Current Season Past Shows In The News Company Staff Support Links Contact Us

 2000-2001 Season Articles, Features and Reviews
(most recent first)





New Jersey theater: More local stages take a bow



Just as National Football League fans have been talking a lot lately about parity -- that no team is dominant and a disproportionate number of clubs are just as good as others -- New Jersey theater fans could say the same about the plays of 2001.

Last year, the McCarter Theatre in Princeton dominated the Top 10 attractions with four entries, but this year no New Jersey stage receives more than two nods in the roundup. While such flagship theaters as McCarter and the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn handily made the list, three others made debuts: Luna Stage Company in Montclair, New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch and even the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark.

Let's not think of this as our old reliable theaters getting weaker, but that our smaller theaters are becoming stronger. The 10 best, in alphabetical order:

"The Belle of Amherst"

New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Newark

Emily Dickinson once wrote, "We never know how high we are till we are called to rise." And though audiences have known for a half-century how wonderful an actress Julie Harris is, how uplifting to have another opportunity to see her as the reclusive poet in William Luce's play. As it turned out, after Harris left NJPAC, she suffered a stroke. She may never work again, so we were lucky to have a chance to see her.

"A Chorus Line"

Paper Mill Playhouse, Millburn

In a year that saw "The Producers" win more Tonys than any other musical, it's refreshing to be reminded about the best musical of all time. This 1975 masterpiece about the rigors of dancers who sweat through the audition process received a carbon-copy staging of the original production -- but it was a welcome sight after having been away from us for more than a decade.

"Funny Girl"

Paper Mill Playhouse

They should have changed the name to "Funny Confident Amazing Sensational Musical Girl" -- and she's a 23-year-old powerhouse from Livingston named Leslie Kritzer. Going up against the legend of Barbra Streisand wasn't easy, but Kritzer created her own Fanny Brice -- and even had a fresh take on "People." Robert Cuccioli, as her wayward husband, provided able support.

"Getting in Touch with My Inner B*tch"

New Jersey Repertory Company, Long Branch

The asterisk couldn't possibly stand for the letter "i," for folksinger Christine Lavin showed herself to be a good-natured charmer, full of inner beauty, in her original one-woman show. Out of her protractor-shaped mouth came witty songs that celebrate everyday life: spotting a celebrity, dealing with nieces and nephews, entering the express line in the supermarket when you've got more than 10 items. It was such an entertaining bunch of numbers, audiences were glad she got in touch with that inner batch.

"La Bete"

Two River Theatre Company, Manasquan

The always adventurous company went out on a limb -- and found something beautiful blooming out there with David Hirson's comedy, set in 1654 France and written in rhymed iambic pentameter. In it, a thinly-veiled Molière must agree to the Prince's demand that he work with an actor-playwright who can't stop talking. (No, really; he goes on for 27 minutes before letting anyone else get in a word.) But Two River got out the word that this was one funny play that nevertheless had a great deal to say about the making of art and artists.

"Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill"

George Street Playhouse, New Brunswick

As superb as Suzzanne Douglas was last season when she appeared at the George Street in "Wit," she trumped her own ace when she portrayed Billie Holliday. Here she had to sing as well as act. Did she ever, showing us a legend on the wane who still had the power to mesmerize.

"My Children! My Africa!"

Luna Stage, Montclair

Athol Fugard's best play was a perfect fit for the cozy confines of Luna's black box theater -- as three characters took the audience into their confidence when delivering their monologues. Eddie Aldredge as a high school teacher in South Africa, and Jamahl Marsh and Nell Mooney as his students, black and white respectively, delivered heartbreaking soliloquies on the evils of apartheid.


New Jersey Performing Arts Center

While most touring productions that saunter into NJPAC are second-rate affairs (the recent "Guys and Dolls" is a perfect example), here was one -- finally -- that was genuinely impressive. While it wasn't nearly as opulent as the Broadway original, the songs, stories and performances shone through in this tale of the intermingling of WASPs, Jews and blacks in 1906 New York.

"Romeo and Juliet"

McCarter Theatre, Princeton

Director Emily Mann knows that youth must be served -- especially in a production about these star-crossed lovers. As her leads, she chose Jeffrey Carlson, a recent grad of the Juilliard School, and Sarah Drew, who was still in college. Both young actors served Mann, themselves, and Shakespeare.

"The Three Sisters"

New Jersey Shakespeare Festival, Madison

Director Bonnie J. Monte made Chekhov's 100-year-old play seem wonderfully young. Not only did she turn in a sterling job of direction, but she adapted the text, too, in a version that managed to sound true to the period, yet entertaining to contemporary ears. As for those sisters: Laila Robins, Angela Reed and Caralyn Kozlowski all showed the dreams they had, and the dreams they had shattered.


A 'River' runs through it: Long Branch troupe extends play

Published in the Asbury Park Press 11/23/01
Theater Writer

Through Sunday
New Jersey Repertory Company's Lumia Theater
179 Broadway, Long Branch
(732) 229-3166

The New Jersey Repertory Company has held over its production of "Naked by the River" and is offering theatergoers a chance to include it in the cost of a season subscription.

Stephanie Roy and Duncan M. Rogers share a smooch in the New Jersey Repertory's production of "Naked By the River" in Long Branch.
Michael T. Folie's play closes after the 2 p.m. Sunday matinee. So, too, does the subscription offer to at least three of the season's five plays at the theater at 179 Broadway in Long Branch.

Subscribe to three or more plays for $25 a ticket. The regular price is $30.

The season also includes: the New Jersey premiere of "The Laramie Project" by Moises Kaufman, about the beating death of gay student Matthew Shepard, Jan. 17 to Feb. 10; the world premiere of "Till Morning Comes" by Mark McNease, about a couple married for 25 years, Feb. 21 -- March 24; the world premiere of "Panama" by Michael T. Folie, a comedy about a man's search for the secret of eternal life, July 11 to Aug. 11.

A fifth show running from May 2 to June 2 will be announced.


Undressing relationships

Published in the Asbury Park Press 10/30/01


In Michael T. Folie''s last play staged at the New Jersey Repertory Theater, Long Branch, "An Unhappy Woman," the characters were worried about holding on to jobs they hated.

In his latest work, "Naked by the River," now playing through Nov. 25, the characters love their jobs.

WHERE: The New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch
WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays through Nov. 25
CALL: (732) 229-3166

As the romantic comedy progresses, however, Tim and Peggy realize their love for each other has to outweigh their love for work or they will never be truly happy.

The pursuit of happiness appears to be a common thread in Folie''s works; at least the ones presented at the NJ Rep, where the former Monmouth County resident is a playwright in residence.

Much more accessible than the surrealistic "Unhappy Woman," Folie''s "Naked by the River" is down to earth, frequently funny and often surprising -- especially that ending.

Peggy (Stephanie Roy) is a lawyer on the fast track when she meets up with Tim (Duncan M. Rogers), a paralegal/secretary. A mutual friend suggested she hire Tim to work on a case that should help Peggy make partner in her law firm.

Tim sees straight through to Peggy''s insecurities and coolly pulls out all her secrets. He remains an enigma to Peggy, although she does discover he is a former lawyer who walked away from a successful career. This, of course, confuses her even more because she can not rationalize why somebody would do that.

When she finds out he dumped law after an out-of-body experience that suddenly made the meaning of life clear to him, she is a nonbeliever. A nonbeliever, that is, until she reads the book Tim wrote about the personal experience. It, too, changes her life. When she finds out, though, Tim plans to publish his tome on the internet rather than land a lucrative book deal, she is flabbergasted.

What she does about that has dire consequences for both of them.

Both Rogers and Roy turned in fine performances as two people who are attracted to each other but not sure how far to go in their relationship.

Liz Zazzi, as book publisher Gabriella, almost steals the show in the second act. Her line delivery and comic timing are right on the money. Her character is larger than life and Zazzi takes full advantage of it.

Director Stewart Fisher keeps the pace of the play moving along nicely and although some scene changes at last Friday''s opening night were awkward, they didn''t hamper the play too much. It may have been the first time since the NJ Rep opened its doors a couple of years ago that the small size of the performing space worked against a production.

New Jersey stage: Leads make 'Naked' revealing



If there were a yearbook for the 2001-2002 New Jersey theater season, Duncan M. Rogers and Stephanie Roy would be unchallenged as "Cutest Couple."

They are the two important ingredients to the success of "Naked by the River," the newest production at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. Playwright Michael T. Folie has given them engaging dialogue, too, which masks the play's one deficiency: a message that seems overly familiar.

Rogers plays Tim Grant, a secretary-paralegal for junior associate Peggy Ryerson, portrayed by Roy. But Tim's preoccupation in his spare time is writing a book that will teach people how to view the ordinary things in the world as really quite extraordinary, and that they shouldn't get obsessive over money and power -- as Peggy does.

Little by little, Tim influences Peggy, and makes her question her ambition. Not that the lawyer doesn't understand the simple things in life; on vacation, she stood naked by the river and felt the freedom.

Nevertheless, old habits die hard, so Peggy tries to change Tim just as much as he tries to change her. Who'll win in this battle of the sexes and ideologies?

How it turns out won't amaze theatergoers, but what will surprise them is the chemistry between the couple. That's the hardest quality for a director and performers to capture, but, under Stewart Fisher's amiable direction, sparks fly between Roy and Rogers. Some theatergoers may be so convinced they're a couple, they'll search the program bios.

Roy wears a dress that's utterly shapeless and a hairstyle that makes her purposely sexless. Yet her face makes clear that beneath her snooty look is genuine humanity. She lets on right away that she likes her new employee, but cannot admit it in order to keep control.

Rogers starts off with a chip on his shoulder the size of a doorstop, and a crooked smile that complements his always-askew hair. He, too, must obfuscate what he's feeling, and does a commendable job.

The third cast member is equally proficient. She's Liz Zazzi, who portrays Gabriella Rossini, a profane and pregnant book publisher. Zazzi is one of the best in the state at delivering a no-nonsense barb, and she certainly is up to her high standard here, with the many laugh-getting zingers provided by Folie. But give the actress a line replete with truth -- like "You give birth first, and only later do you find out what you made" -- and she infuses it with compassion.

From its delightfully wacky first act, "Naked by the River" seems to be going someplace special, so the second act is a bit of a letdown. Ultimately, it's like a journey on which a traveler isn't thrilled when he reaches his destination, but is still glad for the friends he's made along the way.

November 2, 2001
Scene On Stage by Philip Dorian
New Jersey Repertory Company Stages Michael Folie's Naked by the River
It the mission of Gabor and SuzAnne Barabas's New Jersey Repertory Company to encourage and produce new playwrights. Among the best of their "finds" have been Brian Mori's Adult Fiction and Mark Dunn's North Fork. Naked by the River, by Middletown native Michael T. Folie, ranks right up there with them.
At the beginning of Naked by the River, when prim, uptight attorney Peggy (Stephanie Roy) is forced by her boss to hire unkempt, raffish paralegal Tim (Duncan M. Rogers), it's soon apparent that the two will fall in love - or at least into bed. Sometime during the first act, however, it also becomes clear that Mr. Folie's play is much more than a predictable sex comedy. It is a tightly written, intelligent, witty play about two complex young people whose contradictory talents and values bring them together, then pull them apart, and then just maybe reconnect them after all.
It is more than Peggy's mannerly attitude and Tim's arrogant sarcasm that separate the two. She's grounded in her legal career, working toward a partnership in a prestigious firm, while he's a seat-of-the-pants sort of guy who appears to be just going along to get along.
The attraction between the two is ignited when Peggy reads a book Tim has written. While we never learn much about the book, it is their divergent attitudes toward its future that trigger the events of the play. He wants to post it, gratis, on the web, and she envisions conventional publication and a smash success. Whose concept prevails - and does it work? - is the stuff of the play.
Once he gets past the over-the-top first scene, Mr. Rogers eases comfortably into the role of the would-be idealist. The character must choose: About his book, he says he had a vision, "No", Peggy tells him, "You had an idea." It is to the actor's credit that Tim appears realistically torn between the two. He's a handsome devil too, which lends credibility to the romance between Tim and Peggy.
Not that Ms. Roy needs any help. This actor is as much a find for NJ Rep as is the play. Peggy isn't all veneer, but she does struggle with her professional image, and Ms. Roy captures every nuance of this career woman's dilemma. Her sensitive performance makes everything Peggy says (and, it should be noted, does) exactly right for the time and place. In Ms. Roy's playing, Peggy emerges fresh and open and perfectly natural.
We have us a three-character play here, and Liz Zazzi certainly does justice to the acid tongued literary agent. Tough as nails and a real softy at the same time, the character isn't easy, and they play would be harmed if we didn't like her. But we do, thanks to Ms. Zazzi's way with the wry bons mots Mr. Folie has written for Gabriella. Not incidentally, she's realistically pregnant in attitude as well as appearance. Writing her thus, and carrying her to term before the final scene, is one of Mr. Folie's most effective conceits.
The play depends on establishing the personas of several people who never appear, and the playwright accomplishes this adroitly. Peggy's boss, her parents and an influential book publisher are fleshed out sufficiently in dialogue that's not forced exposition, and their influence on the on-stage characters is believable.
The message of Mr. Folie's play - does success, like power, corrupt? - isn't new. How many new messages are there anyway? What's important is communication that message in an interesting voice, and that the playwright accomplishes. If "interesting" sounds like faint praise, try to remember the last time you were truly interested in the lives portrayed in popular fiction.
It doesn't hurt one bit that it is acted so sublimely by Ms. Roy, so commendably by Mr. Rogers and so audaciously by Ms. Zazzi. No hindrance either is Stewart Fisher's direction, sensitive as it is both to character and situation. But from now through November 18 at New Jersey Rep, the play's the thing.

The Coaster
By Robert F. Carroll

Michael Folie, a prolific young playwright, a native of Middletown Township and something of an old hand at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, appears to have a winner with his latest romantic comedy, "Naked By the River." Folie's "An Unhappy Woman" premiered at New Jersey Rep in February.

The new two-acter, which opened at the Lumia Theatre in Long Branch last Friday, pits a headstrong young writer against and ambitious young lady lawyer as they grope their way to a romantic attachment.

In the play, paralegal Tim (Duncan M. Rogers) shows up at a Manhattan law office staffed by Peggy (Stephanie Roy). He's primed for a fight, having screwed up his former job at a Cincinnati law firm. The reason: he's written a book the product of a personal epiphany that changed his life. Peggy, in a smart, smart-alecky exchange of dialogue, is gradually drawn to the cantankerous young man, attracted by both his idealism and his book which, after a quick read, she finds enthralling.

