted together many times, but this is different - because I have an in with the writer. He's very responsive when I have a question about one of my lines. I guess he knows he has to go home with me at the end of the day. We're also having fun acting together. We seem to be better at listening to each other than we used to be. I think Mike has written a very brave play, because it deals honestly with areas of relationship that people don't talk about. I'm excited to be acting in it - and a little scared."
As we look forward to the show, Eikenberry spoke about the role of Maddie that she plays in The M Spot. "Maddie is courageously in search of her true self. She's a bulldog. She wants Jerry to take the leap with her and she won't take no for an answer. She's also very funny and often wise. But she comes up against a challenge in Act 2 that shakes her foundations and takes her much deeper into the truth than she bargained for."
Eikenberry is pleased to be working in Long Branch with NJ Rep. "We're crazy about the NJ Rep. Gabe and Suzanne are terrific people. Their commitment to the theater and to new plays in particular is very pure. It reminds us of why we wanted to be in the theater in the first place. It's the perfect place for us."
BWW Interviews: Michael Tucker in THE M SPOT at NJ Rep
Michael Tucker has written The M Spot, a racy and clever new play. It will be onstage at New Jersey Repertory (NJ Rep) from February 26th through March 29th. This World Premiere is directed by Evan Bergman and also stars Michael Tucker and his real-life wife, Jill Eikenberry.
Michael Tucker is an actor and writer well known to audiences for his portrayal of Stuart Markowitz in the television series L.A. Law. He has worked on stage, TV and in films. Broadwayworld.com had the opportunity to interview Tucker about his career and The M Spot.
We asked Tucker about some of his earliest interests in theater and the performing arts.
"My career started when I lip-synched to old Al Jolson records for anyone who would listen. This was around the age of four or five, I'd say. Then I was a Lost Boy in a local Baltimore production of Peter Pan. After that I never looked back."
Tucker told us about some of the performances that inspired his career. "I took a 12 hour bus trip from Pittsburgh to New York to see Alec Guinness in DYLAN. That was a major inspiration. A few years later I saw Olivier at the National Theater in London, which showed me how far I had yet to go."
Tucker has an impressive career as an author. He has written three non-fiction books, I Never Forget a Meal, Living in a Foreign Language, Family Meals and a fiction novel, After Annie. The M Spot is Tucker's first play and he told us a little about his inspiration for the piece. "It started as a novel that I wanted to write in the first person. It became an extended rant. Then, after Jerry (the main character) started talking about his wife I thought I should give her a chance to speak and the novel became a play. It's drawn from both personal experiences and my overactive imagination."
Tucker has worked with his real-life wife, Jill Eikenberry often. He spoke about doing The M Spot together. "Jill and I have worked together a lot. Although not at all for the first fifteen years of our relationship. We kept our careers completely separate until a guest shot together on HILL STREET BLUES, which led to our roles on L.A. Law. These days we like to work together because we don't want to be apart for any length of time any more. I love to work with her. She makes it easy."
Tucker expressed his admiration for NJ Rep. "We're really just beginning our experience at New Jersey Rep, but we already find ourselves completely simpatico with SuzAnne and Gabor and we love working with Evan Bergman, our director -- so, so far, so good."
The M Spot has a clever and provocative story line. We asked Tucker what NJ audiences can expect. "I don't want to prepare them for anything -- except to say it deals with adult situations -- so don't bring the kids. It's not Mary Poppins."
We asked Tucker if there was anything else he wanted Broadwayworld.com readers to know. "Just that we're incredibly excited to be doing The M Spot at this wonderful theater. It's my first play and it means a great deal to me."
"If Pamela Harrington did not exist, we would have to invent her." -Al Gore
Swimming at the Ritz is making its US Premiere at New Jersey Repertory Company (NJ Rep) through February 1st and it is a must-see theatrical event. The audience is welcomed into a private suite at the Paris Ritz Hotel to meet Pamela Churchill Hayward Harriman who is being sued by her step-children for forty million dollars. It is 1995 and Pamela, a saucy and vivacious individual, is currently serving as the Ambassador to France for the Clinton Administration.
This smart and entertaining play is written by Charles Leipart and is directed by NJ Rep's Artistic Director, SuzAnne Barabas. The two-hander stars Judith Hawking as Pamela and Christopher Daftsios as Pietro, Pamela's handsome, young Italian valet. Barabas' ingenious direction, Leipart's clever script, and the remarkable talents of Hawking and Daftsios make Swimming at the Ritz a vibrant and totally captivating play.
Hawking masters the role of Pamela as she engages the audience in an evocative journey of romantic adventures, an extravagant lifestyle and her own political prowess. The play brings fascinating insight into her world, that she dubs the "Pamela Club." With an early marriage to Winston Churchill's son, Randolph Churchill, followed by a string of high-profile affairs and subsequent marriages to Broadway Producer, Leland Hayward and wealthy Democratic politician, W. Averell Harriman, her life was anything but boring. Hawking's talent for impersonation brings many of the people in Pamela's life to the stage.
Christopher Daftsios as Pietro is the ideal character to enhance Pamela's story. Whether he acts as her earnest and helpful valet or participates in a reminiscent scene with swanky dance moves, he completes the depiction of Pamela Churchill Hayward Harriman.
Once again, the creative team at NJ Rep has made this play a totally pleasing production with choreography by Georgina Bates, scenic design by Jessica Parks, lighting design by Jill Nagle, sound design by Merek Royce Press and costume design by Patricia E. Doherty and stage management by Jennifer Tardibuono.
Experience a piece of history along with the humor and drama of a real iconic figure in Swimming at the Ritz. And when Pamela takes her nightly swim at the Paris Ritz, metropolitan area audiences should be in the pool.
