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 2002 Season Articles, Features and Reviews
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Al H. Mohrmann (foreground) and Michael Irvin star in Rich Orloff's Big Boys at the Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey in Madison.

'Big Boys'

Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey offers a blisteringly funny exploration of the world of big business.
By: Stuart Duncan , TimeOFF

   Rich Orloff is clearly not a playwright to be saddled with reality. His new play Big Boys not only explores the world of big business, it takes a confident, firm grip on the absurdities therein. On the surface, it is a two-hour pas de deux between an egotistical, unethical and amoral boss and his mild-mannered, ethical and highly moral assistant. But not far below the surface, it is as blisteringly funny a screwball comedy as you will find.
   It is as if someone had taken David Mamet's real estate salesmen and marched them into a Laugh-In rehearsal, then strained the remainders through a Lenny Bruce monologue. The work, a co-production of the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch and Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey, is now at the latter's site in Madison through Jan. 26.
   The premise is simple: Norm (Michael Irvin) is applying for a job and meets with the boss, Victor (Al H. Mohrmann). Victor bullies him, humiliates him and then hires him. We then spend the next two perverse hours watching as Norm undergoes Victor's word and mind games, with an occasional fact tossed in mainly to confuse. "What does this company make?" Norm asks innocently. "I have no idea; I don't know. I don't know if I ever knew. Ask production," Victors blusters.
   Gradually Norm takes on the protective coloration he needs to be a successful, insensitive boor of an important executive. The laughs come faster and harder as the absurdities grow. The only question remaining is whether or not Norm will kill Victor for his desk chair and, if so, how?
   The actors have a fine time in their roles, clearly relishing each section of chicanery. Even Richard Currie's lighting design suggests the familiar Enron logo. John Pietrowski's direction is as wild and untrammeled as the script. Enjoy.


The boss has more fun in 'Big Boys'

Tuesday, January 14, 2003

BY PETER FILICHIA
Star-Ledger Staff

At Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey, big business meets the Marx Brothers' "Monkey Business" in Rich Orloff's "Big Boys."

The result is the silliest hit of the season. For those who assumed that theater of the absurd died in the '60s, here it is, alive and thriving in Madison.

Tyrannical boss Victor victimizes every employee he meets. But Norm needs a job, so he'll say whatever he must during the interview to get hired. Even when Victor announces that he'll call him Gustave, Norm can only meekly acquiesce to this outrageous demand.

Norm knows he has the experience and skills for the job, but that's not what interests Victor. This titan of industry believes that he can say or do anything he wants with an employee. He even pries into Norm's sex life, and soon Norm is stammering "I-I-I-I-I" more than Ricky Ricardo.

And so it goes, with Victor, leaning back in his leather chair, always feeling free to interrupt Norm and playing with him like a fly on a microscope slide. It's exaggerated comedy, but frequently funny, such as Victor's announcement that he has made himself Employee of the Month for life, or his phone calls to Santa Claus -- and God.

Orloff seemed to have Groucho in mind when he wrote Victor. Remember how Groucho would set up Margaret Dumont by feeding her an innocuous remark, and no matter how she answered, he'd suddenly and furiously imply that she'd just insulted him? Victor does the same with the never-can-win Norm. And like Harpo unleashing a barrage of silverware from his clothing, Norm pulls job reference after job reference from his jacket pocket.

How absurd does it get? When Victor says he has taped his conversations with Norm, he reveals a roll of Scotch tape on which he has written their remarks. Victor even insists on a penis-measuring contest.

Breathes there an employee with soul so dead that he hasn't wanted to be the boss himself? What if, Norm wonders, he adopted all of Victor's ruthless methods? Could this nice guy finish first? Must a boss always have the last word and last laugh?

Those intriguing questions give this play an added layer. Orloff dares to raise some serious issues-- whether or not Victor is ultimately the victim, or if Norm, doomed to be a paper tiger, could change his stripes. Orloff makes a strong statement about employee-boss dynamics by play's end.

Michael Irvin is perfectly cast as Norm, the prematurely bald, slightly overweight bundle of nerves who licks his lips to the quick. He sits rigidly with his hands clasped on his lap, eyes rarely looking up from his shoes, chin almost resting on his geeky bow-tie. His head movements suggest a turtle retreating into his shell, so much so that Irvin seems to be retracting his head into his ribcage. His voice goes falsetto-high when Victor says something inane, as he searches for the right word that won't offend the man who is, after all, the boss.

Al H. Mohrmann plays Victor in all his it's-good-to-be-the-king glory. He has a distinguished, presidential look and the demeanor of one who holds court with a home-court advantage. Director John Pietrowski has forged them into a good team.

During "Big Boys," Victor chuckles and says, "I have a firm grip on absurdity." So does Orloff, as this entertaining evening proves.


 

Al Mohrmann, left, and Michael Irvin play the only two characters in 'Big Boys.'

Capraesque comedy skewers office life

By Debra Scacciaferro, Daily Record

"BIG BOYS"

Corporate greed has always been a rich mother lode of inspiration for comedy playwrights. Rich Orloff's new comedy, "Big Boys," which opened at Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey in Madison last week, is one of the newest products of that inspiration.

The premise of pitting a nice-guy employee against a ruthless - and in this case, totally insane - boss isn't new. But it sure is topical. In the hands of actors Al H. Mohrman and Michael Irvin, who deftly dish out the playwright's dazzling comic arsenal of corporate patois under the taut direction of John Pietrowski, it sure is funnier than reading about the latest corporate scandal on the business pages.

To big boss Victor, "no" is a foreign word. "Illegal, unethical and immoral" are qualities to aspire to in this mad, mad world of 21st-century corporate mayhem.

He's made a mess of five marriages. The only one of his kids he hasn't committed to a mental institution won't tell him where he lives. He screams to his secretary sitting outside his door because he likes to. And he's more interested in getting all the little steel balls into the clown's eyes in his pocket puzzle than he is in his company's business.

"If I have to choose between truth and what I know," he tells Norm, "I'll always go with what I know. It's more dependable."

To nice-guy assistant Norm, "decency" is what sets him apart, and although he is often confounded by his new company's operating strategy, he still believes it will work out right in the end. He's got a new love life. He's moving up rapidly. The CEO is his personal mentor. And he believes he has a chance to set a new tone in the company.

Of course, Norm's badly mistaken. "Surely, sir, you didn't hire me to be a yes man," he tells Victor.

"Sure, I did," Victor says. "When I want integrity, I hire a PR firm."

By the time he realizes that Victor is a lunatic, it's too late. His life begins to fall apart as Victor takes an unhealthy interest in screwing up Norm's personal affairs.

Who emerges alive out of this claustrophobic situation seems at first a foregone conclusion. The irrepressible Victor is like a gleeful 5-year-old who never runs out of a new ploy. He trumps Norman's every ethical objection to corporate misdeeds with a madman's zeal and the Devil's logic. He has an unerring instinct for finding the vulnerabilities of his employees and adversaries. Like some schoolyard bully, Victor enjoys playing the role of corporate tyrant, running circles around poor, meek Norm until he begs for mercy.

By the end of the first act, this wretched and bewildered man is also begging Victor to teach him how to be everything he despises. By the time we meet Norm again in the second act, he seems every inch the spitting image of his boss - a bully in a fancy tie and pinstriped suit.

"I think I'm finally in touch with my inner 'Victor,'" he gloats.

This transformation of Norm is as harrowing as it is funny. Orloff may take his characters way over the top, but in doing so, he's revealed the cracks in the seams of America's current lust for material wealth and power. We all secretly want to be one of the big boys.

But Orloff, and director Pietrowski, (who told me he hates plays that leave you believing that human beings have no choices and no power) are not content to leave it there. They spend the rest of the second half of this play slyly turning the entire situation on its head.

In fact, despite first appearances, "Big Boys" has a lot in common with Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life," believing that in the end, goodness always triumphs over evil. While the very last moments of "Big Boys" fall disappointingly short of a totally satisfying Capra ending, they come darned close. So if you're in the mood to see the corporate tables turned, get a ticket to "Big Boys." It's only running through Jan. 26.


BIG BOYS

Variety.com Review
By ROBERT L. DANIELS
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------
In the wake of a year marked by corporate collapse and white-collar scandals, Rick Orloff's "Big Boys" is well-timed. The scathing two-character comedy explores the unethical behavior of a greedy and corrupt CEO who badgers, bullies and harasses his nerdy new recruit. Lurking beneath the play's irreverent fun is an unnerving truth that is more than a bit scary.

The egomaniacal titan, Victor (Al H. Mohrmann), wears a suit to bed because he likes to make business decisions in his sleep. He offers his doctor a bribe to change the diagnosis of an impending heart attack, never uses his intercom because he prefers to shout and makes of his employees "spineless toads and servile lackeys." Mohrmann acts the tyrannical monster with bullish authority, accented by a fiercely penetrating gleam in his eye.

Norm (Michael Irvin) is a decent, bow-tied weasel who is quickly seduced by Victor's unscrupulous devices and immoral business tactics. Irvin plays him with quicksilver comic timing. Norm's disarming revolt and ultimate triumph over corruption gives the play its plot.

Orloff has deftly captured the surly vernacular and ruthless scheming of corporate bigwigs and their white-collar subordinates. His dialogue has a distinctive rhythm and boasts the kind of rapid-fire repartee with which Matthau and Lemmon would have had a field day.

John Pietrowski's clean and direct staging finds the actors circling each other like hunter and prey. The play is crisply paced and might fly better without an intermission.

Tech credits are slick and functional. A sharp lighting design illuminates the sterile simplicity of an icy office set. The play is a co-production of New Jersey Repertory in Long Branch, where it made its formal bow last December, and it most certainly has legs.


Drama Review: `Big Boys'

This article by Jack Florek was prepared for the January 8, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

You're just jealous because I have a firm grip on absurdity," quips Victor, the corporate head honcho in Rich Orloff's new comedy, "Big Boys." This is one of the few lines in the play that is not an exaggeration. Opening this week at Playwrights Theater of New Jersey in Madison, "Big Boys" is a whacked-out, well-crafted, two-person play depicting the sort of unbridled egotism pervading big corporations that audiences have come to expect in this post-Enron scandal era.

This world premiere is a Playwrights co-production with the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. After completing its month-long run in Long Branch the production has moved to PTNJ, 33 Green Village Road, where it opens Friday, January 10, and runs to Sunday, January 26.

Reading somewhat like a skewed 21st century version of "A Star is Born," "Big Boys" tells the story of Norm Waterbury (Michael Irvin), a twerp-ish corporate wannabe, who is applying for an executive job at a mega-corporation run by Victor Burlington (Al Mohrmann). But even before he is hired, Norm is already a fish out of water. Intent on maintaining his moral integrity and "helping mankind," Norm still hopes to make a big splash in the big ugly corporate world.

Norm gets the job and Victor, the quintessential emotionally abusive boss who enjoys firing his employees on a whim, puts his new charge through the ringer.

"Did you do any fornicating this weekend?" asks Victor. "Do you fantasize seeing me naked?" When Norm balks at the notion of unethical business practices and tries to quit, Victor locks the door from the inside. After Victor harangues him for losing his girlfriend and being disowned by his parents, Norm is reduced to tears. Now at his nadir, Norm allows Victor to build him up in his own image; he becomes an "asshole in training."

Alas Norm proves to be equal to the task, but on his own terms, and the play ends all saccharin sweet with a death and a moral twist. But "Big Boys" is more than its plot. Its charm lies in its heightened lunacy and the often witty dialogue between its two archetypical schnooks.

Michael Irvin and Al H. Mohrmann are both fine comic actors with excellent timing (The "I-like-you," "I-lick-you" exchange is particularly funny). To say that their performances are cartoonish in no way belittles their craftsmanship. Both actors understand that the play's emotions bear only a passing resemblance to real feelings and wisely whisk right on past.

Reminiscent of a youthful Wallace Shawn, Irvin pouts and waddles his way through the first half of the play, alternating between hopefulness, obstinacy, and utter confusion. Mohrmann as Victor is crass and thoroughly unlikable as he gleefully carves his subordinate up into emotional ribbons.

But while neither character, as written, is the sort of person one would like to sit next to on a crowded airplane, Irvin's and Mohrmann's performances are so mutually fine-tuned that the play remains a pleasure. Mohrmann manages to keep the audience on his side, in an almost Groucho Marx-like way, with his gleeful and impudent manner. ("Yeah, I sleep in a suit," he says. "I like to make business decisions in my sleep.") Irvin, whose character is the redoubtable victim, comes through in the end like a corporate Rocky Balboa.

John Pietrowski's direction is also a plus. With only two actors and the questionable subject matter it would be easy for things to crash and burn. But Pietrowski keeps the action natural in the midst of the craziness, tweaking the dialogue just enough that the audience never takes the story too seriously. The actors seem to be enjoying themselves throughout the show (a mark of a good director); the jokes are nicely paced -- quick, but not rushed; and the stage action is comfortably choreographed and evenly executed. The audience is never left in the lurch.

Yoshinori Tanokura's set design is austere but elegantly functional and contributes to the fun. (The half-dead potted tree set downstage of Victor's desk is a nice touch.) Patricia E. Doherty's costume designs are equally successful, conveying subtle shifts in character development and the passage of time with a quick change in tie color.

"Big Boys" is unpretentious, light-hearted, and very audience-friendly. I initially expected it to be a humorous variation of David Mamet's "Glengarry Glen Ross," but it is much funnier than that. The humiliations that Norm suffers in Rich Orloff's script are too broad to invite the audience into extensive bouts of empathy. There are frequent, funny, references to sexuality that some may find a tad offensive.

So even if you haven't been following the latest bit of corporate corruption, "Big Boys" is an enjoyable, light-hearted experience. John H. Patterson, business tycoon and founder of the National Cash Register Corporation, once said, "To succeed in business it is necessary to make others see things as you see them." The same could be said for live theater, and "Big Boys" fills that bill.

-- Jack Florek


Lots of exits and entrances on the theater scene

Sunday, December 29, 2002

BY PETER FILICHIA
Star-Ledger Staff

Heraclitus' 2,500-year-old statement that "The only constant is change" is a good one to describe the New Jersey professional theater scene in 2002.

After 18 years as artistic director of the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, Robert Johanson found his contract was not renewed by the board. He left in July -- five months before his longtime executive producer, Angelo Del Rossi, announced his impending retirement at the theater where he's worked since 1964.

Michael Stotts, the managing director of the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival in Madison before defecting to the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, leaves this week to become the managing director of the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven.

Meanwhile at the Shakespeare Festival, Frank Mack took Stotts' position, that had been vacant for nearly a year. The Community Theatre in Morristown hired Allison Perrine-Larena as executive director.

Mary Oleniczak, who headed the John Harms Center for the Arts in Englewood, was fired after only 15 months on the job, because the theater felt it needed to cut expenses. George Street laid off three staff members in an effort to trim 10 percent off its 2003-04 budget. Most significantly, The New Jersey State Council on the Arts cut most of its individual grants by 3 percent.

But there was one good burst of financial news: The New Jersey Shakespeare Festival in Madison received $1 million from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

Luna Stage, after a year-long delay, opened its handsome two-theater complex on Bloomfield Avenue in Montclair. Tri-State Actors Theatre, previously located in Branchville, bought a new theater in Sussex. The Women's Theater Company, an itinerant troupe, changed its venue from Playwrights Theatre in Madison to the Bickford Theatre in Morris Township. The McCarter Theatre in Princeton continued construction on its new Roger S. Berlind Theatre, a 350-seat space that will open in September.

McCarter had the most artistic success, for its productions of "Yellowman" and "Crowns" went on to successful off-Broadway runs. (The Paper Mill's production of "I'm Not Rappaport" flopped on Broadway.) McCarter's upcoming production of Stephen Deitz' "Fiction" was one of three winners of the Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays, which awarded $25,000 to the author and to the Princeton playhouse's production, which opens in March.

One theater re-opened under staggering odds. Crossroads Theatre of New Brunswick, which had been shuttered for two seasons, saw its 10-year lease on its building at 7 Livingston Ave. expire, and found that the New Brunswick Cultural Center decided to retake control of the theater. It would allow Crossroads to rent, however.

Leslie Edwards, the theater's executive director, was dismissed in May. Rhinold Ponder, the New Brunswick attorney who had been president of the board for two years, resigned, and Marguerite Mitchell-Ivey, a longtime AT&T executive, took his place. Tony Award-winning choreographer George Faison, who had previously been named acting artistic director, opened the theater in October with three low-budget productions. What will happen in 2003 is less certain.

The New Jersey Theatre Alliance augmented its Family Week with Spanish-language performances. The Alliance's January symposium, "A Theatre Community Responds to 9/11" held at Crossroads in January, was broadcast on National Public Radio in September.

Saddest of all was the sudden and unexpected death in September of Stewart Fisher, associate artistic director of New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. He died of heart failure at age 37.


TWO RIVER TIMES
Scene on Stage
By Philip Dorian
New Jersey Rep Company Exposes Corporate Corruption!
Laugh it off with "Big Boys"


Most people believe that life is a fairly solemn affair, an essentially earnest process with lighthearted moments along the way to leaven the tedium. But some believe, as do I, that life is a Marx Brothers movie, with occasional serious moments to move the plot along. Some such serious occurrences - national tragedy, personal loss - defy satire or parody, but most are fair game for the skilled wordsmith. Think about Dick Cheney's secret bunker or Hack Welch's divorce or the outrage over Eminen's rap and an editorial cartoon pops into your head.

There's nothing funny about the 1990's accounting felonies that led to the dot com crash, the Enron debacle or the collapse of the aggregated American 401k No? Tell that to Jay Leno and David Letterman. Tell it to Steve Breen. Tell it to Rich Orloff, whose play "Big Boys" is a ripping riff on corporate amorality and abuse of power. The two-character, two-act, not quite two-hour play is a veritable cartoon, and a damn clever one it is.

Norm Waterbury (Michael Irvin) shows up in the office of Victor Burlington (Al H. Mohrmann) seeking employment. Norm is a mouse; Victor a lion. Norm is pure pocket-protector; Victor is strictly go-for-the-throat, Norm is a straight arrow; Victor's a congenital crook. It's a match made in playwright heaven - they're a boardroom odd couple.

The first scene, The Interview, is a series of non-sequesters that somehow manage to establish Victor's goal: to break down Norm's (whom he calls derivatives of Gustav, an inanity that's somehow funny) uprightness and replace it with the venality necessary for corporate success. "You didn't hire me to be a yes-man, did you?" asks Gu (er, Norm) after a few months. The response, "Yes," says it all. Victor's lessons include Passing the Buck 101; Lying But Believing It; and Using a Fair Deal As a Decoy. (Readers who work in corporate environments are smiling now, right? Or maybe not.) Norm's 'conversion' is achieved; he's an empty shell by the first act curtain, ready to be reshaped in Victor's Machiavellian image. The second act of Orloff's play struggles to maintain the comic level; it's unduly repetitious, and the ending is unnecessarily attenuated. There is, however, one hilarious scene culminating in a sight gag that would be dismissed as absurd if it wasn't so outrageously funny.

The play's scenes, separated by blessedly brief blackouts, are set weeks apart. The actors accomplish quick costumes changes between scenes, but in a "this is so simple it just might work" category, the changes are limited to their neckwear. Well, costumer Patricia E. Doherty, it does work. So does the innovative lighting (Richard Currie) that changes patterns and shadows for each episode.

Irvin and Mohrmann are perfectly cast; they're as different in appearance as their characters are in temperament. The sturdy, imposing Mohrmann stands, literally, in direct opposition to the slight, balding Irvin, who cringes in the face of affronts, accentuating the contrast. Under the skilled direction of John Pietrowski, the two play off each other with faultlessly timed double takes and pregnant pauses that enhance punch lines. An effective comedy team, Messrs. Irvin and Mohrmann are truly on the same page, and Orloff's pages reap the benefit. Okay, so Mohrmann could start off somewhere south of bombast, giving him somewhere to go as Victor's corruption comes to a boil. (When he does tone it down, variety and nuance enhance this performance.) And in the play's final scene, Irvin could 86 the actorly self-indulgence and just get one with it. But where better than New Jersey Repertory Company to make adjustments.

This is a co-production, NJ Rep's first, with Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey. After its Long Branch run, "Big Boys" plays Madison, meaning a wider audience for a deserving play, extended employment for New Jersey theatre professionals and increased exposure for Long Branch's lower Broadway renaissance. It's a win-win-win situation.


THE LINK
Theater Review
"BIG BOYS" IS SAVVY COMEDY
By Milt Bernstein

The production of New Jersey Repertory Company which opened last weekend, "Big Boys," represents a first-time collaboration with a similar enterprise, the Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey. Under the arrangement made, the play will be offered here in Long Branch for four weeks, then followed by three weeks in Madison - thus widening the audience for new plays and playwrights, the goal of both companies.

The two-character play by Rich Orloff offered here should have an excellent chance at success, to judge from the audience reaction at the weekend's performances. Though billed as a comedy, and with many hilarious interchanges and plays on words of the two male characters, behind the biting words can be found some telling insights into the methods and the motivation of some business entrepreneurs.

The play follow the business adventure, and misadventures, of Norm, a mild-mannered and basically decent young man who wins the job following an uproarious interview with Victor, the explosive and completely unpredictable head of the firm. In one rib-tickling and mind-tingling episode after another, separated by blackouts lasting a few seconds, we follow the seemingly apparent conversion and corruption of Norm to the cynical and highly unscrupulous ways of his employer.

One of these scenes, in which Victor, out of the blue, starts mispronouncing ordinary words we are all familiar with, is a classic, a small gem, worth visiting the play for itself alone.

The performances by the two principals, Al H. Mohrmann and Michael Irvin, are outstanding. The very able direction is by John Pietrowski, artistic director of the Madison company; and the striking set of a contemporary office is by Yoshinori Tanokura.

All supporters of good legitimate theater on Broadway in Long Branch, as opposed to the long trip to Broadway in the Big Apples, should try not to miss this production.


