Current Season Past Shows In The News Company Staff Support Links Contact Us
Home
2010
2009
2008
2007
2006
2005
2004
2003
2002
2000-2001
1999-2000
       


 2003 Season Articles, Features and Reviews
(most recent first)
 

 

 

 

 


The Good Daughter

 
By ROBERT L. DANIELS, Variety
Deborah Baum, David Foubert
Deborah Baum plays a Missouri farm girl and David Foubert is a poetic shopkeeper in 'The Good Daughter' at New Jersey Repertory Co.
 
The New Jersey Repertory Co., located in Long Branch on the Jersey shore, is an adventurous year-round company dedicated to the discovery of new playwrights and the presentation of new plays. Its latest, D.W. Gregory's affecting family drama "The Good Daughter," boasts a flavorful, cinematic sweep. It's a sprawling tale of small-town family conflict centering on a prodigal daughter who inadvertently brings despair upon her return home.

Gregory is also the author of the compelling "Radium Girls" (under the name Dolores Whiskeyman), produced by Playwrights Co. of New Jersey three years ago. The playwright is comfortably nestled in William Inge country, where "a well is a hole in the ground" and a young girl nurtures a restless desire to get on a barge and float down river -- not unlike Madge Owens of "Picnic." Gregory even gives her farm family the name of Owen.

Her writing has a naturalistic style and a homey flavor similar to Inge's. Director Jason King Jones has captured the dusty rural climate of northwest Missouri in the days before and after World War I. His deft staging captures Midwestern mood, manners and movements, despite a well-executed but melodramatic finale, when the drama literally opens its floodgates.

Cassie, played by Deborah Baum, is the play's pivotal character, a saucy flirt with a far-away look in her eyes. She pursues big-city glamour only to find despair in an abusive affair with a factory worker. Back on the farm, old wounds are opened on the homestead.

Rachel, acted with whiny vigor by Lee Eckert, is the giggly younger sister, soon disillusioned in a loveless marriage that prompts a harrowing second-act moment. Esther, (Christine Bruno), the mule-headed eldest sister crippled by polio in her youth, is feisty, honest and insightfully wise. Not willing to accept the proposal of Cassie's former beau on the rebound, she rallies with a gallant, independent thrust. Bruno is wonderful.

Davis Hall is the rheumatic, Bible-quoting family patriarch, a widower who works his 150 acres with a team of mules and rejects such modern conveniences as the tractor (he calls it "a mechanical horse"). This may well be the finest perf from Hall, a reliable actor in Jersey productions for the past two decades.

Brian O'Halloran is perfect as the colorless, good-natured gentleman caller, and David Foubert gives a sturdy account of the handsome, poetic storekeeper who struggles for the construction of levees to hold back the flood-works of the mighty Missouri River.

Plaintive musical strains accent scene changes, and period costumes have an old-world-daguerreotype dowdiness that's just right. Fred Kinney's functional set is an immaculate country barn, furnished with accessible stools, ladders and buckets, with a view of golden cornfields. The occasional placement of a dining table or a counter transforms the playing area into the farmhouse or country store. Cunning lighting and sound design bring forth a torrential storm, accompanied by thunder and lightning, that Lear might envy.


 Theater review: 'The Good Daughter' is as good as it gets
Published in the Asbury Park Press 10/16/03

By TOM CHESEK
CORRESPONDENT

It begins with a literal bang -- a thunderclap that gives voice to a temperamental river as it shakes off its man-made shackles and bears down upon a modest Missouri farm.

While friends and family members try desperately to persuade an old man to flee the oncoming floodwaters, the pent-up fury of a long-overdue maelstrom is conjured in a riveting mix of light and sound.


THE GOOD DAUGHTER
Presented by the New Jersey Repertory Company
179 Broadway, Long Branch
Through Nov. 16
$30
(732) 229-3166


Like some downstream eddy, "The Good Daughter" draws you in within seconds -- and by the time the action arrives full circle back at the prologue's tense starting point, the audience has been caught up in some pretty strong emotional currents, courtesy of a production whose technical mastery and epic approach stand it among the best things ever offered up by Monmouth County's acclaimed New Jersey Repertory Company.

Currently in its world-premiere engagement at NJ Rep's Lumia Theatre in Long Branch -- and set in the years surrounding America's involvement in World War I -- D.W. Gregory's drama has at its heart a saga of a stern, Scripture-spouting widower and his attempts at ensuring the family's future by marrying off his daughters as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Farmer Ned Owen (Davis Hall) sees his best hope in the verbally arranged betrothal of middle daughter Cassie (Deborah Baum) to an earnest and hard-working man of the soil by the name of Rudy Bird (Brian O'Halloran). It's an arrangement that makes sense to the pragmatic patriarch, given that eldest daughter/mother figure Esther (Christine Bruno) is crippled and hence not marrying material -- whereas baby-of-the-family Rachel (Lea Eckert) is a giggly thing of 15 at the play's start; a child who's at least a year or two away from birthing a future generation of strapping field hands.

As you'd come to expect, there are complications surrounding Ned's simple plan, arising largely from the free-spirited Cassie's disdain for shy, unassuming Rudy -- and her fascination with Matt (Gable-esque David Foubert), a college-educated storekeeper as well as a forward-thinker who's intent on controlling the capricious Missouri River by constructing levees. It's an idea that sits as well with hidebound traditionalist Ned as the prospect of trading in his horse team for a tractor.

Add to this the ever-unpredictable ebb and flow of the river -- an offstage character of sorts that seems to delight in pulling the strings of the scurrying human ants who depend upon it for their most basic needs -- and you've got enough variables at work to make even a man such as Ned begin to doubt the whole concept of "God's will."

This is the sort of play that almost makes you regret taking the customary intermission snack-safari to the lobby; so different are the characters' dynamics by the time the second act lights come up on the autumn of 1924, you feel as though the march of time had passed you by while you waited on line at Lina's Cafe.

Cassie, who had skipped out on her dilemma by the play's midpoint, has returned from the big city claiming an involvement with some unseen Russian prince. A very pregnant, very unhappy Rachel wonders when she'll ever feel anything for her husband Rudy. Esther is being courted by none other than Matt, now something of a pompous small-town Babbitt with a Ford dealership and an eye toward his legacy as a Great Man. Only Ned seems unchanged, albeit as redundant as the "tamed" river that lies just outside -- a river that, as it turns out, still has a few cards left to play.

If things get a tad melodramatic toward the end and if some of the characters' motives remain a bit ambiguous, it's little more than a minor quibble with Gregory's sharply written slice of Americana. The playwright (best known for the well-received "Radium Girls" of a few seasons back) resists turning her people into cornpone caricatures; crafting instead an intelligent script that challenges its cast and crew to deliver something truly extraordinary.


PHOTO: BRIAN FERREIRA/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Cast members (from left) Christine Brown, Lea Eckert, Davis Hall and Deborah Baum in a scene from "The Good Daughter" at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.
In his first work for NJ Rep, director Jason King Jones rises to the challenge. Everything about "The Good Daughter" is technically first-rate, and for all the elements that could have gone awry -- there are food and fight sequences; running water and rapid-fire scene changes by the bushel -- Mr. Jones shows the touch of a master moviemaker in keeping this eminently watchable production moving with a downright cinematic grace. Special attention must be paid to fellow NJ Rep first-timer Jill Nagle, for her lighting work on a production design that is easily the equal of any big-stage, big-budget offering.

While all six cast members operate at peak performance, Deborah Baum as Cassie remains a standout among the standouts. Whether playing a wounded little-town flirt or putting on some city-slicker airs, Baum maintains a sure hand with a character who's scarcely so sure of who she wants to be. Her scenes with David Foubert -- delightful in the first act, devastating in the second -- are among the best duets you'll ever see in a straight play (can't wait for the musical!).

At first glance, Christine Bruno (she of the diminutive stature and formidably tall resume) appears a no-brainer lock for the role of the stalwart older sister -- but as things unfold, it becomes evident just how crucial this intriguingly commanding actress is to the proceedings. Her Esther is the very essence of pride and clarity, and anyone who tackles this part in the future is going to have to contend with her very long shadow.

Taking a character that the playwright herself described as "not terribly interesting" and turning it into a solid and sympathetic linchpin of this play, Brian O'Halloran continues to show himself as an ensemble actor of remarkable depth and dexterity. While his high-profile calling card remains his charter membership in filmmaker Kevin Smith's stock company, it's always a delight to watch this guy hone his considerable skills here at NJ Rep and numerous other regional stages.

It may be a bit hyperbolic to suggest that "if you see only one show this year. . . ," but anybody who's been looking for a reliable spot to test the waters of the local theater landscape would find that "The Good Daughter" is as good as it gets.


Two River Times
Scene On Stage
By Philip Dorian


Good Acting Highlights "The Good Daughter"
World premiere at New Jersey Repertory Company

Where in the world did New Jersey Rep find three actual sisters to play the sisters in The Good Daughter? Okay, so Deborah Baum, Christine Bruno and Lea Eckert are not really sisters. But the characters they portray are, and five minutes into this play there's no doubt that Cassie (Baum), Esther (Bruno) and Rachel Owen (Eckert) are indeed siblings. The acting by the three, in fact by all six in the cast, is so rich, so humanly real, that any flaws in D.W. Gregory's play are easily dismissed as minor and eminently fixable.

Each of the talented actors nourishes and feeds off the others, and the result is a pleasure to behold. Rarely does a cast mesh so well, so completely. The sisters even begin to look alike. Credit too director Jason King Jones. The sense of family and flow of the play are evidence of his comprehensive vision and sure hand.

It is 1916, just prior to The Great War. On a farm in Northwest Missouri widower Ned Owen (Davis Hall) is concerned with marrying off his three daughters - or at least tow of them. Lovely, sparkling Cassie is being courted by bland, bumbling farmer Rudy Bird (Brian O'Halloran); Rachel is a spunky 16-year old, full of energy and wonder. Esther, in keeping with social values of that time, is considered unmarriageable; handicapped from birth, she has a twisted hip and leg and a resultant awkward gait.