Meet the Vivacious Pamela Harriman Swimming at the Ritz
Review by Bob Rendell, Talkin' Broadway
Set in 1995 in her luxurious private suite at the Ritz Hotel in Paris, Charles Leipart's Swimming at The Ritz depicts 74-year-old United States Ambassador to France Pamela Churchill Hayward Harriman (née Digby) preparing for the auction sale of valuable art masterpieces, antiques and jewelry in order to raise $40 million dollars to settle a lawsuit brought against her by "the greedy daughters" of her late husband, multi-millionaire railroad heir, diplomat and former New York State Governor Averell Harriman. While Pamela and concierge Pietro await the arrival of appraisers from Christie's, Pamela regales us with scintillating stories from her extraordinary, profligate, and immoral past. Indisputably, she was one of the last and greatest courtesans of high society's gilded age of unashamed privilege and extravagance. Given that the pejorative names which might be accurately used to describe such a woman, Leipart's admiring depiction of Pamela could be described as hagiography. However, aided by the stunning performance of Judith Hawking, Leipart has created a Pamela who impresses as an admirable woman of value and substance. Most importantly for us, this Pamela proves to be a delightfully bright and pleasing companion for an evening at the theatre.
The sumptuous Judith Hawking, bearing a striking resemblance to the widow Harriman, delivers a stunning and vivacious performance in the role. Initially, as she prattles on about her preparation as a socialite's daughter to be a desirable and valuable lady of high society, Pamela is glib and shallow. However, as the details of her affairs with and marriages to a plethora of men of great wealth and variable substance emerge, the account of her determination to provide honest value and her exceptional talent to do so are conveyed with an insouciance and joie de vivre that is irresistible. Thus, Hawking and her author make us admire and delight in a woman whose materialism and extravagance under other circumstances would be found deplorable.
Christopher Daftsios is delightfully amusing as Pietro. Although this broadly comic role is played to the hilt by Daftsios, the rapacious, somewhat incompetent concierge to the rich is, certainly by 1995, closer to reality than Ralph Fiennes' idealized concierge in The Grand Budapest Hotel.
New Jersey Rep and director SuzAnne Barabas have given us a grand production boasting maximum style and flair. Her exceptional direction is enabled and abetted by her ideal casting and the top notch work of her design team. Scenic designer Jessica Parks, whose consistently impressive sets have provided a treasure trove of delights for New Jersey Rep audiences, has transformed the narrow stage of this 65-seat theatre into an lived-in, luxuriously elegant hotel residence. She has stripped away the façade above the stage, extending the height of the stage to the building ceiling and, in the process, exposing the overhead lighting grid which extends forward of the stage. Resultantly, the eye is tricked into perceiving that it is viewing a large, enveloping proscenium stage. Although by this time, we should be beyond being surprised by anything that Parks might achieve it is an astonishing effect given the confines of the theatre. The flattering luxurious costumes designed for Hawking by Patricia E. Doherty and the lush lighting design of Jill Nagle are superb.
Pamela Harriman had affairs with Averell Harriman, Jock Whitney, Bill Paley, Edward R. Murrow, Ali Kahn, Fiat heir Gianni Agnelli, and Elie de Rothschild among a number of other men of great wealth. She was married to Randolph Churchill (son of Winston), Broadway producer Leland Heyward and, ultimately, Averell Harriman. Following her marriage to Harriman, she became a major organizer and fundraiser for the Democratic Party. After his death, Pamela served as U.S. Ambassador to France in the Clinton administration until her death in 1997. Ambassador Pamela Harriman succumbed to a cerebral hemorrhage at age 76 while swimming at the Ritz.
Poor Little Rich Girl -- A Review of Swimming At The Ritz
NJ Stage, by Gary Wien
One thing about money is that you can never have enough," says socialite Pamela Churchill Hayward Harriman in Charles Leipart's, Swimming At The Ritz. She's an utterly amazing character — one that found a way to parlay a good name ("Churchill") into husband after husband and fortune after fortune… that is, until the money runs out which is where the play begins.
Swimming At The Ritz is current enjoying its U.S. premiere at New Jersey Repertory Company for another two weeks. The play features absolutely fantastic performances by Judith Hawking (as Pamela) and Christopher Daftsios (as Pietro, her favorite valet at the Ritz) under wonderful direction by Suzanne Barabas (NJ Rep's Artistic Director).
They say truth is always stranger than fiction and this play proves that theory once again. Pamela's story is entirely based on the true story of a woman who became penniless when sued by her step children for squandering their inheritance (something like $115 million in nine years time). As the play begins, Pamela is spending her last few quiet hours in her hotel room at The Ritz before her items are taken away to be sold by an auction house.
"My friend Coco Chanel always said the best things in life are free… the next best are very, very expensive," Pamela tells the audience — literally speaking to the audience. There is no fourth wall here. Audience members are an active part of her conversation, sometimes being spoken directly to or even thrown gifts as she recalls the men, the money, and the memorable moments of her life. "All we needed was to learn how to marry a rich man and give them babies — an heir and a spare," she laughs.
The dialogue is fresh and often quite funny, but Hawking shows off excellent range during a couple of sad memories, often from war time when she would flirt with soldiers to acquire information for Winston Churchill. She relished having access to power — something that would steer her destiny as much as money would.
What makes Swimming At The Ritz so great is the addition of Pietro, her favorite valet. Daftsios is simply hilarious as her Italian sidekick and confidant, providing real-time illustrations to her stories. He plays each of the characters she mentions differently and to great comedic effect. The two make a perfect pair.
The play is a highly enjoyable tale about a character in history that was almost like a Forest Gump of the socialite world. If she didn't exist someone would have had to create her. Kudos to Charles Leipart for recognizing the hilarity in her story. My only wish is that he reconsiders the surreal ending, which seems like an unnecessary break in the play's realism. Pamela's story is so grand, there's no reason to add to it.