But the road to true love gets exceedingly rocky in Act Two. Peggy discovers she really likes her law career and really wants Tim to market his book. But the true artist in him rebels at publishing his life's work -- he doesn't even want anybody to read it -- and it takes every bit of her feminine guile to get him on board the corporate express. Once convinced, Tim, alas, turns into a hard-nosed, slick-haired, money-grubbing salesman.

It would be scurrilous to reveal how true love gets back on track, suffice to say that Peggy's one lapse into impropriety -- she once had her picture taken nude, by a river -- provides the key.

Rogers is a vigorously engaging Tim, always in charge until Peggy brings him to heel. And Roy, as Peggy, is a charmer, especially when she drops her office cool and warms to Tim. Liz Zazzi makes a hilarious publicist who informs Tim that what he's written is, God forbid, a sure-fire sales manual -- and he's be a fool not to cash in on it. Zazzi is a funny, funny woman, using a wit that's been honed by any number of cabaret and television appearances.

Stewart Fisher directed "Naked By the River" which runs Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through November 18th Long Branch's Lumia Theatre, on Broadway.

He said, she said: Playwright finds himself in strong female characters

Published in the Asbury Park Press 10/26/01

Theater Writer

"Naked by the River," opening at 8 tonight at the New Jersey Repertory Theatre in Long Branch, is the third play from Michael T. Folie in which a strong woman character is central to the story.

By the New Jersey Repertory Company
179 Broadway, Long Branch
Opens at 8 p.m. Friday
8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays (through Nov. 25)
(732) 229-3166

"The woman in each play, in a way, stands in for me," Folie said from his home in Rockland County, N.Y. "It's easier for me to deal with issues if I have the character as far away from me -- biographically -- as possible."

"Naked," receiving its first fully-staged production here, features Peggy (Stephanie Roy), a rising young lawyer at a New York City law firm, and Tim (Duncan Rogers), an unpublished novelist who supports himself with temporary work as a paralegal. Liz Zazzi plays the pregnant owner of a small publishing company. Stewart A. Fisher, NJ Rep's company manager and associate director, helms the two-act, romantic comedy.

Folie, who is a resident play writer at NJ Rep, had his "An Unhappy Woman" produced there in February. It is an Orwellian-like look at the future when terrorism in the norm, happiness is in short supply and the title character trusts no one.

His third strong-woman play, "The Adjustment," centers on a woman with a powerful personality who worked as a lobbyist in a big city and falls in love with a married man.

Actors Duncan Rogers and Stephanie Roy go over a scene from Michael T. Folie's "Naked by the River," opening tonight in Long Branch.
All three of these plays were written within two years of each other, said Folie, a 1970 graduate of what is now Middletown High School North. Yet, he said, his dozen or so plays are vastly different from each other.

"Naked by the River" came from Folie's personal experiences as a temporary worker at a law firm during the 1980s when making money - lots of money - was paramount. Although he was living a somewhat bohemian actor's life, he hit it off with a woman lawyer on the fast track to fame and riches. If both had not been married to other people, Folie said, they may have grown closer. That made him think about the stresses such a relationship would encounter.

So he wrote a play about it.

"In the old days (on stage) parents kept (the lovers) apart," Folie noted. "Now, in romantic comedies, the writer has to bend over backward to find things to keep people apart."

In "Naked by the River" the lovers, at first, can't physically unite because each is involved with someone else. Later, after moving in with each other, they are divided emotionally. Each must sacrifice something they hold dear before their relationship can truly be consummated.

When Folie sits down to write a play, he usually knows how it will begin and end. The stuff in the middle emerges after he writes pages and pages of improvisational, non-dramatic chit chat, he explained.

" I have to do that in order to find the action and it may be after 20 pages that I discover why a character said what they said earlier," Folie said. "I know that sounds psychotic . . . but it's the emergence of my subconscious that causes these illuminations."

It's all about finding a good balance, he added. And for serious writers, he said, the tragic events of Sept. 11 created a richer environment for writing. Of course, Folie said, he would prefer the World Trade Center tragedy never happened.

"It's nice to live in a safe and secure time," Folie said. "But it's not good for the artist.

"It's hard for a serious playwright to make headway when people are satisfied, content and secure, and don't feel like questioning anything," Folie explained. "During dangerous times people are more aware and it's a better time to be an artist."

As examples of this, Folie cites George Bernard Shaw, whose best plays were written between the two World Wars; Anton Chekhov's major works were penned during the declining days of the last Russian czar, and Shakespeare's plays were born during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, which saw the restoration of the Protestant faith, the defeat of the Spanish Armada, at least one serious threat of rebellion and a series of Parliamentary conflicts.

"It's a different world we live in now," Folie said. "In some ways I feel mentally more prepared for that world . . . that it's a rough place . . . and people might be more responsive to plays that reflect that sense of danger and, in a way, find they are doing OK."

Published on October 26, 2001

Actress reveals her 'Secret' to theatergoers


Katharine Houghton is going to tell her best kept secret.

But she's doing it by way of the play she wrote and performs, called "Best Kept Secret," opening Friday at New Jersey Repertory Theatre in Long Branch.

In a way, some theatergoers will probably think that Houghton herself is a bit of a secret: After she made a much-heralded film debut in 1967 as the
daughter of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?," she virtually disappeared from the screen. Her next feature film,
"Seeds of Evil," was a long seven years later, and her next, "Eyes of the Amaryllis," was an even longer eight years after that.

Being reminded of this doesn't unnerve Houghton in the least, as she sits in her dressing room. At 56, her hands are prematurely gnarled and her face
somewhat lined. But time can do nothing to those high cheekbones that remind a visitor that she is the niece of Katharine Hepburn.

"I was put under a three-picture contact," she says, "but the films they offered me were all B-pictures. I preferred to play great roles in regional
theater. Nina in 'The Seagull.' Hedda Gabler, Major Barbara, Louka in 'Arms and the Man.' For seven years, I was a company member of the Actors Theatre
of Louisville."

It wasn't the career she envisioned when she was majoring in philosophy at Sarah Lawrence College. But events took a turn after her sophomore year, when
she went to the Soviet Union. "Most young people go to Italy or France," she says with a smile. "But I was influenced by my grandmother (Hepburn's
mother), who was an ardent Communist."

Little did she know that she'd someday write a play about her experiences there and the years that followed.

Houghton went to such big cities as Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), Moscow and Kiev and smaller towns like Tashkent and Yalta. There, one of the people
she'd met on the trip -- "(a New York University) political science professor and a rabid Marxist," she describes him -- said that she should meet Andre, a
young man who was passionate about politics.

"I was reluctant to meet any Russian," she says, "because by then, we'd all had trouble with KGB. They wanted to know to whom we were talking, were we
giving them magazines and books, or preaching capitalist propaganda?"

Yet she agreed to meet Andre -- "who turned out to look like a Russian Liam Neeson," she says. "He was irritating and challenging. His first question
was, 'Are you a disciple of Aristotle or Plato?' No hello. No small talk -- and I come from a family where there's no small talk, so this was very
interesting to me."

Houghton calls the four days they spent together a watershed event in her life. "Not because of the sex, though there was sex. He changed me from an
extremely shy person who had this feeling I was going to die by the time I was 21 to someone who wanted to live."

Though they were together only four days before she returned home, they continued to write. Four years later, Houghton had big news. She'd
screen-tested for Carl Reiner's movie, "Enter Laughing," and while he didn't cast her, he kept her screen test on file. When director Stanley Kramer told
Reiner that Samantha Eggar had dropped out of "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" and he needed a young actress who could convincingly play Hepburn and Tracy's daughter, Reiner knew how to solve the problem.

Suddenly Houghton's letters to Andre told of her whirlwind fame. Best of all, she'd be coming to nearby Czechoslovakia for the Eastern European Film
Festival, and the two agreed to reunite there.

But during the première, as Houghton desperately searched for him, he was nowhere to be found because he couldn't leave the country, she recalls. "But
I didn't know that until I was home and got his next letter."

The letter writing continued. Houghton estimates there were 200 correspondences between them, though some were intercepted by censors.

Yet it would be 23 more years before Houghton and Andre met again face-to-face in 1990. "That was very romantic," she says. "I'd had other
lovers during that time, of course, but I never married because he was the love of my life."

Andre moved to America in 1993, but lived only two more years.

"I told him that I would someday write our story based on the letters," says Houghton. "Now I have."

Center stage


'Secret' revealed

Guess who's coming to Long Branch?

It's Katharine Houghton, who a third of a century ago captivated moviegoers as the daughter of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn -- and the fiancée of Sidney Poitier -- in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner."

Houghton -- who actually is Hepburn's niece -- will star in her own play at New Jersey Repertory Company. In "The Best Kept Secret," she writes of an American woman who falls in love with a Russian man during the height of the Cold War.

Co-starring with Houghton is Anthony Newfield, who appeared on Broadway in "The Grapes of Wrath" and off-Broadway in "It's Only a Play." Directing them is John Going, who staged Tony LoBianco as Fiorello H. LaGuardia in "Hizzoner!" on Broadway.

"The Best Kept Secret" plays Sept. 6-30 at New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch. Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $27.50. Call (732) 229-3166.

Lucky Star
by Pamela Murray Winters

"Cool" is hard to define, for "coolness" is ever-changing; one minute you're au courant, while the next minute the club kids are laughing at you. But it's a safe bet that the opposite of cool is a 49-and-a-half-year-old, moon-faced folksinger twirling a pair of Day-Glo batons. "Look at me," she laughed, mid-dance-step. "I'm like Britney Spears' grandmother."

That's part of what's special about Christine Lavin — she's been earning money as a musician since 1984 and shows no signs of stopping, but she's never cut her musical consciousness to fit this year's fashions. By being herself — only more so — she's attracted a wide range of fans. And, with her summer stint in a one-woman show on the New Jersey shore, even more people have discovered her unusual blend of music, theater, rhythmic gymnastics, astronomy lessons, beauty pageantry, and even cosmetology.
Even before the batons came out, at one of the last shows in New Jersey Repertory Company's Getting in Touch With My Inner Bitch, one audience member, who'd grabbed a last-minute seat for the sold-out performance and knew nothing about Lavin, kept asking his neighbor, "Is this considered normal for folk music?"
"It's been a real leap of faith," said Lavin about her move to the stage. But it hasn't been a leap she's made without checking her parachute. In 2000 she signed with a new agent, Ann Patrice Carrigan of Poetry in Motion. This agency, owned by actors Anthony Zerbe and Roscoe Lee Browne, is "more theatrical in nature" than her previous representatives, some of whom were unhappy that she was doing much more onstage than merely singing. Poetry in Motion recognizes Lavin's unique gifts, describing her as a "full-service entertainer."
Seated comfortably in the living room of her producers, Gabe and SuzAnne Barabas of New Jersey Rep, in a post-show wind-down, Lavin was nevertheless adamant about making certain statements, though her delivery was, as always, gentle and demure.
"I've felt for a very, very long time, and this is one of the things I'm determined, there are so many people in folk music whose work would be so at home on the legitimate stage. And there's such a need for good songs and good songwriters for theater. There's just not enough. And there's always room for people who are good.
"One of the people who's come to this run here at New Jersey Rep is Jim Nicola. He runs New York Theatre Workshop, which has been interested in me since 1994. I did a four-day workshop in '94 with actors singing my stuff." Not much came of this experiment; while Lavin worked in one room, "in the next room over was Rent." But in the wake of the success of Bitch, Lavin planned to talk with Nicola about getting "a series of singer/songwriters from all over the country and putting them in front of the theatre world.
"When you're a solo performer, what you've been doing, without thinking about it, [is] building a one-person show that's very theatrical in nature. It's just you and your instrument and your voice, and you're telling stories. We're all storytellers." Being a singer/songwriter is "just the simplest form, it's just stripped down — it's entertaining, and it works."
Theater seems like a natural setting for the music Lavin enjoys, as well as the music she makes. Getting folksingers onto theater stages will "open that up for larger audiences who turn their nose up at folk music 'cause it's in a church basement or something. And also, as we get older, we like cushier chairs!" she giggled.
Over the course of Bitch, which ran from August 9 to September 2, Lavin added new dimensions to the one-woman, one-guitar setup. She judiciously used a foot-pedal-activated device called a Boomerang to multiply her voice, creating, in effect, her own girl group. With the audience's help, she opened out a few of her songs as if she were a Hollywood screenwriter pitching scripts: "Shopping Cart of Love: The Play" was a natural for this treatment, as Lavin wove out, with gusto, the tale of a woman's breakdown in the supermarket express lane. And sometimes she brought her audience members onto the stage. Never before has Lavin drawn such enthusiastic male choruses for "Sensitive New Age Guys." "I know a lot of guys come because they want to be 'Sensitive New Age Guys'!" she laughed.

This is an excerpt from an article in Dirty Linen #97 (Dec. '01/Jan. '02).

CurtainCall: No reason to b*tch about Christine Lavin

Published in the Islander 08/24/01
Staff Writer

A few weeks ago, while driving home from Washington, D.C., I was at the Delaware/New Jersey border and had trouble receiving radio stations.

I ended up listening to some folk song that caught my attention right away. It was a "disaster movie in a song," which dealt with an office romance gone horribly wrong. The words were so catchy that by the end I was singing along. The singer had created an intensely vivid scene that was incredibly easy to imagine, and comedy played an essential role.

I had forgotten the song until last week when I heard Christine Lavin, who, as it turns out, was that voice on the radio, perform that song as part of her performance, "Getting In Touch With My Inner B*tch."

Don't let the title fool you: "Getting in Touch With My Inner B*tch," the show currently in its run at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, has nothing to do with feminist angst. Instead, it's a fun sing-along -- an interactive experience that is just plain enjoyable. While seeing the show last week, I couldn't help but find myself laughing and relating to the material Lavin sang about in her folk-music drama/concert.

The show takes participants -- who are truly that, participants -- on an emotional journey through the serious, comical and contemplative. Special effects abound at certain times, and their purpose is clear, and well-planned.

Director SuzAnne Barbaras has done a wonderful job guiding Lavin in order for her to make the most of her performance space. Watch Lavin's feet: She employs a Boomerang, an instrument that echoes music and voice, during the show as an additional effect, which she uses repeatedly to achieve different moods. The capabilities of the instrument are amazing, and Lavin's ensures the authenticity of the live sounds it creates.

Lavin's songs are as diverse as the Boomerang. In one song, a couple of men were invited up on stage to help Lavin sing a song about "sensitive New Age guys" who embrace Volvos and women's feelings. And to demonstrate her range, another song helps Lavin sort out her feelings about the Kennedy assassination. And of course, don't forget about the "disaster movie in a song."

Attendees to last week's performance also had a special treat in seeing Irvin Blake perform, in addition to Lavin. The writer of such songs as "A Room Without Windows" and "Cuando, Cuando," Blake wowed audience members with hits and stories to accompany them.