THE COASTER
What's Up
NJ Repertory
"BIG BOYS" SEND UP THE CORPORATE IMAGE
by Robert F. Carroll

Corporate life--and its inanities--gets a going over in "Big Boys," the latest original play enjoying a world premier at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

The big boys of this two-character comedy by Rich Orloff are Victor (Al Mohrmann) and Norm (Michael Irvin). Victor is interviewing Norm for what appears to be a top job in Victor's company. Victor is the epitome of the corporate biggie, a man who speaks in mindless corporate-ese that baffles Norm.

Mohrmann is hilarious, every inch the flamboyant, self-assured executive, especially when he's speaking nonsense, which is all the time. His only real inters is getting the little steel balls into the clown's eyes in his ever-handy pocket toy.

Toward the end of Act One Victor heightens the silliness by mispronouncing words, which further mystifies Norm, who's ready to ditch the whole idea of getting a job.

"You're nice", an outraged Victor yells at Norm in an outburst of camaraderie.

In Act Two there's a change in Norm, who whimpers, "Teach me all you know" to Victor. He's eventually hired to put the corporation's "Plan X" into play, a plan, of course, that's totally unworkable. And, of course, it works splendidly.

"Big Boys" is a raw--and witty--send-up of corporate people and policies. Playwright Orloff is fortunate in having a couple of Equity pros like Mohrmann and Irvin to wring the hilarity out of the gibberish, which Orloff describes as Abbott and Costello meets David Mamet.

The play, being co-produced by Playwrights Theatre at 33 Green Village Road, Madison, will open there Jan. 10. Playwrights Theatre artistic director John Pietrowski directs.


Big Boys

Richard Orloff's Big Boys is a funny look at the ridiculous, cruel, and heartless corporate machine. An excellent cast and set make this production a good choice for theatre goers.

by Eric Grissom
theatre

Being an asshole is a philosophy, or so Richard Orloff's absurdist comedy "Big Boys" will have you believe. The play which is currently in its run at the New Jersey Repertory Company's Lumia Theatre depicts the bizarre and seemingly ridiculous nature of coporate America, or rather, corporate white male America. The play uses a minimal cast and set superbly in demonstrating the corruption of ethics in the modern workplace.

The cast is made up of two characters. Al H. Mohrmann, who portrays the older executive "Victor", does a wonderful job of protraying the unjustly cruel and malicious CEO. His recently hired underling, an average nice fellow named "Norm" (Michael Irvin) is destined to be crushed under the treads of coporate doublespeak and absurd policies. Norm however slowly trades in his eithics for wealth and high class prostitutes. Michael Irvin does a fantastic job showing the evolution, or rather devolution of his nice normal "Norm" into the victorious "Victor".

Orloff does not limit himself solely to using language tricks with his character names- language is a very intricate part of this piece. Victor plays with language throughout- calling Norm every name but his own, changing the stress on letters with abandon and creating new words- all things become distorted. The truth in Orloff's world is always skewed for the benefit of the company, be it corporate mergers, business plans, or the very language they speak. There is no real truth here, only deviation of truth.

The set itself is wonderfully minimal. The only major consistent elements are a desk, chairs, and a plant. The walls are painted in a sky blue which further illustrates the lack of structure and gives the office set the appearence that it's floating somewhere off in the distance. The feeling creates a formlessness and lack of foundation for this particular company that goes perfectly well with the content of the piece. The Lighting Designer, Richard Currie has done an excellent job in adding depth to the nearly bare stage. Its truly a fantastic use of light and shadow.

Comparisons to the playwright David Mamet (American Buffalo, Glengarry Glen Ross) can be heard in the dialog right away. "Big Boys" has that same "bullet" style dialog. The staccato banter between his characters. "Big Boys" has that rythym at times, but where Mamet often features heartless characters existing in a hyper reality, Orloff's men exist within a ridiculously absurd one. Victor speaks on the phone with everyone from Santa Claus to God.

Orloff's piece works very well in that it can comment on the moral corruption of the business world, without taking itself too seriously. It is a very funny play indeed, and another testimant to the quality theatre the New Jersey Rep has to offer.


A FIRM GRIP ON THE ABSURD

Asbury Park Press - Review by Tom Chesek

If you haven't made it over to New Jersey Repertory Company's Lumia Theatre in Long Branch for some time, you're in for some delightful surprises.

An exhibit of some extraordinary paintings by Gary Adamson graces the gallery room. The completion of the municipal repaving project has resulted in a vastly improved parking lot and the playhouse has a new access ramp at its entrance.

A newly refurbished, wheel-chair-friendly restroom is now open for business - and oh, yeah, there's a truly funny show going on right now.

That the entertainment gets subordinate billing to the toilet is no reflection upon its quality. It's just that a couple of hours spent in the giddily absurd world of "Big Boys" can wreak havoc with one's gyroscope of logic and priorities; even with the way a body processes sensory stimuli.

All of which serves to put us on the same page as Victor, the cheerfully oblivious, hopelessly self-absorbed president of your standard-issue evil corporation, whose office serves as the sole setting for Rich Orloff's two-character burlesque on business protocol and ethics.

Personified by NJ Rep mainstay Al H. Mohrmann and graced with a firm grip on the absurd as well as the madness of King George, the CEO is a paranoid player of head games who threatens Mom and Santa Clause over the phone (although God hangs up on him), carries on an uncomfortably fetishistic relationship with his potted plant and obsesses over everything from relative penis sizes to getting the little ball in the clowns' eye - all while failing to exhibit the slightest knowledge or interest in just what exactly his company does.

Into this den of illogic comes Norm (Michael Irvin), a bow-tied, eggheaded milquetoast whose upward freefall through the corporate ranks carries him from an interview in which his credentials are instantaneously deposited in the wastebasket - and leaves him sitting in the captain's seat by play's end.

Along the way, this weepily insecure character races from the nerve-jangled nebbishism of Gene Wilder as Leo Bloom to the watch-what-you-say wonkitude of Ari Fleischer, spun into the soft shoulder of self-doubt at every turn by the boss's 180 degree about-faces and literally homicidal harangues.

Playwright Orloff has pegged the show's tone as David Mamet meets Abbott and Costello, and he's right on the money here. The foul-mouthed, festering petri dish of the archetypal Mamet work-place ("Glengarry", "Speed the
Plow") is crossbred with the mastery of Bud and Lou at the pinnacle of their art - a place wherein language serves to exasperate rather than illuminate, and where questions of semantics can only reasonably be resolved in a slapstick strangulation or round-the-desk chase.

A co-production of NJ Rep and Madison-based Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey that replaced the comedy "Spain" on the schedule when that show's director died ("Spain" will be mounted as a script-in-hand reading on Dec. 2), "Big Boys" is directed by PTNJ's John Pietrowski as a series of hit-and-run blackouts, with a flair for physical high jinks and prop-driven laughs that pleasantly surprises in such a confined setting.

"Big Boys" continues through Dec. 22. It moves to the PTNJ theater in Madison for an early 2003 engagement, by which time its two masterful comic leads should have this down pat as "Who's on First."


Greed is good fun: NJ Rep premieres a comedy of corporate ill manners

Published in the Asbury Park Press 11/22/02
By TOM CHESEK
Correspondent

The whole haughty concept of corporate ethics might seem like the oxymoronic final frontier these days -- not to mention something less than a surefire laugh-getter for a general public still punchy from the latest round of 401 KO's.


BIG BOYS
A play by Rich Orloff
New Jersey Repertory Company Lumia Theatre
179 Broadway, Long Branch
Through Dec. 22
8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays
$20-$30
(732) 229-3166


For some of us, though, the current climate of gold-parachute grift is the stuff of the most deliciously vitriolic vaudeville.

For New York-based playwright Rich Orloff, it was a terminally tedious bus ride from Manhattan to Massachusetts that inspired him to take notepad to kneecap and compose "Big Boys," a new comedy previewing this week in its world premiere at New Jersey Repertory Company's Lumia Theatre in Long Branch.

Described by the author as an "over-the-top fable that comically explores ethics, and the luscious allure of ignoring them," Orloff's two-character boardroom burlesque takes a jauntily jaundiced look at what passes for professional protocol within a big, bloated and black-hearted business entity.

Although the play can trace its origins back to the boom times of the late 1990s, those looking for parallels "ripped screaming from today's headlines" will scarcely be discouraged here in a NJ Rep season that's been rife with such timely themes as sexually predatory clergy, hostage situations and hate-crime violence.


The play's point is driven home at the business end of a rubber chicken.
Composing his duet in a style which he triangulates as "David Mamet meets Abbott and Costello" -- suggesting a cross between the potty-mouthed powerplays of "Glengarry Glen Ross" and the amped-up arpeggios of "Who's On First" -- Orloff submits he "spent a lot of time on the wordplay," adding that "both of the characters use words to advance their goals."

Opening tonight following a pair of preview performances yesterday and running through Dec. 22, "Big Boys" (an award winner and finalist in a number of theater festivals and writing competitions) is the first co-production of New Jersey Repertory with Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey, at whose Madison playhouse the show continues with an engagement previewing on Jan. 9 and running through Jan. 26. It replaces the previously announced "Spain" on the Lumia schedule; that show having been canceled following the sudden death at age 37 of its director, NJ Rep veteran Stewart Fisher.

In recalling the contributions of Fisher (whose six productions at the Lumia included the company's inaugural show "Ends"), NJ Rep co-founder Gabor Barabas observed that the Seattle native "continually put his stamp on all of the works he directed, while making sure that the playwright's vision is realized on the stage."

Acknowledging that the company "couldn't do justice" to Fisher's vision of "Spain" without him -- while maintaining that they owed it to their subscribers not to remain dark through the end of the year -- Dr. Barabas contacted Playrights Theatre (then poised to stage "Big Boys" in February) with the suggestion that the two like-minded troupes form a partnership; auditioning actors together and dividing key jobs between talents associated with both of the organizations.

"This is a total collaboration -- our actors, their director and a mix of designers from both theaters, said NJ Rep artistic director SuzAnne Barabas. "(Playwrights Theatre) are definitely on the same page as us -- dedicated to new works, and not afraid to take chances." The cast features a now-familiar face at the Lumia -- Al Mohrmann, who co-starred this year as a suicidal senior citizen in the poignant "Till Morning Comes" and as an alcoholic layabout in the black comedy "Maggie Rose." This time he's the cynical executive, mentoring a rookie hire (Michael Irvin, seen in several script-in-hand reading presentations at the Lumia) under the direction of Playwrights Theatre artistic director John Pietrowski; all three will continue with the show when it moves to the Madison stage early next year. "The scope of the play is wider than just a jab at corporate ethics," Pietrowski observes. "It's about how the father-son dynamic manifests itself all through our society, from the boss taking the new employee under his wing to the ultimate 'split' between the two."

Explaining that the play's point is driven home at the business end of a rubber chicken, Orloff said, "It'll be nice if people leave the play thinking about its meaning, but my main hope is that they'll leave exhausted from laughing."

"I think a good laugh is almost as pleasurable as a good orgasm," he continues. "And, you don't have to wait as long until you can laugh again."

As SuzAnne Barabas sums up, "The play is just the thing we need in this post-Enron climate. "It's a corporate comedy about the big guys, the new guys, the other guys and everyone in-between."

Featuring set and costume designs respectively by NJ Rep veterans Yoshinori Tanokura and Patricia Doherty, and with lighting and sound supervised by Playwrights Theatre resident designers Richard Currie and Jeff Knapp, "Big Boys" kickstarts what both companies hope will be a frequent and fruitful collaborative relationship in the long run. For reservations and other information, call NJ Rep at (732) 229-3166 or Playwrights Theatre at (973) 514-1787.


New play written with a nod to Joe Papp

Friday, November 22, 2002

BY PETER FILICHIA
Star-Ledger Staff

Many playwrights were strongly influenced by New York Shakespeare Festival impresario Joseph Papp, and Rich Orloff is among them, even though he has only read about the man.

Orloff's play, "Big Boys," opening on Saturday at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, wouldn't have happened if Orloff had not read a biography of Papp on a 1996 bus trip to a yoga center in western Massachusetts. Orloff says he was feeling angry and hoping that reading "Joe Papp: An American Life," Helen Epstein's 1994 biography, might improve his mood.

"Reading about someone who was both a great man and jerk, I started planning a character who would be just as grandiose, fierce, passionate and egotistical, as well as lovable and fascinating," Orloff says. "Had I not been reading this book -- and angry -- and on a bus where I couldn't do anything else but read, I wouldn't have come up with the idea for 'Big Boys.'"

The story involves Victor, a corporate big shot, who abuses his assistant, Norm. "Victor has a passion for life, while nice, eager-to-please Norm is miserable with his life," Orloff says. "It deals with ethics and the values we have in the corporate world. Where do you draw the line with some of the deals that people are making today?"

Orloff says he relates more to Norm -- "not just because I've almost always been an assistant, but because I like to think I'm the nice guy, too."

Like most playwrights, he has endured a number of day jobs. "I've added figures, proof-read, worked in a secretarial pool, delivered documents, dug up sugar beets, and even unloaded leisure suits from Romania," he says.

He has had many bosses, one of whom he invited to a reading of "Big Boys."

"Afterwards, he said to me, 'You know, when I started out, I worked for a guy like that,'" Orloff says. "I didn't think he would recognize himself, but for him to so not recognize himself was surprising."

After that reading, Orloff started sending "Big Boys" around. He entered the tri-state play writing contest that Theatrefest in Montclair holds each winter.

"The script didn't win, but John Pietrowski (artistic director) at Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey was a judge who liked it, and said he'd do it," Orloff says. "Was he surprised when I told him that a reader at his theater had already rejected it."

Last month, Stewart Fisher, a director at New Jersey Rep, died in the midst of preparing a production that would have opened last weekend. Artistic director SuzAnne Barabas suddenly needed something to offer her subscribers, heard about "Big Boys," read it, and offered to co-produce with Playwrights Theatre.

So after "Big Boys" concludes its Long Branch run on Dec. 22, it will resume performances on Jan. 10 at Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey in Madison for an additional two weeks.

"I'm a big fan of Kaufman and Hart," Orloff says, referring to the successful play writing team. "I've heard many stories about what they endured out of town, and wished that one day I could take a play on the road. Now I can.

"Though," he says, "it would have been nice to have Joe Papp there, too."


Theater groups applaud behind-the-scenes players

Wednesday, November 13, 2002

BY PETER FILICHIA
Star-Ledger Staff

For the last 13 years, every New Jersey professional playhouse participated in the annual "Applause Awards" bestowed by the New Jersey Theatre Alliance, the consortium of professional theaters.

"But," says John McEwen, the alliance's executive director, "we now have 22 theaters. If each gave an award, the ceremony would last five hours."

McEwen decided that half the theaters would present this year, and the other half next year. At a 2 1/2-hour ceremony held at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick Monday night, a select 11 dispensed framed certificates.

Applause Awards aren't given to a best actor or best director. Instead, a theater "applauds" the corporation or person who's helped most in the past year.

Two Madison theaters commemorated individuals on their boards. Jeanne Barrett was acknowledged by the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival, and Melverne Cooke was cited by Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey.

Others praised employees, such as the Paper Mill Playhouse's Mickey McNany-Damian, who heads the Junior Players at the Millburn theater. She pointed out, in a witty parody of a rhymed children's book, that the program has grown in 18 years from eight students to 592.

Volunteers such as Art and Joan Barron, who contribute to Surflight Theatre in Beach Haven, as well as Dick Blofson -NT ) and Scotia MacRae, who donate time and energy to Passage Theatre Company of Trenton, were also cited.

Eric Hafen, artistic director of the Bickford Theatre in Morris Township, honored Ellie Nice, who founded a guild that raises funds and increases the subscriber base.

Michael Stotts, managing director for the George Street Playhouse, applauded John Risley, owner of the Northstar Cafe in New Brunswick for providing food for opening night parties. "He comes to our assistance any time we call," said Stotts, "and we call frequently."

Said Risley, "But we benefit from people coming to George Street. This is an extra honor I didn't expect."

Stephen L. Fredericks, executive director of the Growing Stage in Netcong, a children's theater, waxed rhapsodic over Marcia Lawrence, the volunteer box office manager. He said that she must "listen to parents" and "attend runny noses" while maintaining "a sincere and understanding glazed smile on her face." Only after a minute's worth of tribute did he divulge that Lawrence was also his mother-in-law.

Similarly, Jane Mandel, artistic director of Luna Stage in Montclair, cited her husband, Frankie Faison (the only actor to appear in all four Hannibal Lecter films) as the "star of stage, screen and our parking lot." Mandel and managing director Charlotte McKim recalled his unloading trucks, removing garbage and conducting acting workshops.

Mandel also mentioned that the previous night, an actor scheduled to open this weekend in Luna's production of "Voice of Good Hope," could not go on. "Frankie stepped in, and will now spend his waking hours learning the part."

A bemused Faison gave his wife a quick glance and said, "But in most of these things, I have no choice."

Two theaters praised donations from local businesses. Gabor Barabas, executive producer of New Jersey Repertory Theatre in Long Branch, gave his award to Todd Katz of Siperstein's, a chain of home decorating stores. "We've smeared our walls with his paint so many times that our theater is now half the size it used to be," joked Barabas.

Katz added that Barabas originally told him "he just needed a little paint" for his 62-seat theater. He then glanced at the 375-seat George Street facility. "If he's looking to move to a space this size, I'm a little worried."

Lenny Bart, artistic director of 12 Miles West Theatre Company in Montclair, praised Michael Fried for providing an eye-catching brochure that helped double attendance. "He only admonishes me when I don't call him for help."

The evening's centerpiece was the Star Award, presented to the person who has made the most outstanding contribution to the professional theater scene. Barbara Futon Morn, now executive director of the New Jersey Cultural Trust, received the honor.

First, Paper Mill education director Susan Speidel, alliance associate Dee Bill and others paid tribute in song, singing lyrics by El White, who morphed the Beach Boys' hit "Barbara Ann" into "Barbara Morn." Another song poked fun at her 16-year relationship that finally culminated in a marriage this summer. Then another, augmented by a slide show, that displayed the myriad of hairstyles that Morn has worn during her 19-year stint on the New Jersey arts scene.

In her speech that followed, Morn returned the favor by praising the alliance, as well as "the opportunity to have witnessed so many New Jersey theaters in all stages of their development."

Though he didn't receive an award of his own, Stotts was applauded throughout the evening, as many offered him a fond goodbye before he leaves George Street in December to assume the managing directorship of the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Conn.


Fisher dies

Thursday, September 26, 2002

Stewart Fisher, the associate artistic director of the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, died suddenly Sunday from heart failure. He was 37.

Fisher collapsed while holding auditions for the next New Jersey Rep production, "Spain" by Jim Knable.

At New Jersey Rep, Stewart directed "Ends," the company's inaugural production, in 1999. He also staged "Adult Fiction," "The Girl with the High Rouge," "Naked By the River" and "Slave Shack." He was a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, and lived in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Fisher was married to Dana Benningfield, New Jersey Repertory's literary director and a member of the company's acting troupe, who was last seen in "The Laramie Project."

Funeral arrangements were private. A memorial will be held at the theater at a later date.

As a result, the production of "Spain" that had been scheduled for Oct. 31-Nov. 24 has been canceled. "We would not be able to do justice to the play, to Stewart or to Stewart's vision right now," said artistic director SuzAnne Barabas.


Published in the Asbury Park Press 9/25/02

Stewart Fisher, 37, assistant artistic director of the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, died suddenly Sunday, according to theater publicist Debbie Mura.

According to Mura, Stewart, Brooklyn, had been conducting final auditions for the NJ Rep's upcoming production of Jim Knable's "Spain" when he collapsed and died at his New York studio. An actress and an NJ Rep company member had performed CPR to no avail, according to Mura, who said the theater has decided not to pursue the production that would have opened in Long Branch on Oct. 25.

"We would not be able to do justice to the play, to Stewart or to Stewart's vision right now," explained Artistic Director SuzAnne Barabas.

Funeral arrangements as of yesterday had not been announced. Stewart's parents live in Seattle, Mura said.

At NJ Rep, Stewart had directed the company's inaugural production, "Ends" by David Alex; "Adult Fiction" by Brian Mori; "The Girl with the High Rouge" by Vincent Sessa; "Naked by the River" and "Slave Shack" by Michael Folie and many staged readings.

A memorial will be held at the theater at a later date, according to Mura.


Co-founder of N.J. Rep new director of arts council

VERONICA YANKOWSKI Dr. Gabor Barabas, co-founder of the New Jersey Repertory Company, Long Branch, will head the newly formed Long Branch Arts Council.

By gloria stravelli

Staff Writer

To support its emerging arts district, the city of Long Branch has created a Long Branch Arts Council and has named Dr. Gabor Barabas as director of the new arts organization.

Created by ordinance, the arts council will have five members appointed by the mayor and council to serve three-year terms. The council’s mission will be to support performing and visual artists and help locate venues where they can pursue their art.

Barabas, a West Long Branch physician and co-founder of N.J. Repertory Company in Long Branch, will serve a one-year term on the council, which actually succeeds a defunct arts group that once played a limited role in the cultural life of the city. As director of the arts council, Barabas said he sees his role as "fostering, very powerfully, the idea that Long Branch is a wonderful environment for the arts.

"I would like to make certain that all the arts are represented," he noted "and there comes a time where there is an annual festival of the arts in Long Branch."

Long Branch Mayor Adam Schneider said the role of the arts group will be to engage the community and enrich the lives of residents.

"It will promote and expand the role of the arts in our community, and get people who live in Long Branch involved in either seeing or participating in various forms of the performing and visual arts," said Schneider.

In addition, he said, the arts council will have an educational component, provide a place for performing or creating art, and help community arts organizations get funding in the form of grants.

Schneider said the city will support the inception of the arts council, provide funds for it, "then get out of the way."

He said funding is still being discussed at the City Council level.

"It could have a small budget because it’s an entity of the city," he said. "We’ve had some discussions," adding there are currently no plans for a home for the group.

The mayor noted that Long Branch had an arts council from 1998-2000, but the all-volunteer group had dwindled into inactivity.

When Barabas approached him with the idea of reviving an arts council, he said, he supported the concept.

"It’s really exciting, said Schneider, noting that the arts council will reinforce plans to develop an arts district in downtown Long Branch on Broadway.

Plans for a contemporary visual arts center in downtown Broadway are moving forward, he said, and N.J. Rep has established a reputation for presenting quality theater.