A dashing townie, storekeeper Matt McCall (David Foubert), sweeps Cassie off her feet. He's something of an activist, lobbying for construction of levees along the mighty Missouri River, a concession to progress resisted by staid, religious fundamentalist Ned. (Devastating floods are God's will.)

It wouldn't be fair to reveal key elements of the story, which spans seven years, nor is it necessary. The characters undergo dramatic changes, with relationships weaving in and among one another in ways that are plausible even as they startle. Commitments are made and broken; sacrifices are made and regretted. The family is so well established early that the eventual tensions are more heart-wrenching and even more believable because of that very bond.

Essentially a drama, there's a liberal sprinkling of humor in The Good Daughter. The play Descends into melodrama toward the end (see 'fixable,' above), lbut it survives thanks to the superior acting ensemble. "You can't go home again" is a cliche that here withstands re-examination.

Cassie is well served by Baum's muted beauty. In total control, her marvelous brown eyes sparkle in scenes with Matt and actually go dull with Rudy. She converys the conflict within Cassie, whose willingness to defy one commitment is done in by another. Eckert is perfection as young, perky Rachel, and she meets the challenge of range as Rachel changes significantly. Esther is a paragon of strength and good sense. Bruno plays her without concession to her disability, and any pity one feels for her quickly dissolves. Real sisters develop a sort of code - glances and gestures that communicate without words. Thanks to three outstanding performances, the Owen girls are no exception.

The men as no less effective. Patriarch Ned is severe and unforgiving, but Hall finds the warmth beneath his stern exterior; O'Halloran plays the self-effacing Rudy with restraint, finding kindness and humor in the melancholy man. True-to-himself Matt represents the world outside the farm, and Foubert looks and acts just right. His Matt is smart and sharp, but not a smarty or a sharpy.

Fred Kinney's simple set is particularly effective when characters are silhouetted against the landscaped backdrop. Jill Nagle's lighting enhances every scene, and the costumes (Patricia E. Doherty), from work overalls to farm finery, complete a winning technical trifecta.

On opening night, when producer Gabor Barabas introduced The Good Daughter as "an epic American play," I chucked, certain that he was indulging in hyperbole. A new Grapes of Wrath or You Can't Take it With You in the 65-seat Lumia Theatre? Really. But if 'epic American' means evoking the social, geographical and political realities of a bygone era, then I owe Gabe an apology, because The Good Daughter does just that. If this seems a bit overblown, so be it. See the play and judge for yourself.


TriCity News Theatre Review
by Don Clarke

D.W. Gregory has written a classically American play that really digs deeply into the roots of our sociaty and sociatal expectations. Set in the period from 1916 to 1924, The Good Daughter, premieres in our own little Long Branch.

The play focuses on the lives of three sisters and their very traditional father, all of whom live on a farm. The first act is a time-honored portrayal, in the style of Thornton Wilder, well written, somewhat predictable, yet still intensely interesting. Each of the daughters has a personality; Cassie, the willful one who wants to see the world; Esther, the disabled girl who is limited by her disability (or by her family) and who finds great determination (or pig-headedness); and Rachel, the impulsive youngster.

In the second act, the scene moves forward seven years. Their lives have changed, and the girls have as well. The play is far more compelling and, certainly, less predictable. The author, Gregory, explores the notion of sanctuary and, at the same time, the stifling nature of family. She also examines consequences and responsibility. Some of the conclusions are troubling but the play is hopeful.

Deborah Baum plays daughter Cassie. She makes the transtition from a headstrong egoist, to a more mature and saddened adult, beautifully. Christine Bruno plays the disable sister Esther. Her personality development and growing discontent are captivating. In life she does have a disability-which must enhance her interpretation. Lea Eckert plays Rachel. Her transformation from tomboy to wife is fascinating.

Davis Hall plays the father, a good man trying to make sense of a changing world by relying on old-fashioned values. David Foubert plays one of the suitors. He may be a modern young man - or Cassie has idealized him. It is a tough role, which he plays well. Brian O'Halloran is a possible predictable, very determined suitor. All the roles are well developed and the players sparkle.

This could be the play of the season.


One about the farmer's daughter: An intimately staged family epic premieres at NJ Rep

Published in the Asbury Park Press 10/10/03

By TOM CHESEK
Correspondent

The history of American arts and letters is packed with images of the family farmer as heroic figure; a tower of strength as apt to take some courageous "High Noon" stand as he is willing to spout some improbably stentorian monologue.


THE GOOD DAUGHTER
A play by D.W. Gregory
New Jersey Repertory Company's Lumia Theatre
179 Broadway, Long Branch
Performances through Nov. 16
$30
(732) 229-3166


Out in the fields worked by the likes of Ned Owen, however, there's little room for heroic posturing when there are barely enough hours in the day to eke out a life of basic subsistence.

Ned, the God-fearing widower whose family is at the center of "The Good Daughter" -- D.W. Gregory's drama opening tonight in its world premiere run at New Jersey Repertory Company's Lumia Theatre in Long Branch -- is a man who appears to have spent his life in a constant state of struggle against forces beyond his control.

From the capricious currents of the Missouri River to the sociological tides that roil an increasingly industrialized America on the eve of the First World War, this native Midwesterner finds the foundations of his world in danger of eroding away; a situation that's not helped one bit by the tensions that simmer underneath his own roof.

As the good Lord has seen fit to bless the Owen household only with female children, Ned sets about assuring his family's survival in a manner befitting a patriarch of some hundred years ago -- namely, marrying off each of the young women to a husband that can furnish the necessities of life, if not necessarily love.

That's easier said than done, as all three of the Owen girls pose their own problems with the traditional procedure. While Esther has assumed much of her late mother's duties about the house, the strong and steady eldest daughter seems destined for a life of spinsterhood, having been born with a birth defect. The beautiful but contrary Cassie is a free spirit whose resistance to an arranged betrothal sends her running straight into the arms of a college-educated merchant's son and self-styled activist.


BOB BIELK photo

Cast members (from left) Deborah Baum, David Foubert and Brian O'Halloran rehearse a scene from "The Good Daughter," being staged by the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.
Meanwhile, the youngest daughter Rachel, a dreamer of some 15 years of age, is the one most apt to appease her father -- although precisely whether she is the "good daughter" of the title is open to interpretation.

Speaking from her Washington home, the author describes her play (first composed as her thesis work in 1995, and revised extensively prior to its NJ Rep debut as a script-in-hand reading) as "pretty close to being an ensemble piece, with six pretty good parts."

Maintaining that "the overall story is more of a romance," Gregory puts the focus on Cassie and her relationships to her father as well as to Matt, the man who would endeavor to build a levee alongside the community.

"To Cassie, Matt represents the outside world; something she finds intriguing . . . while at the same time, he represents a lot of things that Ned finds distasteful," the playwright observes. "You can see it as Matt trying to control nature, while Ned is trying to control his family."

Veteran watchers of New Jersey's professional theater scene may recognize Gregory's work from a slightly different nom de plume. Working as Dolores Whiskeyman, the prolific playwright and "recovering critic" authored the acclaimed "Radium Girls," an award-winning historical drama (based on the devastating fate suffered by the female factory workers of the 1920s-era Radium Watch Dial company of Orange). Developed and workshopped during the author's residency with the Madison-based Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey, "Radium Girls" was recently put into print by Dramatic Publishing. So was "The Good Girl is Gone," a black comedy presented by NJ Rep last year as part of the troupe's Monday-evening reading series.

As for the crack about being a recovering critic, it was her stint as a play reviewer for the Washington Post that helped Dolores cultivate some useful contacts in regional theater circles, although, she says, "it was getting to the point where I couldn't maintain a relationship with certain theatrical companies and still be an objective critic." These days, the working wordsmith supplements her artistic endeavors by editing articles on state tax law -- a gig she describes as "kind of fun, actually."

Jason King Jones directs a cast that features Davis Hall as Ned, with Deborah Baum as Cassie, Christine Bruno as Esther and Lea Eckert as Rachel. David Foubert plays college-boy firebrand Matt McCall, with Brian O'Halloran (the cult-favorite star of such Kevin Smith film productions as "Clerks" and a solid character player on area stages) appearing as the decent, hardworking (but "not terribly exciting") fellow farmer and prospective husband Rudy Bird.

Featuring set, costume and lighting designs respectively by Fred Kinney, Patricia Doherty and Jill Nagle, "The Good Daughter" opens this weekend and continues with performances at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and at 2 p.m. Sundays through Nov. 16. For reservations and information, call (732) 229-3166.

from the Asbury Park Press

Published on October 10, 2003


RestoreRadio

"The Good Daughter", by D.W. Gregory, directed by Jason King Jones  

 

 

 

 

 

L-above, Cast Party Rocks!! with Deborah Baum (Cassie), David Foubert (Matt McCall) director Jones, Davis Hall (Ned Owen), playwright Gregory. Above: Brian O'Hallorn (Rudy Bird), Baum, Gregory, Foubert, Hall, Christine Bruno (Esther Owen), and Exec. Producer Gabor Barabas. Left: Lea Eckert (Rachel Owen) with Mom and friend. Cast party, open to company and audience, is a regular feature of opening night at NJ Rep.

And in character - Set in the early 20th century in rural Northwest Missouri, Gregory's play captures an integral period in American life, showing the strains of a dying culture, threatened by the forces of nature, extreme hardship and an impending war. This company demonstrates its mastery in every scene, and most noticeably when they perform Gregory's intricate vocal dance - a precise inter-cutting of dialogue among all six players on stage at once. The timing is impeccable. Don't miss this one! 


New Jersey by Bob Rendell

A Very Good Daughter
World Premieres at New Jersey Repertory

A rewarding new play awaits theatergoers at the New Jersey Repertory Company’s Lumia Theatre in Long Branch. Just how good is it? It is certainly good enough for me to strongly recommend it to anyone interested in a multifaceted, thought provoking traditional American play which stirs echoes of Eugene O’Neill.

The world premiere play The Good Daughter is by D.W. Gregory. To quote the author’s description of the setting, “the action takes place in a farming community in northwest Missouri, not far from the Iowa line – a part of the country where change comes slowly and at a great price.” The first act spans a period of little more than a year, beginning in the summer of 1916.