There's still time to join in the musical revelrie. "Getting In Touch With My Inner B*tch" will run at the New Jersey Repertory Company at 179 Broadway until Sept. 2. Tickets are $25. For more information or to order tickets, call (732) 229-3166.

from the Islander

Get in touch with Christine Lavin

Published in the Asbury Park Press 8/15/01


Folk singer Christine Lavin is calling her new show, "Getting In Touch with My Inner Bitch," but she can't fool us.

She is about as nice, as generous and as fun as one's favorite aunt in her one-woman show at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch through Sept. 2. Her eyes sparkle with the same degree of clarity and brilliance as her rhinestone eye glasses. (Could they be a small tribute to her idol, Dame Edna?)

The one-woman show is at the New Jersey Repertory Company
179 Broadway, Long Branch
WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays through Sept. 2
CALL: (732) 229-3166

She says all her songs are based on some kind of reality and since she lives in New York City, need we say more.

Her second song of the evening concerns the subway and a woman crying for help because a dog is lying on the tracks ... or is it? Another song is about Ray, a guy who owns a store that makes copies on 72nd Street just off Broadway. He has fallen in love with Linda Eder and turned his store into a shrine to the singer who starred in "Jekyll & Hyde."

Because Lavin tours the country much of the year, her songs are not limited to Manhattan. She sings about her reaction to encountering Harrison Ford, "The only living movie star I adore," in the Rocky Mountains and how she is so lucky he doesn't carry mace.

Then there is an out-of-world experience, a song about the controversy of whether Pluto is a planet or a comet or what?

This is Lavin's first time performing in one spot for more than one night and working with a director. SuzAnne Barabas, artistic director of the NJ Rep, has done an excellent job setting the scene.

Lavin, with her acoustic guitar, roams the small stage. Her feet, which push levers on an electronic device that repeat her words and music, are almost as busy as her hands. And as the seating is only three rows deep, she makes frequent forays into the audience.

She plucks several men out to sing backup for her song, "Sensitive New Age Guy." You know, the kind of man whose dream car is a Volvo, his favorite song is "Puff, the Magic Dragon," and he doesn't mind hyphenating his last name. It's to die for.

The closest Lavin comes to being a bitch is a song about a woman who is having the worst day of her life and finally loses it in the 10-item line at the supermarket because she has 13 items and the cashier won't check her out. But even this story has a happy ending.

Lavin's show is a delightful oasis, especially for baby boomers whose life experience may echo her own. And she is sharing the stage with some musician friends who will offer post-show performances. Scheduled are:

THURSDAY: Composer Ervin Drake, who authored such hits as "It Was A Very Good year" for Frank Sinatra, "I Believe" for Frankie Laine, as well as "Good Morning Heartache" for Diana Ross.

SATURDAY: Singer and song writer Julie Gold, who penned the 1990 Grammy Award-winning song of the year "From a Distance," recorded by Bette Midler. Her songs have been recorded by by Judy Collins, Kathy Mattea and Patti Lupone. She tours with her own night club act.

AUG. 24-26: Singer and song writer Red Grammar, who performed with the Limeliters from 1981 to 1991, but best known as a successful childrens' musical performer.

AUG. 30-SEPT. 2: Folk singer and song writer Tina Lear.

Published on August 15, 2001

New Jersey stage: Letter perfect -- Christine Lavin is just too nice for title of her play



That asterisk in the title of Christine Lavin's play can't possibly stand for the letter "i." Even though the folksinger calls her show at New Jersey Repertory Company "Getting in Touch with My Inner B*tch," she shows herself as a good-natured charmer full of inner beauty.

The rotund, owlish-looking Lavin may be dressed in basic black, but, unlike Masha in Chekhov's "The Seagull," she's hardly in mourning for her life. Occasionally she flashes a grin that shows impishness, but never b*tchiness. For that matter, Lavin has gone on record to say that she chose to use the asterisk because "I don't want to offend." What does that tell you about her potential to be a shrew?

Out of her protractor-shaped mouth come perceptively witty songs that celebrate everyday life. Accompanying herself on acoustic guitar, she sings of the thrill of spotting longtime hero Harrison Ford while she was vacationing in Colorado. She expresses relief that her nephews don't have pierced navels or spiky purple hair. Not only does she sing a loving tribute to a favorite aunt, but she shows some sympathy for St. Christopher, who was demoted from sainthood.

Does this fit the profile of a difficult woman? Here's someone who tells her audience, "You've got to leave something beautiful in your wake" and "We all have beauty in our own way." When the crowd responds with enthusiastic applause, she coos, "You're so sweet!" Later, she gives a present to the person who scored the highest grade in astronomy in college. When someone in the crowd sneezes, she interrupts her song to say, "God bless you." Then she sings a number for audience members who have recently celebrated a birthday.

The closest Lavin gets to validating her title occurs when she sings about a contretemps with a cashier in the supermarket express line who won't deal with 13 items. It's a veritable morality play in which revenge is exacted. Another song ostensibly has a sad ending, but after the applause, Lavin adds a section that shows the tale had a happy ending after all. That may be a bit devious, but it's nothing more severe than that.

Indeed, Lavin is capable of complaint. She grouses that she had to attend the opera and later went skiing simply because her boyfriend likes those activities. "Is there anyone here," she asks her audience, "who's in love with someone you have nothing in common with?" She knows the answer is yes, but she isn't defeated by the reality.

Though she's sunny in outlook, Lavin is no Pollyanna. At the end of the show, she asks a tough question of herself and her audience: "What can you do when it's clear to you that dreams will not come true?" But even here, she avoids bitterness and faces reality with a square jaw: "Adjust your dreams" is her advice.

Maybe that asterisk in "Getting in Touch with My Inner B*tch" really stands for the letter "a" and Lavin is giving audiences a chance to get in touch with her inner batch of feelings and songs. It's a chance theatergoers should embrace.

Getting in touch with Christine Lavin

Published in the Asbury Park Press and the Home News Tribune 8/10/01
Theater Writer

Christine Lavin is doing things at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch she's never done in her 17 years as a folk singer and songwriter.

Starring Christin Lavin
New Jersey Repertory Company
179 Broadway, Long Branch
8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; through Sept. 2
(732) 229-3166

"I've never worked with a set before," she said. "I've never worked with a director before in my life and I've never performed in one place so long."

SuzAnne Barabas, artistic director of the NJ Rep, is directing Lavin in a theatrical evening of song called "Getting in Touch With My Inner Bitch," opening tonight. During an interview on the first day of rehearsal, Lavin, 49, sounded like a kid loving every minute of summer camp.

"Usually, it's just been me and my guitar -- and I'm self-taught," said Lavin, who learned to play as a child by watching a guitar teacher on a PBS TV series. "SuzAnne has already given me some wonderful ideas that never occurred to me to do, just because I'm so used to just standing there and playing."

Although Lavin has been "wireless" for three years, she still feels tethered to a microphone and hasn't fully adjusted to being mobile.

But don't think her two-hour show is static.

"I do things other folk singers don't do," she said.

No kidding.

Besides playing several acoustic guitars, she walks into the audience, uses technology that reproduces her voice as her own backup singer and twirls batons, glow sticks and ribbons.

"What I always liked about folk music is it is a very inclusive music," said Lavin, who counts Judy Collins, Bob Dylan and Dave van Rack as influences. "And what I've felt for a very long time is my work would be very at home in a theater."

And NJ Rep's intimate cabaret setting will make audiences feel like Lavin is singing in their living room. She opens each show by including the names of audience members in her song. As the evening progresses, she'll ask some personal questions relating to an upcoming song, all of which are drawn from real life. As she gets older, Lavin noted, she writes more for her peer group.

For instance, "The Kind of Love You Never Recover From," her most requested song, concerns the great love of one's life that, for whatever reason, got away.

"Everyone has someone in their background they never quite got over," she said about the song she wrote in 1990. "They may not have talked about it in 30 years, but it's something they carry with them."

Then there's "Good Thing He Can't Read My Mind." It concerns doing things one normally would not do just to make a relationship work, she said.

"One woman (in the audience) said she took country line dancing for two years and you could tell by the way she said it she hated every minute of it," Lavin related.

Then there's "I Want to Make Friends With My Gray Hair." But we won't go there.

"People tell me it's like I'm writing a musical sound track for their lives," Lavin said.

Also at each performance, Lavin will be joined by some musical friends who, following each show, will entertain about another 45 minutes "for people who don't want to go home," she said.

While not exactly a household name, Lavin has recorded 13 solo albums and produced 12 compilation records. She travels the country, mostly doing one-night stands.

When folk singers get air time on the radio, she said, it's on the far left of the dial inhabited by college and public radio stations.

"Pop radio is locked in with the big record companies," she said. "If (folk singers) sell 10,000 CDs, that's a successful album that makes money.

"Big record companies have to sell at least 100,000 CDs, because their overhead is so different," she explained, adding she thinks the music business is in a calamitous state and songwriting by most pop artists is poor.

"People like me are holding on for dear life, because we don't get air play, we don't have sales anything near what the big companies can do," she said. "I felt for a long time if our music was put into a theatrical setting, it would be a natural fit because . . . our songs tell stories and that's what theater is all about -- story telling."

These days she produces all of her own CDs and sells them at concerts or on the Internet at Each NJ Rep performance will be recorded live and a CD burned that night will be auctioned off to the highest bidder. The proceeds will go back to the nonprofit theater.

Published on August 10, 2001

Folksinger offers a one-woman musical



Folksinger-songwriter Christine Lavin wants her club-hopping fans to know that her one-woman show at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch is not her first gig in a "gen-u-ine theater."

In fact, when she enters the spotlight to sing her songs in "Getting in Touch with My Inner B*tch," it will be all of her second appearance on the legitimate stage.

"Yes," she says in a self-deprecating voice. "I've appeared onstage with Julia Roberts, Joanne Woodward, Paul Newman and Nathan Lane."

Though it wasn't planned that way. Four years ago Lavin, who plays acoustic guitar while singing her perceptive songs ("Blind Dating Fun," "I Bring Out the Worst in You"), agreed to perform her best-known composition, "Sensitive New Age Guys," at a benefit for Paul Newman's Hole-in-the-Wall-Gang Camp. She was the opener for author A.E. Hotchner's spoof of "Cinderella," starring Roberts as Cinderella, Woodward as narrator, Newman as the Fairy Godfather and Lane as the Fairy Godmother.

But three days before the opening, Lavin was told that Sarah Jessica Parker, cast as one of Cinderella's evil stepsisters, canceled -- and would Lavin replace her?

"I'd never acted," Lavin says, with awe surging through her voice. "Never anywhere, anytime. And this was going to be for 300 people who paid $1,000 each to see real stars."

Yet she donned a lime green plastic jacket, black leggings and a blue rhinestone-studded beret. "And," she says, "when we got to the scene before I go to the ball, where Julia Roberts was to clean my shoe, I ad-libbed, 'You missed a spot.'"

She chortles with glee. "Making her shine 'em again was, I guess, my inner bitch showing."

Actually, a visit with Lavin suggests that there's little "b*tchiness" to be found in the stout songwriter with short-cropped locks (a look that's prompted her newest tune, "I'm Becoming Friends with My Grey Hair"). In her small New York apartment, where CDs are piled in every corner and most of the floor, Lavin, dressed in a plain black shirt and slacks, is quick to laugh and talks a mile-and-a-half a minute.

While some of her songs are complaints, they're usually benign whining. "Oh, No" describes her problem of locating lost glasses with less-than-optimum vision. "Big Bug" tells of an insect of inordinate length who pays a visit to her apartment.

"Almost everything I've written in the last 10 years is musical non-fiction -- stories about real things or real people," she says.

What about the song of a woman who misses her boyfriend's call and presses *69 -- only to get a woman on the line who turns out to be his wife? ("That happened to a friend," Lavin insists.) "Waiting for the B-Train," in which subway commuters fear an injured dog is on the tracks, but discover it's a wig? ("Oh, yes, that happened, too.")

While most of her songs are funny or bittersweet, some take on weightier issues. "The Sixth Floor" relates how the Texas School Book Depository in Dallas has morphed into a Kennedy assassination tourist trap.

"After I saw it, I got on a plane and wrote the song with the pen I bought there that said 'The Sixth Floor' on it," she says. "And after I finished the song, I threw the pen away."

Last spring, SuzAnne and Gabor Barabas, respectively the artistic director and executive producer of New Jersey Repertory, saw Lavin in concert in New York and asked her to appear at their theater.

"I went down there to see one of their shows, 'Immortal Interlude,' the same week I went to see '42nd Street,'" Lavin says, "and I thought their show was much better. So here I am."

Lavin cites an unlikely influence in her desire to play a theater: Barry Humphries' Dame Edna Everage, who appeared in "her" own Broadway show last year.

"Seeing Dame Edna totally changed my life," she says. "I saw it in previews and walked out saying, 'This is the gold standard of performance.' I went 25 times -- and at $65 a ticket, I almost went broke. I had to go to a place where the price of soup was cut in half at 5:30 p.m., and had dinner there just so I could afford to see Dame Edna."

Dame Edna is a confirmed Christine Lavin fan as well. "This girl has got the goods," she relates. "There aren't many so-called funny women who make me laugh, other than Joan Rivers and Laura Bush, both for different reasons. When they make a movie about my life and career, I've always said I want little Christine Lavin to be me as a teenager -- only in nicer clothes."

The Peekskill, N.Y. native, now "491/2," says that her parents encouraged her -- to be a nurse. "Well," Lavin concedes, "I'm one of nine kids, so I understood their need for practicality."

In high school, she was a cheerleader, when it wasn't "as hard as it is now." "Today, they throw these girls up in the air and they sometimes get killed," she says, quieting her voice in fear. "I'm glad I learned to twirl a baton, though, because I use that in my show."

Lavin taught herself guitar by watching educational television. "Years later," she recalls, "the TV teacher read this in an interview and came backstage afterwards. She told me I was the best guitarist in the show. It was so untrue!" she says, laughing and slapping her knee. "She was just blinded by her pride."

No question that Lavin is a maverick. How many performers have a nun for an agent?

"Not an ex-nun," she emphasizes, "but a nun right now. All the money she makes goes to support the convent. I tell all the presenters to watch their language when they deal with her, but I add that at least you know she's not going to lie to you."

Lavin is a favorite of many songwriters, even those who write in a much different vein. Ervin Drake, composer of "It Was a Very Good Year" and the inspirational "I Believe," calls Lavin "a one-of-a-kind social commentator."

"Somebody who was writing an encyclopedia of important 20th century songs called me to ask what should be in there, and I immediately recommended 'Sensitive New Age Guys' because it tells of the important changes in our society," he says.