'Swimming at the Ritz' at NJ Rep: reflections on a one-of-a-kind lifeBy JAY LUSTIG
You may not, right now, be able to give more than a vague answer to the question: Who was Pamela Harriman? "Wasn't she an ambassador, or something like that?" you might say.
But if you see "Swimming at the Ritz," which is at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch through Feb. 1, she will become very vivid to you.
As written by Charles Leipart and portrayed by Judith Hawking (in the play's American premiere), Harriman is a fascinating character: a calculated charmer, ambitious and shallow, but also brutally honest and painfully aware of her shortcomings. The premise of the play is that she's living alone in 1995 in a suite at the Ritz in Paris, with her own Matisse and Picasso paintings on the walls, talking about her life "to the furniture," as she says, or to the hotel's deferential valet Pietro (played by Christopher Daftsios).
And what a life it was. Marriage to one of Winston Churchill's sons during World War II. A quick divorce, then a series of affairs with super-rich Europeans and celebrities such as Edward R. Murrow, followed by marriages to American theater producer Leland Hayward ("Gypsy," "The Sound of Music," "South Pacific") and ex-New York governor W. Averell Harriman. And then, finally, prominence as a political fundraiser and a plum political appointment as the United States Ambassador to France during the Clinton administration.
She doesn't shrink away from the fact that she was attracted to most of the men in her life because of their wealth and power. "It's all about survival, isn't it? Doing what you have to do," she says. And she talks about her seduction strategy: basically, figuring out what these men need to keep them happy, and giving it to them, enthusiastically and unconditionally.
With her down-to-earth sense of humor, her casual namedropping and her way of telling her stories like she's sharing confidential information, she charms us, the audience, as well. (Breaking the fourth wall, she acknowledges that she knows we are there, though Pietro thinks she is just imagining us.) Christopher Daftsios, playing a hotel valet, adds some comic relief to "Swimming at the Ritz," with Judith Hawking starring as Pamela Harriman.
There's a bit of anxiety in her life, as she's being sued by her late third husband's children, who are trying to get back some of the money he has left her. The drama of the play comes from the stories she tells, though — and the way they start to reveal more and more truths (some not all that pleasant) about her — and not from this minor annoyance.
Jessica Parks' set effectively re-creates the elegance of a hotel room in which such a woman would live, and director SuzAnne Barabas offers some clever touches, like the flashes of light in the window when Harriman is talking about London being bombed during World War II. Daftsios adds some energetic comic relief while also making it clear that his character feels a strong emotional bond to the eccentric lady who's ordering him around.
But really, everything hinges on Hawking's ability to bring Harriman to life — to make the audience care about her, despite her privileges and the materialistic way she has gone about her life — and she's more than up to the challenge. New Jersey Repertory has an impressive opener to its 18th season.
front row center
Swimming at the RitzBy Raphael Badagliacca
Actors and directors agree that it is particularly challenging to portray a real person. "Swimming at the Ritz" takes it so much further — a historical person "becomes real" for the audience during the play. This is what happened last weekend on the stage at NJ Repertory Company in Long Branch, NJ, where it will continue to happen through February 1.
Pamela Churchill Hayward Harriman is a name we think we've heard. Depending on how avidly we read newspapers, we may remember that Bill Clinton appointed her ambassador to France. We may even know that her first marriage gave Winston Churchill his first grandson, also named Winston, or that she married Washington insider Averell Harriman.
But there is no way we could appreciate the extent of her charms or the influence she wielded over men in powerful, moneyed positions as both paramour and wife — the "last courtesan" of her time — without the script of Charles Leipart, the direction of SuzAnne Barabas, and the astonishing embodiment of the character by actress Judith Hawking. Before "Swimming at the Ritz" we may have heard of Pamela Harriman; after the play, we know her.
Excellence begins with the selection of material, which explains why NJ Repertory has introduced so many plays that have gone on to other stages around the country and the world. "Swimming at the Ritz" is another American premiere.
Originality fosters success on the stage. Enter Christopher Dafstios as Pietro, the Italian valet and default confidant of Mrs. Harriman. The creation of this second character is a bit of genius. It adds dimension and interest to what is essentially a one-woman show without taking the focus for a single beat off the main character. Dance partner, conversationalist of few words, faithful witness, humble friend, with a face as expressive as a mime, Dafstios as Pietro makes Mrs. Harriman that much more real by his mere presence, just by how he listens as she moves around the room at the Ritz recounting for him and us the remarkable story of her life.
It's hard to say enough about Judith Hawking. There is no real way to separate the script from the director from the actress, or happily, in this case, the actress from the historical figure. But it is the actress we see and hear; through her, we see the play. At one point, Mrs. Harriman tells us she is standing in one place, but she is also somewhere else. On a single night in a lavish hotel room, she travels to the places and times of her life; it is Judith Hawking who takes us by the hand and shows them to us.
The Mrs. Harriman the play gives us is a worldly woman who transitions the politics of personal interaction into official political capital; the actress makes this believable. "What Pamela knows would fill a book and a half," the she that is Hawking and Harriman convinces us. What Pamela Churchill Hayward Harriman most wants, she tells us, is to be remembered. This actress and this entire production won't let her be forgotten.
"You know you're very lucky," she says to us from her room at the Ritz. "I'm sharing a great deal of myself." Indeed you did. And indeed we were very lucky that you did.
The LINK News
Judith Hawking: The actress behind the socialiteBy Neil Schulman
Long Branch — If Judith Hawking, who plays the main character in NJ Rep's "Swimming At The Ritz" looks familiar, you may have seen her on TV as a judge on Law & Order, or on the stage here, in NJ Rep's previous "Saving Kitty."