"It all reflects very well on the city," he said. "We’re not as expensive as some other areas in Monmouth County, and the arts will bring in other economic benefits like restaurants, cafes and people coming into town.

"Plus it has its own benefit," he noted. "Art is supposed to help you look at the world differently, be it theater, painting or sculpture. Once you do that, it never goes back. To me that’s a big benefit to the town," he added.

Barabas said he sees the arts council’s primary role as nurturing local artists.

"I want to make sure we tap into the local talent because there are many talented artists in the area," he said. "I want to make certain we encourage their work and assist in their growth and identify an audience for their work.

"A festival would just be icing on the cake," he said. "It’s more the day-to-day work, the encouragement and support we want to provide, as well as attract audiences and artists."

A neurologist, Barabas has a private pediatric neurology practice, and is head of pediatric neurology for Monmouth Medical Center, a position he shares with his brother, Ronald.

"I think at this time I have the best sense of how to plant strong roots for the organization," Barabas said of his role in fostering the new group. "It’s a privilege to be the one who has the opportunity to resurrect it and place it on a strong footing, and then someone else will take over, then someone else, then someone else."

Co-founder of N.J. Rep with his wife, Suzanne, Barabas said he worked to promote the idea of reviving an arts council, believing the timing is right.

"When our theater made Long Branch its home five years ago, I reached out to other arts organizations. At the time there was a greater Long Branch Arts Council that had been active, but over the years had fallen by the wayside," he said.

Barabas sees reviving the arts council as being in concert with the theater company’s mission. In addition to developing new plays, the company seeks to play a vital role in the redevelopment of Long Branch, he explained.

"On the basis of that mission, I approached the mayor and city administrator to ask them whether it wasn’t time to resurrect the Long Branch Arts Council, especially given all the activity now taking place in Long Branch," he said.

"I felt this was a time where a council would be important, given the anticipated influx of arts organizations like the planned Shore Institute of the Contemporary Arts," he explained. "There are many individuals and organizations in the area involved with visual arts, poetry, literature, performing arts, music and dance, where it would be important for there to be a coordinating body to help foster these activities."

City officials were very receptive to the idea, he noted.

Barabas disclosed that N.J. Rep recently acquired a 100-year-old building located on Broadway a block away from the Lumia Theatre at 179 Broadway.

The company will need to raise about $350,000 to renovate the structure, he said.

"It’s a very derelict-looking building nicknamed ‘the Alamo’ by residents in the area," he said, adding plans call for an art gallery, space for community arts organizations, and a central box office in the space.

"We’re trying to play a role in galvanizing the arts," he explained.

The theater company’s present building, the Lumia Theatre, was donated to N.J. Rep in 1997 by David and Margaret Lumia whose business had outgrown the space.

"They wanted to give something back to the community," Barabas explained, "and they wanted to donate the building to a nonprofit that could do the most to help revitalize the area."

The Lumias donated the building to N.J. Rep which raised $250,000 to renovate the facade and create two performance spaces. The project was a harbinger of things to come.

"It was the first major facade to be redone in the area in decades," Barabas noted.

N.J. Rep’s audiences represent a cross-section from throughout New Jersey and beyond, he said.

According to Barabas, between 8-10 percent of its audience is drawn from New York City, and the theater’s reputation has grown beyond the region. "Some of our plays are now being produced throughout the country," he said, adding that about 1,000 scripts per season are submitted to the theater company.

A poet and playwright, Barabas has written plays presented at N.J. Rep, and has produced the professional premieres of several works at the theater. He is a member of the Dramatists Guild.

The arts council, he said, will directly affect artists and performers by providing a city-sponsored entity to support their work, and will have a major impact for the city and its residents.

"It will have a tremendous impact on the businesses and restaurants in the area," he said, "and I think it will help to identify Long Branch as an exciting environment for people from surrounding communities.

"Broadway has always been the main artery, the heart and soul of the city," he added.

According to Barabas, the arts council will have a strong educational component and will undertake a major outreach to children, adolescents and young adults aimed at helping them achieve their artistic potential and at educating future audiences.

Barabas came to the United States in 1956 at age 7 when his parents fled the Hungarian Revolution. His involvement with the theater came as a result of his wife’s theater background, he said. While Barabas was attending medical school at the University of Cincinnati in 1970, he and his wife co-founded Cincinnati Repertory Company, which grew into a major children’s theater touring company. After graduation, Barabas was a resident in pediatrics and neurology at Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia where the Barabases founded American Repertory Theater, which presented avant garde works. They also started a children’s luncheon theater.

He relocated to New Jersey to take a position as head of pediatric neurology at Rutgers Medical School, now the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in New Brunswick.

While at UMDNJ, Barabas was frequently invited to the area to lecture and see patients. In 1983, he accepted a position as head of child neurology at Monmouth Medical Center.

Five years ago he said, the Barabases decided to "produce plays the way we’d always wanted, which was to do new works."

The couple began looking for theater space first in nearby Red Bank but decided instead on Long Branch.

"Not only could we make an artistic contribution, but a substantial social contribution as well, because the community had no theater, no organized arts group," he said.

"This was an ideal environment. We were not going into an affluent area, but it was to be a catalyst to jump-start things."

Founding the theater company has not been without its challenges, he said. "It’s been quite a struggle," he acknowledged. "We certainly have succeeded tremendously from the artistic standpoint, but only the community can judge whether we’ve succeeded from the social standpoint."


Maggie Rose reviewed by eric grissom

Truth be told, you can't keep a good woman down, even if they've been electrocuted and pumped full of embalming fluid.

Michigan based playwright Kim Carney's Maggie Rose concerns the resurrection of a much put upon mother, Maggie Rose, and the media frenzy that ensues as a result of it. Maggie's a trailer park resident who earns her keep cleaning other people's homes. The idea of Maggie taking care of other people is not limited to her occupation however, as it simply further illustrates her full servitude to those surrounding her. Her overbearing mother (Susan G. Bob), and spoiled daughter (Kittson O'Neill) start the first act attempting to write the eulogy for their departed Maggie. Unfortunately they are unable to come up with anything more then generic niceties. They did however have no problem rifling through her meager positions and diving up the goods. Not soon thereafter, Maggie's boyfriend Jerry (Al H. Mohrmann), a drunkard and cheater, arrives and learns the news of her demise.

The real story begins however when Maggie returns home as if nothing happened. This is no hallucination, Maggie's risin'. After the initial shock of seeing the walking dead subside, people immediately return to taking advantage of Maggie, and exploiting this new found miracle. The mother begins her consistent belittling, the daughter uses Maggie as a surrogate mother to her army of unruly children, and Jerry once again reverts to his drinking and "Make me a sandwich and give me like twenty bucks" lifestyle. Maggie has once again become the object of everyone else's needs. This time it becomes even more intense, as news of her resurrection spreads like wild fire. The cause, no doubt, can be attributed to her high strung former boss turned agent, Mr. DeLuca (Ames Adamson). When he sees Maggie is still alive, he immediately envisions the financial prospects of having a real life savior to parade around. Book deals, movies, talk shows, Maggie Rose T-Shirts, in Mr. De Luca's words - she can be "bigger then Disney". Religious fanatics and the media soon begin beating down the door of her trailer hoping for a chance to get an interview with the miraculous Maggie Rose, or maybe some of her underwear.

The play does not concern itself with the resurrection in and of itself, but rather with the effects of the event. The mindless commercialization of spirituality, and the emptiness that exists behind that veil. Maggie skirts the attention, and wishes very much to go back to the way things were. Unfortunately, this is no longer a possibility, and it is up to Maggie herself to re claim her life, or her second one anyway.

The acting overall is superb. Susan Bob's cigarette riddled voice has fantastic comedic timing. Kittson O'Neill could easily take her portrayal of Dawn to any number of talk shows and fit right in. Al H. Mohrmann has the unfortunate task of playing a drunk. Playing drunks, be it on film or at the theatre, is never an easy task. It is too often over played, and over acted. Mohrmann shows some restraint here. Although they are portions of the performance where the drunken dialog gets a bit too cartoony, it never gets to the point of being annoying. Ames Adamson, who has the outrageous role of Mr. Deluca, takes this undertaker turned hollywood agent to the absurdly ridiculous. His performance is over the top, but it works. The preacher, Father Billey played by Tom McNelly, delivers a stellar performance as the quiet preacher with a lame arm. A sharp contrast to the spasmodic style of Admson, McNelly's deadpan deliver garners some of the shows biggest laughs. Finally, Maggie Rose herself, played by Kathleen Goldpaugh, has one of the hardest jobs in the piece. It is quite difficult for any actor or actress to shine when her cast mates all of have such outrageous characters. Maggie is definitely the "straight guy" in this comedy troupe, but her subtlety and reluctance at being America's new savior is wonderfully portrayed. She is the perfect vehicle for Kim Carney's vision.

The play itself is well written, there are a few moments when jokes tend to be a bit predictable, but overall a funny production. The allusions to Jesus Christ throughout- her mother named Virginia, the three days before she "rose", the selflessness of her actions, all play out nicely. There's even a nice monologue by Kathleen Goldpaugh that is very much reminiscent of Jesus' final hours on the cross. Despite some of the heavy religious and spiritual tones of the play, it remains a very funny and entertaining production.

The New Jersey Repertory Company continues to provide New Jersey with amazing theatre, and Maggie Rose is a true testimant to that.
 

Maggie Rose At New Jersey Rep Proves
You Can’t keep A Good Woman Down
Two River Times Review by Philip Dorian

SpacerThere is a funny play at the center of Kim Carney’s Maggie Rose at New Jersey Repertory Company. When the layers of moralistic religiosity fall away, the play is very amusing. Ms. Carney is a gifted writer of character and situation comedy, and her play, blessed here with a skilled ensemble cast and expert direction, is at times even hilarious. If some of it is repetitious and overwritten, that is easy to fix. It is, after all, still a “work in progress,” in the NJ Rep tradition.

SpacerMaggie Rose suffered a shocking death while cleaning an electrical socket (in the local funeral parlor, no less) with a wet rag. Several days later, Maggie’s mother Virginia (Susan G. Bob) is struggling to write a eulogy while Maggie’s daughter Dawn (Kittson O’Neill) is looting her late mother’s closet. Jerry (Al H. Mohrmann), Maggie’s erstwhile hanger-on, is in his usual alcoholic haze. The three are lamenting the passing, when what to their wondering eyes should appear, but Maggie herself, alive and still here.
Kittson O’Neill (left), Ames Adamson and Kathleen Goldpaugh in a scene from Maggie Rose at New Jersey Repertory Company, Long Branch.
Kittson O’Neill (left), Ames Adamson and Kathleen Gold-
paugh in a scene from Maggie Rose at the NewJersey
Repertory Company, Long Branch..

Photo: Scott Longfield

SpacerEveryone except Maggie knew she was dead; she’d even been embalmed. After the expected double- and triple-takes (Ms. O’Neill’s reaction, a combination of wonder and fear, is priceless), they settle into acceptance and try to figure out “the dead thing.” Is it, as the addled funeral director (Ames Adamson) believes, a “Second Coming”? No one can figure it out, and therein lies the best feature of this original play: No one does figure it out. Maggie simply rose, is all.

SpacerThe play is structured like a wheel, with Maggie at the hub. Everything happens to her, around her, or because of her, and Kathleen Goldpaugh couldn’t be better as the reluctant center of attention. Maggie had been a passive, put upon soul; she emerges, reborn, with a mind of her own, making decisions she had avoided before. (Wouldn’t we all welcome a similar opportunity!) Ms. Goldpaugh plays Maggie’s wonderment wonderfully; she’s most engaging. Susan G. Bob, she of the nasal intonation, uses that quality to advantage as Maggie’s snappish mother. She undercuts the action with wry sarcasm, delivered with exquisite timing. Ms. O’Neill, a size 10 (8?) stuffed into Mom’s size 6 dress, finds the middle ground between alluring and blowsy. Her trailer park ingenue is perfection.

Spacer The way to play a drunk is to play a drunk who’s trying not to appear drunk, and Mr. Mohrmann’s performance is a master class. Throughout, he’s just barely in control of his faculties, if not his facilities. It’s a fine, controlled comedic performance. Less controlled is Mr. Adamson, whose antics are boisterously entertaining. He becomes a cross between a desperate show-biz agent and an over-the-top evangelist, with a smidgen of Paul Lynde tossed in. What the actor demonstrated in last month’s Panama is confirmed here: If you’re casting for outrageous, call Adamson.

SpacerSome of Ms. Carney’s sharpest comedy is abetted in grand style by the subtle playing of Tom McNelly as Reverend Billey, the local preacher whose deformed right hand becomes the object of the most laugh-provoking scene in recent memory. His inability to shuffle cards or play a band instrument may be obvious jokes, but they’re so slickly written and cannily delivered, that even this PC observer slapped his knee. And I for one will never again see “air quotes” without smiling at the image of Rev. Billey’s half-handed effort. The miracle-healing exchange between McNelly and Goldpaugh is an absolute gem. Rounding out the cast, Raymond Schmoll plays a bit part sensitively.

SpacerOne hopes that director SuzAnne Barabas will have a hand in pruning the script (the first act bogs down midpoint), but her styling of the play and its characters needs no tinkering. Under her guidance, the women are believable as a three-generation family; even their differences aid the illusion. And the men’s actor-leashes are just the right lengths. Scenic designer Valerie Green continues the NJ Rep tradition of admirable settings, even if the decor does suggest a standard higher than your average trailer park.

SpacerThere’s an overlong and unnecessary coda, in which Maggie hears The Word and turns introspective and forgiving. Ironically, her conversion costs the play the “spiritually uplifting” quality that’s claimed for it. What really was uplifting and gratifying was the former doormat’s assertive rejection of her loutish boyfriend, her carping mother, and her selfish daughter. “Good for you,” we thought, knowing they’d remain in her life, but on her terms. Then God tells Maggie to forgive and forget, and she gets all warm blooded on us. But her new found Religion is a Lifetime Channel resolution that takes the bite out of Maggie Rose and Maggie Rose. She was more lovable with embalming fluid in her veins. And much more bloody funny.


Black comedy manic and funny

Published in the Asbury Park Press 8/13/02
By TOM CHESEK
CORRESPONDENT

Here's an interesting twist for all of those who seek the miraculous within the most mundane of things: a truly miraculous event treated in the most mundane of manners.

MAGGIE ROSE
presented by the New Jersey Repertory Company at the Lumia Theatre, Long Branch
WHEN:8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays (through Sept. 15)
TICKETS, INFO:$30. (732)229-3166.


In "Maggie Rose," the comedy currently enjoying its East Coast premiere at New Jersey Repertory Company's Lumia Theatre in Long Branch, a recently deceased cleaning woman who has been certifiably stone cold dead (and even embalmed) for days sits up in her coffin and returns to her trailer in Bath, Michigan, in a futile attempt to resume her anonymous life.

Her grasping loved ones and opportunistic neighbors have other designs on her reclaimed time, however, and it's not long before the modest mobile home is the focal point for everything from talk-show bidding wars to spiritual pilgrimages.

The play as written by Michigan-based Kim Carney doesn't delve too deep as far as the whys and wherefores of this Midwest miracle; its chosen targets (media feeding frenzies, faith healing for dollars, Oprah worship) are plump pushovers and the whole thing operates largely at the level of an OK sitcom. It's up to the actors (under the direction of SuzAnne Barabas) to put this featherweight black comedy across, and this founding light of the NJ Rep company has assembled a cast (led by Kathleen Goldpaugh as the overwhelmed and underappreciated title character) with the goods -- and the good looks -- to pull it off, without necessarily resorting to stereotypes. In fact, if Ms. Goldpaugh's portrayal tends to sidestep our ideal of a trailer-trash queen, it may be due to the notion that the conflicted and conscience-driven Maggie is less of a self-promoting exhibitionist than her real-life Springer-land counterparts.


PETER ACKERMAN photo

The cast of "Maggie Rose" includes (from left) Ames Adamson, Susan G. Bob, Kathleen Goldpaugh and Kittson O'Neill.
It all takes place within a fully paneled and knick-knacked set design by Valerie Green that's sufficiently rich in detail to elicit a few chuckles even before the first player appears (although perhaps a Stroh's beer sign would have completed the picture). The actors use the doors, windows and beaded curtains to great comic effect, while lighting and sound directors Jeff Greenberg and Merek Royce Press conjure up the encroaching world outside with a facility that never betrays the fact that this crew lost nearly a week of tech rehearsal time during the Long Branch power outages.

Also seemingly part of the furniture in the Rose trailer -- and engaged in the redistribution of the late Maggie's appliances as the play opens -- are the unholy threesome of Maggie-mom Virginia (Susan G. Bob), daughter Dawn (Kittson O'Neill) and alcoholic lout boyfriend Jerry (Al H. Mohrmann, a long way from his sympathetic ALS sufferer in 'Till Morning Comes").

While this trio of NJ Rep regulars have an infectious amount of fun with their broadly written parts, playwright Carney appears to have reserved the show's biggest moments for the characters of Reverend Billey and mortician Mr. DeLuca. As respectively portrayed by Tom McNelly and Ames Adamson (who proved his mastery of physical schtick five times over with his turn in the recent "Panama"), these frustrated, barely functional pillars of the community get to faint, grovel, go into seizures and deliver a hilarious pair of comic confessions -- all to hang their pathetic needs upon the shoulders of the reluctant miracle woman.

There are times, however, when the play looks to be on the verge of succumbing to the same disease that's afflicted nearly every sitcom since Mary Tyler Moore; when our central character is forced to play eyeball-rolling straight woman to a supporting cast of assorted mixed nuts. Then lo and behold, the author grants Maggie a dialogue of sorts with the ever-inscrutable God (and an encounter with a kindly neighbor played by Raymond Schmoll) that allows Goldpaugh to claim her rightful place at the heart of the tale.

It's a cornfed affirmation of faith that makes for a sweet ending to this cynical story, and it's undoubtedly the most moving soliloquy you'll see this year from a performer with her butt in a birdbath.


TriCityNews

A Very Lively Maggie Rose
Theatre Review

LONG BRANCH - Once again eschewing drama for comedy during these humid summer months, the New Jersey Repertory Company is currently staging the East Coast premiere of the comedy "Maggie Rose".

It's a as light as air, crowd pleasing soufflé of a play that will satisfy audience members - but won't spoil their dinners. When it's all over, you'll remember having a great time.

The title character of "Maggie Rose" must deal with a peculiar dilemma - she's died and come back to life, and she struggles to understand why.

Additionally, she must handle a thieving tart of a daughter, a trailer park version of Joan Crawford for a mother, an alcoholic, unemployed, cheatin' lug of a boyfriend and an obnoxious, money hungry Ritalin-deprived loony of an employer.

Is it any wonder that the first act ends with Maggie holding a knife to her throat?

Luckily for her (and the audience) Reverend Billey shows up as the second act opens and manages to talk her down.

Meanwhile, the carnival outside her motor home grows; news has leaked of her return from the dead. Religious fanatics, news people, and celebrity seekers join her dysfunctional extended family in tormenting Maggie.

How does she come to terms with all that happened to her and all that is swirling around her?

Who cares? It's the journey not the destination that's important here. Hitting 1st, 2nd and third bases provides the thrills and laughs. Home plate is an after-thought.

NJ Rep veteran Kathleen Goldpaugh hits all the right notes as Maggie - think of Sally Field as Norma Rae minus that pesky union business.

Al H. Mohrmann is an entertaining scamp as Maggie's boyfriend Jerry (and anyone who caught his earlier appearance on this stage in "Till Morning Comes" will be doubly impressed with his performance here), and Susan G. Bob creates a wonderful caricature as her raspy, brittle mom. Kittson O'Neill as daughter Dawn earns extra points for stomping around the stage in precarious wedges without falling over, as well as her portrayal.

In his debut at NJ Rep, Tom McNelly as Rev. Billey turns in a finely comedic and touching performance that will make you want to go home and say a bedtime prayer that he's cast again and again at NJ Rep.

And, as he was in June's production of "Panama", Ames Adamson as Mr. DeLuca is a physical and a comedic force of nature you can't take your eyes off.

Which brings us to another force of nature - a certain surprise storm a few Fridays ago that inflicted much damage on the area.

Because of that storm, and the resulting power loss to much of Long Branch, the schedule of performances for "Maggie Rose" had to be tinkered with. So it would be remiss not to note the technical crew of this production.

Not surprisingly, the sound and lighting at a NJ Rep production is as top rate as the acting and material selected. Indeed, because of its very quality, it's easy to overlook. Sound effects and lighting cues are never missed and always appropriate.

The sets have always been marvels, as is the case with this production, and the costuming perfect (reference those shoes on Kittson above).

Need a break from all your worries? Forget Cheers! Seek Maggie out.


The Coaster

NJ Repertory Company "Maggie Rose": Life (and laughs) After Death by Robert F. Carroll

Advance publicity for Kim Carney's "Maggie Rose" prepared audiences for a spiritually uplifting play at the New Jersey Repertory Company premiere last weekend.

What audiences saw was a witty soap opera of a play that presents life after death at not too different, but certainly funnier -- maybe even more uplifting -- than mortal existence.

Kathleen Goldpaugh is the bewildered Maggie of this wry comedy, a woman who surprises everybody, mostly herself, by strolling back into her trailer home three days after her death.

Maggie might even have welcomed death, dragged down in life as she was by a drunken lout of a boyfriend, Jerry; a self-centered daughter, Dawn, and a sarcastic crone of a mother, Virginia.

A cleaning woman in life, Maggie can't get used to the idea of being dead, or being alive either. Momma (Susan Bob), daughter (Kittson O'Neill) and boyfriend (Al Mohrmann) cope pretty well, though, after the initial shock. They even return Maggie's hair dryer, TV, mixer and a few other possessions distributed after her demise. And Jerry even proposes.

Maggie's death really derails Mr. DeLuca (Ames Adamson), the local undertaker, who is at first rendered speechless by the presumed miracle. But then he springs back -- at least the pitch-man in him springs back -- after realizing that life-after-death, as he notes, can be "bigger than Disney". The conniving Adamson, who can raise groveling to high art, all but steals the show -- which isn't easy given the professionalism of this superb cast.