Daughter’s plot and themes are classic, having been employed by playwrights throughout the history of theatre. They provide the potential for scope and power, and for the examination of the human condition, making them irresistible to writers of vision.

Good Daughter
Deborah Baum and David Foubert
The play’s protagonists are widowed and embittered farmer Ned Owens, his three daughters and two young men who play pivotal roles in their lives.

The daughters are of marriageable age. Esther, the oldest, has been hardened and worn down from the rigors of having to care for the home and her younger sisters since the early demise of their mother. She is physically handicapped (this is manifested in a severe limp), and it is assumed by her family that she will never marry.

Middle sister Cassie conveys an aura of intelligence and an interest in the world outside her community which set her apart from her father and sisters. These attributes contribute to her disinterest in her suitor, tenant farmer and neighbor Rudy Bird. Rudy is a decent and practical man, with a plan to acquire land and partner with Cassie's father as a farmer. He is awkward and diffident in his courtship of Cassie.

If this were not enough, Cassie falls in love with another friend of her father, Matt McCall. He has returned from college to his parents and their general store. Bright, sophisticated, forward thinking and ambitious, he is clearly the right match for Cassie.

Ned Owens betroths Cassie to Rudy and is unrelenting in his insistence that she marry him. Matt enlists in the Army at the outbreak of The Great War and refuses to run away with Cassie (Matt’s last two actions would read better and play better if their order were reversed). Cassie runs away from her home and family, and a marriage which she cannot accept. Youngest sister Rachel (I bet that you thought that I had forgotten her) accepts her father’s dictum that she marry Rudy in place of her sister. End of act one.

When the curtain rises for act two, it is the autumn of 1924. Seven years after having run away, Cassie, the prodigal daughter, returns home. As is the norm in most such cases, Cassie has come home because she is in big trouble. There is an overabundant plot here as there is in act one. However, for most of the second act, the work becomes more resonant and emotionally satisfying as each of the six characters evolves believably in significant ways. I will not say more.

The entire play has a backdrop of the mechanization of agriculture, flood, drought, and a growing ability to bend nature to our will.

If I have properly succeeded in conveying the engrossing evening of theatre being presented at this tiny 60-odd seat home of the New Jersey Rep by The Good Daughter, you will want to hear the balance of this narrative from D.W. Gregory and her talented presenters themselves.

During the first act, I felt that some of the Missouri farm accents were overemphasized. While I do not doubt their authenticity, the accents tend to make the play, along with its humor and dense exposition, feel too broadly drawn. However, when the richness of Gregory’s characterizations becomes more evident in the second act, the entire cast probes deeply to convey them.

Deborah Baum is outstanding in portraying the return of the prodigal daughter. She captures Cassie’s pretense of superiority and her ironic disdain for those she left behind. She then convincingly portrays her moments of truth.

Christine Bruno portrays the hopefulness and humanity in Esther without softening the pain and bitterness which have caused her to be abrasive. She honestly earns the understanding of the viewer for her Esther.

To round out D.W. Gregory’s three sisters, Lea Eckert strongly conveys Rachel’s maturing realization that the needs that she has as an individual are more crucial to her than fulfilling her family niche.

Davis Hall is convincing as Ned Owen. As written, Owen is a kind of one note, unreasonably stubborn individual who does not engage our sympathy. Brian O’Halloran as Rudy and David Foubert as Matt make solid contributions. It is difficult to watch Mr. Foubert here and not think of Clark Gable (or was that Rhett Butler?).

Within the realm of the possible, New Jersey Rep has succeeded admirably in conveying the scope of the work. Director Jason King Jones brings solid work from his cast, maintains an appropriately brisk pace, and achieves a smoothness and clarity of focus that is quite remarkable under the circumstances.

The concept for the basic set is a barn with an open door looking out onto a field. As the action shifts mostly to various rooms in the residence and around the farm, the placement of the barn door shifts, and various items of furniture decorate the set. We may not always be certain just what part of the house we are in, but the design insures that a sense of the farm is always there, and the look and feel seem just right. Credit the solid design work of Fred Kinney. And the lighting and sound design (and effects) by Jim Nagle and Merek Royce Press, respectively, are terrific.

Daughter feels overwritten. It may need less plotting and more room to breathe. The event leading to the first act curtain is presented in a very contrived fashion to produce a surprise twist which undermines Gregory’s seriousness of purpose. The climax is sudden and unsatisfying. However, these reservation are significantly outweighed by the play’s virtues.

Author D.W. Gregory is terrific at conveying detail and nuance in her characters. Five of the six display extraordinarily organic growth and/or change. It is not that we are told of changed circumstance or just have to accept it as a given. Additionally, the play is loaded with ideas which arise organically from the plot and characters. It also plays against a rich canvas of our history.

The Good Daughter by D.W. Gregory; directed by Jason King Jones; Cast: Deborah Baum (Cassie Owen); Christine Bruno (Esther Owen); Lea Eckert (Rachel Owen); David Foubert (Matt McCall); Davis Hall (Ned Owen); Brian O’Halloran (Rudy Bird).


THE GOOD DAUGHTER
By: Simon Saltzman

Long Branch - Whether it has been tales from the Brothers Grimm, plays by Shakespeare, Chekhov and Wendy Wasserstein, or countless novels and film scenarios, the conflict and jealousies between sisters has remained a compelling literary and dramatic staple through the ages. In "The Good Daughter," now having its world premiere at New Jersey Repertory Company, playwright D.W. Gregory hasn't broken any new ground in the familiar genre as much as she has turned the melodramatic soil just enough to make her characters appear fresh and vital.

Set in a farming community in Northwest Missouri, the play's action occurs between 1917 and 1924 and mostly in and around the modest homestead of Ned Owen (Davis Hall), a stolid God-fearing widower left with three daughters to raise. Here, Ned's determination to keep the farm going and survive the ever unpredictable and threatening Missouri River is as pressing as his desire to marry off his daughters to the first man able to provide them with a good home and the basic necessities.

Unsurprisingly, the daughters, the men in their lives, not to mention the river, have their own motivations. Under Jason King Jones' sturdy un-fussy direction, the deluge of romance, regrets, recriminations and rebellious behavior that propel "The Good Daughter," takes an almost retro dramatic course. But it is a course that, for all its contrived arteries, is precisely and skillfully constructed.

The eldest 20 year-old Cassie (Deborah Baum) is pretty and openly discontent with her life on the farm and unwilling to comply with her father's wish that she marry Rudy Bird (Brian O'Halloran), an awkwardly amorous neighboring farmer for whom she has no feelings. More conciliatory toward the house rules imposed by the somewhat stiff-necked Ned is Esther (Christine Bruno), the middle sister born with a physical defect who has, nevertheless, assumed many of the chores of her late mother. She is also, despite her father's resignation that she is not likely to marry, capable of harboring romantic notions. These are secretly directed to Matt McCall (David Foubert), the dashing college graduate and civic-minded activist son of a local shop owner. Matt has recently come back to his hometown and set as his primary goal persuading Ned and the townsfolk to build a levee to help protect the community.

Cassie's infatuation and open flirting with the equally rebellious Matt doesn't go unnoticed by the youngest, 15 year-old Rachel (Lea Eckert), whose sweetness is tempered by her loyalty to her father. A scheme, hatched between Cassie and Rachel to promote a romance between Esther and Rudy, produces an unexpected consequence. This is no less unexpected than the reason Cassie leaves home after Matt decides to enlist in the Army. It is seven years later when Cassie returns home amid a flood of mixed emotions from the family and a real flood of the Missouri River.

The play has a very fine cast able to provide the subtler and more pronounced changes their characters undergo. Baum's change from a free-spirit to a sadder and wiser Cassie is as impressive as is Bruno's blossoming as a self-realized Esther. Eckert is touching as she reflects Rachel's poignant transition from familial stability into emotional instability, the result of a loveless marriage. It is as revelatory a turn as the ones O'Halloran and Foubert are required to make as more mature and self-made men. Hall is excellent as Ned who finds his fate is determined as much by a good daughter (which one I won't reveal) as it is by his steadfast trust in God's deliverance. A torrential rain storm (a real curtain of rain), with thunder, lightning (lighting design by Jill Nable and sound by Merek Royce Press) is impressive as is designer Fred Kinney's barn-like structure that adapts to various locales. The fine production values serve this good and commendably involving play.

It is important to note that D. W. Gregory previously wrote plays as Dolores Whiskeyman. Under that nom de plume, "Radium Girls," an award-winning drama based on the actual events surrounding the fate of female factory workers at the Radium Watch Dial Company of Orange, N. J. during the 1920s, had its premiere two years ago at Playwrights Theater of New Jersey where it received enthusiastic notices. Other work by Gregory has been under development at both P. T. N. J. and at New Jersey Repertory Company.


'The Good Daughter' has potential to be even better

Monday, October 13, 2003

BY PETER FILICHIA
Star-Ledger Staff

There's a good deal of water -- but some soap, too -- in "The Good Daughter," D.W. Gregory's new play at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

The playwright does well when she deals with the river, rain and floods, and the convincing characters who must cope with them. But Gregory's plot contains too many soap opera touches.

These melodramatic moments don't fatally hurt her drama, however. Gregory rallies with a final curtain that's both wise and moving.

With solid acting and almost as potent direction by Jason King Jones, the adjective that Gregory uses for "Daughter" is the same as one that can describe this evening in the theater.

But it could be a good deal more than good. Given that this is its first production, there's reason to believe that "The Good Daughter" can be very good someday.

At first glance, the play resembles "King Lear," for it involves a landowner father with three daughters. One difference is that this takes place in 1916 Missouri. Another is that Ned Owen isn't thinking about retirement. He sees greater days for his farm -- if only he can get his daughter Cassie to marry Rudy, a sincere young man who's willing to work hard.

Pretty Cassie is Ned's ace trump. Esther walks with a limp, and Rachel is rather ungainly. But Cassie doesn't love Rudy. She's smitten with merchant Matt McCall, a most serious man who holds dear his values about responsibility and community. He's the one who keeps telling Ned he'll lose the farm to flood if he doesn't take precautions. But Ned says, "Only thing you can do is put your faith in the Lord."