"My songs are often the stories of the strangers I've met in my travels," Lavin explains. "Everyone has a fascinating story. If you sit and talk long enough to them, you'll find it out. I hope I get people to think differently about the cab driver or the waitress, and maybe get them to talk to each other."

To that end, Lavin encourages mingling at "Getting in Touch with My Inner B*tch." (The asterisk, by the way, is her idea: "It's my Catholic upbringing.")

"Live theater brings people together, but I'd like to see them make a greater connection," Lavin says. "So we're setting up a telescope in the parking lot, so people can meet each other while looking at the nighttime sky."

Julie Gold, who wrote the Grammy-winning hit "From a Distance" -- and recently appeared with Lavin at the Bottom Line in New York -- says, "For 25 years, I have seen the world through Christine's eyes and have heard the world through her songs -- and I'm happy to report that the world will never be the same for me. But she's also one of the most generous people in the business, helping her friends to succeed."

Lavin has presented new songwriters' showcases on Martha's Vineyard. "People think it's this altruistic thing," she says, "but to me, there's room for everyone who's good. You don't have one CD on your shelf, you have many-many.

"When I was younger and heard someone really good, I used to be a little jealous, but now that I have my foot in the door, I want to let them in, too. Who knows? Maybe because of my eight brothers and sisters, I just like to have a lot of activity around."

Say 'I do' to 'Harry and Thelma'

Published in the Asbury Park Press 7/17/01

"Harry and Thelma in the Woods" is not unlike "The Odd Couple" in Manhattan.

The new comedy by Stan Lachow, receiving its state premiere through Aug. 5 at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, centers on a couple married for 25 years who have outgrown each other. It is smoothly directed by Mark Graham on a sylvan setting designed by Andy Hall and nicely lighted by John Demous.
New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch
WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays through Aug. 5
(732) 229-3166


In a series of one-liners, Harry (John Lombardi) tells Thelma (Susan G. Bob) it's all over -- except for the shouting. Their performances are flawless.

An author, Harry wants to write like Hemingway and publish the "great American-Jewish novel." Instead, he authors animal training books. Even that has become difficult and depressing lately:

"I'm all bottled up," he tells Thelma.

"Ill pull the plug," she responds.

He blames his lack of literary greatness on the fact he was born too late, causing him to miss all the great things -- like the Depression and World War II.

"You're a rainmaker," says Thelma, who is prone to sing songs to illustrate human emotions.

Thelma has put up with Harry's allergies. She had cooked for him, cleaned for him, mended his clothes. As a matter of fact, she has packed a gourmet picnic lunch and surprises him by returning to the site in the woods where they first made love.

Harry jumps back from the wooded clearing in horror: "Site of the original sin!" he exclaims.

Soon afterward, Harry reveals he wants a divorce:

"I can't stand living with you anymore!" Harry screams at Thelma.

"What else?" Thelma asks.

"That's it," he responds.

"You mean you're going to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start all over again?" Thelma inquires.

And he does. But with his girlfriend Choo Choo. She has youth, golden legs and knows sexual positions not shown in the movies, Harry says.

At the end of the first act of this two-hour show, they arm-wrestle to decide if Harry will leave Thelma. He wins, and he does.

This light comedy falters in the second act, mostly because it is too predictable. We know Harry will never be happy with Choo Choo. We know Thelma is too strong to just wither away. But could there actually be people like Thelma, who, after going through so much pain and humiliation, instantly forgive the person who caused it all?

A year later, a whole new Thelma returns to the woods to celebrate her liberation. She lost weight, restyled her hair and wardrobe, read all those great novels Harry always wanted to write and took singing lessons. She's become such a good singer she is now a cabaret artist.

Harry also returns, but in a disheveled state, with a bandage on his nose, a bad toupee on his head and gun in hand to shoot himself.

Choo Choo left him. He realized dumping Thelma was a big mistake. He still has writer's block and even the suicide note pinned to his coat is badly written. Why on Earth would Thelma want him back?

Nicely produced, wonderfully directed and performed, "Harry and Thelma in the Woods" is one of the better offerings at the New Jersey Repertory Company, a professional troupe devoted to new works.

Published on July 17, 2001

Thelma & the leaves: Divorce gets comic treatment in 'Harry and Thelma in the Woods'

Published in the Asbury Park Press 7/13/01

Theater Writer

Playwright Stan Lachow didn't exactly know where his characters were going when he began writing "Harry and Thelma in the Woods."

New Jersey Repertory Company
179 Broadway, Long Branch
8 p.m. Thursdays through Fridays; 2 p.m. Sundays; through Aug. 5
(732) 229-3166

"I don't plot it out," he said. "I usually start with an idea or a phrase that gets me thinking and I have a vague idea of what's going to happen and how."

"Harry and Thelma," which is being staged at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, began as a serious play. It's now a comedy, Lachow said, or maybe even a farce.

The spark for the plot came from a friend who confided what it had been like when he told his wife he wanted a divorce.

"He said they were taking a walk in the woods and his wife was pointing out the beauty of the day and he was going in the bushes and throwing up because of what he was going to do," Lachow said.

"Harry and Thelma," a two-character play, features John Lombardi of Hoboken as Harry, a disillusioned author of animal-training books who longs to write the great Jewish-American novel. Susan G. Bob of Teaneck is a happy homemaker who loves cooking, singing off-key and misquoting authors. They have been married for 20 years. The play takes place as the couple revisit the woods where they first consummated their relationship.

Lachow, who grew up in Brooklyn and moved to the suburbs in Rockland County, N.Y., to raise his family, now lives in the West Village of Manhattan with his wife, a psychotherapist. He has written five full-length plays, plus several one-acts. He also works as an actor.

Lachow is still refining "Harry and Thelma," which previously was produced in Florida.

He has been working closely with his director, Mark Graham, who lives in Connecticut.

Both men came to theater later in life.


John Lombardi and Susan G. Bob portray a couple who picnic while on the verge of divorce in the comedy "Harry and Thelma in the Woods," premiering in Long Branch this weekend.
Lachow had written plays for his high school, but ended up working in retail following his discharge from the Army after the Korean War. He thought retail would be temporary. But he couldn't quite figure out how to get back into theater. He ended up as an executive. Eventually, he found a community theater where he could do some directing and acting and took the leap.

Graham previously had his own advertising agency and worked as a marketing consultant.

Both men said theater has always been their passion because of the process of preparing a work for public consumption.

Graham not only directs, he also produces.

"Producing, to me, has a tremendous amount of challenges," he explained. "For one thing, you really have to believe in the show . . . it's not going to happen in a week.

"You are committing yourself to at least two years of nurturing the play, finding the right production, getting it published and looking at its future life."

Graham believes "Harry and Thelma" has a big future, especially on regional and community stages. A one-set, two-character play that enables mature members of an acting company to shine are always in demand.

However, he added, there is more to it than that.

"Besides being a 'two-hander,' the characters have universality . . . they are my mother and father, my aunt and uncle," he explained. "I see these people and recognize things about them I see in my own marriage of 27 years.

"The show has something to say," Graham said. "It's reality-based and I really think the audience can get into it."

Published on July 13, 2001

New Jersey stage: Is operetta dead? No, it's 'Immortal' fun


An operetta? These days, it's a rare theater that dares to tackle this antiquated form of entertainment.

But SuzAnne and Gabor Barabas, who head the ambitious New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, have nevertheless gone ahead and written "Immortal Interlude," the type of show that "they just don't write anymore."

SuzAnne Barabas, who is the lyricist as well as co-librettist, has written such lines as "What is this sensation? I am all confused." Even her song titles are as florid as those found in operettas of yore: "You Are Love." "One Perfect Rose." "Is This Romance?"

Is this entertainment? In fact, it is, in a modest way. Though "Immortal Interlude" pales from not having nearly enough happen during its two acts, Merek Royce Press' music is lovely, with an occasional 21st-century twist to keep it from being solely heavy syrup. He doesn't know how to end a song so that an audience knows it's time to applaud, but he still writes haunting melodies with a new-age twist. Too bad the music has been prerecorded and the performers sing along to a tape -- which certainly didn't happen in the grand old days of operettas.

Though the Barabases don't credit the classic "Death Takes a Holiday" (a k a "Meet Joe Black") as their inspiration, its premise was clearly on their minds. They set their libretto in 1939 at a Newport, R.I., summer home. Horace and Margaret Griffin are excited that their lovely daughter, Grace, is marrying James Collier. Now if only Grace could be equally enthusiastic.

Grace is instead intrigued by a Count who happens to drop by in black tie after she endures what should have been a fatal riding accident. In most of his dialogue, the Count drops quite a few hints that he's really Death personified. Nevertheless, everyone on stage -- including other daughter Pamela, Dr. Eisenstein and Katie the maid -- is pretty slow to catch on.

By the time all is sung and done, this Death doesn't take a holiday as much as he takes to matchmaking. Most everyone gets blissfully coupled, though the Barabases don't convincingly show why any of these people should be united.

SuzAnne Barabas does a decent enough job as director, except for a lackluster first-act curtain. Her ensemble is accomplished, with Ted Grayson perfectly cast as the Count. He has handsome, dark, brooding looks that are both enticing and scary. He's not death warmed over; he's hot.

Tricia Burr is enchanting as Grace, with the insouciance of those madcap heiresses of the '30s. Burt Edwards has smoking-jacket elegance as her father; Leslie Wheeler amuses as her constantly tipsy mother; and Kathleen Goldpaugh is fun as her cynical sister. Clark S. Carmichael, as Grace's fiancé, keeps his upper lip stiff with lines like, "It's imperative that we have an upper class."

As always, the Barabases have given their show a handsome production, through Bryan Higgason's ornate set and Patricia E. Doherty's true-to-the-period costumes.

Immortal Interlude

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

When: Through May 20. Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m.

How much: $30-$40. Call (732) 229-3166 or visit (

The Coaster
Robert F. Carroll

Death as a stage character holds an irresistible attraction for playwrights, including Gabor and SuzAnne Barabas, authors and founder of the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

In their latest work, "Immortal Interlude", some ten years incubating and now premiering at the Lumia Theatre in Long Branch, the couple have written in Death as a handsome, Hungarian count.

The Barabases said their play, with music, was inspired by Alberto Casella's "La Morte in Vacanze," roughly translated as "Death Takes a Holiday," the title of a years-ago Hollywood movie version of the Casella play.

In "Immortal Interlude," Count Ut-Vege (Ted Grayson) turns up as Death, in tails and with a vibrant tenor voice, as a weekend guest at the Griffin's luxurious summer house in Newport, R.I., just before the start of the Second World War. The mysterious count proceeds to enchant young Grace (Tricia Burr), the Griffins' daughter; Grace's sister, Pamela (Kathleen Goldpaugh), and ultimately Katie (Cristin Hubbard), the Griffins' Irish maid.

Grace's flirtation with the count nettles her fiancé, James Collier (Clark Carmichael), a simpering dandy, and doesn't sit well with Grace's widower dad, Horace (Burt Edwards). But Horace's sister Margaret (Leslie Wheeler), a spinster and not-so-secret tippler, finds the mysterious stranger alluring.

All eventually ends well, if death can be considered a well ending. Along the way the count and Pamela get acquainted in a rollicking tango, "Is This Romance?" The three women musically explore the effect the count has had on their lives, in "Changes," and in Act 2 the entire company chats each other up in the witty "Small Talk".

Hubbard, as Katie the maid, is fetching as she blossoms in the ballad "Go Where Your Heart Beckons," and as she and Collier discover each other in the wild "Swing." John FitzGibbon, as Dr. Ben Eisenstein, adds a tragic undertone as a Jewish doctor bound for Europe to rescue family members as Nazi war clouds gather. But he's buoyed by the affection he's set loose in Pamela.

All the music of "Immortal Interlude," which operatically carries along and amplifies the action, is the work of Merek Royce Press, brother of SuzAnne Barabas. SuzAnne, who also directs and wrote the lyrics, and her husband have co-written several other plays. The couple were co-founders of repertory companies in Philadelphia and Cincinnati before arriving in Long Branch several years ago.

The Long Branch company, as Gabor reminds audiences before each performance, is dedicated to new works by new authors. "Immortal Interlude" is one audiences should cherish.

Atlanticville - Milt Bernstein

The latest news about New Jersey Rep, the adventurous local theater company, on downtown Broadway in Long Branch, is that the husband and wife team of SuzAnne and Gabor Barabas are presenting a fascinating new musical authored by themselves and featuring a score composed by Merek Royce Press, SuzAnne's younger brother.

The musical, "Immortal Interlude", is all about a weekend in the country - but with a twist. An unexpected visitor appears, urbane and charming, who changes the lives of everyone there in mysterious fashion. Who the visitor really is becomes apparent at the end of the play, but not before some very interesting transformations have taken place.

With lovely songs and haunting musical background provided by Merek Press, and excellent performances from the cast of ten, the show sustains the viewer's interest right up to the "happy" ending. (Several of the scenes and ensemble singing put this viewer in mind of Steven Sondheim's "A Little Night Music," a successful musical in its own right).

The principal roles are played by Tricia Burr as Grace Griffin, a central figure; Clark Carmichael as James Collier, her intended; Kathleen Goldpaugh as her competitive sister Pamela; Burt Edwards and Leslie Wheeler as her father Horace and aunt Margaret respectively; John FitzGibbon as a not-so-sympathetic family doctor; Cristin Hubbard as Katie, a most saucy maid; and Ted Grayson (alternating with Michael Gabinelli) as the charismatic visitor.

SuzAnne Barabas directed the play with a sure hand, and the set design of a summer home in Newport, R.I., by Bryan Higgason, was most attractive and evocative of the period.

For anyone looking for a most entertaining evening in the theatre - and enjoying live performances of a musical at a location much closer than that other Broadway - this show, which will run only through May 20, should not be overlooked.

Death takes a (tuneful) holiday

Published in the Asbury Park Press 5/01/01


"Immortal Interlude," the New Jersey Repertory Company's first musical, is a family affair in more ways than one.

It was written by wife-and-husband troupe founders SuzAnne and Gabor Barabas, with music by SuzAnne's brother Merek Royce Press. SuzAnne also directs.

New Jersey Repertory Company
179 Broadway, Long Branch
8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through May 20
TICKETS: $30-$40
INFORMATION: (732) 229-3166

"Immortal Interlude" concerns the Griffin family, whose members are spending the last weekend of the summer at their opulent "cottage" in Newport, R.I., when Death, personified as Count Ut-Vege, comes to call. It seems Death is taking his first holiday in centuries and wants to learn all he can about humans, including what it feels like to be in love.