Bob, as the persnickety momma, filters death through her own crabbed view of life. Young Dawn eventually takes her mom's death, and rebirth, in stride. So does Jerry, who believes death and resurrection shouldn't interrupt drinking, concupiscence or cashing in on a sure thing.

Tom McNelly adds a hilarious touch as the local pastor, Rev. Billey, prepared to offer comfort to a woman, Maggie, who isn't really sure of her death, her rebirth, or anything else, but certainly doesn't care for any discussion about God. Lovable Maggie herself ruminates on her strange situation in a touching monologue that brings down the curtain.

Director SuzAnne Barabas suggest that the play has a lot to say about the culture of celebrity and everybody's grab for a piece of the action. But rarely has a writer made the grabbing so entertaining, and "Maggie Rose" is immensely entertaining.


The LINK News August 15, 2002
By Milt Bernstein
"MAGGIE ROSE" Combines Mystery and Humor

Long Branch - "Maggie Rose", the new play by Kim Carney being offered by the NJ Repertory, here on Broadway, is a marvelous combination of suspense and humor. It is a mystery of life (and death) wrapped up and served inside an uproarious family picture gallery of characters.

The play, originally presented in Ann Arbor, Michigan, is having its East Coast and New Jersey premiere here; and it is a good enough one, in this writer's opinion, to be seen and taken up by lots of other discerning producers in the area, not excluding New York.

The story revolves around the lady of the title who it is believed, has died in an accident; but who turns up again several days later undeniably alive; and the complications that ensue are fast, furious, and extremely funny.

The title character is beautifully played by Kathleen Goldpaugh, who has been featured in several previous NJ Rep productions, and she is greatly supported by the rest of the cast, which include Kittson O'Neill as her voluptuous but demanding daughter, Susan G. Bob as her acid-tongued mother, Al H. Mohrmann as her one-idea-pants-connected boyfriend, Ames Adamson as an opportunistic funeral director, and Tom McNelly as a well-meaning young minister.

SuzAnne Barabas, a co-founder of the theatre group, directed most skillfully; and the scenery, lighting, costuming and sound were all first-rate.

This not-to-be-missed production will be here for five more weekends.


The (other) rising: NJ Rep premieres 'spiritually uplifting' comedy

Published in the Asbury Park Press 8/09/02
By TOM CHESEK
Correspondent

Like so many other things these days, the resurrection business ain't quite what it used to be. Once the exclusive province of our cherished religious icons, life after death now looks to be within the grasp of anybody with the will and the wherewithal to plunk down cold cash on a little place just a few tubes down from Ted Williams.

MAGGIE ROSE
A play by Kim Carney
New Jersey Repertory Company
Lumia Theatre
179 Broadway, Long Branch
8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays
(732) 229-3166


Meanwhile, megalomaniacal multi-billionaires seek to clone themselves into perpetuity; departed celebs return to pitch diet soda and dustbusters -- and TV's chatty channeler John Edward pulls back the veil of communion with the afterlife, revealing something with all the mystique of a bonus-minutes wireless plan.

How fitting, then, that Michigan-based playwright Kim Carney has chosen the decidedly downmarket but durably all-American setting of a Midwest trailer park for her resurrection comedy "Maggie Rose," now in its East Coast premiere run at New Jersey Repertory Company's Lumia Theatre on downtown Broadway in Long Branch.

"I don't want anyone to get the wrong idea -- this play is spiritually uplifting and very funny," insists director and NJ Rep co-founder SuzAnne Barabas. "We've done quite a few 'dark' plays this season, and a couple of our patrons were worried when they saw the word 'death' in the press release."

Taking a funnel-cloud to the most twisted elements of everything from "Cinderella" to "It's a Wonderful Life" and dropping it square in the middle of Heartland Hell, the play -- which saw its debut in Ann Arbor as the most recent of Carney's produced works -- stars Kathleen Goldpaugh in the title role of Margaret Jane Rose, a long-suffering cleaning woman of "somewhat limited intellectual capabilities" and resolute ordinariness; a woman who has sacrificed all for the sake of her critical crone of a mother, her self-centered slattern of a daughter and her philandering fink of a boyfriend. Having exhibited the patience of Job in life, the recently deceased (courtesy of a mishap involving a wet rag and a wall socket) Maggie is rather inexplicably rewarded with a chance at a similarly Biblical second coming, returning unceremoniously back to this vale of woe at the rather inconvenient moment when her loathsomely ungrateful "loved ones" set about to divvy up her worldly goods.


Ames Adamson grovels as Kathleen Goldpaugh tries to get a grip in "Maggie Rose," opening this weekend at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.
While Mom (Susan G. Bob), daughter Dawn (Kittson O'Neill, seen most recently in the "Tomorrow's Promise" young playwrights' program at the Lumia) and boyfriend Jerry (Al Mohrmann, co-star of NJ Rep's 2002 production of ³Till Morning Comes²) are less than thrilled at first with the prospect of Maggie's re-entry into their lives, opportunity soon knocks in the form of the many profiteers, pilgrims and parasites who undertake the trek to the Rose trailer once word of the miraculous resurrection gets out. While Maggie herself would prefer nothing more than to fade back into a life of anonymity, the greasy grifters and star-struck stalkers (represented by supporting players John FitzGibbon, Tom McNelly, Raymond Schmoll and Ames Adamson of the recent "Panama") have other ideas, ranging from appearances on the talk-show circuit to the sale of her used undies.

"The play certainly has lot to say about the whole culture of celebrity in our time," observes Barabas. "Maggie doesn't want her 15 minutes of fame, but everybody around her wants a piece of the action, and even the preacher is looking for something."

Still, the director suggests that there is more to these characters than is readily apparent -- and that even "sweet, simple Maggie" is no pillar of virtue. "In the end, there is goodness in all of them -- and (this cast) is committed to the characters they play; they have to be real".


JOYRIDE INTO THE ZONE

NJ Rep's "Panama" Brings the Mayhem

How's this for a classy evening at the legitimate stage: start with a purely materialistic quest, centered around a completely self-absorbed lout who murders his doctor mere seconds into the first act. Throw in a Jesus Christ look-alike and a pair of natural-born killer wannabe's. Add a bit of simulated oral and some brashly brandished semiautomatic weapons, then salt liberally with language that would make Jay and Silent Bob blanch and fumble for the thesaurus.

Like, who says live theater can't compete with the cream of popular culture?

With "Panama," the new play now in its world premiere engagement at Long Branch's Lumia Theatre, the folks at New Jersey Repertory Company let their hair down in a big way, blowing off the pent-up steam of a season that's heretofore concentrated on such heavy fare as "The Laramie Project" and "The Dead Boy." Having proven themselves in the genre of issue-driven drama with the recently staged "Slave Shack," playwright Michael T. Folie and director Stewart Fisher have returned to lower Broadway with a comedy of ill manners that's seemingly hell-bent on confounding the senses while offending all sensibilities. It's a comedy that just might win you over with its peculiar brand of cheerfully mounted mayhem, provided you approach it in the right frame of mind.

All epic quests have got to have their hero, and in "Panama" the central role of Man - a sort of berserk Bob Vila whose panic over the prospect of eventual mortality causes him to embark upon a selfish sojourn in search of a near-mythic eternal-life treatment - is embodied to polo-shirted perfection by Gary Lamadore. While his bellyaching and impulsiveness are on a par with plenty of dysfunctional Fox-TV dads, his Wife (Maura O'Brien) seems to have been beamed back from some forgotten 50's sitcom. The two exist on separate channels in more ways than one; their soulless, sexless marriage is kept on life support primarily through the total sublimation of her own desires - although it doesn't take her long to discover how to get what she wants with the help of a Glock.

Hitting the road in hopes of extorting cash from his Grandma (Ian August, striking just the right drag note between Terry Jones and Dame Edna) and Grandpa (Neal Arluck) - a pair of plaid-clad perverts who spend their Arizona days rehearsing Beckett in Rubbermaid trash cans - Man and Wife stop to pick up a couple of nihilistic nitwits (Jacob White, Rozie Bacchi) who seem to have seen the Brad Pitt thrill-kill flick "Kalifornia" a few dozen times too many. Soon this multigenerational Mansonesque clan is bound for the coast; killing scores of cops, humping each other like baboons and turning such quaint concepts as faith, family, monogamy and Disney into so much roadkill in their wake.

As the ersatz Christ figure, it's up to Brian O'Halloran (the legendary Dante of Kevin Smith's "Clerks") to salvage a few scraps of dignity from the proceedings, even when the role calls for him to lug scenery and clean up after this most motley of crews. The remaining five characters are portrayed by a rubber-faced and fully poseable action figure named Ames Adamson; the manically mugging Mr. A affects both lightning-fast costume changes and wonderfully atrocious accents to the point where he seems a thing more of pen-and-ink than flesh-and-blood.

Described by its author as a cross between Monty Python and Samuel Beckett, Folie's play doesn't so much wear its influences on its sleeve as it has them tattooed on its skin: characters quote old Python bits chapter and verse, and the dour absurdist playwright Beckett is name-checked so often that he becomes virtually another player in the story (the action even climaxes at the Beckett-soaked Happy Days Theme Park). Thus, it's no accident that "Panama" (despite not getting anywhere near Central America, the play does offer up a logical justification for the title) gleefully tosses off the highbrow references while going for the lowbrow jugular.

Yoshinori Tanokura's spare set design allows this wild ride to cover thousands of miles largely through sideshow posters and wooden chairs; Merek Royce Press sets up the scenes with music cues ranging from the jagged carnival songs of Tom Waits to the theme from "Mannix."


Panama

reviewed by Dan Johnson, redbank.com

Panama tells the story of a middle aged Man, played by Gary Lamadore, who is told by his Doctor, acted by Ames Adamson, that he is going to die. This is not to say he has learned he has a terminal disease, but rather he has just learned that humans, and he in particular, are mortal. After apparently killing the bearer of this bad news, the man go homes to his Wife, played by Maura O'Brien, and begin their adventure across the country. On their way, they pick up two hitchhikers, Young Woman performed by Rozie Bacchi and Young Man by Jacob Garrett White, and learn of a scientist in California who, for a large sum of money, will give you eternal life. Since the Man doesn't have the money, he decides to detour to visit an old couple who may or may not be his parents, the Grannie played by Ian August and Grandpa by Neal Arluck. Soon the grandparents join in the road trip which leaves mayhem and destruction in its wake, and in which they find a dentist who bears a striking resemblance to Jesus Christ, played by Brian O'Halloran, at every turn.

With its many references to the playwright Samuel Beckett, including a Disney owned Beckett theme park, this play derives most of its humor and poignancy from its surreal (I hesitate to call it absurdist) plot and characters. While the play feels a bit as though the production is over the top in the beginning of the first act, it soon becomes clear that this is in fact its intention. From the well crafted lighting and set designs, to the outrageousness of the characters and dialog, this wonderfully talented ensemble of performers give everything they have to their audience. While the point of the play may be to poke at the absurdity of the quest for youth, the desire for immortality, and the fear of age and death, it is the entertainment provided by this production that lingers rather than any philosophical insight.

Each member of this ensemble deserves recognition for their fine work, as each character and actor depends so heavily and completely on the other to form a cohesive and wildly engaging piece of theater. While Mr. Lamadore and Ms. O'Brien are the central figures in this story, and their performances are funny and well delivered, it is the performance of Mr. August that eventually steals the hearts of the audience. Playing the somewhat crotchety and often irrepressible Granny, Mr. August performs and mugs with a comedic brilliance. He even goes so far as to stick around after the curtain and improv with the audience in character, much to their delight.

Another performance of special note is that of Mr. Adamson, who serves as all of the minor, though memorable, characters along the way, including the Doctor, the hayseed Cop, and flamboyantly funny Theatre Director, an archetypical Hollywood Producer, and a German mad Scientist, whose mannerisms and quirks both amuse and disturb. Mr. Adamson's appearances on stage tend to reinvigorate an already electric cast.

I am pleased to say that the New Jersey Repertory Company continues to deliver the highest caliber theater. If the spirit and professionalism of this and previous productions are any indication, I can wholeheartedly recommend any of their upcoming shows. I am sure that not only will you not be disappointed, you will plan on the spot to attend again and again.


A WILD TRIP AT NJ Rep
TriCity News
Theatre Review

LONG BRANCH - Since January, the New Jersey Repertory Company has presented a succession of engrossing and thoughtful dramas.

January brought "The Laramie Project", an examination of the town in Wyoming where the gay college student Matthew Shepard was brutally murdered. "Till Morning Comes" presented the audience with an aging couple coming to terms with assisted suicide. The hostage drama "Slave Shack" caught racial strife in its sights. And the ever so timely "The Dead Boy" concerned itself with faith and forbidden love and sex in the Catholic Church.

So it was time for a laugh.

And it would be nice to write that "Panama". the current production by NJ Rep in the Solomon Dwek stage provides a bit of lightness.

But it's even nicer to write that "Panama" provides a riotous, side splitting, rolling in the aisles evening of theatrical fun that will leave a smile on your face for hours afterward.

The action starts quickly in this two-act play.

A middle-aged man discovers from his doctor that he is in fine physical shape and will probably live another 35 years - until about 80 years of age or more.

But this guy definitely sees the glass as half empty, not half full; he suddenly realizes that, yes, like everyone else on the planet HE TOO WILL EVENTUALLY DIE!

From there, a road trip ensues that whisks the characters, and the audience, along in hysterical fashion in this expertly directed (by Stewart Fisher) production.

The man and his wife acquire in short order a pair of hitchhikers on the way to his parent's house in Arizona. A Gen-X fast-talking but dim-witted pair who convince the man that eternal life can be had - found in California for the right amount of dough.

Next stop is the parents home, where the plan is to grab the old couple's life savings and continue on to California. But Mom and Dad are more than game (and full of life) to hop on board this madcap express to check things out for themselves. Besides, the dough the son wanted is tied up in a theme park in Disneyland. Don't ask - just hang on!

Another murder occurs. Didn't mention the first, you're wondering? Don't worry - there wasn't any need. In fact, all the killings are tasteful murders that serve to move the plot along nicely. You won't mind a bit.

Well, until the director is killed. Because Ames Adamson's second (!) appearance in "Panama" will have you screaming with laughter. Not to worry, though; Adamson will be back in other incarnations with equal impact. To let you know more now would spoil the fun.

And while "Panama" is GREAT fun, it always carries a message.

As the Gen-X dude explains, "Panama" is where the past of the warm and safe Pacific Ocean meets the cold and unknown Atlantic Ocean. The point at which real living occurs. The secret of eternal life.

But that realization wraps up the tale, and between the theory of "Panama" and the ending is a lot of life in this wonderful play - life best experienced than reviewed. So just make plans to go on this road trip!

As is almost expected at this point from a NJ Rep presentation, the production is perfectly cast and faultlessly acted; a great ensemble cast. Set designer Yoshinori Tanokura does wonders with the limited performance space, and Merek Royce Press's music and sound is just the right mix along with Michael Reese's lighting. Patricia E. Doherty's costumes are the perfect complement to each character.

The world premiere comedy was written by Middletown resident Michael T. Folie - a TriCity treasure.


Panama: The Ultimate Road Trip

by Robert F. Carroll for The Coaster

Each press kit handed out by the management of the New Jersey Repertory Company for last weekend's premiere of "Panama" included a toothbrush.

The implication was that "Panama" left a viewer with a mouth that had to be washed out. Which is pretty much the case, since the play abounds in four-letter words.

Which doesn't necessarily make it a bad play. "Panama" is mostly funny, even when it tries too hard for laughs. A tour de farce, sort of.

The plot, by Michael T. Folie, has at its center an everyman named Man (Gary Lamadore), unhinged because he suddenly realizes he's going to die (in about 35 years). But he's heard of someone in California who has a secret, life-prolonging elixir. So Man and Wife set off on a manic cross country road trip.

On the road they pick up two young hitchhikers (Young Man, Young Woman), stop in to visit a couple who may be Man's parents (Grandpa, Grannie), get shot at by cops in a helicopter and finally confront the nutty Scientist, who may have the secret of life but seems to be missing a few of his buttons.

Ames Adamson, who plays the mad -- and madly funny -- Scientist, plus a Hollywood producer who seems interested in Man's quest, a doctor, a hilarious posturing sheriff, a ditzy theater director and a few other odd-balls, makes "Panama", with Adamson, something you don't want to miss.

Maura O'Brien is the slightly off-centered Wife who discovers that shooting at police helicopters can be fun. Otherwise she has her hands full keeping conversations going in the proper setting -- women on the left, men on the right.

Neal Arluck is the grizzled Grandpa and Ian August his nosy -- and cross dressing -- mate, Grannie. Jacob Garrett White and Rozie Bacchi are the young hitchhikers. Appearing from time to time, in appropriate robe and sash, is a hirsute Jesus Christ (Brian O'Halloran), who apparently, but for no apparent reason, is a dentist.

When the "Panama" characters finally reach the west coast they find a Walt Disney-like theme park, modeled on those Samuel Beckett laugh-riot comedies, "Waiting for Godot", "Happy Days" and "Endgame".

A writer once said Beckett, in his plays, "combines slapstick comedy with the search for meaning in an apparently meaningless and absurd existence." Which is what playwright Folie seems to be up to.


NJ REP'S PANAMA TAKES YOU ON A RIDE

by Madeline Schulman and Milt Bernstein for The Link

LONG BRANCH - In "Panama", the hilarious, surreal comedy by Mike Folie, now playing at the New Jersey Repertory, a middle-aged man (Gary Lamadore), shocked to learn he will not live forever, takes his wife (Maura O'Brien) on a road trip. Along the way they pick up a moronic young couple (Jacob Garrett White and Rozie Bacchi) and the middle-aged man's parents (Neal Arluck and Ian August, hilarious in old lady drag), setting up rich comedic confrontations between three generations and two genders.

Braided into this story are Samuel Beckett, Walt Disney, sex and guns. The amazing versatile Ames Anderson shows up in several roles. They all end abruptly, but the audience has the joy of anticipating his next appearance. Another running joke is the dentist (Brian O'Halloran), whose resemblance to Jesus Christ drives him to find the best career for a saviour look-alike.

The direction sparkles, especially when the six travelers are shifting around in a car during a high speed chase (with helicopters!). The dialog also sparkles. Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers fight over the Beatles versus Kurt Cobain, the grand-parents try in vain to explain to the youngsters that the electricity coming out of the wall is not free, and the old man meditates on which is more boring and depressing. the plays of Beckett or 18 holes of golf.

Warning: in the midst of the hilarity, "Panama" contains a lot of raw language. The only other warning necessary: as funny as it is, "Panama" will make you think.


Our man in 'Panama' Jersey guy at heart

Friday, June 21, 2002

BY PETER FILICHIA
Star-Ledger Staff

Since the time he played a guy who had to work on his day off, actor Brian O'Halloran hasn't had many days off from his work.

For after he starred as Dante Hicks in Kevin Smith's 1994 cult film, "Clerks," O'Halloran has had a steady stream of offers. That includes one from New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, where he opens in "Panama" this weekend.

This time, his character is hardly a put-upon clerk at a Monmouth County convenience store. Instead, in Michael T. Folie's new comedy, he's a dentist who bears such a strong resemblance to Jesus Christ that his patients begin to believe that he's the Messiah.

O'Halloran became involved with New Jersey Rep two years ago when he was introduced to Gabor and SuzAnne Barabas, who run the playhouse. He's appeared there in two other Folie plays: "A World I Never Made," in which he portrayed a drug dealer who's selling his wares to a policeman's daughter, and "An Unhappy Woman," in which his character searches for all the remaining happy women in the world.

When he read "Panama," though, he was interested in tackling another character that had five different roles. "I figured I'd be right for that since I'm a multiple personality myself," he jokes.

But director Stewart A. Fisher saw him for the lead.

"I don't think I particularly look like Jesus," says the performer. "I'm very un-Jesus-like. I guess I should be more like him, considering that my name is actually Brian Christopher -- Patrick, if you include my Confirmation name -- O'Halloran."

With a moniker like that, it's not surprising to find that his family hails from Galway Bay. They immigrated to the Bronx in 1965, where Brian was born in 1969. The family moved to Palisades Park, then to Old Bridge, where O'Halloran still resides.

At Cedar Ridge High School in Old Bridge, he auditioned for the school musical on a whim and landed the title role in "Snoopy." After he was graduated in 1987, he took some acting courses in Middlesex County College, but eventually became, fittingly enough, a clerk at Shop-Rite.

"I was there three years," he says, "and all my friends got tired of me going to movies and saying, 'Oh, I could have done that role much better.'"

So one of them dragged him to the First Avenue Playhouse in Atlantic Highlands to audition for "Dracula." O'Halloran had the last laugh, for he came away with the role of Renfield, the obsessed insect-eater.

"I was then a rat in 'Charlotte's Web,' and the bad guy in 'Wait Until Dark' at the Aberdeen Repertory Theater in Matawan," he says. "So this Jesus figure in 'Panama' is quite a change of pace."

But the leap from community theater came once he auditioned for Smith in 1992. O'Halloran says he did a piece from "Wait Until Dark," causing Smith to release the original actor for Dante and choose him instead.

"I never thought when we were doing it at all it would amount to anything," he admits of the $27,500 production. "I figured people would be turned off by its sexually explicit toilet humor and immaturity. But it caught an audience, first at the New York Film Festival in fall of '93, and then at Sundance in January '94."

O'Halloran worked with the Red Bank director three more times -- "though he hasn't called me for his newest project, 'Jersey Girl,'" he says ruefully. In "Mallrats" (1995), he played a game show contestant. In "Chasing Amy," two years later, he and Matt Damon portrayed MTV executives. And in 1999's "Dogma," he was a news reporter.

This year, he had the lead in the film "Vulgar," as a clown for hire whose life becomes a torment after he is sexually assaulted by three male party-goers.

"Quite a different situation from what I'm playing now," he says. "Now I get to put a sign outside my dentist's office that says 'Jesus Saves -- Teeth.'