Cassie is so superior when she's with the fumbling and nervous Rudy -- only to become the jittery one when she's with McCall. After Gregory convinces an audience that these two are wrong for each other, she proceeds to have them fall in love. For McCall doesn't have his feet so much on the ground that he can't be swept off them when Cassie bats her eyelashes the right way.

Rudy is devastated, and so is Esther, because she loves him, and he doesn't notice. (See where it's getting sudsy?) Gregory does have a masterstroke at the end of the first act, but King doesn't stage it in a way that gets the maximum impact from it. At the same time, Gregory errs by giving short shrift to Esther. The playwright doesn't show what she's feeling until much later -- and much too late.

As Ned, Davis Hall is sleepy-eyed and world-weary, but not too exhausted to show that he truly loves his daughters and fiercely wants the best for them. David Foubert has a Clark Gable-Rhett Butler dash as McCall, but staunchly shows the seriousness of purpose that's so vital to the character. Brian O'Halloran -- of "Clerks" fame -- grows wonderfully from the insecure young man to the responsible breadwinner who always tries to do his best in the face of circumstances that would have defeated many other men.

He's not the only one who deftly shows how seven years can change a person. Christine Bruno's Esther, Lea Eckert's Rachel and Deborah Baum's Cassie all display a sparkle in the first act that's deadened by the events of the second. They perform beautifully as a unit, too, and embody the essence of sisterly affection.

And which of the three is the good daughter of the title? Gregory slyly lets the audience make up its own mind about this.


Intrepid actress ready for next career step

Friday, October 03, 2003

BY PETER FILICHIA
Star-Ledger Staff

Christine Bruno is glad she got Laura Wingfield out of the way, so she can now get on to the parts she really wants to play.

That includes roles in new works -- such as Esther Owen in D.W. Gregory's "The Good Daughter." Bruno begins performing it on Thursday for four weeks at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

Bruno, 29, was born with cerebral palsy. She describes her case as "medium," for it's solely affected her legs and she walks with difficulty. It's why directors along the way have thought her a natural for Laura Wingfield, the young woman who walks with a limp in Tennessee Williams' classic, "The Glass Menagerie."

"I didn't play her until two years ago -- on purpose," she says. "Because everyone always expected me to play her. What other part immediately comes to mind for me? So I went the other way completely. But then the opportunity presented itself in Lancaster, Pa., and," she adds brightly, "it turned out to be the best experience in my life."

She's hoping her stint in "The Good Daughter" will be as rewarding. In the play, Esther is the eldest of three daughters born to a Missouri farmer. "Once her mother died in childbirth," says the diminutive, lively-voiced actress, "Esther had to become the surrogate mother to her father and the two girls."

The plays starts in 1916 and continues through 1923, taking Esther from an unmarried 21-year-old to someone who's considered an old maid at 28 -- especially because she has no prospects on the horizon.

"What makes not being married more problematic," says Bruno, "is that the play says that she's been deformed since childhood."

The Meriden, Conn., native -- now a New Yorker -- set her sights on a performing career when she was 5, and never wavered through the years. Her mother, father and step-father all tried to dissuade her.

"Not because of the cerebral palsy," she says. "They felt the uncertain life of an actor should be out of the question for anybody. This went on until I was playing Mary Warren in 'The Crucible' in San Francisco. I told them, 'I know it's expensive to fly out here, but you have to see I'm not wasting my time.' And they came out and agreed I wasn't."

Her parents were protective, Bruno says, partly because they'd seen their daughter endure the taunts of children.

"Kids were cruel," she admits, "but at the risk of sounding arrogant here, I'm pretty quick-witted and I realized those kids weren't as on-the-ball as I was. I'm not saying it didn't bother me -- it especially did when someone I thought was a friend felt he had to join the crowd and make fun of me. It took a while to learn that if I'm not with the in-crowd, there's nothing I can do."

Teachers paid extra attention to her and she was allowed to leave class five minutes early so that she'd have ample time to get to her next class. "When kids criticized me about that," she says, "I said, 'Oh, I'll trade my life with yours.' And that stopped that."

Bruno went to Skidmore College and majored both in theater and political science, the latter in order to have the famous "something to fall back on." After she was graduated, she flirted with the idea of law school, but stayed with the acting. Even though the work hasn't been steady -- a few roles in New York and San Francisco -- she makes ends meet as a freelance copy editor and teacher for the New York public schools' "Kids Project."

"Through puppets and actors," she says, "I teach the kids about disability awareness --how to interact with their disabled peers. I encourage them to ask questions. Kids are sometimes yelled at by their parents when they ask a question about the disabled because it's not 'polite.' But it's fine and natural to ask questions. I know I always have."


New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Spain Re-develops at Playwrights Theatre

Spain
Natalie Wilder and
Phillip F. Lynch

There are very brave people at Playwrights Theatre in Madison. How else would they dare devote themselves exclusively to developing new plays with both full productions and a plethora of readings, staged and otherwise? Being unable to boost their subscriptions or single ticket sales with any proven, “surefire” popular attractions, they clearly are out there flying without a net.

Therefore, despite a really strong effort by director John Pietrowski to breathe life into Spain, an absurd new comedy by Jim Knable, by staging it in the round with bright lighting and a sense of airy spaciousness, there is just very little in the writing to hold our interest.

Barbara, an attractive young woman whose husband has left her for a younger gal with a “boob job,” is fulminating in her Washington, D.C. apartment when a 16th century Spanish Conquistador materializes. It seems Barbara has an obsession with the culture of Spain.

Despite Pietrowski’s description of the work as a metaphysical comedy, there seems nothing metaphysical here. What we immediately know is that this blustering figure in armor and any other non-contemporary character who will be introduced will be a figment of Barbara’s imagination, a dream or dreamlike hallucination.

Her visitor is a comedic figure who doesn’t know how he has come to speak English. However, he is big on rape and murder. In time, he reveals that his name is El Tigre (the tiger). He produces a “Mayan Ancient” who confirms his pedigree with a couple of deadly dull and contradictory stories about “passing through a portal” into contemporary D.C. It really is nothing to worry about, because what you see is not what you get, and it will change over the course of the play.

I could not discern any growth in Barbara nor could I uncover any clues to understanding her from the figments of her imagination which occupy most of play’s mercifully brief running time. When more contemporary visions entered the scene, I did sometimes prematurely wonder whether figments were being replaced by reality, but I was rarely amused and never engaged.

The eager cast acquits itself well. Kristin Johansen is a slightly daft, likeable Barbara. Chris Tomaino is game in two variations of her Spanish knight. Angela Della Ventura is quite engaging and shows good range in several of her smaller roles. Her male Ancient was not for me. Natalie Wilder as Diversion (don’t ask) performs well throughout.

The on-stage hero of the evening is Philip F. Lynch. He performs a couple of varied roles (including Barbara’s husband) well and provides the most enjoyable moments of the evening with his playing of what sounds like traditional melodic Spanish guitar music. It was a pleasure to note in the program that Lynch composed original music for the evening.

This co-production with the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch arrives directly from its run at NJRC. The play was originally produced a couple of seasons back by the Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington. Author Knable felt that he needed to do further developmental work on the play. He found that it is harder to get a work in development a second production than a first. Pietrowski confirms this and states that he feels PTNJ should function as an additional port of call in such situations - another admirable mission for an admirable theatre.

Spain continues performances through October 5 at Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey, 33 Green Village Road, Madison, NJ 07940. 973-514-1787, ext. 30; on-line http://www.ptnj.org/

Spain by Jim Knable; directed by John Pietrowski; Cast (in order of appearance): Kristin Johansen (Barbara); Chris Tomaino (Conquistador); Angela Della Ventura (Ancient); Natalie Wilder (Diversion); Philip F. Lynch (John)

Photo: SuzAnne Barabas


Tripping through 'Spain': Shape-shifting comedy served in the round at NJ Rep

Published in the Asbury Park Press 8/15/03

By TOM CHESEK
Correspondent

It's a moment that occurs pretty close to the end of "Spain," the trippy little play now in its regional premiere engagement at New Jersey Repertory Company's Lumia Theatre in Long Branch -- although it's the kind of device you'd wish more playwrights packed in their bag of tricks these days.


SPAIN
At the New Jersey Repertory Company
179 Broadway, Long Branch
Performances through Sept. 14
$30
(732) 229-3166

A suburbanite by the name of Barbara stands confronted by a drum-beating Mayan mystic in a place that's either antique Andalucia or some trans-dimensional Z-bricked limbo. Two men lay dead on the floor from apparent sword wounds, and ignored for the nonce is the scarlet-gowned, bosom-heaving apparition of Barbara's co-worker, a transformed plainjane by the name of Diversion. When Barbara is asked her take on what it all means, she spells it all out for us, going around the room and explaining what each of the characters represent to her.

As a means to an ending for this often difficult piece, it serves to drive the action back down to Earth for a crucial conclusion. As a handy helper for savvy students with a quiz in the morning (or slow-on-the-uptake critic types with a deadline), it's a godsend.

Not that we necessarily have to buy wholesale any of the notions expressed by the heroine of West Coast scribe Jim Knable's surreal comedy, since it's fairly well established at the outset that Barbara (played with unsettling purposefulness by Kristin Johansen) has been driven over the brink by the departure of her husband John (Philip Lynch, who just wrapped a co-starring role in NJ Rep's "The Adjustment"). We might surmise this by the presence of a sixteenth-century conquistador who arrives (in full period armor and with remarkable command of contemporary American English) with his feet propped up on her living room coffee table 3/4 having allegedly experienced a close encounter with the mystical New World ancient (Angela Della Ventura).


Toon by TOM CHESEK/
Special to the Press

Chris Tomaino, Philip Lynch and Kristin Johansen star in "Spain," the comedy now on stage at New Jersey Repertory Company.