If the plot sounds familiar, it's because the story is similar to the 1934 film "Death Takes a Holiday," which was remade as a TV movie in 1971 and recycled again as the 1998 film "Meet Joe Black."

The familiarity of the story robs the musical of some of its mystery. Press' music, however, is fresh and varied, from ensemble numbers to ballads to lovely duets such as "One Perfect Rose." There are 17 songs and three reprises during the two-and-a-half hour show.

As usual at the Rep, production values are high -- with a nice set design by Bryan Higgason, good lighting by Jeff Greenberg and some lovely dresses by costume designer Patricia E. Doherty. SuzAnne Barabas keeps the musical flowing smoothly.

All eight actors turn in fine performances, especially John FitzGibbon as the doctor, Ted Grayson as Count Ut-Vege and Rep regular Kathleen Goldpaugh as Pamela Griffin-Snowden. A seductive tango between Death and Pamela is to die for, so to speak.

Although the musical was 10 years in the making, the characters need more to work with. Audiences need to know exactly why Death has chosen this particular family at this time. The one-dimensional characters need to be fleshed out more in order to gain the audience's support, especially at the end, when certain people unexpectedly turn up in love. It has "A Midsummer Night's Dream" quality to it, but there are no fairies or sleeping potions to blame for such dramatic changes.

At the center of the play is Grace Griffin (Tricia Burr), the youngest and prettiest of two daughters, who has had a bad fall from a horse as the play begins. With no pulse, she is carried into the family's living room by her snobbish fiance James Collier (Clark S. Carmichael).

With a sudden inhalation of air, Grace returns to life. Enter Death, through the French doors, wearing a white tie and tails, which he wears for the entire weekend. Doesn't anybody wonder why? A tuxedo is a bit formal for breakfast.

Death/Count begins to charm not only Grace but her older, much-married sister Pamela (Goldpaugh), her alcoholic aging Aunt Margaret (Leslie Wheeler) and even the sassy Irish maid Katie (Cristin J. Hubbard).

Death doesn't fare so badly with the men either. Probably because of the tuxedo, class-conscious family patriarch Horace Griffin (Burt Edwards) accepts the Count. Dr. Ben Eisenstein (FitzGibbon) is convinced to stay on rather than visit a patient in a coma. Death assures the good doctor his patient will survive. And he does, in one of dozens of instances during the weekend when people survive various calamities, including being submerged in water for hours or falling from tall buildings and then walking away.

After all, Death is on a holiday.

Published on May 1, 2001

Birth of a musical: Death makes a visit in NJ Rep's premiere play

Published in the Asbury Park Press 4/27/01

Theater Writer

It's never an easy sell at the New Jersey Repertory Theatre in Long Branch.

New Jersey Repertory Company
179 Broadway, Long Branch
8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays
$30 to $40
(732) 229-3166

With a mission dedicated to staging new works by unknown playwrights rather than the tried-and-true, there isn't much marquee value for attracting audiences to the intimate 60-seat space.

Undaunted, co-founders SuzAnne and Gabor Barabas, West Long Branch, have decided to up the ante by producing a musical, "Immortal Interlude," that they, along with SuzAnne's composer brother Merek Royce Press, have written.

Musicals are major undertakings for small theaters, and this one will cost New Jersey Repertory double what it usually costs to stage a nonmusical play, said Gabor, also the Rep's executive producer. While it is in keeping with the theater's mission, "Immortal Interlude" also broadens the scope of the repertory company because it is the troupe's first musical.

"We do all these serious and dark works and people have been asking, when are we going to do a nice musical," Gabor said.

How "nice" it will be is yet to be determined. According to SuzAnne Barabas, the theater company's artistic director, it will "follow in the tradition of old-time Broadway book musicals."

But New Jersey Rep fans need not worry that "Immortal Interlude" will be confused with, say, "Funny Girl."

The two-act, eight-character musical takes place in a posh house in Newport, R.I., on the last weekend before World War II breaks out in 1939.

The date is very important, SuzAnne explained. On that fateful weekend, a mysterious stranger arrives at the weekend house party and changes each of the other seven characters lives. The stranger, SuzAnne said, is Death.

"Death has arrived in human form and is having a respite before the war," she said. "Once the carnage starts, Death will be very busy."

SuzAnne said she chose blue-blood territory for the show's setting because it's such a different world. She said she lived for awhile on Philadelphia's Main Line and had a chance to observe people's lives.

"Some of the facts in the play come from people I knew who would spend their summers in Newport and winters in Philly,." she said.

Among the characters in the musical are a retired industrialist, his sister, his two daughters, one of whom is engaged, a Jewish doctor with family in Germany and a maid.

"Death takes on the persona of the other guest they all were expecting," SuzAnne explained. "He wants to learn about human emotions and why he is feared."

The Barabases and Press previously collaborated on the World War II Holocaust drama "Find Me a Voice," produced last year at the Rep. They also have written many children's musicals.


Left to right: Burt Edward, John Fitzgibbon and Christina Hubbard rehearse a scene from "Immortal Interlude," a world-premiere musical opening at the New Jersey Repertory Theatre in Long Branch this weekend.
SuzAnne said "Immortal Interlude" has been in the works for 10 years.

"We almost staged it last year," said SuzAnne, who is directing the play. "But we needed to do more work on it.

"We feel at this point it is ready for a first production as we continue its development," she added.

SuzAnne said when the project was born, her personal life was filled with death.

"My mother, grandmother, a dear aunt and father had all died somewhat close to each other," she said. "I was preoccupied in a way with the acceptance of death."

But, SuzAnne is quick to add, there are many humorous moments in the musical.

There is also some dancing, but not much since the stage is small, she said. Size also meant no live musicians to play the 20 songs, including reprises. The music is computer generated, she said, which makes it harder for the actors as they cannot take their cues from a conductor.

Press designs Web sites, scores music for independent films and industrials and has written the underscoring for most all 20 or so shows the Rep has staged in its three years of performing. He writes the music first; SuzAnne then writes the lyrics.

"We work better that way," she said.

Published on April 27, 2001

Of mothers and daughters

Published in the Asbury Park Press 3/21/01


About midway through "Eleemosynary," a grandmother named Dorothea (Lindy Regan), who is in the midst of a difficult conflict with her adult daughter Artie (Yvonne Marchese), gives some interesting if sardonic advice to her granddaughter Echo (Laura Pratt): "Never have a daughter. She won't like you."

On the Dwek Studio Stage
By the New Jersey Repertory Company
179 Broadway, Long Branch
WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 7 p.m. Sundays through April 1
TICKETS: $18; $15 people age 65 and over, students
CALL: (732) 229-3166

Oddly, that quote articulates the offbeat but insightful humor of Lee Blessing's play, now being given a meticulous and inspired second stage production by the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. "Eleemosynary," which means charitable or the giving of alms, takes place in 1985, the peak of the era when co-dependence, toxic behaviors and relationship addiction were buzz words of mental health counselors. The play tries to convey how comedy ad tragedy mesh in a particular case of family dysfunction, forcing the individuals involved to realize their true potential. The only problem is that since dysfunction and parental abuse is the only life these Westbrook women had and will ever know, who knows what they would have become under any other circumstances?

The play begins in the present, when Dorothea has suffered a stroke. Her granddaughter Echo, who has identified with her, tells the story of how her mother Artie was repelled by her mother, Dorothea, and literally moved all over the country just to avoid being near her maternal nemesis. In an early episode in Artie's life, her mother buys her a pair of plastic wings and makes a home movie of herself forcing her daughter to lift herself off the ground. "I want my daughter to fly!" emotes Dorothea. Artie flies, all right: She avoids her mother like the plague, and when she has a child of her own, she is so self-absorbed she gives the child (Echo) to her mother to raise. Eventually, Artie becomes a successful biochemist, and Echo becomes a national spelling-bee champion and an honor student.

The production is unique and invigorating because of two ingredients that work together. One is Blessing's script, which is full of pointed metaphors. For example, in a scene where Artie moves to a strange city, she supports herself by selling, of all things, luggage -- a symbol for travel. The other ingredient is Michael R. Duran's fluid direction. He presents the play in a way that makes the theater going experience transcend the story line.

His three actors, on bare platforms with virtually no props, paint a series of vivid, colorful images using nothing more than words, movements and emotions. We easily make friends with Artie and Echo as they drive us through Dorothea's zany, intermission-less mission.

"Eleemosynary" is highly recommended.

Published on March 21, 2001

The write stuff: Play offers love, laughs and urban terrorism

Published in the Asbury Park Press 2/16/01

Theater Writer

When Michael T. Folie was going to school at what is now Middletown High School North, the 1970 alumnus wanted to become a writer like his idols James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway.

New Jersey Repertory Company
179 Broadway, Long Branch
8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays
Feb. 15 through March 11
$25 to $36
(732) 229-3166

Then, when he went to Rutgers University in New Brunswick, he got involved as an actor in a student-written play that ended up as a finalist in a festival at the Kennedy Center in Washington.

Acting seemed pretty exciting, so he switched majors and went for some post-college training at the famed HB Studios in Manhattan. He got work and traveled around the country performing in plays.

By the time Folie was in his 30s, though, he was tired of his nomadic life. He decided to settle down and return to writing . . . this time as playwright.

Now, 12 produced plays later, he is having the East Coast premiere of his "An Unhappy Women" at the New Jersey Repertory Theatre, Long Branch, less than a mile from Monmouth Medical Center, where he was born 48 years ago. It opens at 8 p.m. today. Another of his plays, "Panama," is scheduled for the Rep's fall season.

" 'Unhappy Woman' is a romantic comedy . . . a futuristic, black romantic comedy," Folie said from the Rockland County, N. Y., home he shares with his wife, Frances, a schoolteacher, and children Brendan and Lizzie. "It's very traditional in the sense two people love each other, they're perfect for each other, but circumstances keep them apart.

"On another level, it's a political thriller, a biochemical, mind-controlled, wacky, way-out comedy with men dressing up as women," he added.


Brenton Popolizio (standing) and Brian O'Halloran rehearse a scene from Michael T. Folie's "An Unhappy Woman," opening this weekend in Long Branch.
The play previously was produced in Los Angeles and is scheduled to be staged next month at the Alleyway Theatre, Buffalo, N.Y. Folie's play "The Adjustment," featuring Stephanie Powers, toured England last spring. It also was staged off-Broadway at the Jewish Repertory Theatre. "Lemonade," a comedy, was translated into French for a Paris production.

Folie said all his plays are different.

"My plays are all over the map," he admitted. "They veer back and forth between outrageous comedies to more traditional, modern, urban dramas . . . but there is always comedy in my plays, although the subject matter may be serious.

"I like to keep people on the edge of their seats," he added.

"An Unhappy Woman" centers on Gayle, the title character, who falls in love with Hank, a government employee. Pearl, Gayle's roommate, is a very happy young woman. She is in love with Gaylord, an urban terrorist. The play takes place in the future, where people have identity bar codes inserted under the skin, everybody carries a gun and a trip from Dulles Airport to downtown Washington requires crossing a war zone in an armored limousine.

Folie said this play began like most of his others.

"These people came into my head and started talking . . . they wouldn't go away," he explained. "Sometimes they do go away and I don't have to write about them."

Folie, who also is a free-lance speech and industrial writer, is satisfied with his lifestyle.

"I like to spend long periods of time by myself writing in my room . . . then I like to be with people," he said. "Writing plays let's me do that."

Writing for TV or film would not let him do that, he said, nor do they mesh with his technique.

"When writing plays, I don't know where I'm going . . . it's like exploring a dream," he explained. "Sometimes things don't work out, there are dead ends, it doesn't make sense or it would never be viable on stage.

"Other times things fall into place," he said. "It's like a partnership between my subconscious and conscious mind, as if they are working in tandem."

When that happens, Folie is a very happy man.

Published on February 16, 2001


A happy audience

Published in the Asbury Park Press 2/20/01

In Michael T. Folie's futuristic play "An Unhappy Woman," which is having its East Coast premiere in Long Branch, people still are worried about holding on to jobs they hate.

Here, the unemployed are thrown into the "insecurity zone," where it is every man, and woman, for his or her self. It's a sort of hell where the have-nots are urban guerrillas obsessed with ruining it for the haves.

By the New Jersey Repertory Company
179 Broadway, Long Branch
WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays ;2 p.m. Sundays
Ends March 11
TICKETS: $25-$27
CALL: (732) 229-3166

And the "haves"? They are obsessed with controlling others, especially women controlling men.

For people who have no problems suspending their disbelief, Folie will take them on a two-hour Orwellian ride where a person's worth is measured by the size of their gun, not their compassion.

Andy Hall's very functional set of gray stone walls and benches, nicely lit by Jeff Greenberg, sets the tone of the play -- the future is bleak. So bleak, in fact, that genuinely happy people are extremely hard to find.

When government employee Hank (Brian O'Halloran) finds Pearl (Gigi Jhong) he is thrilled. Pearl is Gayle's sister. Gayle (Kittson O'Neill), the unhappy woman of the play's title, trusts no one and when Hank proposes marriage within hours of meeting her, she is very suspicious of his motives.

Hank wants Pearl to accompany him and Gayle back to Washington so the government can run a few tests to discover why Pearl is so happy. The three arrive at Newt Gingrich Airport and on their way to secured downtown D.C., their limousine is attacked and all three find themselves battling for their lives in the insecurity zone.

This is where things go from strange to weird.

One of the guerrillas is Gaylord (Brenton Popolizio), who wears a kilt with his army bootsand is the leader of a group that prides itself on only doing stupid things. After a chance meeting years earlier, Gaylord has pined for Pearl's love.

Marjorie (Kathleen Goldpaugh) is a stand-in for the First Lady and Hank's boss. She is in charge of the happiness project and extracts so much "happiness enzyme" from Pearl she resembles a nasty pit bull.

Then there is Manuela (Adin Alai), a Latin American transsexual who dresses like June Cleaver, sews and bakes cookies, carries a machine gun and answers only to Marjorie. She/he is worth the price of admission. Without even trying, Alai steals the show and he doesn't even show up until Act Two. Oddly enough, his character is the show's most believable and most realized.

Director Nick Montesano keeps the action moving despite numerous blackouts and scene changes. He should, however, have reined in Jhong's Pearl, whose "happiness" quickly becomes annoying. She is more hysterical than happy.

Folie's romantic comedy, which borders on the surreal, is for adventurous audiences. And that is exactly what the New Jersey Repertory Company wants and gets. It should make everybody involved happy indeed.

Published on February 20, 2001

Acting up: AIDS issue stays afloat with 'Raft of the Medusa'

Published in the Asbury Park Press 1/26/01

Theater Writer

Playwright Joe Pintauro was walking around Greenwich Village one night just over a decade ago when he stepped into a bookstore.