On the road again

Published in the Asbury Park Press 6/21/02

Story by TOM CHESEK
Correspondent

The road story: Is there any other type of tale that so stirs the American soul? Sure, you can trace its origins back to the seafaring odysseys of the classical Greeks and even hitch it to the westward-ho spirit of the Conestoga settlers, but it took the collusive collaboration of Messrs. Ford and Firestone -- along with whoever mapped out the U.S. interstate highway system -- to shift the whole genre into overdrive.


PANAMA
A play by Michael T. Folie
Opens at 8 p.m. Friday
New Jersey Repertory Company
179 Broadway, Long Branch
Performances through July 28
$30, with discounts available
(732) 229-3166

Let those British-penned characters seek their destinies inside the labyrinths of some musty Elsinore or Hogwarts; here in America, we find our epiphanies in the eagle at the end of a Trans Am's hood. It starts on the pages of such children's stories as "The Wizard of Oz" and "The Phantom Tollbooth"; picks up speed in classic films like "The Grapes of Wrath" and "Easy Rider"; runs through literary works from Kerouac ("On the Road") to Stephen King ("The Stand") into TV land ("Route 66," "Highway to Heaven") and points beyond. Even our quadrennial presidential chad-chase is only interesting when viewed as a madcap sequel to "The Gumball Rally."

Live theater, on the other hand, is seldom the medium of choice for creators with their own take on the lore and lure of the Road. Unless they're working with the hydraulics budget of a Lloyd Webber extravaganza, the whole daunting process of presenting multiple set pieces and scene segues is enough to drive most theatrical producers back to the stuffy confines of the drawing-room.

Leave it to the Long Branch-based New Jersey Repertory Company, then, to defy convention in its presentation tonight of a new, "roadworthy" comedy called "Panama."

Roadworthy, perhaps, but not necessarily road-tested. Like so many of the shows mounted at NJ Rep's Lumia Theatre on downtown Broadway in Long Branch, this is an honest-to-goodness world premiere, one written by Michael T. Folie and directed by Stewart Fisher, the same dynamically creative duo responsible for both the 2001 season comedy "Naked By the River" and the recently produced drama "Slave Shack."

Described by its author as a "chaotic road trip that's a bizarre hybrid of Samuel Beckett and Monty Python," Folie's latest work concerns Man's obsession with his own mortality, Man's struggle against arbitrary social mores -- even Man's quest for the secret of eternal life.

If that sounds a bit arch, it's only because the main character happens to be a middle-age guy by the name of Man.

Shaken to the core when his doctor informs him that he can only expect to "live another 35 years at least;" stirred to action by the notion that death is not merely an eventuality but could actually come "at any time" (shades of current events!), our man Man embarks upon the mother of all mid-life crises; hitting that mythical road in search of the elusive fountain of youth, and collecting a case load of curious characters along the way.

Owning up to the fact that staging such a sprawling saga presents more than its share of logistical problems, playwright Folie credits director Fisher and set designer Yoshinori Tanokura (who recently worked on "Tomorrow's Promise" teen-age playwright program at the Lumia) with meeting those challenges in a way that reflects the show's zany spirit.

"The play is not, by any means, a naturalistic play . . . it's very presentational and blatantly theatrical," the former Middletown resident (now playwright-in-residence for the NJ Rep troupe) insists. "('Panama') requires the actors to be very big, and yet still play their roles with absolute seriousness and conviction."

Returning to the Lumia stage in the role of Jesus Christ (or, rather, an unemployed dentist who happens to look a lot like Jesus Christ) is Brian O'Halloran, cult-fave star of such Kevin Smith/View Askew films as "Clerks" and the recently released "Vulgar." While the presence of the Middlesex County native probably serves to peddle a few tickets, longtime NJ Rep observers can vouch that this expert character actor (who co-starred in the company's production of Folie's "An Unhappy Woman") is possessed of a range that extends way beyond the walls of the fabled Quick-Stop; he's joined in the cast by Neal Arluck, Ian August, Rozie Bacchi, Gary Lamadore, Maura O'Brien, Jacob White and Ames Adamson, who takes on no less than five distinct characters, "most of them with a kind of manic glee." According to Folie, " 'Panama' attempts to tackle some of the big questions of life and death and the meaning of life, but these questions are too serious to be serious about."

"We can "think ourselves into all kinds of preening platitudes and intellectual nonsense," the playwright continues, "but laughter is always immediate and genuine."


A CurtainUp Review
Panama
David Lohrey

You're in perfect health. There's no reason you can't live another 30 or 40 years ---Doctor

Then what? ---Man
New Jersey Repertory Company, in case it is new to you, is one of those rare breeds: a theatre that produces new work. The great experiment known as regional theatre never really delivered what its visionary founders promised. Multi-million dollars facilities ensured that only revivals could keep the endowed seats filled, so that playwrights have had to hustle to find homes for their work. Michael T. Folie has found a loyal following down in Long branch, New Jersey. Panama is receiving its world premiere there this summer, although it has received numerous development readings, including the one I saw in Dallas, Texas two years ago.

Folie is part of what I see as a new wave of contemporary theatre and film artists whose principle concern, whatever their chosen genre, seems to be the simultaneous inventiveness and self-destructiveness of modern Americans. One sees this in the plays of David Lindsey-Abaire and in the recent film Sunshine State by John Sayles. These artists are alert to the implications of turning all history, tradition, and culture into a heritage-based theme park called America. Folie's newest work sees our society, indeed mankind itself, as perched on a slim strip of land between the opposing oceans of the past and the future. This panama of reality is where his play takes place. The play's surface is mad-cap, but its meanings run deep.

The play doesn't so much start as it ignites, with what is for me a terribly clever exchange between Man (Gary Lamadore) and his Doctor (Ames Adamson). Doctor declares the middle-aged Man in perfect condition and tells him that there is no reason why he shouldn't live another 30 years, maybe 40. To this, Man responds first by panicking. Then, he strangles the Doctor. Finally, he takes his Wife (Maura O'Brien) and embarks on a car trip across the country to find his parents and the meaning of life.

This car trip quickly includes a young couple (Jacob Garrett White and Rozie Bacchi) and Man's parents (Neal Arluck and Ian August). Together they leave the parents' Arizona retirement home and head for the Samuel Beckett Happy Day's Theme Park. Each has his own personal quest, but Man remains the leader who learns along the way what the knowledge of certain death can mean for life. Among his lessons is the realization that without death life is meaningless. Before hearing the doctor's diagnosis of perfect health and certain death, Man's life had been pointless. Mortality makes Man happy. The play's metaphysics holds the plot together.

The production works, but only some of the time. It troubled me that Man and Grandpa were the same age, both middle-aged and both silver gray on top. Grannie (Ian August), on the other hand, is played as 70+ by a young man in drag. Man is 60's generation hip, while his Wife is 1950s prudish, and dresses like an Iowa farmwoman. The youngsters are Gen-X stereotypes.

The very able Ames Adamson plays numerous parts. He is a perfect Cop, a brilliant Hollywood Producer, but his Theatre Director is over the top. Indeed, his costume was so exaggerated as to lack definition. Jesus Christ (Brian O'Halloran) makes his numerous appearances, but never with obvious purpose or meaning. In so many small ways, the play's subtle humor and acute intelligence are pulled out of focus by the heavy-handed troopers under the direction of Stewart Fisher. The set design seems far more gratuitous than the play's profanity and violence, which seem tame by today's standards. Nonetheless, Folie should be pleased to have found a home for his considerable talent. The story he tells may seem slight, but by the end of the evening all of your assumptions have been undermined. Think of it as Philosophy 101 on laughing gas.

Growing New Jersey Rep

If you think that the possibility of making a success of a mom-'n-pop business is waning, if not over, you haven't been to the New Jersey Repertory Theater in Long Branch. Here in the Lumia Theater, in the not very beautiful downtown district, SuzAnne and Gabor Barabas are busy putting their professional theater company on the map.

Four years ago, the Barabases, who have been married for 34 years, decided it was time to take the plunge, to make their long-germinating dream of operating their own theater come true. For them, making a significant and worthwhile mark on the community in which they had lived for almost 20 years was important unfinished business.

To that end Suzanne and Gabor, the artistic and executive director respectively, chose to inaugurate their theater in March, 1999, with the world premiere of an untested socio-political drama, "Ends," by David Alex.

The response following the opening night performance was mostly positive. The play, in which a white Vietnam veteran seeks refuge from a storm in the secluded cabin of an African-American man, served to support the mission of this upstart company. Despite the vagaries of developing and presenting new work, the couple's mission -- to present new plays with diverse themes -- has not been compromised.

Unique from the very start -- it is the only professional theater in the state that produces plays year round -- NJ Rep has been drawing audiences from around the state and beyond. Because they have a reputation for presenting bold, edgy, and adventurous plays, mostly world premieres, they represent the nucleus of a new day and a hoped-for new era in this once classy vacation area. In a town that can boast it was once the summer home of seven presidents -- Garfield, Grant, Arthur, Harrison, Hayes, Mckinley, and Wilson -- and where the Church of the Presidents remains one of the few attractions for visitors, the Barabases have found a place to follow through on their shared commitment to the theater.

While one may assume that every theater-crazed person from performer to producer hopes to land on Broadway, it is a reality for the Barabases whose Lumia Theater is located at 179 Broadway -- in Long Branch. At a cost of $250,000, they turned an empty industrial building into a comfortable and functional theater that supports two separate stages, a small lobby cafe, and a comfortable lounge. With ample free parking in an adjacent lot, patrons enter from the back of the theater. Named for David Lumia, who closed the deal to donate the vacant building to the Barabases' non-profit organization on New Year's Eve, 1997, the Lumia Theater has been given an eye-catching Art Deco facade.

As I arrived for a Sunday matinee performance of "Till Morning Comes," a new play by Mark NcNease, about yet another controversial subject, assisted suicide, Gabor, in casual attire, his longish gray hair neatly pulled back in a pony tail, was assisting a handicapped audience member through the lobby. SuzAnne, smiling and animated, was working the box office, all the while finding time to lean forward for a kiss or a warm hug from a patron or two. Yes, it's Mom and Pop running the show just as they did more than 30 years ago as co-founders of the Cincinnati Repertory Company, and later the American Repertory Theater of Philadelphia.

"We are embarking on our fifth season," Gabor announces to the patrons who have filled the majority of the intimate theater's 70 seats (a smaller, second stage seats 55). The loyal audience laughs knowingly after as he thanks them for the support they have shown for what he calls "our relentless nosedive to oblivion." But as grandly foolhardy a venture as running a theater is, the Barabases are of one mind -- and several professions.

"Originally I had no involvement in theater. I was going to medical school in Cincinnati while SuzAnne was studying acting with Lee Strasberg in New York," says Gabor, who recalls how he yanked her out of her home in Brooklyn and took her with him to Cincinnati -- "the middle of nowhere." It wasn't such a shock to SuzAnne who says, "We actually met at a Halloween party when we were teenagers and started dating."

Gabor was seven when his family fled the 1956 Hungarian uprising and settled in Waterbury, Connecticut. SuzAnne was born and raised in Brooklyn; Gabor moved with his family to Brooklyn when he was 13.

Transplanted to Cincinnati, SuzAnne decided to start a theater company and as Gabor puts it, "recruited me under duress." Between 1970 and 1974, even with Gabor dividing his time at the theater with his medical profession, they developed the Cincinnati Rep into a vital community theater. When Gabor went to Philadelphia in 1975 to do his neurology residency, it was only natural that they would start their next and more daring, although still not professional, venture, the American Repertory Theater.

At ART, the Barabases began to sneak less familiar classics of Strindberg and Genet into their seasons of more popular plays. "When we left five years later, the company still had money in the bank. But because of the travails and pain, we vowed we would never produce again," Gabor recalls saying at the time. Those famous last words wouldn't stick either for SuzAnne or Gabor, who would mutually arrive at the realization that, for them, theater was not only an artistic, but also a social undertaking. It is this commitment that led them to look for a venue in what was once a vibrant town but had become a depressed area. "Our mission brought us here."

No feeling of depression exists, however, as we sit in the theater's comfortable lounge following the Sunday matinee. An almost childlike enthusiasm is present in both of them as we talk of the various challenges and future plans they have for their theater. Parents and grandparents they may be, but the commitment they have made to New Jersey Rep is rather like caring for a four-year-old child.

What SuzAnne and Gabor say excites them most is the nurturing of new work. "Someone has to step up to the plate and it's us," says Gabor, stressing the help the can provide playwrights who have difficulty getting their work produced. A novel approach is their method of casting plays from a core group of 100 actors, all of whom auditioned for the Barabases during their first year of operation. This and networking by each play's director eliminates the need for a salaried casting director.

"Watching the budget is important," says Gabor, who allows that after he and SuzAnne provided the seed money, the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, the Dodge Foundation, and other philanthropic and state organizations have answered the call. The Dodge Foundation has most recently funded a project at New Jersey Repertory called "Tomorrow's Project." It calls for thousands of students to explore their feelings coming out of the September 11 attacks through dramatic writing.

Ultimately short plays by six of students, guided by a playwright mentor, comprised an evening of theater that was presented free to the public in May. Two professional videographers, who have been following the students throughout the process, from the interviews to the workshops, hope to produce a feature documentary on the project.

While the annual budget, according to Gabor, is about $350,000, he says if he and Suzanne added and collected on their time it would be in the vicinity of $600,000. Watching their home become a dormitory for actors prompted Gabor and SuzAnne to purchase, as a limited liability corporation, a residence for out-of-town actors, as well as the purchase of a building one block away for constructing and storing sets.

Expectedly the cost of operations is increasing and they acknowledge the need to broaden their support base. The fact that a theater may fill every seat every night and not come to paying all the operating expenses doesn't come as a surprise to those in the industry. As is true of all regional theaters, the writing of grant proposals and the opportunity for expansion to bring in more revenue is always an issue.

"We are now working actively to acquire a building across the street, not to replace what we have but to add a 250-seat theater," says Gabor, who will be working with the theater's 10-member board of trustees, advisory board, marketing and fund raisers.

"We were nuts from the very first year, when we did 30 readings of new plays," says Gabor. Open to the public, the free readings have remained a Monday night staple. Not quite unwittingly, SuzAnne and Gabor know they have helped the local community, that hadn't seen anything flower in the neighborhood in the past 50 years, or so. "It helped psychologically to have something new in what had become a blighted area," says Gabor.

A graphic artist who designs many of the theater's posters, SuzAnne says she is pleased that a group of 100 area artists is planning to set up a working studio nearby, no doubt encouraged by the increased activity generated by the theater. Considering the small seating capacity, the theater's current subscriber base of 200 is not insignificant and has proven a boost to local restaurants, including Joe & Maggie's, voted one of the Jersey shore's five top restaurants by the New York Times.

SuzAnne, who went to Brooklyn College and graduated from Villanova with a concentration in theater in 1978, has directed a half dozen of the plays at New Jersey Rep. During the past four years she is credited as co-author and lyricist of several plays and musicals. She is also the co-author (with Gabor) of "Gunsmoke: The Complete History and Analysis of the Legendary Broadcast Series." She happily fetches this big book ("It's in its second printing," Gabor announces proudly) off the shelf in her office for this former fan to see.

Because SuzAnne is an actress and knows what it means to be buffeted by the politics of the profession, she says she wanted to create, with Gabor, an environment that is more than anything else protective of the creative process.

"The most frustrating thing about producing new work is convincing the public that what we have is worth their time," admits SuzAnne, as she acknowledges that her own tastes run toward themes that deal with sex and death. "We may produce a farce, but don't ask me to read one. We give them to our readers."

Gabor, who received his BA from New York University and his medical degree from the University of Cincinnati, trained for five years at Children's Hospital (University of Pennsylvania) in Philadelphia. It was in 1978 that Gabor came to Rutgers Medical School to run their division of pediatric neurology. Gabor is the child neurologist at Monmouth Medical Center, a post he shares with his brother Ronald, with whom he also has a private practice.

If Gabor speaks modestly about his medical career, he is equally self-effacing about his not inconsiderable artistic side. This includes a canon of poetry that has appeared in various literary journals, and his published collection of poems "Russian Chronicles." The author of several plays presented at NJ Rep, Gabor also produced "On Golden Pond," with Kim Hunter (during the first season) and "Memoir" (a play about Sarah Bernhardt) with Salome Jens and "Best Kept Secrets," with Katherine Houghton.

The next production, opening Friday, June 21, is the world premiere of "Panama," by Michael T. Folie, author of "An Unhappy Woman," "Naked By the River," and "Slave Shack" (another premiere presented by the company in April). "Panama" is described as a bizarre comedy that is a combination of the ultimate road trip and a middle-aged crisis. Its characters seek to discover the secret of eternal life, while refuting social norms and moral and ethical standards. Folie demonstrates a command of several types of comedy here, with elements reminiscent of both Samuel Beckett and Monty Python. "Panama" plays through July 14.

The season continues with the New Jersey premiere of "Maggie Rose" by Kim Carney," Beginning August 8 and running to September 8. This is followed by yet another world premiere, "Winterizing the Summer House" by Gino Dilorio. Clearly the couple's commitment to serving up a banquet of new work is humming along.

"We want to establish an institution with a strong enough infrastructure that it will go on without us. Our egos are not wrapped up in this. When we walk away, and we will some day," says Gabor, "we expect that the theater will continue on its course." Despite the fact that SuzAnne tells me that attendance has doubled in four years, I take this as a reference to that "relentless nosedive to oblivion."

-- Simon Saltzman

This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com


RBR students selected for playwriting project


Karen Berkowitz

A Little Silver student is among the six young playwrights chosen to participate in Tomorrow’s Promise, a project sponsored by the New Jersey Repertory Company.

Karen Berkowitz, a student at Red Bank Regional High School, Little Silver, has been selected to participate in "Tomorrow’s Promise,’’ a studentwriting, playwriting project created by the Long Branch theater company in response to the events of Sept. 11. The project is funded by a grant from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

Meera Patel, Little Silver, also an RBR student, was selected as an alternate.

The playwriting project began in late fall when N.J. Rep put out a call for writing samples from high school students and said six would be selected to write short plays exploring themes related to Sept. 11.


Meera Patel

Project Administrator Kathleen Goldpaugh scheduled interviews with more than 20 young writers during which they met with the project committee and discussed their writing, world events and their reasons for wanting to participate in the project.

In addition to Goldpaugh, committee members include mentor playwright Michael T. Folie, director/actor Jim Donovan, project facilitator Aaron Vieira, N.J. Rep assistant artistic director Stewart Fisher, N.J. Rep Executive Producer Gabor Barabas.

Following the interview process, the committee chose the six young playwrights.

Along with Karen and Meera, the young playwrights selected are Daniel Adler of Marlboro, Shennell Barnes of Newark, Tom Bruett of Manasquan, Aileen Deng of Marlboro, and Matthew Hirsch of Marlboro. Christine Grimaldi of Marlboro also was chosen as an alternate.

The six teens will meet with Folie and other project staff from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. each Saturday for 13 weeks in a writer’s workshop. Each student will develop a 10-minute theatrical piece or short play, and the collection of six plays will be performed together under the umbrella title, Tomorrow’s Promise.

The students will be given artistic freedom to approach the broad topic from any angle, and their topics can range from prejudice and hatred to the hopes and dreams that hinge upon tomorrow’s promise.

The plays will be directed by Donovan and will be performed by company members.

In its performance stage, N.J. Rep anticipates drawing a multigenerational group of students, teachers and parents. Performances will be followed by town meeting-like forums.

Performances of Tomorrow’s Promise will be presented free of charge at 7 p.m. May 26, 27, 28 and 29 in N.J. Repertory’s Dwek Studio. Seating in this 50-seat theater space is limited, and reservations are required.

After the initial run, the production will be available to tour area high schools, starting with the schools of the student authors.


The Play’s The Thing:
Teen Playwrights Explore Impact of 9/11

TWO RIVER TIMES

By Kerri Danskin

LONG BRANCH — Over 13 weeks, six New Jersey students (including Karen Berkowitz of Little Silver) honed their playwrighting skills with the help of New Jersey Repertory Company as part of the Tomorrow's Promise program. Last week, the students had the opportunity to see their plays performed by professional actors on the NJ Rep Stage.

The program was designed to give students a medium in which they could respond to the September 11 terrorist attacks. Each of the six plays touched on the themes of loss, guilt, and personal connections.

Project facilitator Aaron Vieira said that the program consisted of three phases. The first was teambuilding, in which the writers got to know each other and participated in exercises and games. Next they worked on script development. Vieira was proud to say that each of the writers “reached their artistic goals” during this phase by working with mentor playwright Michael T. Folie. Finally, the writers had the chance to work with the professional
cast of four actors: Jim Donovan, Eric Walton, Kittson O’Neill, and Susan Kerner. There were changes made in the scripts during this phase, as the entire group worked together.

The one act plays were performed from May 26 to May 29.

Daniel Adler of Marlboro wrote a play called The Brothers which studied the raw emotion of two brothers, one a teenager and one a young adult, who hear the news about the World Trade Center attacks and fear that their parents may have been killed. In just a few minutes, the play takes the audience through a wide range of emotions. It is impressively intense for a young writer.

Shenell Barnes’ piece, which is untitled, follows the interaction between high school students on and following September 11. It covers racial tension and strong feelings of loss in students whose parents were killed. Barnes
uses poetry throughout the script, giving each of the student characters a soliloquy. Barnes is from Newark.

Little Silver’s Karen Berkowitz wrote a play titled Unfamiliar Faces which portrays an unusual situation in which a 9-11 widow is faced with the introduction of her husband’s illegitimate daughter, about whom she never knew. This play is impressive for its complexity. The characters express loneliness, shame and guilt, but finally agree to communicate. She said it was important to her to show that, “the people who died (on September 11) were not perfect,” but that they were still very much loved by their friends and families.

Tom Bruett of Manasquan wrote a surprisingly humorous play called One Step At A… about an estranged brother and sister who are unexpectedly reunited as a result of September 11. The audience responded with laughter to the witty, if sometimes irreverent humor Bruett injected in his script.

Matthew Hirsch’s play, The Mistakes of Life also covers the unexpected reunion of an estranged brother and sister. The characters show their devotion to each other and commitment to their families throughout the difficult time. Hirsch is from Marlboro.

Marlboro Township resident Aileen Deng’s play titled Two Steps to the Left studied the conflict between a man who was blinded during the terrorist attacks and his devoted wife. The play explored commitment through difficult times and the complex levels of devotion of which people are capable.

