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 1999-2000 Season Articles, Features and Reviews
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"The Girl With the High Rouge" Anchors in Long Branch
by Donnie G.

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

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

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

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

The Girl with the High Rouge


By Peter Filichia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finally Hall suggested that they just reconfigure the theater.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Down to the sea

Published in the Asbury Park Press 7/23/00


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

None of his 15 plays are alike, he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published on July 23, 2000

NJ Rep's 'Octet' a stunning success


By Milton Bernstein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

'Octet' A Witty Look at Music as Therapy

TriCity News

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Musical play better composed than written



By Peter Filichia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

'Octet' is a bold move for the NJ Rep

Published in the Asbury Park Press 05/31/00

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published on May 31, 2000

Part concert, part play

'Octet' weaves drama through classical chamber music score


By Peter Filichia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then the cast had to learn it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

'Octet' sings love's praises

Published in the Asbury Park Press 5/25/00

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published on May 25, 2000

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-- By Kenneth Jones
Playbill Online

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

Published in the Asbury Park Press 5/18/00

The New Jersey Repertory Company rarely is idle.

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


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

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

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

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

The cast is running through the "Resume" scene.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

from the Asbury Park Press
Published: May 18, 2000

APPRECIATION: End of a love story

Published in the Asbury Park Press 4/23/00

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lusts of the flesh

Exploring matters of the heart in a porno bookstore


By Peter Filichia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

'Adult Fiction' plot needs fleshing out

Published in the Asbury Park Press 3/28/00

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published on March 28, 2000

Porn in the U.S.A.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published on March 24, 2000

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

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

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

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

The Play's the Thing


By Peter Filichia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theater Writer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published on January 7, 2000

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

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

In role reversal, Salome to play Sarah Bernhardt

The Star-Ledger

By Peter Filichia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in the Asbury Park Press
Theater Writer

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

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

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

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

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

Jens also knows extraordinary people when she sees them.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published on November 5, 1999

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ensemble cast is simply excellent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The horror and the humanity

Published in the Asbury Park Press 10/08/99

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Published on October 8, 1999

Holocaust survivors inspire Long Branch show

By Peter Filichia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A streetcar named success

Published in the Home News Tribune


Kim Hunter was puzzled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sounds too simple.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hunter does not consider herself a bona fide movie star.

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

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

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

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

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

Published in the Asbury Park Press

Theater Writer

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

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

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

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

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

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

Their recently widowed father has taken to drink.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Asbury Park Press

Published: May 21, 1999

. . . recently in Back Stage . . .

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

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

Published in the Asbury Park Press

Theater Writer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Asbury Park Press

Published: April 16, 1999

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

Theater Writer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Asbury Park Press

Published: March 12, 1999

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