A notice caught his eye: "Actors with AIDS in search of scripts."

Pearl and Solomon Dwek Little Theater
179 Broadway, Long Branch
Opens at 8 p.m. Friday
8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays
Through Feb. 11
(732) 229-3166

Pintauro copied down the telephone number.

"I didn't want to promise a script and not deliver so I started working on a play," Pintauro said from his New York City apartment. "I started going to ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleashed Power) meetings on 13th street at the gay and lesbian center and I was blown away.

"There were people there of all stripes and all sexual persuasions hot on the issue of fighting to get recognition," he said. "I immediately thought of the painting 'Raft of the Medusa.' "

His play, named after the painting, opens at 8 tonight in Long Branch. It was never staged by the initial group of actors because all of them had died from AIDS, Pintauro said. Subsequently, it was staged in New York, England and Germany, Pintauro said.

It centers on a diverse group of AIDS victims in a therapy session. They discover one of them, a reporter, doesn't have AIDS and is taping the session for an article. They are offended and one victim stabs the reporter with an infected needle.

The play runs 90 minutes long without an intermission.

Jimmy Blackman (reading), Michael Gabinelli, Ian August and Leighann Lord rehearse a scene from "Raft of the Medusa."
The Medusa was a French passenger ship that hit a sandbar in 1816 off the coast of Western Africa. Members of the aristocracy took over the life boats while the lower classes had to make crude rafts, which then were tied to the boats so they could all row to safety. A storm hit and the lines that held the ship's boats to the rafts were broken or cut. Only 15 of the 149 people on the rafts survived.

A large painting by Theodore Gericault (1791-1824) depicts the raft people, with one man waving a white shirt trying to catch the attention of a boat far in the distance. It hangs in the Louvre in Paris, Pintauro said.

Waving that shirt is a metaphor for how AIDS victims felt at the time he wrote his play, Pintauro said. He knew of the painting from a New Yorker magazine article about the ship wreck he had read just months before.

"Gericault interviewed some of the survivors and painted an heroic version of what it must have been like when that ship came into view and either didn't see them or purposely passed them by," Pintauro explained. "It perfectly fit the scene I was trying to get into."

Ken Wiesinger of Queens is directing the play. He is a member of the New Jersey Repertory Theatre, where the play is being staged. Rep founder SuzAnne and Gabor Barabas have encouraged their members to use the second stage space.

Wiesinger said he acted in the play in 1993 and fell in love with it.

"The rhythm of the play is like orchestrated chaos . . . as the lives of these people in group therapy are ticking away and they all want to be heard," Wiesinger said. "They are basically looking at their world as if it were coming to an end.

"Now, with more aggressive therapies, death is not as immediate," he added. "Now there are options."

Pintauro said he has resisted suggestions he update the play.

"To me, it's a snapshot of the time and more valuable because of that," he said.

Published on January 26, 2001


"Piaf in Vienna", an intimate, one-act play-with-music by Brad Korbesmeyer, now in its world premiere at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, is a sparkling little comedy spiced with an air of mystery.

The mystery, kind of a theatrical trompe l'oeil, extends to the play's title. The Piaf of the title is actually a young woman named Vienna Hauser who's obsessed with the memory of the legendary Parisian cabaret singer and drifts in and out of the Edith Piaf character during the course of the evening.

Luckily for the playwright, Deborah Boily, who plays Piaf, is an accomplished cabaret singer herself, having created one-woman shows in French and English and performed in Paris and London many Broadway musicals. From her opening number, "La Vie en Rose", Boily/Piaf is right at home in her role in the Korbesmeyer play.

The play is set in a room strewn with Piaf mementos. When Boily answers the urge to sing, she's joined by a mysterious piano player (John FitzGibbon), addressed alternately as Charles and Guyan and who, on occasion, reverts to a papier mache dummy. There's an equally mysterious Stan (Burt Edwards), who turns out to be the faux Piaf's dad.

As the play comes to a close we learn that the young woman's dementia apparently stems form an auto accident. There's also a hint that, with her improving physical condition, the young woman's Piaf obsession, sad to say, may be disappearing.

TWO RIVER TIMES (Philip Dorian)
One Flew Over Vienna's Nest
In the title of the year sweepstakes, "Piaf in Vienna" gets my vote. Contrary to first impression; the new play is not about what might have occurred when Edith Piaf visited the Austrian capital. No, Brad Korbesmeyer's absorbing one-act play is about a delusional American woman named Vienna who thinks she is the legendary Parisian chanteuse. An enticing premise and a nifty title. While the play doesn't quite live up to either, it is an interesting work, and ideally suited to New Jersey Repertory Company's stated purpose of producing promising new playwrights.
Vienna (Deborah Boily) spends her time in the attic of the home she shares with her retired father (Burt Edwards). She's suffering repercussions from a traumatic event that the compact play reveals as it unfolds. Spending most of her time alone, nested among typical attic relics (Harry Feiner's set and Deede Ulanet's props are picture-perfect), Vienna goes in and out of the character of Piaf, addressing an imaginary audience in word and song. It is revealed that Vienna has also been inhabited by other singers in the past. By any measure she's mentally unstable, but Edith Piaf and Rosemary Clooney are relatively harmless alter egos.
The relationship between father and daughter is well drawn in the situation and dialogue. Stan's (the father) devotion to Vienna is clear, and the reason for his indulgence is nicely interwoven into the play's exposition. There are some inconsistencies - in two years Stan has never come into the attic while Vienna is singing - that weakens the characters, and the ending, a sudden metamorphosis, is abrupt. But at 80 minutes the play has room for tweaking.
Edith Piaf (1915-1963) was an enormously popular singer whose sentimental ballads, sung in a quavering, throaty voice, earned her an adoring international audience. Born Edith Giovanna Gassion, she was dubbed La Mome Piaf, The Kid (more commonly Little) Sparrow, by a nightclub owned who discovered her singing in the streets of Paris. Mr. Korbesmeyer apparently wrote "Piaf in Vienna" as a vehicle for Ms. Boily, whose cabaret turn features songs in French and English.
The play is evenly balanced (as Vienna is not) between spoken scenes and songs a la Piaf. Ms. Boily proves an accomplished actress. Her rambling illusions stop short of rants and she projects an appealing delicacy...
...Interplay between Vienna and her father is heartfelt and amusing. Stan is very well written; in a few short scenes we come to know him well. Mr. Edwards plays him as naturally as can be; it's an impressive collaboration between character and actor. There is also a third performer in "Piaf in Vienna", a pianist with a split personality that complements Vienna's. John FitzGibbon plays this wordless accompanist sensitively, although in some scenes he's rather stiff.
 With the flick of a dimmer, Phil Monat's splendid lighting design transforms Vienna's attic to Piaf's cafe and back again. Under Peter Bennett's sensitive direction, Ms. Boily and Mr. Edwards's characters' devotion is never in doubt - their parrying dialogue is natural and affectionate in the writing and the playing.
"Piaf in Vienna" is part family drama and part Piaf retrospective. In both parts, Brad Korbesmeyer's play succeeds - in part.

A woman's regrets

Published in the Asbury Park Press 12/13/00

"Piaf in Vienna," a new play featuring Deborah Boily, was written by Brad Korbesmeyer especially for the cabaret singer.

Essentially, the 80-minute play stars Boily's voice. She sings eight songs associated with the French chanteuse Edith Piaf, including her signature songs "La Vie en Rose" and "Je Ne Regrette de Rien."

New Jersey Repertory Company
179 Broadway
Long Branch
8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays through Dec. 31
(732) 229-3166

Boily, who accurately describes herself as an actress who sings, is luminescent in the role of a 40-year-old woman who has been mentally unbalanced for the past 20 years due to the death of her mother in a car accident. Vienna, so named because she was conceived in Vienna, Va., was driving the car and blames herself for the death.

She was institutionalized twice and has been under the care of three different doctors. She refuses to take the pills prescribed for her because, she tells her father Stan (Burt Edwards) who discovers a full bottle, if she takes the pills she can't sing. He's never heard her sing and doesn't buy this excuse.

Sing Vienna must to survive, to not go completely mad. She is in her Piaf phase now, having previously assumed the identities of Patsy Cline and Keely Smith. When she sings, she imagines her mother in the audience watching. She also imagines Charles (John FitzGibbon) accompanying her on her mother's beloved piano.

As Charles, who never speaks and is replaced by a dummy whenever Stan comes into the room, FitzGibbon says a lot with his facial expressions -- especially his eyebrows.

Stan, nicely done by Edwards, has never heard Vienna sing. He only sees her pretending to be Piaf pretending to have a hissy fit or pretending to be giving an interview to a newspaper reporter.

Burt Edwards (left) and Deborah Boily in a scene from "Piaf in Vienna," a drama premiering in Long Branch.
All of this happens in the attic, perfectly rendered by set designer Harry Feiner and well lit by lighting designer Phil Monat. Director Peter Bennett keeps the play moving along.

What really worries the 70-year-old Stan is Vienna wandering the streets, making a fuss at the library, hanging out at pool halls and dating a criminal. This he knows must stop for her own good as well as his and he wants Vienna to go back to the hospital. She, of course, refuses, for she will not be able to sing there.

The play certainly has conflict at its center. But Korbesmeyer, who has been working on the play on and off for a decade, needs to elevate the play's climax in order for the audience to accept the ending. Vienna has to be purged of her guilt for the healing to begin. She has to confront the car accident head on, relive the horror for the audience as well as her father, so we can accept she has been severly crippled by this event for the past 20 years.

Instead, Korbesmeyer has Stan discover Vienna singing, then screaming in fear at having been discovered. Stan then decides not to insist Vienna receive more psychological help because he now fears he will not hear her sing for two years.

It's too pat. What about her wanderings? What about her obvious delusions? These aren't going to go away and the audience finds itself back where it was when the curtain rose -- just with Stan being the one additional viewer.

Published on December 13, 2000

New Jersey stage: 'Piaf in Vienna' is a play about neither



The biggest surprise in Brad Korbesmeyer's new play turns out to be its title. "Piaf in Vienna," the three-character play at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, is not about the famed French chanteuse on tour in Austria.

Instead, Vienna is the name of a fortyish woman whose parents conceived her in Vienna, Va. "Be glad it didn't happen in Indianapolis," her father tells her.

Since she had a terrible car accident two decades earlier -- one that killed her mother -- Vienna has holed herself up in the attic, pretending to be somebody else. For a while, it was Rosemary Clooney, then Patsy Cline. Now it's Edith Piaf, whom she has allowed to take over her life (hence, the title).

Vienna's long-suffering father, Stan, tries to reason with her, to no avail. For whenever he encourages her to face reality or seek help, she adopts Piaf's diva persona and dismisses him as a "simple man" and "an embarrassment." She orders him around as if he's the least important lackey in her life ("You can stay in the servant's quarters.") and the poor soul puts up with it.

There's little more to this 75-minute play. There are moments when Vienna emerges from her madness, such as when the 72-year-old Stan has a sudden attack from the many maladies that plague him. But for the most part, she's unsympathetic -- especially when Stan has a chance to find some happiness with a widow. Vienna criticizes the woman on every occasion because she can't lose her father's attention.

Korbesmeyer wrote the play as a vehicle for Deborah Boily, a noted singer of French songs. She's accompanied by able pianist John FitzGibbon, who also bears the brunt of Vienna's abuse. Boily's voice is both lovely and stirring, and her elocution is impeccable. Costume designer Patricia E. Doherty makes Boily look the part, too, by placing feathers in her streaked hair, masking a faded elegant dress with a kimono, and adorning ornate silver shoes with absurdly detailed buckles.

Under Peter Bennett's taut direction, Boily is not doing a strict Piaf imitation, nor does she need to. But she possesses the gestures characteristic of so many French singers. When she extends her hand gently, it appears to be resting on a cloud. Occasionally she slowly pinches her fingers together to show that she's working to capture the precise pronunciation of each word, and the requisite feeling that accompanies it.

After the audience applauds her stirring renditions of such songs as "La Vie en Rose" and "Under Paris Skies," Boily smiles in appreciation -- but wanly, to acknowledge that even now she's still feeling the pain expressed in the lyrics. So too, of course, is Vienna.

Boily steers the lackluster play well, but equally impressive is Burt Edwards as her father. Stan may be a craggy-faced Yankee, but Edwards shows us a man who still desperately loves his daughter, and will try most anything to help her, no matter how many times she waves her hand at him in dismissive disgust.

In an odd way, Edwards' wonderful performance makes our exasperation with Vienna even worse, for we wind up caring more about him.

Piaf in Vienna

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

When: through Dec. 31; Thursdays to Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m.

How much: $25 to $36. Call (732) 229-3166.

A French connection

Published in the Asbury Park Press 12/03/00

Actress-singer Deborary Boily doesn't mind being on stage alone.

She's done it often enough as a cabaret singer in Paris, London and the United States. She recorded two CDs -- "The Song Remembers When" and "A French Collection" -- based on cabaret shows she wrote and performed.

Still, given her druthers, she prefers company while in the limelight.

She has that in the New Jersey Repertory Company's current production of "Piaf in Vienna," a show written for Boily by Brad Korbesmeyer.

"I do the one-person cabaret thing not for ego, but because I have total control: I created it, I marketed it, I made the choices and taken the risks," Boily, 51, said recently during a rehearsal break. "It's really different when you are the only one . . . I'm glad I've done it because I know I can and to know that I alone was responsible for the success or failure of this particular performance.

"But I love being on stage with other people in an ensemble," she explained. "I love the interaction and the dependence you have on other people and the dependence they have on you.

"It is nice to have someone up there to share the burden," she admitted.

She will be joined by Burt Edwards, who plays her father, and John Fitzgibbons, who plays her piano accompaniest.

Boily plays a woman named Vienna who blames herself for her mother's death in a car crash. Vienna was driving. The 90-minute production, directed by Peter Bennett, takes place in the attic of her family's home. Vienna imagines herself as the famous French chanteuse Edith Piaf.

"She's psychotic," Boily said bluntly. "She's on drugs and pills the doctors think will help her.

"Her fantasy is to reconcile with her mother . . . and she can keep her mother with her by imagining her mother in the audience while singing Piaf's songs," Boily said. "The one thing she has left of her mother is the piano and her records so she uses those things to create this other life."

One reason the role is tailor-made for her, besides the fact she is diminutive like Piaf, her love of the French people, Boily said with a slight accent she retains from her childhood in New Orleans, La. She now makes her home in Houston, Texas.

Her father, a commercial artist, also taught at an art school on Bourbon Street. As a child she took classes there as well and each Saturday morning, as they walked to school, her father would comment on how the area reminded him of the streets of Paris he'd seen as a soldier in World War II.

Her mother's parents immigrated from France.