The audience was asked to contribute feedback following each performance. Tuesday night, one audience member complimented the young writers on “how much insight they had into adult problems.” Another said that the actors showed “extreme versatility,” and “actually delivered the people,” as opposed to just reading the characters’ lines.

Berkowitz said that the program was “like working with a bunch of friends.”

Barnes said that seeing her play performed by professional actors was, “a really good experience.”

O’Neill, whose various roles throughout the program varied widely said that working with the young writers was, “fascinating, a real privilege.”

Published June 7, 2002


Impressions & memorials

Published in the Asbury Park Press 5/26/02
By TOM CHESEK
Correspondent

Sept. 11 has become a common point of reference in a diverse nation, and the need to express something -- from the anguish of loss to the many small victories that make up the reassuring hum of life going on -- remains even after the last truckload of rubble has been carted away. Beginning with an exhibition of artworks and continuing with a special theatrical presentation opening today, the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch is offering a unique forum for a group that may not always have been heard amid the pundits and politicians: the voices of New Jersey teen-agers.

"Tomorrow's Promise" is the umbrella title for both the multimedia art exhibition and its accompanying presentation of six short plays, featured at NJ Rep's Lumia Theatre. Coordinated by Kathleen Goldpaugh, project administrator, and realized through a grant by the Morristown-based Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, the project represents the culmination of a process that began when high school students from around the state were invited to submit their written impressions on the events of last September, when terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center in New York.

After reading the submissions, Goldpaugh invited nearly two dozen young writers to the Lumia Theatre to meet face-to-face with her project committee, a panel that includes NJ Rep Executive Producer Gabor Barabas, Assistant Artistic Director Stewart Fisher and Project Facilitator Aaron Vieira. After many hours of discussions with the students on topics ranging from their own creative processes to their personal take on world events, the committee selected six finalists with whom they would develop a finished theatrical presentation. Two alternate entrants were also selected, with all but one of the eight students attending schools in Monmouth County.

Beginning in late February, the selected writers met each Saturday morning with the project's Mentor Playwright Michael T. Folie to workshop and fine-tune the six featured pieces, each of which clocks in at approximately 10 minutes in length. Actor-director Jim Donovan, a prominent player with the Holmdel Theatre Company as well as NJ Rep, began rehearsals with a cast that also includes company members Susan Kerner, Eric Walton and Kittson O'Neill.

"All of the stories are about anger, loss and forgiveness," said Folie, "about picking up the pieces and going on after a tragedy."

In April, the scope of the project was expanded when Goldpaugh and NJ Rep-affiliated professional artist Marian Akana of Tinton Falls invited student artists of high school age to submit visual media pieces that reflect their responses to the events of 9/11. Selected submissions are being exhibited now at the Lumia Theatre's gallery and will remain on display through the conclusion of the play's run on Wednesday.

"In some ways, writing a short piece is harder than writing a longer one, because you have to be so concise and economical," said playwright Folie, whose works produced at NJ Rep include the recent drama "Slave Shack" and the forthcoming comedy "Panama." Short pieces work best when you have vibrant characters with strong needs, and all of these short plays have that going for them.

"What's interesting is that only two of the plays are explicitly about the events of Sept. 11 -- and one piece doesn't mention 9/11 at all," Folie continued. Yet all of the stories are about anger, loss and forgiveness; about picking up the pieces and going on after a tragedy.

The six writers and their featured works are as follows:

"THE BROTHERS" by Daniel Adler, Marlboro:

In this play concerning a pair of siblings whose parents both work at the World Trade Center, the older son (Jim Donovan) tries to shield his younger brother (Eric Walton) from the full impact of the tragic events." 'Tomorrow's Promise' was a wonderful opportunity to express my feelings tothe world," Adler says. "I've greatly benefited from working with such an excellent group of actors and writers. The entire experience is the highlight of my high school career."

UNTITLED PLAY by Shennell Barnes, Newark:

Described by Donovan as poetic, surreal and ethereal, this non-traditional piece utilizes all four cast members, playing nine different characters in a series of nine brief scenes set in the days immediately before and after 9/11. The story features a Muslim character and deals in part with discrimination against Muslims in the aftermath of the attacks, with scene transitions punctuated by voice-overs and prerecorded musical segues. "Shennell's characters often break into poetry, and I love that," Folie adds. "The play is warm and human and brutally powerful in places."

"UNFAMILIAR FACE" by Karen Berkowitz, Little Silver:

At the funeral service of a Pennsylvania plane crash victim, the man's widow encounters a young woman with a surprising connection to her late husband.

"I'm in the creative writing program at Red Bank Regional, but I never really thought I'd make it a career," the author observes. I'm sort of sad that the workshops have ended. Everyone involved has been so supportive; it's like being with friends."

"ONE STEP AT A . . ." by Tom Bruett, Manasquan:

Another portrait of the relationship between a pair of siblings, this time a brother and sister (Walton, Kerner) who have reluctantly been reunited as a result of 9/11. The play uses touches of humor to lighten its themes of familial conflicts and the struggle for acceptance, "but the message of my piece is that the world doesn't stop," Bruett insists. "No matter what trouble you are going through, people are still people and life willcontinue, good or bad."

THE MISTAKES OF LIFE by Matthew Hirsch, Marlboro:

Also centered around a brother-sister conflict and incorporating a long-held secret, this piece takes place ten years in the future, at a memorial to the victims of 9/11. According to Folie, "What's impressive about Matt's play is that most of the events being discussed have taken place in the past, and yet he's managed to find a way to make the conflict immediate and gripping."

"TWO STEPS TO THE LEFT" by Aileen Deng, Marlboro:

The one play of the evening that doesn't mention 9/11 is a study of a recently blinded man and his wife (Donovan, O'Neill) as they prepare for a wedding. "This is another great dramatic situation, because weddings bring out these repressed feelings in people," says Folie. "We end the evening with this play because of its positive message about coping, and about progressing forward against obstacles and personal hardship."


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Dead Boy

reviewed by Dan Johnson

Never having been to a New Jersey Repertory Company production, I was not sure what to expect, though I hoped for little more than entertaining professional regional theater. What I got was more than I could have expected, from all aspects of this emotionally startling and passionately performed production of Joe Pintauro's "The Dead Boy". From the beautiful and ornate scenic design, effective and enveloping sound and light designs, to the performances of these five talented and experienced men, any question as to the quality presented by this company was quelled.

There have been many reviews recently concerning this play, some of them focusing on the subject matter's relationship to today's headlines. Though this piece does indeed seem a timely one, concerning emotional and physical relationship between a catholic priest and a boy in his care, I think it is a disservice to this company to focus too heavily on such a narrow view, as such situations have allegedly occurred in the church for ages. But this depth and dimension is rarely seen, especially when one gleans what he knows of these matters from sound bites and headlines.

The play opens with Father Angelo Rosetti, played charmingly by Mr. Burt Edwards. I say "charming" advisedly; the character of Rosetti occupies a space both within and outside the narrative structure of the play itself, and begins the performance by introducing the characters and the setting. We are drawn into the performance through his wide and inviting smile, as much as by the well-crafted words he uses. He becomes a point of reference as the plot quickly unfolds before us, providing us with the details of the relationships between him and the other priests in the rectory.

The dignified and seemingly austere Cardinal Hamilton, played with vitality and nuance by Mr. Leonard Auclair, is introduced as he dons the vestments of his position. Though his countenance is the portrait of a hard working and stately cardinal, we next see the character slightly intoxicated, played with a subtle slur in his voice and hinted giddiness, as his dialog deftly moves between backhanded compliments and sincere compassion.

It is in his moments with Mr. Auclair that the catalyst of action in this play finds some of his best moments. Mr. Ken Wiesinger plays the all too eager ex-seminarian, turned reporter Tony McGuire. At first it seemed to me that Mr. Wiesinger's performance felt a little less than genuine, and I was troubled by the seeming incongruity between his and the others' performances. But I feel assured now that this is precisely what Mr. Weisinger intended. McGuire is surrounded by men he admired while he was in the seminary, and though he pretends, both to himself as well as to the men around him, to be fully confident of his abilities, his insecurities make themselves known in subtle ways. The verbal sparring between the Cardinal and Tony is a treat to behold, in the opening scenes when the audience has only a vague understanding of the true dynamics at play, as well as in the second act, when tensions are running higher and the stakes have been made more obvious.

These actors provide the structure and support which allows the two central characters to explore and reveal the depth of the central relationships of the piece. Mr. Cary Woodworth plays a young street hustler named Will Draper. The character's past is a bruise of incest and abuse, though through the affection and guidance of Father Robert Sheridan he is protected and nurtured. Mr. Anthony Newfield brilliantly and passionately plays the Father at the center of a child sex abuse scandal, after the young Will tells the McGuire that Sheridan abused him when he was younger. The full nature of the relationship between Sheridan and Will is revealed piece by piece, as the other relationships are uncovered and explored.

But it is the relationship between Sheridan and the Young Priest, also portrayed by Mr. Woodworth, which provides the moments in which Mr. Newfield's restrained passion and inverted energy come to life. It is not made clear exactly who this young beatific priest is, only that no one sees him but Sheridan. The transformation in Mr. Woodworth between the characters of Will and the Young Priest are seamless and startling, though it is the transformation in Newfield's Sheridan which compels the audience. Not the transformation of the character through the course of the play, so much as the deft and instantaneous change in Sheridan's eyes and physicality when the Young Priest appears. Truly one of the most memorable and searing moments of the entire evening is found in just such an instant. Any further discussion of this may deprive the audience of its impact; indeed, the plot itself belongs to the audience to discover.

I would be remiss if I did not again mention the brilliant technical designs in this production. The lighting effects showcased Mr. Kirk Bookman's extensive experience, both in the effects themselves, as well as their self-referential placement upon the stage. As I mentioned previously, the play is presented as a play, and the lights are clearly visible parts of the set itself, keeping this aspect in the audience's mind throughout the performance, and complimenting the scenic design, created by Mr. Jeremy C. Doucette. From the authentic (looking, at least) priest's garbs, to the ambient sound musical interludes, every aspect of this production is first rate. One must assume that Mr. William Martin's direction must be equally peerless, as there is no other way that a story of such depth and technical merit could be executed so superbly without talented and studious direction.

I am pleased to say that although New York's promise of theatrical treasures is only a short trip away, Monmouth county's regional theater gives its residents a reason to stay close to home.

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The death of innocence

Published in the Asbury Park Press 5/08/02
By MARLENE CANTY
Correspondent

At first glance, Joe Pintauro's "The Dead Boy" seems ripped from headlines about recent complaints of priestly pedophilia. In fact, the play being staged at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch is loosely based on the Covenant House scandal more than a decade ago involving the Rev. Bruce Ritter, a priest who specialized in rescuing boys he found living on the streets of Manhattan.


THE DEAD BOY
The play by Joe Pintauro is being staged at the New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch
WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays
TICKETS: $30; discounts available to students, senior citizens and groups
INFORMATION: (732) 229-31661


According to director William Martin, rather than being about sexual scandal and pedophilia, "The Dead Boy" is a love story about forbidden passion that, according to the tenets of the church, is not allowed to exist.

The richly textured set design of Jeremy C. Douchette, with lighting by Kirk Bookman and sound by Merek Royce Press, creates the feeling of a spiritual as well as emotional cloister, a male nunnery that seems the perfect backdrop for miracles, immaculate conceptions, secrecy and lies.

The story revolves around the Rev. Robert Sheridan, a Catholic priest played with charisma by Anthony Newfield. Sheridan has built a successful ministry around rescuing runaways -- or "dead boys," homeless teens that come to his shelter for help.

He is accused of sexually molesting one of those boys, Will Draper. Newcomer Cary Woodworth brings real enthusiastic zeal to the role of Draper, a street kid who tells his story to a local reporter.

Draper also tells his story to Sheridan's boss, Cardinal Hamilton, played with sardonic flair by Leonard Auclair. He is the embodiment of the spiritual leader with secular savvy. The Cardinal's solution? Bribe the boy to recant his story.

"The Dead Boy" is an examination not so much of pedophilia as of the overall religious culture of the Roman Catholic Church -- a culture whose sexuality, according to Pintauro, is "fundamentally flawed."


MICHAEL J. TREOLA photo

Ken Wiesinger (right) plays the Tony McGuire, a reporter who questions Anthony Newfield, who plays priest Robert Sheridan, in "The Dead Boy," now playing at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.
One disturbing aspect of the play is that love stories generally exist between equals. When one of the lovers is a homeless minor and the other an authority figure who represents God via the church and papal infallibility, it is difficult not to feel someone is being exploited -- even in this case where the "victim" is both jaded and to some degree the initiator of the intimacy.

Burt Edwards is the Rev. Angelo Rosetti, a kind of master of ceremonies who narrates the story in circus ringmaster style. He is both enchanting and chilling as the Greek chorus who soliloquizes this tale of doom. Comically, he doubles as the Cardinal's butler/houseboy.

Ken Wiesinger provides a credible counterpoint to Cardinal Hamilton as Tony McGuire, the reporter to whom Draper confides. Once a devout Catholic, his reaction to what he perceives as the inadequacies of the Catholic Church and of Sheridan is to convert to Buddhism.

This production of "The Dead Boy" directed by William Martin features an all-male cast, with few references, if any, to women. A female presence in some capacity might have added a sense of redemption to a story that seems almost punitive in nature.

Whether you see the play as a loss of innocence, an abuse of power or an ill-fated love story, "The Dead Boy" is a modern-day Gothic drama every bit as tragic as the sensational headline stories about the Catholic Church that have been coinciding with its debut.


Scandal takes center stage

Wednesday, May 08, 2002

BY PETER FILICHIA
Star-Ledger Staff

Talk about timely: Here's New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch presenting "The Dead Boy," a play about a priest who may or may not have molested a young man. Meanwhile, his fellow clerics and the cardinal wonder if -- or how -- the incident should be covered up.

Are Gabor and SuzAnne Barabas, respectively the executive producer and artistic director of the troupe, jumping on a sensationalist bandwagon by mounting this play? In all fairness, they chose Joe Pintauro's drama more than a year ago.

They selected it for the best of reasons, too. It's potent theater.

Though the play is now having its East Coast premiere, Pintauro wrote it in 1991, shortly after the scandal in which Father Bruce Ritter of Covenant House was accused of molesting some of the boys he had saved from homelessness. Here, it's Father Robert Sheridan, head of Rescue House, who cares for teenage drifter Will Draper and genuinely helps get him back on his feet.

Now, though, reporter Tony McGuire -- who used to be one of Sheridan's parishioners and once admired the priest -- must investigate Draper's claims that Sheridan molested him. Or is the priest telling the truth when he unstintingly states, "I am a celibate, unattainable male object, and he is a hustler"?

That last word may sound shocking coming from a priest. But Pintauro, who was once a priest himself, unveils a rectory where its inhabitants not only enjoy the cannolis delivered by doting Italian parishioners, but also more-than-occasional stiff drinks. That's often when more secrets are revealed about each of them.

A seduction scene that involves full-frontal male nudity might seem gratuitous, but its purpose is to identify the sexual aggressor. Director William Martin stages it without lewdness. His pacing of the play is excellent, so his last-minute decision to add an intermission was a disruptive mistake.

Anthony Newfield gives Father Sheridan a dollop of charisma. More charm would have been welcome, but Newfield brings a guilty, brooding look to the role; his way of speaking indicates that he desperately hopes that what he says will be believed. Yet he seems totally confident when he flippantly points out that it was St. Paul, not Jesus, who said that homosexuality was a sin -- which the priest blithely attributes to Paul's own insecurities.

As the cardinal, Leonard Auclair works up a strong burst of steam when he rails at McGuire, "Thousands of kids he rescues from chaos. You are more dangerous to those kids for wanting to take him away." He adds the stentorian tones of higher-ups, often adding a few extra syllables to words like "Rome- mmmmmmmme" for importance. He's especially effective in his scenes with the able Ken Wiesinger, who plays the conflicted reporter.

Reed-thin Cary Woodworth, as Will, is a fascinating mixture of street smarts and neuroses. He induces chills when he rubs himself around and against Sheridan, at first like a snake, but finally like an infant. Yet in one scene, when he goes to confession, he sounds genuinely contrite when he says, "Father, my sins are going to gross you out."

Indeed they might. But Pintauro's play doesn't shy away from unpleasant realities, and joins the ever-growing list of New Jersey Rep's impressive and adventurous productions.


THE DEAD BOY: Scandal in the Rectory
The Coaster
Review by Robert F. Carroll
"The Dead Boy", a dramatic tale of sex in the rectory, is the New Jersey Repertory Company's venture into an area recently explored (exploited?) at great length by the media.

The play, by Joe Pintauro, had its inspiration in the sex scandal that engulfed the Rev. Bruce Ritter and the shelter for homeless boys he established in Manhattan some years ago. It was first staged almost four years ago and was workshopped in London twice since then. But its relevance has been echoed in the recent day-by-day news coverage of sexual abuse allegations leveled against the Catholic clergy.

Author Pintauro said his story focuses on the individual's struggles with love, truth and, in the case of an aggressive reporter, the lust for headlines. It's unfortunate, he said, that it's become "so apropos to the scandals."

At the center of the Pintauro play is Father Robert Sheridan (sympathetically played by Anthony Newfield), director of a parish program that ministers to poor youths, who is accused of sexually abusing teenager Will Draper (Cary Woodworth). Draper's allegations have alerted the reporter, Tony McGuire (Ken Wiesinger), to the possibility of a front-page story, and he pursues Draper and Father Sheridan relentlessly.

Playwright Pintauro adds a ghostly presence to "The Dead Boy" when he introduces Father Sheridan as a young priest (portrayed also by Woodworth) with his own pedophiliac problems.

Cardinal Hamilton (Leonard Auclair) is Father Sheridan's superior, perplexed by the accusation and the reporter's inquisitiveness. Burt Edwards as Father Rosetti, a parish curate determined to keep his chin up despite the ecclesiastical wreckage piling up around the parish.

Edwards adds some light vaudevillian touches to the proceedings by, among other things, introducing the action -- and popping in at the curtain -- in top hat, can and striped jacket.

Gabor Barabas and wife SuzAnne, who run New Jersey Rep, are to be applauded for taking a chance on a work with such immediacy and such risks. But if they choose to gamble on the new and untried with scripts, they never take a chance on actors. The five stage veterans they've signed on for "The Dead Boy" are as good as casts get.

Jeremy Doucette is NJ Rep's scenic designer and he's produced a stunning set for "The Dead Boy", accurate down to the votive lamps and the rich scarlet interior. William Martin, active in more than 200 productions on and off Broadway, directed "The Dead Boy".


The Link
THOUGHT PROVOKING DRAMA AT NJ REP
Review by Madeline Schulman

Long Branch - Playgoers attending Joe Pintauro's "The Dead Boy" see a cross made out of red carpet pointing to the recumbent body of a young man. The cross is part of a clever set, including holy pictures on the theater walls, which transforms the small auditorium into a rectory and church. Burt Edwards, playing Father Angelo Rosetti (but dressed for the moment in lay clothes), steps out of character to tell the audience about the characters in the play and to reassure his listeners that the recumbent young man is not dead, just a fine actor.

What follows could be fresh out of any newspaper, magazine or website. Father Robert Sheridan (Anthony Newfield) has been accused by young hustler Will Draper (Cary Woodworth) of sexual misconduct, and reporter Tony McGuire (Ken Wiesinger) is pursuing the story, to the dismay of Father Rosetti and Cardinal Hamilton (Leonard Auclair). Much is ambiguous at first. It cannot be told when the men are lying to each other, or even to themselves. Doubt is thrown on Tony's motives in exposing Father Sheridan; both Willy and Sheridan accuse the divorced Tony of homosexual longings. Father Sheridan has done much good in the community. If the charges against him bring him down, what becomes of the shelter he has established for abused young runaways? A further mystery is the ghostly, idealistic young priest (also played by Mr. Woodworth) whom Father Sheridan sees - and could well be his alter ego.

Mr. Pintauro resolves many questions in the second act. The tragic, timely story is very well acted, especially by Newfield and Edwards. Newfield's Father Sheridan is the most complex character and carries the greatest psychic burden; and Ecwards deftly provides what comic relief there is. In one scene he tells his priestly brothers that he has rented two animal movies he is looking forward to viewing - "Free Willy" and "Reservoir Dogs".

"The Dead Boy" is recommended to all theater-goers as an engrossing, thought-provoking drama which entertains with sharp dialogue and stretches the mind with the issues raised of right and wrong, justice and injustice, guilt and innocence. Once more New Jersey Repertory has shown that difficult subject matter can be transformed into a fine evening of theatre.


DEAD BOY BRINGS LIFE TO SCANDAL

Tri-City News

Long Branch - It's impossible to watch the New Jersey Repertory Company's production of "The Dead Boy", which opened last week at the Long Branch theater, without divorcing thoughts of the Catholic priest pedophilia scandal all over the news these days.

"The Dead Boy" was written by Joe Pintauro and is a drama about a priest who runs a shelter for runaways and is accused of sexual impropriety. It echoes the real-life scandal that forced Father Bruce Ritter to abandon his position as head of Covenant House in New York City several years back. Indeed, the drama was penned some years ago, and even went through some refinements after a NJ Rep Script in Hand reading.

It's appearance on NJ Rep's main stage now is pure coincidence, but no surprise. That's because timely, thought-provoking (and mostly original) theater is this company's forte, and expert execution thereof it's strength.

And "The Dead Boy" is no exception.

It is a well-crafted, sturdy and engaging work that will make you think, feel and reflect. While it's subject matter may be all too timely, the drama, and love story are timeless. Whether it is a reflection of the writer's ability, or the fact that the play has been refined over time and by benefit of the aforementioned script in hand reading, "The Dead Boy" has a completed, polished feel that some of NJ Rep's previous presentation have lacked. (Though all have been exciting evening of theater.)

Helping to draw the audience into the action on stage and away from the headlines is the introduction by Burt Edwards who portrays the accused priest's mentor (and Cardinal's valet) in a jewel of a performance.