Or you might have seen her on Broadway, off-Broadway, in regional theater around the country, her recurring roles she had in One Life To Live and All My Children, or numerous movies.
"I work all the time," she said. "I'm very lucky."
Hawking said that people still come up to her and quote dialog she recited on Law & Order.
Acting can make a difference. On "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," she played a rape victim in an episode called "Limitations." At the time, there was a strict five year statute of limitations in New York on testing DNA to determining a potential rapist. This episode's gripping story helped get the laws changed. "I was very proud to be part of that," Hawking said. "You entertain first, you educate second."
In Swimming At The Ritz, Hawking plays Pamela Churchill Hayward Harriman, a socialite with a fascinating history as everything from the wife of Winston Churchill's son to U.S. ambassador to France. This is the U.S. premiere of the play (performed in a truncated version in England), and it's been very well received so far. New Jersey Stage said Hawking and her costar Christopher Daftsios give "fantastic performances," and Broadway World Reviews says "Hawking's talent for impersonation brings many of the people in Pamela's life to the stage." When The Link was waiting to speak with her after a recent performance, more than one audience member leaving the show said "she's amazing." Hawking doesn't know this yet, though. She started in classical theater, and when she's in a play, she follows a piece of advice from one of the best known classical actors when it comes to reading reviews. "(Laurence) Olivier said this really smart thing: you mustn't believe the good ones if you don't read the bad ones." As a result, she waits until after the run of a show is over before seeing what critics have to say. When she's exiting NJ Rep, she says she turns her head from the bulletin board with clippings about the show.
But she's worked hard, along with playwright Charles Leipart, director SuzAnne Barabas, and costume designer Patricia Doherty to bring Pamela Harriman to life.
"I did an inordinate amount of necessary homework for her," Hawking said. That included watching C-SPAN interviews, documentaries she appeared in, and reading numerous books, including one by an ex-stepdaughter.
She read two biographies of Harriman, "Life of the Party" and "Reflected Glory."
"They could not be more different tellings of her story," Hawking said. That's partially because Life of the Party began as a collaboration between Harriman and the author, but she backed out, and refused to pay the author for his work.
But everyone agrees Harriman was a fascinating and talented woman. She was capable of meeting someone, talking to them for a few minutes, and learning everything about them – part of the reason she was in such high social and diplomatic circles. It was known as "being Pamalized."
"I came to love this woman," Hawking said.
Working at NJ Rep has been a joy, she said. Everyone, from the people who greet theatergoers at the door to the actors and directors "serves the production," she said.
Barabas was a "phenomenal" director, and Leipart "was remarkably giving… just wants it (the script) to be the best it could be."
It's not just good community theater; it's good theater, period. "My friends from New York come and they're blown away by the designs," Hawking said. "This is a first rate theater, and everyone who works here is first rate." "How proud I am to work at this theater, and how they are champions of new plays.
That is a rare and laudable thing in America these days."
Due to the popularity, NJ Rep, 179 Broadway, had to add several performances.
Oh, THAT Pamela! (Take the quiz)
Scene on Stage, by Philip Dorian
"Swimming at the Ritz," the play having its U. S. premiere at New Jersey Repertory Company, is about Pamela Churchill Hayward Harriman, of whom you might have heard (if you're older than 50). The following quiz might help you decide whether or not to see it.
1) Prince Aly Khan was once married to:
2) Averell Harriman was:
3) Leland Hayward:
4) Randolph Churchill's father was:
5) Pamela Churchill Hayward Harriman:
If you picked b) to the first four and d) to number five, "Swimming at the Ritz" might just be your flute of Moet (and you're probably over 50). The play is a retrospective of Pamela's life (1920-1997), her three marriages and her numerous extra-marital affairs (Edward R. Murrow among them).
Pamela achieved a measure of reflected fame through her husbands and her paramours. She was a prodigious Democratic Party fund raiser, rewarded by President Clinton in 1993 with the Ambassadorship to France. Her legal battle with Harriman's children over his estate was tabloid fodder in the mid-90s, but despite Leipart's efforts to burnish her legacy, she remains a footnote to history.
"Ritz" is set in that Paris hotel's suite (Jessica Parks's perfect design), where, heavily in debt, Pamela is contracting with Christie's auction house for the sale of her possessions (and where she later died after suffering a stroke while swimming in the pool).
The play is little more than an autobiographical narration, but Leipart is blessed with Judith Hawking's terrific performance. To say she carries the play is an understatement; she is the play. Hawking, who actually bears a resemblance to her character, mines a good deal of humor and a degree of pathos. She also has fun with forays into prurience, and in what we can assume depicts her character's, um, skills, she gives a master class in seductive flirtation. Under SuzAnne Barabas's adroit direction, Hawking holds attention throughout, even when the repetitious material lags.
Christopher Daftsios is fine as an Italian valet who listens to and sympathizes with Madame – and who spares Ms. Hawking the burden of a two-hour monologue. Already overlong (one 90-minute act would suffice), the play doesn't know when to end. Twice it wraps up naturally, only to be resurrected with extraneous detail. Pared down and tightened up (and with Judith Hawking on board), "Swimming at the Ritz" could have a life beyond Long Branch.
*Pamela was indeed the mother of a Winston Churchill. Her son with Randolph Churchill was named for his grandfather.
A CurtainUp New Jersey Review - Swimming at the Ritz
As Coco Chanel advised me, "The best things in life are free. The second best are very, very expensive." It's amazing what a lifetime of shopping will get you. — Pamela
It was ten years after hugely successful Broadway producer Leland Hayward had produced Call Me Madam, a hit musical about a fictional U.S. Ambassador that he would meet and marry his next and fifth wife — the woman who was ironically destined in 1993 to be given the post of U.S. Ambassador to France. The real life Madam Ambassador, the English born (from a titled family) and now an American citizen Pamela Churchill Hayward Harriman knew precisely how to handle and use men. Taught by her mother at an early age to "Sit in the back of the car and wait for a man to come," proved a useful strategy throughout her eventful life.