"Between the two of them, I developed this idea as a young child that it must be really special to be French," she said. "They instilled in me a French pride."

Her father also helped Boily's interest in music by bringing home a record player and she immersed herself in cast recordings from the well known, such as "My Fair Lady," to the obscure, such as "Ben Franklin in Paris."

Boily graduated from Louisiana State University with a degree in drama and music, married and moved to New York to continue her studies and act. The couple eventually returned south and the marriage didn't last.

Boily, who supplements her income working as a temporary secretary, said she remains busy with theater and cabaret appearences but it's not enough to live on.

A friend one day suggested she write a show about something she knew well. She wrote "A Always Wanted to be French," a mixture of American and French songs. That went over so well she next wrote "From Piaf to Brel and Beyond," which includes songs made famous by singers Gilbert Becaud, Michel Jonasz, and Serge Lama, popular in France but unknown in America. Next came "Ce Soir Cabaret."

 A Professional Troupe based in Long Branch

NJ Repertory Theater Actress Deborah Boily 
The passion of a Piaf in Vienna actress is captured on film.

With excellent interpretations during regularly scheduled performances at a local venue, the popularity of the NJ Repertory Company is on the rise. 

A quick glance at the biographies of the men and women of the company clearly reveals the wealth of experience that makes everything flow so smoothly on the stage under the guidance of an equally well credentialed production staff. Some of the popular past productions include: 

  • A World I Never Made
  • North Fork
  • On Golden Pond
  • Voices Carry

The Lumia Theatre on Broadway in Long Branch provides the main stage for productions and will host the presentation of Piaf in Vienna by Brad Korbesmeyer from December 7-31, 2000. See the NJ Repertory Web site or call (732) 229-3166 for more details on attending this and other productions. 

The Perl and Solomon Dwek Little Theater encompasses Stage II, allowing simultaneous productions for a wider audience appeal; upcoming performances in December are two comedies:

  • Naked by the River
  • Any Friend of Percy D’Angelino is a Friend of Mine

The company is a nonprofit professional theater organization that intends, in addition to their primary mission quoted below, to be a part of the revitalization of the neighborhoods in the Broadway area of Long Branch.

The primary mission of the theater is to develop and produce new plays with diverse themes, with a special commitment to fostering the works of minority playwrights. It is also devoted to creating an atmosphere where classics can take on a fresh look and forgotten plays can find a home.

The convenient location, coupled with affordable ticket prices and excellent performances, makes for an enjoyable night out while supporting the local community. 

Enjoy the show!

New Jersey Shore
Mark Hessey

 Standards-bred: Local singer returns to roots

Published in the Asbury Park Press 11/10/00
Theater Writer

Billy Stone admits it's a long way from writing English lyrics for Japanese hard-rock band Loudness to singing songs penned by George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter and Richard Rodgers.

Billy Stone in Concert
Lumia Theatre
179 Broadway, Long Branch
8 p.m. Nov. 16 to 19
(732) 229-3166

"In my younger days, I felt a strong need to prove myself in the rock field," said Stone, now 42 and back living in his hometown of Long Branch. "I think I really was always influenced by the pop signers of the '50s and '60s - Sinatra, Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald.

"But it just didn't fit right to sing 'Embraceable You' in my 20s," he added. "Now I'm older and more mature I can sing that comfortably."

Now that Stone has purged rock music from his system, he feels he has come full circle. He will be singing for four nights beginning on Thursday at the Lumia Theatre in Long Branch in a concert billed as "Love Songs After Six."

He also has returned to his roots. Stone, whose real name is Billy Coughlin, was born in Long Branch in 1957 and lived here until 1974, when his family moved to Wyoming. He would have been a member of the Long Branch High School class of 1975.

Instead, he ended up graduating from a high school in Cheyenne and earning a degree in theater with a minor in psychology at the University of Wyoming. He tried his luck in Los Angeles, fronting several rock bands, including Pyramid Sky, and writing songs.

He returned east to be closer to his mother, a former operating room nurse. An only child, Stone, whose stepfather was a surgeon, said he would have entered the medical field if he had not become an artist. Stone currently earns a living as the managed care coordinator with Orthopedic Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation Center in Red Bank.

But his first love remains the stage and recently has acted in "Adult Fiction" and "Octet" produced by the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. He considers it fortuitous that the NJ Rep opened in his hometown two years ago -- just when he returned.

Founders Gabor and SuzAnne Barabas recently opened a second space in their theater and offered it rent-free to company members, Stone said. He took them up on their offer, although he must split box office proceeds with them, and put together this act. He worked on it with musician Merek Royce Press, the Lumia Theatre's house composer. Stone hopes the project evolves into an album.

"Standards are the most expensive genre of music to record as it needs strings, or an orchestra, with big production values," he explained. "With rock, you just need a bass, a drummer, a guitarist and singer to make a record.

"It's too costly to hire a full orchestra but with a computer, Merek can take samplings and record tracks himself, so all I have to do is press play."

Published on November 10, 2000

 Applause, applause

New Jersey theaters thank those who helped to raise their curtains



Thanks went to airlines for giving free tickets, and to foundations for their generous contributions. Thanks also were offered to loyal staffers, Web site designers and concession-stand workers.

These and more public thank- yous were offered Monday night in New Brunswick, when New Jersey's professional theater community gathered for the 12th annual Applause Awards.

"The Applause Awards are really about dedication, and this is an opportunity to recognize that," said Angelo Del Rossi, executive producer of the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn.

The New Jersey Theatre Group, newly named the New Jersey Theatre Alliance, organized the event, which began with cocktails at New Brunswick's trendy Soho on George restaurant. Some 320 theater personnel, board members and honorees then paraded over to the nearby George Street Playhouse, where the 90-minute awards ceremony was held. The evening ended with coffee and dessert at Soho.

This year's honorees, selected for their contributions and dedication to the member theaters, ranged from volunteers to staffers to corporate angels. Among the volunteers honored were Piera Accumanno for her work with 12 Miles West Theatre Company in Montclair and Lina Moccia for her efforts for the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

"Lina has single-handedly painted our theater several times. She is a carpenter, mixes and pours cement, and like an ant, she carries more than her weight," said Gabor Barabas, New Jersey Repertory Company executive producer, in his introduction.

Many theaters saluted the contributions made by board members, including Two River Theatre Company in Red Bank, which thanked Len Pickell, president of the James Beard Foundation, for his efforts as "gala impresario." American State Company in Teaneck celebrated the contributions of James Coia and his employer, Bloomingdale's.

Both the Paper Mill and George Street Playhouse chose to honor veteran employees. Paper Mill's director of education, Susan Speidel, was honored for her work creating the Rising Star Awards, a sort of Tony Awards for high school musicals that has been replicated around the country. George Street applauded business manager Karen Price.

"I'm very passionate about theater," said Price, who accepted the award from George Street artistic director David Saint. "David recognizes that, as a numbers cruncher, I participate in the magic of the theater."

George Street Playhouse managing director Michael Stotts acknowledged the evening's missing company, the embattled Crossroads Theatre Company of New Brunswick, which canceled its 2000-2001 season and was not represented at the awards.

"It is our hope that (Crossroads) will be back on the boards next year, and that they will continue to build on their legacy as the premier African-American theater in this country," Stotts said.

The evening concluded with the presentation of the alliance's Star Award to former NJTA chairman and board member John McEwen, who earlier this year left Paper Mill Playhouse to take a job at New Jersey Network. The Theater Alliance Singers performed a medley of songs in his honor, highlighting McEwen's work on behalf of disabled audiences, as well as his fund- raising prowess.

Here are the theaters and their Applause Award recipients:

12 Miles West Theatre Company: Piera Accumanno

Two River Theatre Company: Len Pickell

TheatreFest: Fleet Bank

Pushcart Players: Rabbi Norman Patz

Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey: Leigh Pierson Conant and Richard Dalba

New Jersey Repertory Company: Lina Moccia

Passage Theatre Company: the Rev. Willie J. Smith and the Times of Trenton

Paper Mill Playhouse: Susan Speidel

The New Jersey Shakespeare Festival: Michelle Cameron and Len Muscarella of Interactive Media Associates

McCarter Theatre: Holly Williams and Vincent Iorio of American Airlines

George Street Playhouse: Karen Price

The Growing Stage Theatre for Young Audiences: John Mintz

The East Lynne Company: Frank Smith

Centenary Stage Company: Susan Riding

American Stage Company: John Coia and Bloomingdale's


The 2000 Applause Awards

By Peter Filichia

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ -- Had a great time, as always, at the Applause Awards, sponsored by the New Jersey Theatre Alliance. But before you roll your eyes, because you’re assuming I’m about to tell you who was the Best Actor or lighting designer for the 2000 season, let me say that you’re making the wrong assumption.

No, in New Jersey for each of the past 12 years, the professional theaters have given their applause (and handsome plaques) to the person, persons, companies or corporations who have made their lives that much easier. Presto Printing, where the Forum Theatre of Metuchen gets a break on its flyers. 3 Central Cafe, which hosts Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey’s opening night parties. Fat cats, too -- New Jersey Bell, Panasonic, Bristol-Myers Squibb -- who wrote the checks that made things happen. Even the Claridge Hotel Casino was applauded in 1991, for helping South Jersey Regional Theatre.

This year, the awards took place at the George Street Playhouse, which David Saint has revitalized in two short seasons. He’s currently re-staging his George Street hit of last season, Anne Meara’s Down the Garden Paths, for off-Broadway -- at the precise same time he’s starting rehearsals for his next George Street show, The Spitfire Grill, a musicalization of the recent film, with Beth Fowler in the lead. (At the awards, we also heard a selection, "Wild Bird," as part of the entertainment. Pretty song.)

Saint showed that a new broom doesn’t necessarily sweep clean (no matter what Johnny Johnson told us in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn) by applauding Karen Price, who’s been the George Street business manager for 12 years. At the podium, Price apologized for shedding some tears, but she showed more composure than have many Oscar-winners.

The Paper Mill Playhouse made a brilliant choice: Susan Speidel, the troupe’s director of education, who six years ago went to executive producer Angelo Del Rossi to ask if she could stage a Tony Awards for kids. She admitted that Del Rossi thought she was crazy, but he still green-lit the project. Thus were born the Rising Star Awards, made of Tiffany glass. The first year, a kid named Laura Benanti won for playing Dolly at her high school. Yes, it’s the Laura Benanti who would deservedly be up for a Tony only a handful of years later.

There’s also the Alliance’s own version of the Thalberg, called The Star Award. A couple of years ago, it went to Larry Capo, who devised the Applause Awards in 1988. This year, the Star was John McEwen, who was Paper Mill’s director of development for 15 years, until he moved to New Jersey Network this year. During his tenure, McEwen was a tireless advocate for outreach programs and access services. As his reward here, he was serenaded by Speidel (an astonishing performer, by the way) and others in a medley of show tunes ("Johnny One-Note") and lesser works ("Johnny Angel"), with saucy lyrics tailored to McEwen’s many achievements.

And so it went. McCarter Theatre honored American Airlines for flying in Lily Tomlin, Zoe Wanamaker, Charles Durning, and many others. Passage Theatre of Trenton saluted Dr. Willie J. Smith for so urging the black community to see Welcome Home, Marian Anderson that it sold out. The Pushcart Players applauded Rabbi Norman R. Patz for his help on their Holocaust projects, but the rabbi had to send his regrets. He was in Israel on a peacekeeping mission, and though the Applause brass would have liked him there, they understood that he had put first things first.

Many of the theaters seized the chance to applaud their in-the-trenches volunteers, the at-home moms who put posters in the local stores, or the senior citizens who sell candy at intermission. This year, New Jersey Repertory Company applauded Lina Moccia, a sixtysomething Italian immigrant. As she came to the podium, at least 20 who bought tickets to support her were in the back rows of the theater, yelling, "Lee-NAH! Lee-NAH! Lee-NAH!" with the same intensity that Yankee fans used to give to "Reg-GIE! Reg-GIE! Reg-GIE!" Moccia responded by giving a speech in a thick Italian accent, and wasn’t worried a whit that people might not understand her. We caught up.

It was my second favorite Applause Award Moment. First place goes to Ensemble Theatre Company of Newark’s 1994 winner Lathan Salley -- the janitor of the building where the troupe was ensconced.

Ensemble producing artistic director Marvin Kazembe Jefferson said that there were plenty of times when he needed something, and Salley matter-of-factly provided him with it. On more than one occasion, Kazembe had misplaced his keys, needed to get into the building, and had to call Salley to come down to let him in. He always did immediately, and without complaint.

And so, a black inner-city janitor who had to be at least 75 got to put on a handsome suit, stand in front of a roomful of people, and give his thanks for Ensemble’s acknowledging him. It’s a safe bet that he would have spent most of his life assuming that something like that would never, ever happen to him. But it did, and bless the Applause Awards for making it a reality.

Shouldn’t there be an Applause Awards in your theatre community, too? {:-)-:}

 This week's BackStage Regional Round-up

The New Jersey Repertory Company launched its third season with Sandra Perlman's "In Search of Red River Dog". The four-character, one-set drama centers on out-of-work Ohio steel workers and the women who love them. Wonderfully acted by Dana Benningfield, Jeff Farkash, Betty Hudson, and Ross Haines, Perlman's well-written piece captures the frustration of men who see their jobs vanish and their women grow stronger than themselves.

Sam Shepard-like in its starkness, realism. and family dysfunction, Perlman, nevertheless has a voice of her own. Under the direction of Rob Reese, the NJ Rep once again has produced high quality theatre with an edge in depressed, downtown Long Branch. Artistic Director SuzAnne Barabas and Executive Producer Gabor Barabas are pioneers. "In Search of Red River Dog" closes on Nov. 5.

 Superb cast in drama that looks at life, lies

Published in the Asbury Park Press 10/17/00


Men without jobs and the women who love them is at the heart of Sandra Perlman's new drama "In Search of Red River Dog," now playing at the New Jersey Repertory Theatre in Long Branch.

Also at the heart of the matter are lies.

The lies told by the steel mill owners to its laid off workers. Lies told by the garbage company that was illegally dumping chemicals years ago that now have poisoned the groundwater in Deerfield, Ohio, in 1978. And the lies told between a husband and wife that, when revealed, undermine the shaky foundation of their marriage.

New Jersey Repertory Company
179 Broadway, Long Branch
8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays
2 p.m. Sundays through Nov. 5
(732) 229-3166

Superbly acted by all four cast members and directed by Rob Reese, the play unfolds over 48 hours in the front yard of a run-down trailer.

Sam Shepardesque in a stark, reality driven, highly emotional way, the plot centers on Paulette (Dana Benningfield) and Denny (Jeff Farkash), high school sweethearts who married after she became pregnant.