Once settled in, we quickly learn of the accusations, which may or may not be published in the media regarding Father Sheridan and his relationship with a teenage male hustler.

Ken Wiesinger portrays the former seminary student under Sheridan, now a reporter who will wrestle with his own memory and internal conflict, as well as a Cardinal, on the way to his decision as to whether or not to publish the allegations against the priest. Wiesinger starts off slow in the role, but grows magnificently throughout the performance.

Commanding from the moment he comes onstage is Leonard Auclair as the Cardinal. This complex character, deliciously performed, is by turns spiritual and pragmatic, but oddly reassuring (especially given the failures of his real life counterparts). He challenges the reporter to uncover the truth about Father Sheridan and about his own faith in no-nonsense terms.

The emotional heart of "The Dead Boy" belongs to Sheridan, and Anthony Newfield makes the most of this rich character. By turns seen throughout the play as a figure of hope or despair, this well drawn, by playwright and actor, portrayal of a priest in love and agony is one of the most three-dimensional portraits of such a character you'll see anywhere.

As his doppelganger and object of affection, Cary Woodworth brings a haunting, sometimes desperate presence to the roles of both the hustler and the dead boy of the title.

When all is said and done, and the audience is directed to leave the scene by Edwards, the headlines have faded from your memory - replaced by the substance of this enlightening drama.


No Art Imitates Life In “The Dead Boy”
By Kerri Danskin

SpacerThis week’s opening of New Jersey Repertory Company’s latest production, “The Dead Boy,” by Joe Pintauro, could hardly be more timely. The play centers on a scandal involving a high profile Catholic priest who is accused of engaging in sexual activity with a minor.

Spacer The topic has been all over the news since January, engaging people’s horror and curiosity and threatening the worldwide stability of the Catholic church.
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Martin said that he wants the audience to be able to, in some way, separate the play from the current situation in the Catholic church.

Spacer“The Dead Boy”, however, is not a play about a scandal, said director Bill Martin. “It’s a love story,” he said. “A love that, by our system, in this case the church, is not allowed to exist.” The producers began work on staging the play as far back as October of 2001.

Spacer“The Dead Boy” covers the story of the scandal from all possible angles, Martin said, not allowing the audience to find out the truth about the allegations until the very end.

SpacerAlong the way, the faith of each of the six characters is tested in some way, giving the audience a glimpse into each individual’s personal life.

SpacerDespite the fact that current events may mean a larger audience for a play with this subject matter, Martin said that the current situation is not entirely advantageous.

Spacer“We have to be careful that we are not following current events,” he said, noting that he and Pintauro have worked together in changing the script several times since the play was cast early this winter.

SpacerMartin said that he wants the audience to be able to, in some way, separate the play from the current situation in the Catholic church. He hopes that once people see the play, “they can see that human beings are involved,” in the actual allegations against the church, “and that truth must be looked at through the eyes of human existence.”

SpacerThe play also examines whether celibacy is truly possible. “Can a person be loveless, live a loveless life, without touch?” asked Martin.

SpacerAll of the characters in the play are connected, he said, by their connections to spirituality, which vary greatly.

SpacerThrough the character of a journalist, the play examines the power of the media in situations of a scandalous nature. The journalist in the play demonstrates that sometimes journalists are not motivated purely by the desire to report the truth, said Martin. “Media reporting of what is supposed to be the truth is shaded by personal experience,” Martin said.

SpacerThe power of the Catholic church is also touched upon in “The Dead Boy,” he said. “People want to know what really goes on in the confessional.” There is an interest or curiosity in most people that makes them want to know other people’s secrets, said Martin, especially the secrets of the clergy.

SpacerThe New Jersey Repertory Company will offer a preview of “The Dead Boy” this Thursday at 2 and 8 p.m., with an official opening on Friday night at 8. The play will be shown Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through June 9.

SpacerTickets cost $30. Discounts are available for students, seniors and groups. The May 2 matinee preview is specially priced at $20 per ticket.

SpacerPintauro also wrote “Raft of the Medusa”, a play that was produced by the NJ Repertory Company last year.

SpacerMartin has been directing for 30 years. His credits include “The Lieutenant,” a play that ran on Broadway in 1975 and received several Tony nominations. He also worked with Edward Albee on “Sea Scape.” He directed the play “Memoir” for the NJ Repetory Company in 2000.


Breathing life into 'Dead Boy'

Published in the Asbury Park Press 5/03/02
By TOM CHESEK
Correspondent

Timing can be a tricky thing, whenever the carefully crafted little universes of dramatic fiction butt up against the messy inconveniences of current events. For every bosom-swelling triumph such as Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" (credited by some with turning the tide against the paranoia paradise that was McCarthyite America) there seem to be twice as many cases of nervous execs putting the kibosh on even so innocuous an offender as the recent Tim Allen movie "Big Trouble," with its potentially upsetting terrorist shenanigans.
 

MICHAEL J. TREOLA photo

The Reporter (Ken Wiesinger) questions a young wheelchair-bound priest (Cary Woodworth) in "The Dead Boy," opening tonight at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

Credit the folks at New Jersey Repertory, then, with sticking to their plan, here in the midst of a 2002 season that's already seen the Long Branch-based professional company present a study of a real-life hate crime murder, a meditation upon assisted suicide and a dialogue on racism couched in terms of a hostage drama (none of them a likely candidate for feel-good romp of the year, despite their many distinct rays of light.) Just when you might have been expecting a bit more escapist fare, along comes Joe Pintauro's "The Dead Boy," a five (or six) character piece detailing the events that occur when a prominent, beloved priest stands accused of sexually molesting a teen-age boy.

Did somebody say "ripped screaming from today's headlines?" Before charging the producers with having slapped together an exploitative rush-job, however, theatergoers should know that this drama has appeared on the NJ Rep season schedule for some time; indeed, the play (a 1998 selection of the Eugene O'Neill Festival) has a rich history that goes back nearly a decade, and has showcased the talents of performers from Ian McKellen (in a London production) to Calista Flockhart (in a workshop presentation that predated the show's all-male casting). It's even been seen in Long Branch before, when NJ Rep presented it last October as one of the troupe's script in hand series of Monday evening readings.

That said, "The Dead Boy" on view now through June 2 at the Lumia Theatre on downtown Broadway in Long Branch is a somewhat different corpus than the work in progress seen by earlier audiences. In a textbook example of the NJ Rep modus operandi, a particularly enthusiastic question-and-answer session with the 2001 audience inspired a rethinking of certain facets of the dramatic focus; just as other stagings have facilitated further fine-tuning of the story's thrust. The gratifying message to all true believers in the give-and-take of the creative process is that this "Dead Boy" is very much a living, breathing entity.

According to director Bill Martin, the original version "suddenly seemed dated. . . the input from the question/answer sessions raised some valid questions, and the play is now not so much about pedophilia as the ways that authority figures are supposed to act, or how and why the press seizes upon these stories as they do."²

Described as "Gothic" in subject and in style by author Pintauro (whose "Raft of the Medusa" became one of the most successful productions in New Jersey Repertory history); "The Dead Boy" was originally inspired by the story of Covenant House founder Father Bruce Ritter and the maelstrom of press coverage that followed in its wake; the title derives from a Village Voice article on the homeless "dead boys" who became guests of the Manhattan shelter and counseling center. However, the play diverges from the facts of the Ritter case in order to focus not only upon the character of the charismatic and revered Father Sheridan (portrayed by Anthony Newfield, who previously starred in the NJ Rep production of "Best Kept Secret"), but also the dogged journalist Tony McGuire (acted by Ken Wiesinger, who directed "The Laramie Project" to great acclaim at the Lumia this past February).

Addressing the reporter's singular zeal in pursuing the besieged cleric's story, both the playwright and director hint that there's something of the personal vendetta behind the McGuire character's stated quest for the truth; something that stands to make for a compelling dramatic twist.

"The reporter's personal history is one of idealization turning to disillusionment; of anger turning to heartbreak," Pintauro notes, observing that as an ex-seminarian turned Buddhist, the character's motivations are often internalized to the point where much of what is shown to the audience is at the discretion of the actor.

Explaining that he wrote the play to "reveal the interior lives of all the people involved" in an intense situation that concerns "men who are forced to live with each other," the playwright admits to the use of an unorthodox but time-tested device to convey a crucial part of his story.

"Shakespeare of course used ghosts to reveal major plot points, to set characters off on their course of action and even start wars," Pintauro adds with a laugh. "So why can't I have a ghost walk out on stage?"

The ghost refers to the novel casting of Cary Woodworth as both accuser and accused, in that the actor appears not only as the young man who was allegedly accosted by the clergyman, but as the priest himself, in a flashback to his early seminary days. As an expression of what the director describes as Sheridan's being "torn between what he was and what he's become; with the boy reminding himself of his own lost faith and innocence," it affords the audience a perspective available neither to the reporter nor to Sheridan's Cardinal (Leonard Auclair) and mentor (Burt Edwards, repeating his role from the 2001 reading).


The play's the thing ... For teens to explore the tragedy of Sept. 11 through their words

Published in the Asbury Park Press 4/16/02
By PATTI MARTIN
WHATEVER WRITER

The events of Sept. 11 are never far from anyone's mind.

They are quickly recalled by a picture, a word, a sound.

For a group of area teens, the events of that day and the fallout since have provided a springboard to help themselves -- and the community -- heal.

"Tomorrow's Promise" is a student play-writing project developed by the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. The program is being funded by a $25,000 grant from the Morristown-based Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

"This was an opportunity to allow young people to explore the impact of Sept. 11," said the program's mentor playwright, Michael T. Folie. "Although they may talk about it, they have a lot to say."

The project began in late fall when the theater announced it was collecting writing samples from students around the state. After reading the samples, 20 young writers were invited to the theater to discuss their writing, world events and reasons for wanting to participate. From there, the project's interview committee selected the six playwrights: Daniel Adler, 17, Marlboro; Shennell Barnes, xx, Newark; Karen Berkowitz, 15, Little Silver; Tom Bruett, 17, Manasquan: Aileen Deng, 16, Marlboro, and Matthew Hirsch, 17, Marlboro.

"New Jersey has some very talented and articulate young playwrights," Folie said. "Their insight is remarkable and they have some very emotional stories to share.

Since Feb. 23, the group has been meeting for four hours each Saturday with project facilitator Aaron Vieira, director/actor Jim Donovan, Folie and actors Susan Kerner, Kittson O'Neill and Eric Walton at the theater.

What began as random thoughts just under two months ago, has been transformed into six 10-minute plays, each brought to life by the actors. Although there is still fine-tuning to be done, each of the plays offers a range of emotions -- sadness, despair, compassion, laughter, loss and ultimately, hope for the future.

"It's so much more than I expected," said Bruett, a junior at Manasquan High School. "I thought it would be just us learning a little how to write . . . but it's so much more than that. It's very professional."

While Tom wanted to use the events of Sept. 11 as a backdrop, he set his play, tentatively titled "One Step At A. . .," months after the tragedy and focused on a conversation between a brother and sister.

"I wanted people to think that more happened from Sept. 11 than just the things they thought," Bruett said. "There are emotions there, and it may be hard, but life still goes on. You can't just get caught up in things; you have to keep going."

For Adler, a junior at Marlboro High School, the program provided an outlet for expressing some of the helplessness he felt on Sept. 11.

"I was in school and heard about it early on," Adler recounted. "It was so horribly sad, seeing the images on television and watching students trying to contact their parents on cell phones and, most times, not being able to get through."

Building on those feelings, Adler has written "The Brothers," the story of siblings watching the events of Sept. 11 unfolding on television, knowing that their parents work at the World Trade Center.

The playwriting experience has been completely different from the English assignments he's used to, Adler pointed out.

"Dialogue is hard," he admitted.

And yet, his words are powerful, brought to life by the actors reading the roles.

"They're making me look good," Adler said of the actors. "In my head I hear them one way, but when the actors read them, it's a totally different experience. It's like, 'Wow, I wrote that.' "

A movie and writing buff, Hirsch thought the playwriting program would be a wonderful experience. It hasn't let him down.

"It's provided me with opportunities I probably wouldn't have had," the junior at Marlboro High School admitted. "And it's been very professional all the way. Everyone -- the actors, director, mentor playwright -- is so generous with their help."

Since the plays started to take shape, there have been critiquing sessions during some part of the day. For Hirsch, it's been an opportunity to hear professional views on what's not working -- and what is.

"The goal has always been to make the work better," he said, "and when you hear your words being spoken, you understand what works, what needs to be fixed and what needs to be edited out."

His play, "The Mistakes of Life," focuses on the facts that the heroes of 9-11 were only human -- that while one of his characters had problems, it didn't diminish what he did.

"Obviously it's nerve-racking, watching the actors bring your words to life," Hirsch said, "but each week it's a little less so. It's still a little uncomfortable and a little weird, but it's definitely something that has made me a better writer as well."

While Deng's play, "Two Steps To the Left" doesn't directly reference Sept. 11, it does touch on the emotion intrinsically tied to that day -- sadness, loss, anger and hope.

A sophomore at Marlboro High School, Deng said the events of 9-11 are imprinted on her mind.

"This country paid a terrible price," she said, "but we have to keep going."

Originally, the idea for her play featured a woman who found out her husband was blinded on Sept. 11. But through the writing and critiquing process, the focus changed.

"The feeling was that it was too tragic," Deng admitted. "So we reworked it . . . and it's definitely better."

Although the husband is still blind, the scene is now set in a hotel room as the couple prepares to attend a friend's wedding. No mention is made of the events of Sept. 11.

And while there is that wide range of emotions, the play ends on a hopeful note -- a promise of tomorrow.

"I think we all need to feel hopeful," Deng said, "but it's that hope that keeps us going."


STAR-LEDGER -- "HOT"

New Play

Jack Blake was a senior executive vice president - until he made that racist remark about blacks. As a result, he's about to "become retired", which, as his speechwriter Janice Churchill reminds him, means that "You'll be nothing." Her remark may sound severe, but Janice is black and is long sick of the way the world victimizes her race. That's how Mike Folie's "Slave Shack" begins, but there'll be many an adventure before it concludes. The new play at New Jersey Repertory Company stars John Lombardi as the veep who supervised 37,000 people in 52 countries, but now has trouble managing himself--before he turns out to be more racist than he might have believed. Tammi Clayton portrays Janice with the ice and ire of one who's endured the brunt of white men victimizing her - though no one has done anything as harrowing as what Jack plans now. As the pompous executive who's to take Jack's place, Kurt Elftmann has a yellow tie to match the yellow streak that runs down his back. There's a startling conclusion, too, in Stewart Fisher's taut production.


When humanity meets the bottom line

Published in the Asbury Park Press 4/10/02
By MARLENE CANTY
CORRESPONDENT

"American Indians wouldn't have been slaves, they'd have killed themselves first or waited until they were asleep and slit their slavemasters' throats," says Jack Blake, a Caucasian corporate executive, to Janice Churchill, his African-American speech writer as she sits shackled to a couch in "Slave Shack."


SLAVE SHACK
The play by Michael T. Folie is at the the New Jersey Repertory Company's Lumia Theatre, 179 Broadway, Long Branch
PERFORMANCES: 8 p.m. Thursdays, Friday and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays through April 21
TICKETS: $30 with discounts available
INFORMATION: (732) 229-3166


Dubbed a "hostage drama," Michael T. Folie's world-premiere, two-act play at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch tells the story of a corporate executive being forced to resign from the company he built in the wake of a racial scandal and his plans to take revenge on those around him.

Blake, forcefully played by John Lombardi, is a kind of corporate Willie Loman who has built his career and his empire on greed, ruthlessness and self-interest, only to be supplanted in the end by his most avid disciples.

The play takes place in Blake's corporate office, where set designer Julia Hahn's Sahara/African motifs lend a sense of agelessness to the room.

Though it turns out the racial scandal is bogus, this doesn't suggest that Blake is any less a bigot.

Blake has a particular fondness for denigrating black people, especially in the presence of Churchill, the speech writer hired to help tie up the loose ends of his frazzled career in a farewell speech.


BRIAN FERRERIA photo

John Lombardi and Tammi Clayton portray a corporate executive and speech writer embroiled in a racial conflict in "Slave Shack" at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.
Blake fears and despises Churchill, perhaps because as a person of African descent and the descendant of slaves, she represents all the humanity he has stolen and starved to achieve his corporate goals. "You writing my farewell speech," Blake sneers. "That's the ultimate insult."

Suspecting that Churchill (effectively played by Tammi Clayton) has played some role in creating the bogus scandal, Blake plans to force her confession and take his revenge. But Blake is a man at odds with himself. He keeps a pistol in his desk drawer and suffers from the kind of paranoia that thrives in cutthroat climates.

He languishes in rage and self-pity, unable to cope with the shortcomings of a life dedicated solely to the pursuit of power and money to the exclusion of his own humanity. He entertains thoughts of violence and suicide until, in a desperate moment, he suddenly lashes out. The situation deteriorates into a kidnapping.

At gunpoint, Blake handcuffs the young black woman to his couch, creating a scene chillingly reminiscent of slavery. Once he succeeds in making her his prisoner, he ironically lets down his guard, confiding the tragic details of his empty life.

But Churchill, a young single mother, makes it clear that while suicide might seem like a viable option to Blake, she has everything to live for. Unlike her abductor, Churchill has a love in her life, and she has made it her priority. As Churchill sits shackled in terror, Blake kneels at her side grasping at reality.

"Just let me touch your hair," Blake beseeches his prisoner as he tries desperately to recapture the one moment in his life when he allowed himself to be human: It was in Africa with a 12-year-old prostitute, a slave given to him as a gift for one night.

Lombardi is a multilayered Jack Blake, bringing caged fury to a character teetering on the brink in an impressive performance that provides the impetus for this production. Clayton is a deceptively self-contained powerhouse as the put-upon speech writer.

Kurt Elftmann, as Warren Barrington, Blake's successor and the man who engineers his early retirement, provides an amusing blend of jocular venom as the proverbial Brutus.

At times riveting, the play as directed by Stewart Fisher might have been more effective without the physical intrusion of a third character and with a bit more development of the two principals. (This notwithstanding the spirited cameo at play's end by newcomer Ashley Sharee McMahon, 10, of Long Branch as Jasmine Churchill, Janice's daughter.)

"Slave Shack" is a play about choices and their consequences. It suggests that power is a relative and fleeting thing not nearly so permanent or perpetual as love.


'Fabulous shades of gray': Long Branch troupe stages world-premiere racial drama

Published in the Asbury Park Press 4/05/02
By TOM CHESEK
Correspondent

The Long Branch-based New Jersey Repertory Company has more or less made it a mission to shake up the sensibilities of audiences raised on nostalgia-soaked musical revivals, one-liner sit-coms and meshuggenah weddings. Tonight, the troupe puts the sneeze back into the seasonal bloom of spring theater with the opening of a new drama that might even serve to challenge the expectations of NJ Rep's own famously supportive core audience.

SLAVE SHACK
By Michael T. Folie
New Jersey Repertory Company Lumia Theatre, 179 Broadway, Long Branch
Opens at 8 p.m. Friday; performances through April 21
$30
(732) 229-3166


Known primarily as a nimble craftsman of fast-paced laughs, former Middletown resident Michael T. Folie returns to the Lumia Theatre on downtown Broadway for the world premiere of "Slave Shack," the third of his works to be produced by NJ Rep. Theatergoers who laughed along with the well-received Folie comedies "An Unhappy Woman" and "Naked by the River" may be thrown for a loop this time around, as the nationally produced playwright takes a detour onto considerably rougher terrain. As staged by the company's associate artistic director Stewart Fisher, "Slave Shack" is a confrontational character piece charged with racial tensions; a story that plays out as a hostage drama in real time, even as it plays with the audience's notions of exactly where the power dynamic lies in this situation.

In the person of John Lombardi (previously seen in NJ Rep's "Harry and Thelma"), corporate executive Jack Blake is the kind of business superstar who regularly graces magazine covers; a self-made sort who has almost single-handedly built the international division of one of the world's largest companies. Now, however, this old-school titan of industry sees himself in the uncharacteristic role of victim. Eclipsed professionally by a slick rising star (Kurt Elftmann) and under pressure to tender his resignation in the wake of a racially tinged scandal, the hard-bitten Blake reaches his meltdown point when he encounters the speech writer who has been commissioned to craft his farewell address -- an African-American woman, portrayed by Tammi Clayton in her first fully staged NJ Rep production.

Neither based upon nor inspired by any real-life circumstances, "Slave Shack" draws much of its energy from the author's own experiences as a veteran speech writer -- a background that was put to effective use when it came time to evoke the rarefied, glass-tower milieu of the play's central character.

"I know that world, I know the way these people talk to each other," Folie says of Blake's Fortune-500 environment. "It got me thinking about what could happen in that situation, where one person seemingly holds all the power, while feeling powerless at the same time.

"When people are pushed to extremes, they say what they need to survive," the playwright continues. "The characters are forced to deal with each other, since they can't just walk away and leave."


BRIAN FERREIRA photo

Tammi Clayton and John Lombardi rehearse a scene from "Slave Shack," opening tonight at the New Jersey Repertory's Lumia Theatre in Long Branch.
According to director Fisher, one of the play's primary strengths lies in its refusal to paint things in stark, black-and-white terms -- even in the context of presenting what appears at first to be a black-and-white story.

"The speech writer comes in with her own fair share of baggage, and (Tammi Clayton) brings a certain ferocity to the character," says Fisher, who previously helmed "Naked by the River" at the Lumia. "She's someone who doesn't put up with a lot of crap, and by the end, she's becoming as pragmatic as Jack."

Hinting that the plot of "Slave Shack' evolves into something of a complete role reversal, Fisher notes that "very rarely is anything black and white in this world . . . it's all a lot of fabulous, highly murky shades of gray."

In addition to the three major cast members, "Slave Shack" serves up a fresh new face to NJ Rep audiences: 10-year old Ashley Sharee McMahon of Long Branch in a small but pivotal role. This is the first live theater experience for Ashley, a fourth grader at West End Elementary School who answered an open casting call for the part. While she admits to a certain amount of nervousness over her impending stage debut, her director praises his young charge as a "frighteningly honest" performer who "introduces a dynamic of innocence and purity" into the tense proceedings.