However, given credit in Madeleine Albright's biography for sleeping her way to the top, socialite Pamela was highly motivated, passionately politicized, and was largely responsible for saving the Democratic Party with a unique fund-raising system. In Charles Leipart's very amusing entertaining two-character play Swimming at the Ritz this former adventuress is personally suffering from a lack of funds in 1995. Yet she is committed to raising, or more correctly, arousing our interest in her marriages and many notorious love affairs.
The woman who meets and greets us is no longer at the top or at the top of her game. But she had already found herself a permanent niche in social and political society somewhere between the famous and the infamous.
As the play begins, Pamela (a terrifically exuberant Judith Hawking) makes a point of being aggressively charming and purposefully seductive. She is fresh out of money and no man in sight or in her sights, that is except for Pietro (Christopher Daftsios) the good-looking Italian valet at the Paris Ritz where she is in residence.
At the moment, she is packing up all her remaining object's d'art to be sold at auction by Christie's. Being sued for forty million dollars by her step children (Averell Harriman's offspring) for squandering the family inheritance and living beyond her means, she is thinking about how nice it would be to take a swim in the pool.
"I always do all my swimming at the Paris Ritz," is only the first of many much funnier and juicier disclosures to be shared by this very attractive, beautifully attired and coiffed blonde. Virtually alone, that is except for Pietro who has previously been kept from view behind a dressing screen. He has been dutifully and mindfully awaiting her summons in the elegant suite (well designed and appointed by Jessica Parks.) Always at her beck and call, but able to speak only a few words in English, he has apparently been assigned to listen to the ups and downs of this beguiling, if self-aggrandizing, woman's life.
Hawkins is in total control of the pandering affectations and florid pretentions that serve to define Pamela. We need only to sit back and enjoy what she has to say and the way in which she says it. She is eager to share with us, as well as with the mostly nonplussed Pietro, the highlights of her various marriages and the numerous colorful affairs that have defined her life.
For those too young to remember the scandals that surrounded Pamela during her heyday (the second half of the 20th century), she may seem somewhat irrelevant today, but some are surprisingly significant. Time tumbles back and forth freely as do Pamela's vivid memories of her marriages to Randolph Churchill (Winston's son), Leland Heyward, and W. Averell Harriman, as well as the affairs with the likes of Prince Aly Khan and Baron Elie de Rothschild supply story-worthy content to the often comical soliloquizing.
Pamela's treating our presence as a mirror of her own consciousness is not a new device, but director Suzanne Barabas keeps the feeling of spontaneity alive even as the play occasionally slips into a then I did this and then I did that pattern. Fortunately, Hawkins keep swimming through the turbulence and uses every stroke in the manual to reach the finish line a winner.
The play succeeds in overcoming the question of relevance simply by being frothy fun though I think a ninety minute, one-act version would be preferable This is the American premiere of the play by American playwright Leipart following a number of productions in the United Kingdom in 2010 and 11.
In 1950, Broadway producer Leland Hayward presented Ethel Merman in the Irving Berlin musical Call Me Madam, in which she played Sally Adams, a wealthy socialite appointed ambassador to a European country – in this case, Luxembourg. The character was a highly theatricalized version of real life Oklahoma native Perle Mesta. Ten years later, Hayward married wealthy socialite Pamela Digby Churchill, who, many years after his death, would be appointed ambassador to a European country – in this case, France. Both women were well-known Washington party-givers - "hostesses with the mostesses." Now playwright Charles Leipart has created a theatrical showcase for Pamela as well, SWIMMING AT THE RITZ, currently enjoying its US premiere at NJ Rep in Long Branch.
Historically speaking, Pamela Digby, a well-heeled Dorset UK native, married Winston Churchill's only son after their first date, largely in order to provide him with an heir. Their marriage ended in 1946. Before wedding Hayward in 1960 (at the height of his success with The Sound of Music), she had a parade of paramours, most notably Fiat's Gianni Agnelli. Often described as "a modern day courtesan," it was winkingly said that Pamela became "an expert on rich men's bedroom ceilings." The very day of Hayward's funeral, she rekindled one of her more torrid affairs, with DC political insider W. Averell Harriman, making him her third husband in 1971. After his death, she inherited Harriman's fortune, much to the chagrin of his daughters.
In Leipart's play we catch up with Pamela in 1995, in her suite at the Paris Ritz, as she is boxing up her copious treasures for a Christie's auction. Alone, having spent her entire fortune on luxuries, she has no one to regale with her social-climbing saga, so she turns to us – the audience – and (somewhat reluctantly), her Italian valet, Pietro. Playwright Leipart doesn't so much ignore the fourth wall as skillfully deconstruct it during the play's opening dialogue. Pietro, we learn, believes she is either talking to him or the furniture. Once we are fully in her grasp, she takes no prisoners – slyly winking to the male members in the audience (even tossing one a throw pillow) while embarking on her name-dropping romp through the social register.
The success or failure of this two-act diatribe squarely rests on the padded shoulders of the performer playing Pamela – and Judith Hawking does not disappoint. She regally swans around her luxurious suite like a scheming doyenne on a soap opera – graceful and imperious, deliciously chewing the scenery with impeccable diction and razor sharp timing. Hawking's Pamela relishes her role as storyteller, and that energy is both irresistible and charming. Her put-upon valet Pietro (Christopher Daftsios), on the other hand, only occasionally gets in on the fun. At first he's like a shy schoolboy called to the headmistress's office – all nervous tics and downward glances. When he is eventually cajoled into role-playing as Pamela's many lovers or husbands, the tone turns wildly comic – nearly resembling a musical comedy. Not to be outdone by Irving Berlin and Ethel Merman, Leipart even concocts a song and dance moment for the pair.