Their young daughter has recently died and Paulette believes the cause was poisoned water from leaky chemical drums. Paulette's beloved dog Red also is sick, and she vows that if he dies (which he ultimately does), she'll have his remains analyzed to prove he was poisoned.

Meanwhile, Paulette has some unusual habits which leads us to think she may be losing her grip on reality. She sings nursery rhymes. Hangs laundry at night to dry. And plants exotic spices she has no use for.

She also is very bright - brightest kid in school - who married a football player who can barely put two words together. Benningfield turns in a finely wrought performance as the young wife who has to make some hard choices.

Her mother Bertie (Betty Hudson), who lost two children to miscarriages before she got the family out of a beautiful but deadly coal mining valley in West Virginia, loves her daughter with a passion. But she does not want to move again, and believes if Paulette stirs up trouble with her theory about the poisoned water, they will never work again and be forced to leave the area.

Hudson is excellent as the mother, particularly when she is horrified at the circumstances surrounding Red's death and what happened immediately afterward.

Her husband John (Ross Haines) is drinking himself to death because he knows the steel mills will never reopen and he can't even land a clerk's job at the local convenience store because he can't work the computerized cash register.

It is the women who have the survival instincts. John accepts this. Denny does not.

Farkash's portrait of a Denny that is insecure and terrified his wife will leave him is nicely done. We want to feel sorry for his predicament and do, up to a point. As his fears overtake him, accusing his wife of infidelity and lack of respect, he becomes pathetic. As always, it comes down to sex and Denny resents not having any with Paulette, just because a doctor said to give her time to recover from their baby's death.

He finally takes his frustration out on her and nobody's life will ever be the same.

At the end of this two-hour drama we realize Paulette is the one who is facing reality and Denny is the one who lives in an imaginary world.

Published on October 17, 2000


New Jersey stage: Tragedy, not trash, in trailer park



In Search of Red River Dog

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

When: Through Nov. 5. Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m.

How much: $25 on Thursdays and Sundays, $27 on Friday and Saturdays. Call (732) 229-3166.

Are people who live in trailers necessarily "trailer trash"? Playwright Sandra Perlman is out to refute the stereotype in "In Search of Red River Dog," now at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

Though Paulette and Denny live in a "sardine can," they're an eloquent and devoted couple, thanks to Perlman's fresh dialogue. Not that the young marrieds don't have problems. Denny's out of work, which doesn't help Paulette's dreams of going to college. Worse, their baby has died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Their prospects have tarnished in the few years since Denny nearly became the football team's MVP, and Paulette almost won the title of the town's Apple Butter Queen.

Fifty minutes into the play, though, Paulette suddenly mentions that she believes their trailer is sitting in the midst of severe environmental problems. Plants won't grow, the water smells and their beloved dog, Red River, is ill. Though a crisis seems imminent, it won't be mentioned again. Perlman indicates that weighty issues occur to these people, but they lack the resources to deal with them.

The playwright spends the second act replacing the couple's dreams of a better life with far less savory alternatives. She suggests that there's no escape from such a lower-middle-class life, and that poverty will eventually overwhelm even the brightest minds. What makes this a genuine tragedy is Perlman's ability to rouse sympathy for these two kids, who had the raw material to succeed.

The sense of loss is made more acute because Dana Benningfield and Jeff Farkash have a wonderful chemistry as Paulette and Denny. In just a few, attention-getting minutes, they exchange faint smiles that bear an edge of desperation; their eyes show how much unhappiness pervades their lives. The couple's brave front makes them all the more heartbreaking.

Benningfield gets the chance to be even more commendable in the way she displays great devotion to her father. He's at first played as a jolly drunk by Ross Haines, until he faces the harsh realities of unemployment. "This man don't bring home nothin', 'cuz this man don't work," Haines says, his voice full of defeat. As Paulette's mother -- who does her best not to be overwhelmed by her job of picking vegetables -- Betty Hudson is the salt of the earth.

Director Rob Reese stages the play with the right pace and mood. Once again, the New Jersey Repertory Company proves itself to be a fledgling playwright's best friend, consistently giving new plays most remarkable productions. This is one of its better choices.

 Playwright finds herself, in Long Branch

Published in the Asbury Park Press 10/12/00

Sandra Perlman has always been in love with theater.

She was in school plays while growing up in the Holmesburg section of Philadelphia and later in Palmyra High School in Cinnaminson.

As an adult, she acted at the Society Hill Playhouse in Philadelphia and during the summer of 1968 did street theater.

Being presented by the New Jersey Repertory Company
179 Broadway, Long Branch
Previews at 8 p.m. Thursday
Opens at 8 p.m. Friday
Performances at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays
2 p.m. Sundays through Nov. 5
TICKETS: $25-$36
CALL: (732) 229-3166

But she never pursued a theater career until years later, when she got mad at the innovative Polish director Jerzy Grotowski, whose improvisational style focuses on the actor who is physical, not intellectual.

In the early 1970s, Perlman attended a lecture given by Grotowski at Kent State University in Ohio, where Perlamn's artist husband Henry Halem taught and where they still live.

"Grotowski announced there was no more need for playwrights," she said. "That made me so angry that I felt a real need to write a play."

She taught herself by studying the works of playwrights who had influenced her, including Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and especially Anton Chekhov.

"It took me a few years, but I started writing plays while also working and raising a family."

Now, at 56, she is a full-time playwright, a member of the Cleveland Play House Playwrights' Unit and has had 12 plays produced. The Ohio Arts Council has granted her two play-writing fellowships. Her work, "In Search of the Red River Dog," opening tomorrow night at the New Jersey Repertory Theatre in Long Branch, was a finalist at the O'Neill Festival.

The two-act, four-character play emerged from her collective experience as a teacher and TV producer.

The play, set in Deerfield, Ohio, centers on Paulette and her husband Denny, an unemployed mill worker. Paulette's mother Bertie and her father John, also an unemployed mill worker, round out the cast.

The plot centers on the young couple whose marriage is threatened by unemployment and the recent death of their little girl, possibly due to environmental factors.

Perlman said she once had a student like Paulette, a smart girl whose life was abruptly detoured by teen-age pregnancy. And Perlman also produced a PBS TV program about the loss of the steel mill industry in Ohio.

"This is a play about lying . . . a play about what happens when you don't trust people to tell you the truth," Perlman said. "The steel and rubber industry had been losing ground for years, but no one was telling people that.

"Then one day these people woke up and there were no jobs," she said. "Some people were able to pull together and recover, like in Akron . . . but Youngstown never recovered."

Many mill workers arrived via Route 77 out of the Appalachia Mountains, Perlman said.

"They came from Virginia and West Virginia to find a better life in Ohio," she said. "When the jobs disappeared, they were caught in a quicksand . . . some became alcoholics (like John in the play), others lose faith (like Denny) and others develop survivor qualities (like Birdie and Paulette).

"Like many women, Bertie is incredibly strong; able to pick up and move even if it breaks her heart, just to keep her family going," Perlman said. "Women bend and adapt, men can't bend so they snap . . . or at least, some do."

Denny is one who snaps.

"I'm inspired a lot by real people I've met and come to know," she said. "I just love the idea of fictionalizing that realness."

Published on October 12, 2000


A Rare Opportunity

The Murder of Tchaikovsky:
"Improper Attention,"
 by Diane Bairamian

In this age of work to eliminate the very existence of hate crimes,
here is an indictment of hypocrisy that has been locked in a closet for over 100 years. This is the little known or suspected, story of the condemnation of the great Russian composer Tchaikovsky, because he was gay. It is the story of his Murder!

Review by Richard Schiff

    Playwrights & Company, in association with New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, New Jersey, 179 Broadway Long Branch, New Jersey 732-229-3166, an equity Theater, mounted a production of "Improper Attention", written by Diane Bairamian, and directed without blemish by John Morrison. I was treated to a previous production of this moving drama last year and will never forget it as long as I shall live.  The play ran four nights last weekend to packed houses, in the Solomon and Pearl Dwek Little Theatre

Improper Attention tells the story of the persecution and eventual murder by proxy of the great Russian 19th century composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, for having had a gay relationship with the nephew of the Grand Duke Stenbok-Fermor.

Jim Netis plays the part of Tchaikovsky with a brilliance not seen on the stage for a long time. The agony and sensitivity, the utter humanity he brings to the role is staggering.

The play recreates a little known event in Russian history; the convening of a group of the composer’s former classmates from the Institute for Jurisprudence. Though the action would take place in the late 1890’s, the show is done in modern dress, on a bare stage with minimal props. Now these former classmates are all middle aged and defending their reputations. They are all known friends of the composer, and a letter from the Grand Duke to the Czar, has condemned Tchaikovsky for having had a gay relationship with 18 year old Alexander Vladimirivich Stenbok-Fermor.  All of these men are attorneys. Tchaikovsky had practiced law in his very early years.

At first, shocked by the rude manner in which he had been literally dragged to this meeting in the home of Nikolai Borisovich Jacobi, played with cruel menace, by David A. Sussman who has a hidden agenda: he had a relationship with Tchaikovsky back in their school days. Here we see the vicious reality of men and women hiding their own dignity when confronted with the mere whims of the Aristocracy. The mere mention of royal disfavor has these men shaking in their shoes.

We get a rare glimpse of Royalty, in the person of the Grand Duke Stenbok-Fermon. Stephan Caldwell, as the Grand Duke, brings back the stuff of the Royalty that met a disastrous end, just a few years later, in the Russian Revolution. Even the internationally reknown and wealthy Tchaikovsky is meaningless, and worthless to the arrogance of landed nobility. Even Tchaikovsky is expendable.

The purpose of this meeting is to extract from this "jury" of Tchaikovsky’s friends, a verdict that will avoid his being prosecuted in open court, by the law. That would disgrace him and these so called "friends." Jacobi has even more to hide than his past. His own son is gay, and for appearances he will sacrifice anyone, even the nation’s greatest composer, to hide this, and keep favor with the ruling class. The hypocrisy is sickening. The performances are brilliant.

Morrison is a master of staging. He excludes the entire cast by having them turn their backs to the audience. In these spaces he has Tchaikovsky picnicking with young Alexander and you swear you are in a flowery meadow in the height of luscious Spring. The entire play is transcendent. The pathos is enough to floor the most jaded critic. The love that grows between the aging composer and the young nobleman is beautiful and haunting. The sheer tragedy of this great artist’s life was unknown to this reviewer. The whole event was covered up by history, and it is generally believed that Tchaikovsky died of Cholera, like his unfortunate mother. And as this play is no doubt going to re-emerge off-Broadway very soon, I will not divulge the outcome. I urge you to contact us to find out when next you will be afforded the opportunity to see this play.. You will be thinking and talking about it for the rest of your life. I guarantee you!

The cast included:
David A. Sussman, Jeff Taylor, Brian Fuorry, Sam Angona, Jim Netis, Kevin Counihan, Jim Kuntz, Jim Watson,  John Newman, and Stephan Caldwell.

All about Anne

Published in the Asbury Park Press 8/20/00

The facts of confessional poet Anne Sexton's life would lead one to believe her's was a rather sad one. Especially when you consider she was in therapy for years and committed suicide in 1974 at age 45.

New Jersey Repertory Company
Lumia Theatre,179 Broadway, Long Branch
8 p.m. Thursday through Friday; 7 p.m. Sunday
INFO: (732) 229-3166

Actress Salome Jens sees Sexton's life differently. In her one-woman play "...About Anne," Jens said she chose poems by the Pulitzer Prize winner that offers a "prismatic view of her life through her poetry."

"Anne liked to do her poetry with rock bands -- what fun, I thought! -- this is not a depressed woman," Jens said, speaking from a Manhattan apartment she shares with her brother-in-law, actor Anthony Zerbe. "Anne lived life to the hilt and she wrote a wonderful letter to her daughter Linda tell her to live to the top."

Sexton returned to school and began writing poetry at age 29 at the suggestion of one of her therapists. There she met and became good friends with poet Sylvia Plath.

"Through their creativity they both broke the (poetic) form and at a very young age and in a world that was not very comfortable for women," Jens noted.

Plath committed suicide in 1963.

At the time of the publication of "Anne Sexton: A Biography" in 1991, Time magazine called Sexton "Ophelia all grown up and turned into a suburban mother and basket case." Written by Stanford University English professor Diane Wood Middlebrook, the book generated controversy because Dr. Martin Orne gave the author more than 300 audio tapes from his therapy sessions with Sexton. Professionals called the move unethical, even though Sexton's daughter had approved of the decision.

The book revealed Sexton heard voices, had developed a fantasy personality, was sexually involved one of her therapists and, during episodes of rage, would physically abused her children.

"My sense is Anne ... was someone who lived fully and was addicted to drugs and alcohol," Jens said.

Jens, 65, goes so far as to say in some ways Sexton saved her life.

"When I look at her poetry ... she has all the aliveness, desires, search for beauty and creativity that I have and that is what I saw in her and that is what saved me," Jens said. "In seeing what happened to her, I had the advantage to take a look at what was chemically wrong with me.

"I thought alcoholism was a moral issue but she made me see it was physical ... and once I saw that, it seemed easier to handle," said Jens, who has been sober for 19 years and comes from a family with a history of alcoholism.

As a child, Jens said she craved sugar and as she grew older she turned to alcohol to satisfy "that terrible craving."

Along the way, however, she established herself as a capable actress. She studied with modern dancer Martha Graham and acting teachers Herbert Berghof, Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler. She 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 was cast in what she considers one of her best films "Seconds," which co-starred Rock Hudson and was directed by John Frankenheimer.

"...About Anne" was developed about 20 years ago, Jens said, and consists entirely of poetry. Some of the poems used are "Rowing Toward God," "Red Shoes," "My Daughter," "The Play," "The Dog's Neck" and "Daisies."

"It's something I have in my back pocket," Jens said.

Last November, Jens performed in the two-character "Memoir," about the life of legendary French actress Sarah Bernhardt, at the New Jersey Repertory Company. She said founding directors SuzAnne and Gabor Barabas asked her to consider doing "...About Anne" at their intimate theater in Long Branch.

"People who don't know Anne will know her at the end of the evening," said Jens, adding it runs just over one hour long. "She is talking about herself and her life in her poetry as it is happening.

"And they will know something about themselves they didn't know that they knew when it is over," Jens said.

After this, Jens will teach acting to master's-degree candidates at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she also lives.

And she'll continue working on "the Marlene project," a two-character play that was workshopped recently in Westport, Conn., and for which she has high hopes for future productions. It concerns the life of German actress Marlene Dietrich and takes place as she is developing the night club act she took to Las Vegas and toured internationally.

"I just love these strong woman," Jens said.

Published on August 20, 2000