Whatever the tension level, however, Folie (whose comedy "Panama" is scheduled to be produced this June at the Lumia) insists his drama is not without its flashes of the patented Folie wit.

"I never know what (my plays) are going to be at first," says the playwright in reference to his creative process. "I have a sign up over my desk that says 'JUST WRITE THE PLAY' . . . and I guess that I just can't not write funny lines sometimes."

Featuring a set design by Julia Hahn, costumes by Patricia E. Doherty and lighting and sound design by Michael Reese and Merek Royce Press, respectively, "Slave Shack" opens at 8 tonight, with additional performances at 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through April 21. Tickets, priced at $30 with discounts available to seniors, students and groups, are available from the box office by calling (732) 229-3166.

  • GOTTA WORK THE ROOM: You'd think a night at the theater would be the perfect forum for busy professionals to meet, greet and just "network" -- but when you factor in less-than-timely arrivals, seating arrangements and the fact that swapping business cards is generally frowned upon during heavy death scenes and such, it's a connection that is often as not unconsummated. Now the people at New Jersey Repertory Company, working in cahoots with the neighboring Off Broadway Cocktail Lounge, have initiated a series of pre-show networking events presented in conjunction with the Thursday sneak preview performances of their next several productions. The pre-show format "eliminates the need to contrive those dreaded ice-breaking conversations," according to the theater's publicity, with networking participants treated to 30 minutes of refreshments and relaxed conversation, a chance to win two free theater tickets and the opportunity to bring their thawed talk to the aforementioned Fourth Avenue jazz and blues club, where NJ Rep patrons are admitted free of charge. Future networking parties are scheduled for May 2, June 20, Aug. 8, Sept. 26 and Nov 14; all at 7:30 p.m. The price for pre-show event and sneak preview show is just $20 (that's $10 less than normal ticket price), and interested professionals are urged to reserve by calling (732) 229-3166, as space is limited side.

From One Couple On The Regional Theater Stage
A New Play Premieres at New Jersey Repertory

Ho hum; another play about a debilitating, incurable disease and the toll it takes on the sufferer and those around him. Shades of Wit. Well, not ho hum. Mark McNease’s Till Morning Comes, world-premiering at New Jersey Repertory Company, might not match Wit’s Pulitzer, but it is a literate, uplifting and altogether satisfying play. It is a love story about a couple with a traditional past (high school sweethearts), simple pleasures (square dancing and blender milk shakes) and no future.
 
Al Mohrmann and Marnie Andrews play the married couple coping with the ravages of ALS in ÒTill Morning ComesÓ at New Jersey Repertory Company.
Al Mohrmann and Marnie Andrews play the
married couple coping with the ravages of
ALS in “Till Morning Comes” at
New Jersey Repertory Company.
 
 

There are only two actors on stage, but a third presence is felt throughout the tightly written, intermissionless 80-minute play. The scourge of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, is very much a part of Fred and Evelyn’s “family,” a fact made more poignant because the thirty-year married couple have no children. ALS is an incurable disease of unknown cause leading to eventual complete paralysis of the voluntary muscles. Lou Gehrig, The Iron Horse, died from it in 1941 at age 38. In Till Morning Comes, Fred is in its advanced stages. Wheelchair bound, he is virtually lifeless from the neck down.

So what keeps this play from becoming a total downer? For one, Fred and Evelyn have already come to grips with his affliction; we don’t go through discovery with them. And although Fred’s paralysis is obvious from the start, the two banter about other matters in a routine, even humorous fashion before there’s any reference to ALS. Even then they’re offhand about it. Evelyn is casual about moving Fred’s chair around the room, and she’s distracted while serving him a shake. (Can the careless feeding of an invalid be funny and tasteful? Believe it, yes.)

For another, their loving relationship and common values are made warmly apparent in many ways. Take the costuming. She’s in a full, ruffled, country-western dress and he’s wearing a neatly buttoned western shirt and string tie. Both sport western boots, and Fred’s hair is neatly combed. It’s evident, although never mentioned, that she would have had to dress and groom him so carefully; and in a detail of infinite eloquence, the decorative patches on Fred’s shirt are made from the same homespun material as Evelyn’s dress. (Two costumes total, but perfection by designer Patricia E. Doherty.)

Then there’s the acting. Al and Marnie play Fred and Evelyn, and Al Mohrmann and Marnie Andrews couldn’t be better. Directed with insight and attention to detail by SuzAnne Barabas, the two are as harmonious a pair as the couple they portray. In their playing, Fred’s incapacity and Evelyn’s unselfish compassion and her eagerness to keep his helplessness from driving them both to despair are never in doubt. Mr. McNease has written a broad range of emotions into the short play, and both actors surround every one.

Mr. Mohrmann’s physical control is remarkable. Using only his face and his voice, he leaves no doubt about the proud ex-postman’s once sturdy posture. By contrast, Evelyn is hyper, and Ms. Andrews is marvelous. She moves about the homey set (a triumph of design by Jeremy C. Doucette) with nervous energy to spare, and she chatters compulsively because “it’s better than the silence that’s waiting for me”. Idly touching Fred’s shoulder, caressing his inert hands, pushing his glasses back up the bridge of his nose, it’s clear that Evelyn cares deeply for her mate - and that she longs for the now-impossible intimacy they once shared.

Till Morning Comes is more than a character study. There’s a story here that unfolds as naturally as can be and reaches a distinct conclusion. Depending on one’s attitudes toward death and dying, the ending of the couple’s story is either satisfying or shattering. Either way, Fred and Evelyn’s may not be the perfect marriage; but, ALS discounted, maybe it is.

“Till Morning Comes” at New Jersey Repertory’s Lumia Theatre, 179 Broadway, Long Branch through March 17. Performances Thursday - Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday 3 p.m. Ticket reservations ($30): 732-229-3166.


Imitation of life

Published in the Asbury Park Press 2/22/02
By GRETCHEN C. VAN BENTHUYSEN
Theater Writer

"Till Morning Comes," a play opening this weekend at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, was sparked by the death of Mark A. McNease's mother just three months after his parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.


TILL MORNING COMES
New Jersey Repertory Company
179 Broadway, Long Branch
8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays through March 24
$30
(732) 229-3166


"I wanted to capture their relationship, the commitment two people in love have for each another," he said from his office in Manhattan. "Theirs was a 50-year love affair."

To tell their story, McNease crafted a two-character drama about a couple married for 30 years who suddenly have to face a serious illness. The result, "Till Morning Comes," is McNease's sixth play to be produced and his first on the East Coast.

In his play, McNease decided to drop the couple's age to their 60s and focus on their last 90 minutes together. The husband has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly named Lou Gehrig's disease after the baseball legend who abruptly retired in 1939 after being diagnosed with it.

In "Till Morning Comes" the husband, with only a few years to live, asks his wife to help him die with dignity. That helped McNease to provide a structure and dramatic framework that operates in real time.

McNease said he also suffered a personal loss when his partner of eight years died in 1991.

"That certainly gave me an understanding of the depth of love two people being together have," he said.


THOMAS P. COSTELLO photo

H. Morhmann, North Plainfield, and Marnie Andrews, Jersey City, portray a longtime married couple who must face up to serious illness in Mark A. McNease's "Till Morning Comes" at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.
Despite the theme of the play, McNease does not necessarily condone assisted suicide.

"For them, their decision is made out of love and is right for them," he noted. "I know people are against it, but I'm writing about two specific people and what happens when the person you love completely wants you to help them die."

Unlike many writers of plays, McNease, 43, is not interested in becoming a full-time playwright.

He is not new to writing. He started around age 12, devoting himself to poetry for 10 years. At age 22 he began writing short stories that he sold to various magazines. He didn't turn his attention to the stage until 1987.

"All my writing (poetry and short stories) had a spoken quality to it and I've been told I have a good ear for dialogue," he said. "After a number of short stories I realize my language should be coming out of a character's mouth.

"I wrote more for the ear than the eye, so I took a workshop in play writing," he added.

Now he looks at his writing as a hobby, not a career. It wasn't always that way.

Last season he earned a regional Emmy Award for writing and producing a Wisconsin TV program for children. He also spent five years with the Children's Television Workshop's "Sesame Street," helping to launch the show in places such as Poland, China, South Africa, Egypt, Mexico, Canada, Spain, Germany and, most notably, he said, in Israel and Palestine as a co-production.

For the past six months, McNease has worked at Reuters news agency as assistant to the executive vice president who oversees markets in the United States, Canada and Latin America.

McNease said he "loves" his non-writing job.

"I discovered I don't like writing to make a living," he explained. "I write because I have a story to tell . . . without having the pressure of writing to support myself . . . and if I get a few hundred dollars for it, great."

from the Asbury Park Press

Published on February 22, 2002


Lessons from Laramie

Published in the Asbury Park Press 1/18/02
By GRETCHEN C. VAN BENTHUYSEN
Theater Writer

Ken Wiesinger believes "The Laramie Project," a play he's directing about the 1998 murder of gay student Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyo., is the contemporary version of Thornton Wilder's 1938 Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Our Town."


THE LARAMIE PROJECT
By the New Jersey Repertory Company
179 Broadway, Long Branch
Opens at 8 p.m. Friday; continues at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays amd 2 p.m. Sundays through Feb. 10
$30
(732) 229-3166


In "Our Town," a narrator introduces the audience to the various residents of Grover's Corners, N.H., in May 1901. The stage is nearly empty, except for a few chairs, and as the three-act play progresses, the audience learns a lot about average New Englanders in an average American town -- what they think, how they behave, who lives and who dies.

For "The Laramie Project," now receiving its state premiere at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, Moises Kaufman and members of his Tectonic Theater Project spent more than 18 months and took six trips to Laramie to conduct more than 200 interviews with its residents.

They talked about the murder of a 21-year-old University of Wyoming student who was severely beaten after meeting and leaving the Fireside Lounge with Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson on Oct. 7, 1998. Shepard's unrecognizable body was found the next day tied to a fence in the prairie outside Laramie. It took him several days to die in the hospital.

What they heard was turned into a docudrama with eight actors in multiple roles portraying residents. There are minimal props. A few chairs. Glasses, a scarf or a coat, plus body language and vocabularly signify a change in character. Like narrators, the characters mostly speak directly to the audience.

"In part, both of these plays are about the people in these towns and how they deal with the effects of a great tragedy," Wiesinger said. In "Our Town," it was the death of Emily, a young bride who died in childbirth.


From left: Lea Eckert of New York and Duane Noch of Middletown rehearse a scene from "The Laramie Project," opening today at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.
Shepard is not a character in the play, but he is described and remembered from different angles by friends, teachers and acquaintances, including a bartender (one of the last people to see Shepard alive), a lesbian university professor, a Muslim woman, a grandmother of one of Shepard's killers, Shepard's father -- who talks about how much he will miss his son -- and a hospital spokesman who breaks down when he announces Shepard died.

The local production of "Laramie" took on more resonance after Sept. 11, Wiesinger said, because "candlelight vigils, people coming together and bonding together, talk of revenge, hatred and disbelief that these things could happen in our town, our state and our country" were the same things that happened following Shepard's murder.

"The parallels are eerie," Wiesinger said. "Do we hate the (terrorists) who did this, and what can we learn about ourselves and about what made them do this?

"This brings us back to the play," he continued. "What made these two kids kill this other kid and how do we respond to how it happened."

Shepard's murder became a rallying point for supporters of hate crimes legislation nationwide.

"We're really trying to tell the story efficiently," Wiesinger explained. "We start with the stage full or props and costumes, a table and eight chairs.

"By the end of the play everything is gone . . . but the people," he said. "All artifice has been stripped away and we are left with the words of the people."

And those words often are funny.

"When people examine themselves humor often comes out of that in the most unexpected places," Wiesinger said. "There is so much humor in the beginning of play . . . it reels you in slowly."

It isn't until the end of Act I that the play pulls the rug out from underneath the audience. That is when Shepard's body is discovered by Reggie Fluty, who says:

"He was covered in, like I said, partially dry blood and . . . the only place that he did not have any blood on him, on his face, was what appeared to be where he had been crying."

EDITOR'S NOTE: Following the Feb. 7 performance, the gay community is invited to attend a discussion and reception with Cathy Renna of GLADD, Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, on "Lessons From Laramie."


Anatomy of a hate crime: Theater troupe portrays community's response to murder of a gay student in its midst

01/23/02

BY PETER FILICHIA
STAR-LEDGER STAFF

Long Branch, N.J., is scrutinizing Laramie, Wyo. -- and the result is a powerful evening in the theater.

New Jersey Repertory Company is presenting "The Laramie Project," a stage piece named for the Wyoming city where three years ago Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay student, was beaten and left for dead by two tough townies.

Five days later, Shepard died. The incident not only made the international news, but prompted Moises Kaufman and his Tectonic Theatre Company to travel to Laramie and interview the townspeople in an attempt to discover why this hate crime happened. They then distilled the interviews into a three-act, 21/2-hour theater piece. Eight actors would portray six dozen people, from the interviewers themselves to the citizens of Laramie, whose real names are used.

So theatergoers meet Reggie Fluty, the female police officer who found Shepard hanging on a fence, took him down, and later discovered that his blood was HIV-positive. Actress Kendal Ridgeway uses her strong face effectively in showing increasing horror as she learns that doing her job may have led to an AIDS infection.

There's Harry Woods, a 52-year-old homosexual from Laramie, whose broken leg keeps him from attending the memorial parade for Shepard, held on the same day as the homecoming game for the University of Wyoming. David Volin is heart-wrenching as he notes with pride that more people showed up for a gay kid than for the Cowboys football team.

Among the 11 characters played vividly by Lea Eckert is Romaine Patterson, a friend of Shepard who decides that she and her friends will don angel costumes and encircle a man with a "God hates fags" T-shirt -- "to completely block him." Of Susan Kerner's nine portrayals, the most effective is Zubaida Ula, a Muslim who has met with discrimination of another sort in the wilds of Laramie.

One of the most fascinating disclosures comes from Jedadiah Schultz, a University of Wyoming drama student (played with the right undergraduate eagerness by Alberto Bonilla). The lad mentions that his parents refused to watch him play a homosexual in "Angels in America," but they had no problem with his depicting the murderous Macbeth. "Why?" he asks, his face revealing utter bewilderment.


FROM LARAMIE TO LONG BRANCH
Matthew Shepard's story told onstage at NJ Repertory
Review
by Gretchen C. Van Benthuysen
Asbury Park Press 1/23/02

"The Laramie Project" is making a powerful New Jersey debut at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch through Feb 10.

Eight skilled actors portray more than 80 people, most of them residents of Laramie, Wyo., with some connection to Matthew Shepard, the 21-year-old Wyoming University student beaten in 1998 and left to die on a prairie fence because he was gay.

As stage under Ken Wiesinger's steady direction in the Rep's 52-seat Dwek Studio, the audience immediately is drawn into the story as related to Moises Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project in multiple interviews over 18 months.

The actors often speak directly to the audience, making themselves impossible to ignore - but then, who would want to ignore such a talented cast? Although the audience knows the ending, as the 2 1/2 hour play unfolds it contains a certain amount of suspense and mystery. It is also loaded with moments of humor and pathos.

Actors briefly introduce characters to eliminate confusion and to keep the momentum rolling. The characters include a lesbian university teacher who, at the job interview, was asked what her husband did for a living, and a high-school student whose parents attended every show he was in but refused to see his university auditions for the Pulitzer Prize-winning, gay-themed play, "Angels in America".

The bartender at the Fireside Lounge remembers Shepard as a polite, clean-cut, intelligent and well-mannered man who tipped well. He remembers Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson - the pair who lured Shepard to his death by offering to give him a ride home - as low-life scum.

In the second act, the police-woman who tried to resuscitate Shepard finds out he was HIV positive and begins taking drugs to combat the disease. Yet, she said, she doesn't know if she would have done anything differently if she'd known in advance.

The actors - Dana Benningfield, Alberto Bonilla, Lea Eckert, Susan Kerner, Duane Noch, Kendal Ridgeway, David Volin and Eric Walton - give superior performances as they slip in and out of various characters with the use of a coat, glasses, head scarf, accents and body language.

Julia Hahn's set design, Rose Riccardi's lights and Melody Stone's costumes nicely support this excellent production.


Diverse Entertainment At Area Theaters

by Philip Dorian, Two River Times

Quoting from New Jersey Repertory Company’s press release for The Laramie Project:

“In October 1998, a 21-year old student at the University of Wyoming was severely beaten and left to die, tied to a fence in the middle of the prairie outside Laramie. His bloody, bruised and battered body was not discovered until the next day, and he died several days later in an area hospital. His name was Matthew Shepard, and he was the victim of this assault because he was gay.”

The Laramie Project isn’t just about the horrific murder. Written from an extensive series of interviews, the play is about the town of Laramie, its citizens, and their attitudes toward the incident. On a larger scale, the play is about any one of us, about our feelings regarding violence, sexual orientation and the sanctity of life itself. If that sounds grandiose, so be it. When the play is as well performed as it is at NJ Rep, it’s not grandiose at all, just grand.

A month after the killing, playwright Moises Kaufman and members of his acting company traveled to Laramie. After six visits, they compiled a word-collage from portions of 200 + interviews. Every segment of Laramie is represented: Police officers, clergy, politicians, gay and lesbian activists, University students, professors and administrators. There’s a tavern owner, a bartender, the physician who treated Matthew and the hordes of media who descended on the town, bringing the term “hate crime” into international focus.

Eight actors play all the roles. The original off-Broadway production, two years ago, featured playwright Kaufman and his associates as themselves and their subjects. While the technique and the character revelations were gripping, there were flaws that left me less than enthusiastic. The play itself is overwritten in its middle section, and the cast, the actual writers, were unduly full of themselves. The former problem remains; but the latter, a smug cast Attitude, is nowhere to be found in Long Branch.

On the contrary, the NJ Rep actors project a sincere humility. They enhance the work and deepen it by shedding all artifice and by just being these Wyoming folk. Theirs is the essence of internalized acting, without a trace of affectation. Remarkably, they flesh out even the peripheral characters. One identifies with everyone depicted. And while the heart overflows with grief for Matthew Shepard and his family, there’s anguish enough to go around, extending even to the two young men eventually convicted of the murder. Too, there are touches of humor, evolving naturally out of the characters. (When asked her reaction to her negative HIV test, the first-on-scene police officer reports that the first thing she did was French kiss her husband.)

Sensitively directed by Ken Wiesinger, and performed on a nearly bare stage (a row of straight chairs is resourcefully deployed), the eight actors are Dana Benningfield, Alberto Bonilla, Lea Eckert, Susan Kerner, Duane Noch, Kendal Ridgeway, David Volin and Eric Walton. (I am grateful for alphabetical order.)

As for the problems with the play itself, suffice to say it’s got some redundancies and some passages that slow the pace. Its three acts should be and could be pruned and condensed into two. As it plays now in Long Branch, it’s significantly shorter than it was off-Broadway. Or so, to NJ Rep’s credit, it seems.


Review: 'The Laramie Project'

This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the January 30, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper.

The outstanding documentary drama, "The Laramie Project," is getting a first-rate, in-your-face production by the New Jersey Repertory Theater. The play -- a series of dramatic interviews that arose from the horrifying events surrounding the fatal 1998 beating of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student, in Laramie, Wyoming -- is recreated by eight excellent actors, each of whom bring a realistic resonance and stirring emotional truth to the compelling text.

"The Laramie Project" imparts no subjective ideology or opinions. What it does do, with confidence and theatrical expertise, is configure the opinions and attitudes of a cross-section of ordinary people, citizens of Laramie, population 26,687, into a riveting and enlightening event.

The young man on a bicycle who discovers Shepard's brutalized body; the sheriff's deputy who arrives on the scene and inadvertently comes in contact the still-breathing, blood-soaked, H.I.V.-infected victim who had been tied to a fence; a lesbian waitress; the bartender who was the last person to see Shepard; and a gay university professor, are just some of the people whose statements and responses to the tragedy define a town and its ethos. Even the positions of the anti-gay preacher and protester, and a more conciliatory Roman Catholic priest, are represented without reproach. Neither Shepard, or the theater student whose parents could not bring themselves to see his performance in "Angels in America," nor his killers, Russell A. Henderson and Aaron J. McKinney (whose grandmother has her say here) are the main focus. But, they remain foremost as symbols in this exploration into the nature and nurturing of hate.

Members of Moises Kaufman's Tectonic Theater Company (the acting company that brought such powerful journalistic flair to "Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde") traveled to Laramie on six different occasions to interview over 200 people, the 60 of whom made it into the text. These are now being played by eight fine actors, members of the New Jersey Repertory Company.

It is hard to draw a line to separate the excellence of the performances from the arresting nature of the text. What matters is that none of the actors betray or condescend to the diverse and idiosyncratic natures of their subjects. This is one of the play's, as well as this production's, distinction, under the direction of Ken Wiesinger.

In the light of the original visits, in the midst of what had become a media frenzy, Tectonic Theater members were able to extract from the guardedly open interviewees what life was, is, and will possibly never be the same again in this corner of America. The present company -- Dana Benningfield, Alberto Bonilla, Lea Eckert, Susan Kerner, Duane Noch, Kendal Ridgeway, David Volin, and Eric Walton -- although not a part of the writing assignment, commands equal awe and admiration for their portrayals.

Designer Julia Hahn's somber setting, with only a row of wooden chairs, a few hooks for coats, makes a statement appropriately in tone with the openness and directness of the project wherein the actors, often performing multiple roles, are either seated or standing.

After an exposition in which the actors explain their mission and intent, the story unfolds without pretension but with journalistic persistence. We can deduce how the values of old-fashioned homogenous simplicity in this once prime pasture and prairie town has been unsettled by an encroaching world of arts and letters, have and have-nots, outsiders and strangers. Considering that the company has not attempted to embellish or distort the words of the actual people involved, there is a consistent honesty to the text. This honesty, which is occasionally flecked with heart-breaking emotional content, allows us to see the people of Laramie in the light of their own perceptions about normalcy and decency. There is even splashes of humor woven into the interviewees' instinctive distrust of the Project, something not lost by either the original writers or the actors at NJ Rep. If you have not ventured down to see the work of this adventurous four year-old professional company, this is a good time to start.

-- Simon Saltzman