The script is peppered with names and dates, and doing the arithmetic, Pamela would be age 75 during our visit to her suite. Hawking in no way resembles a septuagenarian – even a spry one - but Leipart cleverly explains away the anomaly with the play's surreal epilogue. One thing he doesn't explain away is why Pamela is presented as so wildly theatrical. She confides to us that she is an expert listener, and claims "I never could talk." She not only talks (for nearly two solid hours) but tells her story as if she were a giddy Tallulah Bankhead on a late night chat show. Hawking dips in and out of accents, exotic vocal inflections, and perfect pantomime like the skilled trouper she is, but her revealing banter seems to indicate that the real Pamela was a quieter presence – wielding her influence from the back room (and the bedroom) rather than in the limelight.
Fittingly, director SuzAnne Barabas runs with the concept that this is a fantasy embodiment of Pamela, one that could only live on stage. She peppers the narrative with fantastic lighting and soundscapes that move the material firmly in the direction of the footlights. As usual, NJ Rep's production elements are first rate. The set design by Jessica Parks is an exquisite rendering of a Paris Ritz suite complete with a prop list that would intimidate a less intrepid troupe. Pamela's room is jam-packed with such objet d'art as a Toby Jug resembling Sir Winston Churchill, replicas of famous paintings by Picasso and Renoir, a silver plated drum, and a pair of throw pillows embroidered with the Digby family crest – not to mention piles of furs, jewels, and silver bric-a-brac galore. The rich-looking production also features spot-on lighting by Jill Nagle and tastefully executed costumes by Patricia E. Doherty.
In 1950, the Playbill for Call Me Madam humorously noted that "neither the character of Mrs. Sally Adams nor Miss Ethel Merman resemble any person living or dead." SWIMMING AT THE RITZ might want to adapt a similar statement for its Playbill. Living or dead, swimming at the Ritz with Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman is a memorable experience.
The LINK News
NJ Rep's latest play offers a swimmingly good timeBy Madeline Schulman
Hawking is Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harrison, whose three husbands and numerous lovers form a Who's Who of twentieth century history, commerce and politics. We meet Pamela in 1995 as American Ambassador to France, surrounded by luxury goods in her courtesy suite at the Paris Ritz. She is waiting for appraisers from Christie's auction house so she can raise money to settle a $40 million lawsuit from her stepchildren by Averell Harriman, her third husband. Somehow she has gone through $115 million dollars in ten years.
The first thing she tells us is that Pamela learned to swim at 9 years old, when her Scottish swimming instructor threw her into the Firth of Forth to sink or swim. Pamela has been keeping herself afloat ever since.
The playwright, Charles Leipart has brilliantly solved the problem of the fourth wall by kicking it down. Pamela is not just addressing the furniture in the elegant hotel suite created by Jessica Parks. She is also addressing the audience – not just addressing, but flirting and interacting with it. Pamela has another audience in her valet, Pietro (Daftsios), who is also her friend and confidante (but emphatically not her lover or boy toy, as she has no interest in younger men), and who helps her act out her meetings and partings with wealthy men such as Gianni Agnelli, heir to the Fiat fortune and Baron Eli Rothschild.
Judith Hawking's performance is so versatile that even without Daftsios' aid she brings to life Randolph Churchill's booze-soaked proposal (he was her first husband), Brooke Hayward's horrified whine, "But Daddy, one doesn't marry Pam Churchill!" (Leland Hayward was `her second husband), Pamela's lapse into Italian-accented English during her tenure as Agnelli's mistress, and many other vignettes.
Her vivid scarlet lips and ever-changing voice animate a stage full of characters — ably directed by SuzAnne Barabas — as Pamela and Pietro dance and drink champagne in celebration of an extraordinary life.
Besides being wonderful entertainment, Swimming at the Ritz is hugely informative about the life of a woman who fought the narrow roles prescribed for her as a wife and mother to become famous not only for her sexual adventures but for her political force. You leave the theater both exhilarated and educated.
Swimming at the RitzBy Martin Denton
Swimming at the Ritz is a marvelous showcase for the excellent actress Judith Hawking: her effervescent and deeply felt portrayal of Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman is not simply a tour de force but a journey through a singular and singularly complicated 20th century life. I love the photo of her at left (by SuzAnne Barabas, who is also the play's director) because it gives a sense of how much is going on in this performance--control and command vie with vulnerability and surprise as this remarkable character (who was of course a real-life figure) ponders the ride she's been on during her 70-odd years on this planet, looking back on choices good and bad, brave and foolhardy, with insight but no regret.
It's a portrait of a survivor that's been etched by playwright Charles Leipart, and we understand this vividly from the very first moments of the play, as Pamela informs us that despite the fact that her (third) late husband Averell Harriman left her an estate valued at well over a hundred million dollars, she is virtually broke: the paintings and other valuable objects that fill her suite at the Paris Ritz (brilliantly rendered by set/properties designer Jessica Parks and properties assistant Donna Stiles) are about to auctioned off by Christie's.
What follows are a couple of hours of, mostly, reminiscence, as Pamela recounts for us the story of her life. It's an extraordinary tale: at 19 she became the wife of Randolph Churchill, son of Winston (he proposed on the night they met); in her 20s she was the sought-after companion (courtesan?) of Europe's richest men; in her 40s she was the wife of powerful Broadway producer Leland Hayward; and in her 50s she was reunited with the man who was, apparently, the true love of her life: Harriman, the immensely wealthy former governor of New York.