For Barbara, who admits an obsession with the idea of Spain (though she's never been), the brutal, blustering, unrepentant raper and pillager who calls himself El Tigre is hardly anyone's romantic ideal. As played by Chris Tomaino of Tinton Falls (seen in a lead role in this season's "Winterizing the Summer House") the time-hopping visitor is ultimately little more than a posturing frat brat in an admittedly very groovy helmet; showing infinitely more regard for the plumed headgear than in any human life.

What to make, though, of the fact that El Tigre can also be seen by the repressed, business-suited Diversion (we thought she was named "The Virgin" until we scanned the program)? While we're at it, what's the deal with the occasional appearances of the inscrutable Ancient, a figure whose every muttering and meandering elicited considerable titters from the laugh-at-anything element in the audience, but who seems to be keeping us from some considerably larger and darker joke?

There's little in the overlong and underperforming first act of Knable's "lyrical comedy" -- 3/4 punctuated in parts by what we assumed to be Spanish folk song pastiches by the author that does anything more than lard up layers of flashbacks, fantasies and filigree. Still, we could excuse some of the amorphous mess if we take it on good faith that most of the action happens inside of Barbara's head -- after all, few of us have insides of heads that are the stuff of a tightly-plotted two-act. What does become evident by intermission is that Ms. Della Ventura has much more to contribute than her turns as the Ancient; particularly a fun bit as Barbara's boss.

If Act I comes close to gagging on its own artifice, however, the second act succeeds in peeling away much of the layers of arty-choke, stripping the armor from these humanoid ciphers and giving us a first glimpse of some real characters. While the impressive Della Ventura continues to convey various manifestations of wisdom and authority -- three of them male -- by play's end (there's even a sly in-joke built into the script commenting on her chameleonic duties), Natalie Wilder as Diversion brings her single assigned character to life via a series of walk-on, walk-off appearances that range from candidly confessional cameos to a funny full-gallop visualization of her pet fantasy. Lynch offers up a curious set of characterizations that may or may not all be visions of wayward hubby John. Even the ridiculous El Tigre is not at all what he first seems -- and Tomaino rises to the occasion, finding a human heart inside the discarded battle regalia.Presented in the round within the Lumia's smaller-scaled Dwek Performance Space, this is the second co-production of NJ Rep in cahoots with the Madison-based Playwright's Theatre of New Jersey -- and, unlike 2002's two-man burlesque "Big Boys," this is scarcely an old-school laugh routine. The cast (under the supervision of PTNJs artistic director John Pietrowski) gets put through their multi-media paces here, with Lynch singing and playing guitar; Della Ventura and Wilder duetting, and Wilder called upon to strum the six-string and do a bit of rudimentary juggling -- as well as something akin to a flamenco step. It's up to Wilder and Johansen to steer this weird vehicle through the home stretch; feet propped up on that coffee table for a strangely satisfying conclusion.


Monday, August 11, 2003
BY PETER FILICHIA
Star-Ledger Staff

The play called "Spain" is mainly quite insane.

Jim Knable's current effort at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch starts out promisingly. Barbara Tusenbach is more miserable than her namesake in Chekhov's "The Three Sisters." For after five years of marriage, her husband John has left her for a younger and prettier woman.

Soon after, "El Tigre," a conquistador, time-travels from 16th century Spain. Barbara doesn't think she's hallucinating, but her best friend -- who's named Diversion, of all things -- certainly assumes she is.

Barbara doesn't care. She likes the strong, swarthy guy. "Luckily, he speaks English," she tells the audience.

She is unnerved, though, when he becomes savage, as is his uncivilized wont. "You represent everything I hate about Spain," she tells him. "Why couldn't you be like Lorca or Picasso?"

For El Tigre believes in murdering your adversary when he does you dirty. Eventually Barbara considers becoming barbaric. Maybe a good sword in the stomach is just what John deserves. "Tell me what it's like to kill someone," she implores her conquistador.

That's when matters become disturbing. By this point, the audience has come to care for Barbara, especially because she's so well-played by Kristin Johansen. She has a smile as bright as the sun in the Spanish sky that she describes. Many an actress can show fire in her belly, but when Johansen is called to do that, she also shows a fire in her face.

Yet Knable betrays both Barbara and the audience by suddenly changing the goofy, good-natured comedy. He puts Barbara in a genuinely dangerous and disturbing situation, one that is remotely funny. This makes the first scene of the second act downright unbearable.

By this point, the play has become terribly confusing, too. The writing is so painfully undisciplined that an audience could easily be pardoned for tuning out. If anyone is still paying attention, he might nod in agreement when Barbara says such lines as "What is the point of this?" or "This is madness," not to mention, "I don't understand who I am."

But then, in the final minutes, Knable suddenly and admirably pulls the play together to show us what's really been on its mind. "Spain" turns out to be about the difficulties that cloud the mind when the spouse you still love leaves you.

Granted, that's a good and valid theme, but Knable uses a plot device that often shows up at the end of a sixth-grader's homework composition. Whenever a kid comes up with a solution like Knable's, his teacher often writes "C-minus" at the top of the paper.

Chris Tomaino is El Tigre, burning brightly in a wonderfully haughty and mock-heroic way. He stands tall, poses like Superman, and delivers dramatic gestures at every turn. Moments later, though, he can narrow his eyes to slits when some 21st century technological device -- or feminist viewpoint -- confuses him.

As Diversion -- and why she's named that turns outto be a cheap trick, too -- Natalie Wilder has the chirpy voice and diminutive height worthy of the best second bananas. Philip F. Lynch makes John matter-of-factly guilt-free for all the pain he's caused his wife.

"Spain" is staged with brio by John Pietrowski, the artistic director of Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey in Madison, where the show will move in September. Their subscribers had best hope that Jim Knable does an enormous rewrite before then.


The LINK News August 14 thru August 20, 2003
Theater Review
"Spain" will win you over
By Milt Bernstein

The newest offering of Long Branch's NJ Repertory Company, a play simply called "Spain," and written by Jim Knable, is a fast-moving, inventive and humorous romantic comedy about a fairly young woman whose husband seems to be leaving her for an even younger woman, a "bimbo with big boobs;" and imagines herself getting her revenge in a number of startling ways, incuding swordplay, violent encounters, and, most interesting of all, a Spanish "conquistado," a virile and charismatic throwback to the days of Spanish glory, three centuries ago.

As played by Chris Tomaino, an accomplished young equity actor who hails from Tinton Falls and has starred in several NJ Rep productions, the "Conquistador," dressed in full armor, helmet and sword hanging by his side, is colorful, convincing and amusing, as he tries to cross over the centuries to seduce Barbara (played in her different moods equally well by Kristin Johansen) who has dreamed him up.

The other characters in the story, all ably and professionally performed, include Natalie Wilder as Barbara's concerned friend and office co-worker; Philip F. Lynch as errant husband John , who would like to make up with his wife if it's not too late; and Angela Della Ventura, who accomplishes several different parts, mainly a cloth-robed "Ancient" who acts as a kind of Greek chorus, offering philosophical and poetic comments on the vagaries of human passion.

This eminently worth-seeing theatre evening was directed by Joh Pietrowski, a director with the Playwrights Theatre Co. in Madison, New Jersey, which is collaborating with NJ Rep and will offer the play after it's run here.


triCityNews 8/21/03

SUNNY SPAIN IN LONG BRANCH
Theatre Review
By Don Clarke
triCityNews Theatre Critic

It has been a long time since I put fingers to keyboard and caught up with you all. My life partner, Muffy, has been very busy getting engineering advice concerning our beautiful Asbury Park home. Muffy and Dan, our consultant, have been together night and day, planning for the future.

I must confess I have been a bit jealous of all the attention Muffy (and Dan) are giving our home. I was too depressed to write. Fortunately this reviewing gig gave me my chance for a comeback.

Muffy was pleased to be able to attend a performance of a new play at the New Jersey Rep Co. in lovely Long Branch. The NJ Rep has joined forces once again with Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey (of Madison - no less) to bring us a new production. Jim Knable's "Spain" is a new comedy directed by John Pietrowski.

Because Muffy was eager to see the show, Dan and my angel left extra early for the big city in order to look at color samples for our new deck. Plenty of time to get home in time to dress for the performance! Then the power went out. My own one and Dan were stuck in New York for four days! Sadly, I went, alone again, to the show.

I thought the play might appeal to Muffy, because the lead character is a woman who is obviously under some stress. Barbara - played by Kristin Johansen, is a twenty-first century woman who finds a 16th century Spanish Conquistador in her living room. This is unsettling, particularly as she is just coming to terms with being jilted by her husband.

Faster than you can say time warp she is caught in a world that is either a baroque fantasy, or a bizarre reality. Johansen plays the part the groomed Barbara stepping out of (or into) her life very well. Her eyes are expressive and her body posture develops interestingly throughout the performance.


The COASTER, August 14, 2003
N.J. Repertory
"SPAIN" BRINGS INSPIRED LUNACY TO STAGE
by Robert F. Carroll

Barbara's just been jilted by her husband and, as if that weren't enough, she finds a 16th century Spanish conquistador, complete with metal couture, ensconced in her suburban living room.

That should be more than enough to get you to the New Jersey Repertory Company's "Spain," a witty new comedy having its New Jersey premiere at N.J. Rep in Long Branch.

The conquistador may be only a figment of Barbara's imagination, but who knows? A mysterious female visitor (Angela Della Ventura) also shows up, an addled-brained commentator on the future who blithely muddies the present. She may also be a Mayan visionary, or a lawyer, or a psychiatrist. Who knows?

Barbara's straying husband shows up too, to his regret, and is fatally stabbed (apparently) while attempting a reconciliation. And then there's Barbara's woman friend named, of all things, Diversion (Natalie Wilder), who is mainly bewildered by what's going on. But then who isn't?

It's all wonderfully nutty stuff, carried off by an extraordinary cast. The conquistador (Chris Tomaino) is commanding as the man of actions, even as he admits that looting, raping and killing isn't really his cup of tea. He prefers the peaceful greenery of Andalusia.

Barbara's husband John (Philip Lynch), who supposedly abandoned his wife for a young bimbo, does double duty as a strolling troubadour in one of the comic plot shifts in "Spain."