Pamela reinvented herself with regularity; she tells us that she found that her posture, accent, and even the pitch of her voice changed to match those of each of her lovers. And indeed, her life consistently seems defined by the men of each moment; as Pamela is the only female character in the piece, the Bechdel test doesn't strictly apply, but there's barely an anecdote here that doesn't revolve around her experience with one man or another.
There is another person sharing the stage with Pamela: an Italian valet named Pietro for whom she seems to have developed a certain maternal fondness. He's played by Christopher Daftsios, and while the character mostly seems to exist as a foil for the leading lady, he has some lovely moments (including a very funny and unexpected vocal impersonation of one of Pamela's famous male friends).
Mostly, though, Hawking's Pamela is playing very much to us, in the audience, and she wins our sympathy and affection despite the sometimes unattractive attributes of the woman she embodies here. She creates very much a complicated, multi-dimensional individual who is well aware of her strengths and weaknesses: a formidable and ultimately indomitable presence. She's very entertaining to spend time with. (And, as I was not particularly familiar with the real life story of Pamela Harriman, I left curious to learn more.)
New Jeresy Rep's justly acclaimed production values are all on view here: in addition to the aforementioned designers, there's expert work by Merek Royce Press (sound), Jill Nagle (lighting), and Patricia W. Doherty (costumes). They've created a suitably sumptuous environment for this tale of love, sex, money, glamour...and survival.
PHOTO: SUZANNE BARABAS
While pregnant with the grandchild of Winston Churchill, she reportedly lived in a bomb shelter underneath No. 10 Downing Street, playing cards with the Prime Minister while the London Blitz raged. Between marriages to Churchill's son Randolph, Broadway producer Leland Hayward and Washington insider Averell Harriman, she maintained affairs with a collection of the richest and most powerful men in the world — titled heads (Prince Aly Khan, Baron Rothschild), captains of industry (CBS's William Paley, Fiat's Gianni Agnelli) and others who found themselves drawn to this "woman with little education and no money."
Although the name Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman (1920-1997) may resonate mainly with faithful readers of Vanity Fair magazine these days, the impact of this extraordinary woman on the 20th century can't be understated — and when we meet Pamela in "Swimming at the Ritz," it's in her career-capping capacity as United States Ambassador to France — a post awarded to her by President Bill Clinton, on whose behalf she worked tirelessly.
In the play by Charles Leipart — a two-character piece that makes its American premiere this weekend as the latest offering from New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch — the aging "ultimate party girl" is under siege by the heirs to the Harriman family fortune, a legacy that she's been accused of squandering on such "day to day necessities" as jewels, furs, art and champagne. Holed up in her luxurious suite at the Hotel Ritz Paris (rather than her embassy quarters), she prepares for a fire-sale auction of her possessions — and spills her guts to her trusted young Italian valet, regarding "her journey from man to man and bed to bed." "Opinions vary as to whether she was a terrible or a wonderful person," says Leipart of his subject, who was previously portrayed by Ann-Margret in a made-for-TV movie. "But there's no denying that she was connected to pretty much every prominent person of the 20th century — she even managed to have tea with Adolf Hitler when she was 16 — and she was tutored by a series of the world's most powerful men."
The New York-based dramatist and librettist whose past works include a musical adaptation of the arthouse film "Enchanted April" is quick to characterize Pamela as something much more than a glorified courtesan, however. As a naturalized American and a savvy navigator of Washington society, Mrs. Harriman rates a great deal of the credit for creating what we now think of as fundraising PACs — putting her stamp on the future of the political process in ways that are still just becoming evident. And, as our 58th ambassador to France, the native European brought an understanding of French culture and custom (as well as crucial access to cash), and what Leipart sees as "a skill at manipulating egos…she was a lifelong diplomat."
"She had an enormous skill for working a room; making people feel comfortable," says the playwright, whose research for the script involved conversations with New York and Washington people who knew her personally.
"She also had this chameleonic quality, in that whatever her lover's world is, she'll become part of it…and when her lovers went back to their wives, she'd make it easy for them…they'd remain friends with her and continue sending her checks!"
In the end, as Leipart explains, it was "the money thing" that spelled her downfall — that, and the emergence of a new breed of female on the Washington scene.
"The upper echelons of power still haven't changed that much…men still run the game, while women play an influential role," the playwright observes. "But when Hillary Clinton came to Washington, Pamela knew that things were different; that she couldn't compete on this new field — and that more than anything is what brought her to where we find her, at that fantastic pad in Paris."
"Ritz" features a pair of newcomers to the Long Branch stage — Judith Hawking, a Drama Desk nominee for Off Broadway's "A Soldier's Wife" (and a recurring face across TV's "Law and Order" franchise), and Christopher Daftsios, who's shared professional stages with the likes of Tony Roberts and Louise Lasser. They're working here with NJ Rep artistic director SuzAnne Barabas, whose recent directorial projects include the Robert Caisley dark comedies "Happy" and "Lucky Me."
Swimming at the Ritz Set to Make Its US Premiere at New Jersey Repertory Company
Charles Leipart's play about socialite Pamela Churchill Hayward Harriman opens tonight.
By Hayley Lewitt
The U.S. premiere of Charles Leipart's Swimming At The Ritz begins performances this evening at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. The limited engagement is set to run through February 1 with an official opening on January 10.
Directed by SuzAnne Barabas, Swimming at the Ritz is based on the real-life events of socialite Pamela Churchill Hayward Harriman, who was appointed U.S. Ambassador to France in 1993 by President Bill Clinton. Dubbed the ultimate "party girl," Harriman lived an extravagant lifestyle at the luxurious Ritz in Paris while spending her stepchildren's inheritance. These next of kin, however, eventually decided to conspire with their attorneys to shut her down. On the edge of losing everything, Harriman is left with her only remaining friend — a handsome young Italian valet to whom she reveals her journey, from man to man and bed to bed.