As Barbara, Kristin Johansen is marvelously befuddled, approaching each new twist in her life - and in the play - with a wide-eyed stare and a comic rejoinder. Wilder is the only sane one in the plot, but just barely; she does a turn in a slinky dress, with castanets.

Playwright Jim Knable is the young man responsible for all this inspired lunacy. His prior work, including a play he wrote at 14 that won a young playwrights contest in California, has been performed in theaters throughout the country.

"Spain" was conceived two years ago. When New Jersey Rep's Gabor Barabas attended a reading in Philadelphia he liked it. So did John Pietrowski, artistic director of Madison-based Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey. As a result the two companies are splitting the coast of production of "Spain."

The play runs through Sept. 14 at N.J. Rep at 179 Broadway, Long Branch. Performances are 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. The production (which is worth seeing twice) then moves to Playwrights Theatre in Madison for performances Sept. 19 through Oct. 2.

The Long Branch performances of "Spain" are dedicated to Stewart Fisher, N.J. Rep's assistant artistic director, who was casting the play when he died last September. Pietrowski picked up the "Spain" direction for N.J. Rep.


Lemonade Reading

  On July 21 at 7 p.m. I attended my first-ever staged reading of a play at the New Jersey Repertory Company at 179 Broadway in Long Branch. Well, to be more accurate, it was my first-ever staged reading of any play, anywhere, but that's really neither here nor there.
   The play was "Lemonade," written by Mike Folie, directed by Evan Bergman and starring Bruce Faulk, Ben Masur, Tricia Burr, Katrina Ferguson and Doris Dunigan. It was done as part of the Company's new "Script-in-Hand" series; held every Monday at 7 p.m.
   Quickly noting the fact that at 20 I was the youngest person in the audience by a good thirty years or so, I also observed that the relatively small theater was absolutely packed for the reading that evening. It became necessary to set chairs along the aisles to accommodate everyone. People scrunched together and fire codes were possibly violated that evening, all in the name of theater.

”Lemonade” players

   Despite the self-explanatory nature of the term, I was still somehow surprised when I found that a staged reading is exactly what it sounds like; the actors sit in chairs on the stage and read from the script. They act just with their voices and occasionally mime gestures or even physical combat, but rarely, if ever, stand up, except to exchange positions with one another when it becomes necessary. Stage directions were read out loud by the narrator (Dunigan), and much of the actual action was left to the imagination of the viewer. Typically this created no problem for me and only became strange when we were told that a character had exited but…there they were, still seated there.

"Lemonade" itself was clever and definitely funny, but particularly in the second act fell into such explosive goofiness that I'm not sure I could even accurately describe it. Suffice it to say it focused on (and exclusively featured) four people: Carl (Faulk), Jim (Masur), Jane (Burr), and Betsy (Ferguson). Carl and Jane are married; Jim is an old school friend of Carl's who falls for Jane, and Betsy is an old school friend of Jane's who has been having a year-long affair with Carl.
   The play, peppered with quick dialogue, focuses on the numerous infidelities and partner exchanges between these four people. I definitely enjoyed it (I'm not a very theater- oriented person and entered with a certain degree of reservation), and reached the point where I barely noticed it wasn't a full production. This in itself is a testament to how well-written and performed the play was.
   Following the performance, the writer and director came out on stage along with the cast and a discussion was held with the audience. They were given the opportunity to comment on the play; nearly everything said was positive, with a general agreement that the second act was, again, exceedingly goofy and not as good as the first. Also, they could ask questions of the cast, writer and director.
   The point of the discussion was for the playwright to get an audience's perspective on his work and further develop it. But the discussion, coupled with the sheer proximity of the cast to the audience, also made for a very informal, comfortable environment for the audience.
   For more information about upcoming events at the New Jersey Repertory Company, visit www.njrep.org or call (732) 229-3166.
                 -Adam Taliercio,
NJ Coast


Small theaters pool limited resources

Friday, August 08, 2003

BY PETER FILICHIA
Star-Ledger Staff

Fifty-thousand dollars.

That's what it takes for a workshop production with a small cast and minimal sets to stage a play.

It's the reason that New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch and the Madison-based Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey are splitting the costs on a production of Jim Knable's "Spain."

It opens tonight in Long Branch for a six week run before moving to Madison for another three.

"Spain" is a place where Barbara (Kristin Johansen) wants to go. So after her husband (Phillip F. Lynch) abandons her, she goes there in her mind and meets a 16th-century conquistador (Chris Tomaino). She's as surprised by her hallucination as she is at her attraction to him -- after all, he is a barbarous murderer. But Barbara soon finds that he's not an illusion, given that her friend, the fancifully named Diversion (Natalie Wilder), sees him, too.

"Spain" is the second annual collaboration for the two theaters. The alliance is a happy one, say both John Pietrowski, artistic director of Playwrights, Gabor Barabas, executive producer of New Jersey Rep.

But the union has its roots in tragedy.

Pietrowski went to Philadelphia in 2001 to attend a festival at the National New Play Network, an organization made up of theater groups from 25 states, including New Jersey, devoted to fostering new work. His troupe, Playwrights Theatre, was one of 17 members.

There he ran into Barabas and Stewart Fisher, New Jersey Rep's artistic associate. All spoke of the expense in developing new plays and casually discussed working together to ameliorate the cost.

Meanwhile, all three took a shine to "Spain" when it was read at the festival. Fisher wanted to direct it, and Barabas made the necessary arrangement for an October 2002 opening. Fisher had approved designs and had cast three of the five roles when he unexpectedly died on Sept. 22 of an aneurysm.

"We were, of course, devastated," says Barabas.

Meanwhile, Pietrowski was developing a new play called "Big Boys." Barabas called and said they needed to fill the "Spain" slot, and asked if they could co-produce and move "Big Boys," a comedy about a cowardly man who works for an abusive mogul.

"Big Boys" premiered at New Jersey Rep last fall and moved to Playwrights last winter. The two theaters split the costs, as they are doing again for "Spain."

"It's not quite a 50-50 split," says Pietrowski, "but it's close." Both men say the costs are pro-rated according to the length of runs and the size of their theaters. (Playwrights has 125 seats, while New Jersey Rep is using its smaller 53-seat theater.) But Pietrowski and Barabas are delighted the way the alliance has played out and say they'll continue working together in the future.

Barabas is also impressed with Pietrowski for another reason. The National New Play Network's charter decrees that it would consist of no more than 25 troupes and that each state could only have one member. Playwrights Theatre was already a member, so New Jersey Rep was therefore ineligible -- until Pietrowski went to bat for Barabas' troupe to be included.

"Only once before did a theater ask that it be admitted from a state that already had a member in the network," says Barabas. "But the member theater from that state said no, and that was that. John could have said no, too.

"And here's the thing," he adds. "That theater that vetoed was from Texas, and nowhere near the other one that applied. We're much closer geographically, but still John said 'yes.'"


Deranged in 'Spain:' Dark comedy traces a twisted path to NJ Rep premiere

Published in the Asbury Park Press 8/08/03
By TOM CHESEK
Correspondent


SPAIN
A play by Jim Knable
New Jersey Repertory Company's Lumia Theatre
179 Broadway, Long Branch
8 p.m. today and tomorrow; 2 p.m. Sunday; 8 p.m. Thursdays; performances through Sept. 7
$30
(732) 229-3166

Barbara (Kristin Johansen) is a middle-age woman who's arrived at a crossroads in life, without having to stray from the comfort and convenience of her contemporary suburban living room. Dumped by her husband in favor of a trophy bimbo and edging tentatively toward a good old-fashioned nervous breakdown, she must decide between embracing insanity as a lifestyle choice -- or finding romance, adventure and wisdom at the hands of that 16th century Spanish conquistador who's taken up residence on her couch.

That's the logical, straightforward part. What truly sets Jim Knable's dark, surreal comedy "Spain" apart from the dark, surreal competition is the long and twisted path it's rambled on the way to its opening tonight at New Jersey Repertory's Lumia Theatre in Long Branch.

Originally written at New York University by Sacramento native Knable and workshopped by the acclaimed Woolly Mammoth company, "Spain" received a high-profile showcase at the National New Plays Networking Conference in Washington, where it caught the eye of the New Jersey Repertory braintrust. Shoehorned into the 2002 season -- even bumping one of the already-announced plays off the schedule -- the show was assigned to assistant artistic director Stewart Fisher, the Seattle transplant whose flair for edgy new works (particularly those by Michael T. Folie) had earned him justifiable acclaim throughout East Coast theatrical circles.

Just a few weeks into production and right in the midst of a casting session, the 37-year old Fisher succumbed to a heart attack -- effectively bringing down the curtain on the show, and throwing the entire NJ Rep season into turmoil.

Enter John Pietrowski, artistic director for Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey. Poised last October to mount a production of the two-man comedy "Big Boys" at Playwright Theatre's playhouse in Madison, Pietrowski was contacted by NJ Rep co-founder Gabor Barabas with the suggestion that the two like-minded troupes pool their resources and stage Rich Orloff's play as a co-presentation, in an extended engagement divided between the two venues.

Under Pietrowski's direction, "Big Boys" enjoyed a successful run that scored points well beyond merely acting as an emergency stopgap on the NJ Rep schedule (it also didn't hurt that the tag-team approach was viewed as a possible panacea for the jitters surrounding the anticipated defunding of arts organizations). When it naturally came time to discuss a follow-up joint venture, it was the man from Madison who lobbied hard to pick up the production of "Spain" -- reasoning that "some kind of closure was needed for everyone, and I thought doing a play (Stewart) had deep feelings about was a good way of honoring his memory."

Of his potentially uncomfortable task in piecing together fragments of a departed and very much beloved director's artistic vision, Pietrowski observes that "I was fully aware I might be begging comparisons, but that was a challenge -- and I like confronting challenges like that.

"I also saw picking up the direction of 'Spain' as a rare opportunity to work with an additional collaborator, i.e., Stewart," says the director of the predecessor whose contributions to the production's design and casting have been preserved by the current crew. "I felt as though I was having an ongoing conversation with him that transcended language and time -- which is totally in keeping with the play."