Judith Hawking and Christopher Daftsios star in the premiere production. The creative features set design by Jessica Parks, lighting design by Jill Nagle, sound design by Merek Royce Press, and costume design by Patricia E. Doherty.
Swimming At The Ritz: An interview with Charles Leipart
by Gary Wien
Pamela Churchill Hayward Harriman, the ultimate party girl, has been living an idyllic life at the luxurious Ritz in Paris for the past several years accompanied by her young Italian valet, and has been spending her and her stepchildren's vast inheritance on paintings, clothing, jewels, furs, champagne (her day-to-day necessities). But her stepchildren's attorneys are about to shut her down. On the verge of losing everything, with the creditors literally at her door, Pamela reveals her journey from man-to-man and bed-to-bed, in a funny, poignant tour-de-force. Such is the premise of Swimming At The Ritz, a play by Charles Leipart based on the true life of Pamela Harriman which will have its U.S. premiere in January. The play is being presented by New Jersey Repertory Company in a limited run from January 8 through February 1. New Jersey Stage spoke with the playwright about what drew him to Pamela's story.
What attracted you to the story of Pamela Harriman?
I was fascinated. Pamela Digby, a chubby 17-year-old daughter of a minor British baron of diminishing fortune, arrives in London to work in a 20-pound-a-week government clerical job--about 3 dollars in U.S. currency in 1937 (the World Depression years). She becomes the daughter-in-law of Winston Churchill and at 19 finds herself pregnant with Winston's grandchild and he has her sharing the bomb shelter at 10 Downing Street. Subsequently over the years, she becomes the lover and wife of some of the richest and most powerful men of the 20th Century. Ultimately she becomes the First Lady of the Democratic Party, helps elect a U.S. President and when her life ends, she is the U.S. Ambassador to France. That's where we meet her in 1995 in a private suite at the Paris Ritz Hotel. Down to her last 10 million. How did this happen to chubby Pamela?
Did she actually burn through the entire inheritance in real life?
In fact, she did. By 1995 Pamela had gone through the entire 115 million dollars left to her by Averell Harriman's death in 1986. As Pamela says in the play, "the cost of fresh flowers alone." She was spending her way through the 40 million dollars of a trust fund left in her care for the Harriman daughters and grandchildren when the Harriman clan brought a lawsuit against her to reclaim their inheritance. To keep the family wolves from her door, Pamela put her personal property up for auction. That's where the play starts.
Why do you think people generally love seeing the rich become penniless? It seems to present a classic storyline for a play.
I think we're more intrigued by the question of how some people get control of such vast amounts of money only to spend it all and end up with nothing. We can all fantasize about having vast wealth but we never think for a minute that we'd lose it. Yet, it happens. My interest as the playwright was in the breadth of Pamela's life experiences. She lived lavishly. She loved lavishly. All the while she was spending lavishly she was encouraged by the men in her life to do so.
This is the U.S. premiere of the play that originally ran in the U.K. in 2010-2011. Has the play changed much since then?
No, it hasn't. We were able to present the play for the first time in the U.K. supported by the Arts Council England, which was such a great opportunity. It was very well-received. Some details deemed "too American" were removed from the play and the play was slightly shortened. With this American premiere, Swimming In The Ritz is as I originally wrote it, with just a few modifications.
Considering her relationship with Winston Churchill's family, what was the U.K. reaction to the play?
The U.K. audiences and critics loved the play and were fascinated by Pamela's exploits. Interestingly enough, Pamela left the U.K. for New York in 1959 and spent the next four decades as a U.S. resident. Most of the British audiences were unaware of her U.S. history. What the British audience didn't know was that Pamela achieved so much more than simply being Winston Churchill's daughter-in-law.
Have you been working with NJ Rep on this production? Do you plan to make it to the opening?
Yes, I'm there to be as helpful as I can to SuzAnne Barabas the director, and I will indeed be at the opening. Pamela is on-stage throughout the play as is Pietro, the Ritz valet. The play requires quite a bit from both actors. While I've not worked with Judith Hawking or Christopher Daftsios previously or SuzAnne, I'm excited to be working with each of the three of them.
What do you hope audience members take from the play?
An entertaining and insightful theatre experience. Pamela was charming, intelligent, selfcritical and remarkably intuitive about people. She had the uncanny ability to make whomever she spoke with feel important and that they were the only person in the room, especially the men. My hope is that at the end of the play, everyone in the audience will feel as if they have been in the presence of one of the greatest courtesans and diplomats of the 20th Century. I certainly have enjoyed her company.
Swimming at the Ritz
New Jersey Repertory Company presents "Swimming at the Ritz," based on the life of socialite Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman, who was appointed the U.S. ambassador to France in 1993 by former President Bill Clinton. The show will have a limited engagement from Jan. 8 to Feb. 1.
Harriman was dubbed the ultimate "party girl" among society's elite. Living the idyllic life at the luxurious Ritz in Paris for years, Harriman, who was married to the son of Winston Churchill, had no problem spending her stepchildren's inheritance on her extravagant lifestyle. However, her stepchildren ultimately had enough and conspired with their attorneys to shut her down.
On the edge of losing everything, Harriman is left with her only remaining friend, a handsome Italian valet at the Paris Ritz Hotel. There, she reveals her journey in a comical yet compelling manner.
The cast includes Judith Hawking and Christopher Daftsios, and is directed by SuzAnne Barabas. Sneak-preview performances begin on Jan. 8, with an opening night on Jan. 10 at New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch. Tickets may be purchased by calling 732-229-3166 or visiting www.njrep.org.