Joining Johansen in the cast are a number of faces both familiar and not-so-familiar upon the Lumia stage, including Angela Della Ventura, Natalie Wilder, Tinton Falls resident Chris Tomaino (co-star of this year's "Winterizing the Summer House") and Philip Lynch, who rehearsed this show even as he was performing a lead role in the recently-wrapped Folie offering "The Adjustment."

Knable, who in praising his "very brave" new director maintains that "there is never just one vision in a production of a play," makes the observation that "without meaning any glibness, I have (Stewart) to thank for one of the most meaningful and intense experiences I have ever had -- and I mean the experience of witnessing his sudden passing.

"I have a better understanding of the human condition in all its frailty and beauty because of this experience," the playwright adds. "And isn't that what artists are supposed to give other people?"

Pietrowski, who sees the hastily-arranged union of the two forward-thinking companies as "something that would have happened anyway," looks at "Spain" as "a metaphysical comedy -- there is both madness and wisdom in the play, working together in a magical way to weave a hilarious web of altered consciousness."

"This is not an escapist fantasy. There's a lot of death in it -- a lot of blood," insists Knable. "There is some genuine silliness, but there's also real danger, chaos, confusion, anger and frustration in it.

"This is a play about confrontation, and it asks everyone to meet it on its own terms." the author stresses. "I'm still engaged in a life and death struggle with it -- someday it will kill me, too. Until then, on with the play!"

Featuring set and full-metal-jacket costume designs respectively by NJ Rep veterans Jeremy Doucette and Patricia Doherty, "Spain" opens this weekend and continues with performances at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and at 2 p.m. Sundays through Sept. 7. After that, the show moves to Playwright Theatre's Madison stage for an additional three-week run. For reservations and other information, call NJ Rep at (732) 229-3166 or Playwrights Theatre at (973) 514-1787.

from the Asbury Park Press

Published on August 8, 2003


Hearts and bones: Make a date for a little 'Adjustment' at NJ Rep

Published in the Asbury Park Press 7/11/03


By TOM CHESEK
Correspondent

Packed with bullheaded, aggressively neurotic characters and punctuated with enough gunplay, grappling and strangulation to give the local cineplex a run for its grosses, the recent plays of Michael T. Folie have veered from meaningful, issues-driven dialogue ("Slave Shack") to mean-spirited diatribes with lots of driving ("Panama").

As playwright in residence with the Monmouth County-based New Jersey Repertory Company, the former Middletown denizen has enjoyed an arrangement shared by few other working dramatists; a relationship that dates back to the company's early-success stagings of his "Naked by the River" and "Unhappy Woman." With "The Adjustment," a bittersweet love story now in its premiere engagement at NJ Rep's Lumia Theatre in downtown Long Branch, Folie shows a more mature, ever so slightly less cynical hand in relating the tale of two people who never really should ever have gotten together.

Addressing the audience with candor -- but never seeming to carve out any real intimacy with anyone else on the planet -- Sharon Gray (Folie veteran Liz Zazzi) is a big-city political lobbyist who's very good at what she does; a backroom-savvy dealmaker who takes justifiable pride in her somewhat shady line of endeavor, even as she's dogged every step of the way by the grim tattoo of the old biological clock. As if somebody fed her a magic potion that caused her to fall tush-over-teakettle in love with the first man she sees, Sharon's spur-of-the-moment appointment for an "adjustment" leads to an arguably ill-advised involvement with Dr. Matthew Cohen (Phillip F. Lynch, who co-starred in the very first NJ Rep production "Ends").

The struggling chiropractor probably couldn't be more wrong for the ambitious lobbyist, being that he's (a) married; (b) suffering from Parkinson's disease; and (c) an orthodox Jew (to Sharon's "sorta-Jew") and devout acolyte of one Rabbi Shimmel, a possibly fraudulent (though undeniably charismatic) figure with an interest in one of Sharon's pet deals.

As played with immense energy and full command of every scene by Zazzi (veteran of everything from "The Taming of the Shrew" to a longtime stint in "Tony 'n Tina's Wedding"), Sharon is a woman who never does anything halfway when there's a deal to be cut; insinuating herself into the gentle-natured doctor's life with the same amount of gusto she brings to the hair-trigger cable franchise negotiation that's got every one of the town's ward bosses salivating.

Offering to tie Dr. Cohen's competitor down in bureaucratic duct-tape; brokering a compromise with the mysterious Shimmel to obtain the rabbi's blessing on a potentially lifesaving (but forbidden) medical procedure for Cohen; Sharon makes the wooing of the unassuming back-cracker her obsessive focus -- even her next project.

There are pitfalls and pockmarks on the deal table, of course. The advance of the doctor's disease leaves little time for any party to sleep on any offered bargain. To give Shimmel what he desires would likely spell the end to Sharon's professional clout and credibility (the scene wherein Sharon meets the sect leader is especially effective and surprising). And, putting aside his conflicted feelings on the dissolution of his family, Matthew would simply never disobey the rabbi, no matter how dire the consequences to his own life and livelihood.

So, there are choices to be made by these people, and regardless of how one reacts to the way things pan out for the star-crossed couple, you've got to admit that the characters and cast (under the supervision of NJ Rep artistic director SuzAnne Barabas) have you very much hooked by play's end -- and that the often fiendishly hilarious Folie has displayed a real knack for drama here.

Maybe a tad too much drama in places. Sharon's confessional monologue revealing the existence of Holocaust victims in her family tree seems tacked on to little or no effect. And having one of the supporting characters dying of cancer is a completely unnecessary device that would have been overkill even in a made-for-Lifetime weeper. Still, the author's instincts are true where the focus remains on Sharon and Matthew; Lynch maintains a solid and subtle touch in a role that calls for tremors, seizures, paralysis and even a bit of ballroom dancing.

There are other men in Sharon Gray's life, and an assortment of them -- a conniving councilman, a Latino fixer, a gay confidante, an ex-boyfriend and Shimmel's serene yet sinister assistant -- happen to be portrayed by a very versatile Daniel B. Utset (with a toolbox full of accents and mannerisms, and a real character player's instinct for cutting to the chase); as if to drive home the point that all of these guys represent variations on the same leitmotif of cynical wheeling and dealing.


Well worth the risk

Latest New Jersey Repertory producting is sometimes dark, but ultimately bright

Monday, June 23, 2003

BY PETER FILICHIA
Star-Ledger Staff

Before the curtain rose on "The Adjustment" on Friday night, Gabor Barabas, executive producer of the New Jersey Repertory Company, told the crowd that his troupe has produced 30 new plays in the five years since it arrived in Long Branch.

What he didn't say, but what was soon evident, is that this comedy-drama is the best of the entire bunch.

Mike Folie's play certainly takes risks. At times, it's so cynical that it comes dangerously close to insulting the Jewish religion, and the people who most believe in it. It's often ugly, too, in how it looks at politicians and the deals they cut.

But even when it swerves into dark territory, it's always entertaining, thanks to its convincing characters and sharp dialogue. Finally, it offers a most satisfying and wonderfully sentimental ending that justifies the means it took to get there.

Sharon Gray is a political lobbyist who's got a crick in her neck. When she finally gets around to visiting a chiropractor, she finds that Dr. Matthew Cohen is an Orthodox Jew with Parkinson's disease. Right away, Folie shows he isn't setting up a usual boy-meets-girl plot -- though he does make these opposites attracted to each other.

Sharon keeps returning because Matthew is quite good in getting rid of her pains. So when his practice is in danger of failing, she uses use her considerable political influence to see that he stays in business. She's not above doing something unethical to make it happen, though that's anathema to him.

As the plot unfolds, many a theatergoer will nod his head, secure that he's figured out where this play is going. Soon, though, he'll be scratching that head, wondering if he can keep up with the surprise after surprise that Folie delivers.

SuzAnne Barabas, New Jersey Rep's artistic director, stages it briskly, but her best decision was to engage one of the state's best's actresses to play Sharon. Liz Zazzi seems to be a mixture of Lucille Ball and Gilda Radner, but ultimately she is her own special creation. Her delicious voice has the quality of a whiskey sour with a spoonful of sugar added. She has eyes that turn sad and tired when she sees that someone is trying to snow her.

Streisand's Fanny Brice in "Funny Girl" claimed she had "36 expressions," but Zazzi has a good dozen more than that. And when she crawls onto Matthew's examining table on all fours, she appears to be a tigress stalking her prey.

Playing a character who is sure of herself and making her endearing isn't an easy task. Zazzi, though, shows that Sharon's penchant for manipulation is just an occupation hazard. The actress also maneuvers well her character's profane vocabulary that would make her right at home in a David Mamet play. In short, Zazzi has a number of "z's" in her name, but her acting certainly won't put anyone to sleep.

As Matthew, Philip F. Lynch has the less colorful role, but he delivers the right amount of sensitivity and sincerity. He has a wonderful bedside manner befitting the most altruistic of doctors. What's more, he beautifully handles a speech on how he came to embrace Orthodox Judaism.

Special credit, too, to Daniel B. Utset, who must play a councilman, a pretentious partygoer, a well-meaning politician, a medical honcho, and a rabbi's secretary. Though his look doesn't much change when his characters do, he does manage to give each a distinct personality.

Theatergoers are urged to adjust their schedules to include "The Adjustment."


There are some subjects you are well advised not to discuss with your in-laws; sex, religion and politics are the big three. Throw in chiropractic versus medical, and you've got the essence of Mike Folie's play The Adjustment, running through July 26 at New Jersey Repertory Company. So don't bring your in-laws.

But don't let that keep you away. The Adjustment is an altogether satisfying character study that weaves those touchy topics into an engrossing, unusual, romantic story. Folie's play isn't a smooth finished product (producer Gabor Barabas calls it a "new play in development"), but you do end up absorbed in the story and involved with the characters, and that's plenty.

Sharon Gray (Liz Zazzi) is a political lobbyist, single, with an inordinate amount of power and a stiff neck. She wants to be rich and have a baby, not necessarily in that order. She visits Matthew Cohen (Philip F. Lynch), an orthodox Jewish chiropractor, married, with a failing practice and an advanced case of Parkinson's disease. He always wanted to be a Rabbi, but settled for cracking bones. Not exactly a match made in heaven. He adjusts her spine (sans her blouse, which is gratuitous mild prurience; Zazzi is jazzy enough fully clothed), and she uses her political muscle to save his practice.
 
Matthew will not have life-saving surgery because his Rabbi forbids the particular procedure, and Sharon is extorting ten million dollars from a real estate developer. She also has the political power to divert a 25 million-dollar cable TV contract with a phone call (a point requiring near-impossible suspension of disbelief), and, oh yes; she also takes her temperature to track her ovulation cycle. That this all hangs together in interesting fashion is a tribute to Folie's story-telling; that the relationship progresses believably from casual to intense wins further praise for character development and dialogue skills. That the two actors interact so naturally is a tribute to their skills and to the intuitive direction of SuzAnne Barabas.

Zazzi has a confident physical presence and wonderfully refreshing freedom of movement and expression. In the small Lumia Theatre, we're up close to the performers, and Zazzi's non-stagy immersion into her character becomes a shared experience. In her natural playing, we know and like Sharon right from the start, and we end up aware that no matter how many times Sharon refers to herself as a chronic liar, she's the one who emerges with real integrity.

While Matthew manipulates Sharon literally, the reverse happens figuratively. Everything that befalls the indecisive doc is at Sharon's direction, but Lynch avoids the wimp factor neatly. Lynch affects the look of a bookish fellow, and Matthew's discomfort with newly aroused feelings and ambitions are well and subtly acted. Can he admit his attraction to Sharon and possibly betray his wife (Miriam, of course)? Is he willing to defy the Rabbi to save his own life? Whatever Sharon wants, Sharon gets; a lesser Matthew would make it too easy. Lynch strikes the right balance between resistance and compliance. Another actor, Daniel B. Utset, plays five vignette scenes that flesh out the story. The technique was the only redeeming feature of Folie's Panama, and here it's 60% effective. The cliché Jewish businessman with an accent that went out with vaudeville and an equally exaggerated nance are hardly worthy caricatures, shamelessly written and acted. But in the second act, both Folie and Utset do a 180: An Hispanic politician, a concerned physician and especially a smarmy, imperious Rabbi's "secretary" are authentically written and very well acted. (Utset makes that last one scary.)

Fred Kinney's set is utilitarian; chiropractic offices aren't exactly haute. It's Jeff Greenberg's lighting design that takes tech honors. Actors and lighting are partners here, shifting smoothly with each other to effectively suggest a number of different settings.

The "play in development" could profit from some tweaking. For one, it needs attention to its comedic possibilities. This smart couple and their situations are ripe for quipping, but the rhythms just miss. For another, the crux of the play rests with an assumption, referred to above, that stretches credulity. Sharon is a lobbyist, neither a party nor political boss; that she could effect a huge deal with a phone call is ludicrous.

After a couple of lesser efforts, The Adjustment is Folie's best play since his excellent Naked By the River. Zazzi removed her shirt in that play also, so maybe it's not so gratuitous after all.

TriCity News
Theatre Review
by Aisha Irvis

GOOD ADJUSTMENT

After a weekend of cocktails and dancing at Club Paradise, I visited the theater - a much-welcomed cultural break from my normal social activities. Sunday afternoon, I headed to the New Jersey Repertory's Lumia Theatre (179 Broadway, Long Branch) to wee a matinee production of "The Adjustment". Now, unlike my esteemed colleague Don Clarke, I'm not really what you would call a theater critic. So I write this review from the point of view of your average Joe who visits the theater maybe once or twice a year. Here goes...

Sharon Gray (Liz Zazzi) is a political lobbyist with lots of in-your-face spunk who visits Dr. Matthew Cohen (Philip Lynch), an orthodox Jewish chiropractor with Parkinson's Disease (no, I'm not setting you up for a joke), after experiencing debilitating neck pain. After several visits to Dr. Cohen, Gray not only comes to know him as a friend, but also learns that an operation that could reverse his medical condition has been forbidden by Cohen's spiritual leader, Rabbi Schimmel. Because of his devout faith in Schimmel, Cohen will not have the life-saving operation performed unless he recieve Schimmel's blessing. This becomes a cause that Gray does not see coming, but nonetheless dedicates herself to.

Overall, I enjoyed the production. The interaction between Cohen and Gray for most of the first act is pretty funny. Lynch brings to the table a very believable performance as Dr. Cohen, and most impressive is the performance of Daniel Utset, who portrays five different and diverse characters throughout the play, including a flamboyant colleague of Gray's, an assistant to the Rabbi, adn an hispanic politian. Although not one of the main characters, I found myself looking forward to seeing Utset appear onstage throughout the show. Zazzi's performance as Sharon Gray was good, although at times I felt the marriage between character and actor was a bit strained.

The set design was cleverly done. It was simple without being tacky, and complimented the intimate space of the theater, which I felt aided in having the audience become more closely involved with the characters and their lives. And, although a little choppy in some places, the play stuck closely to the themes of illness, religion, and humanity. The twist at the end was a bit predictable, but I walked away thinking about the play's messages, and was definitely impacted.

So, in answer to the question "Would you recommend this play to others?" I say yes. "The Adjustment" is well worth the price of the ticket, and is an entertaining and worthwhile way to spend a couple of hours on the weekend.


Theatre Review - The LINK News
NO NEED TO CHANGE "THE ADJUSTMENT"
by Milt Bernstein

In "The Adjustment," by Mike Folie, the fine current offering of the NJ Repertory Company on Broadway in Long Branch, an attractive woman no longer in her twenties who earns her living as a political lobbyist is compelled to treat an aching back by visiting a chiropractor who happens to be an orthodox Jew, for an "adjustment."

With no such background herself, she nevertheless finds herself drawn to this young man, a serious follower of a sect whose members take their morality and their direction from a relatively unknown rabbinical leader.

Due to this and other difficulties which are readily apparent, the relationship of the two dissimilar personalities gives rise to some very amusing situations which makes us think we are watching a comic story. The dialogue is racy, and the situation is delicious.

However, in its second act, the play takes a more serious turn involving a number of adjustments that are not merely physical. How all this evolves makes for a most absorbing and enjoyable theater experience.

In the starring role of Sharon Gray, Liz Zazzi gives an outstanding performance which runs the gamut of theatrical emotions. Philip Lynch offers her fine support as Dr. Matthew Cohen the chiropractor; and a number of small additional parts were well taken care of by Dan Utset.

The good looking set was designed by Fred Kinney; and SuzAnne Barabas, the artistic director of NJ Rep., directed the sometimes fast moving production with a sure hand.

This eminently worth-seeing production will be performed on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm from now though July 27.


Imagination nation: Genesis of plays are innocent hallucinations

Published in the Asbury Park Press 6/20/03

By MICHAEL KAABE
Correspondent

Most theater audiences know that the creation of a play is a developmental process, but where does the creation of a play actually begin? Does it begin with an idea? Does it start with a concept?


THE ADJUSTMENT
A play by Mike Folie
New Jersey Repertory Company
179 Broadway, Long Branch
8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays through July 27
$30
(732) 229-3166


There are as many answers to these questions as there are playwrights. And Mike Folie, a playwright originally from Middletown whose works have been produced on both New York and regional stages for more than a decade, has his own unique way of plying his craft.

"My plays don't originate with ideas," he said over the phone from his home in New York State. "They originate with a single character that appears in my mind. Then the character begins to talk to me. Eventually, I begin to imagine that character interacting with other (imagined) characters. When the interactions seem realistic, I have the origin of a play."

Over the years, Folie has conjured up a catalog of plays that has been produced all over the United States, with at least four of them staged at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. These include "Slave Shack," "Naked by the River" and "An Unhappy Woman."

Folie attended Livingston College of Rutgers University, where he studied acting. He later moved to New York and became a professional actor. "But acting jobs were scarce, and I saw a future for myself in writing for the theater," he said.

While doing a regional acting stint in Oregon, a character appeared in Folie's mind -- and subsequently resulted in a play called "Mobsters," a science-fiction story about the Earth being invaded and occupied by sophisticated aliens who were unpredictably violent.

"I actually optioned 'Mobsters' to a Broadway producer," Folie said. "It remained under option for about two and a half years -- in which I rewrote it about 20 times, with the help of the play's director."

After another six months, the option -- and the project -- were dropped. Around 1990, other works of Folie's began to get produced both in New York and regionally. One of those plays is the story of a woman who is an ambitious political lobbyist. Due to an aching back, she goes to a chiropractor who just happens to be an Orthodox Jew. The story is about the unexpected impact the two people have on each other. Titled "The Adjustment," it will be presented by the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch through July 27.


The New Jersey Repertory Company's production of Mike Folie's "The Adjustment" features Liz Zazzi, Glen Ridge, and Philip F. Lynch, New York.
"Back in 1995 one day, in my imagination -- a female character started talking to me. I thought of just ignoring her, but she kept talking. At that time I was seeing a chiropractor who was an Orthodox Jew. He was suffering from Parkinson's Disease, yet he did not allow his condition to stand between him and his work or his religion. I took the mental image of this female character, and I made her a secular Jew, and created a condition in which the two meet. Then, my play began to take shape. The plot became the conflict that can arise between two people -- both of whom are of the Jewish faith -- but she is a secular Jew and he is Orthodox."

Folie, who is not Jewish, said he thinks the experience of seeing his play should be gratifying and thought-provoking, but the bottom line is that its audience should have a good time.

"My plays don't necessarily have messages," he said. "I hope and intend for my work to examine our society and raise questions about ourselves. Right now, there is a lot of tension and conflict between human beings and institutions. 'The Adjustment' asks questions to which there are no easy answers: How much of our humanness do we give up when we give our lives over to an institution? What do we give up by absenting ourselves from an institution?

"There is the suggestion that there has to be a balance between the demands of the institution and the person's individuality . . . but 'The Adjustment' is not telling anyone what is right. It just asks the questions -- in a realistic but comical way."

Appearing in "The Adjustment" are Liz Zazzi of Glen Ridge, last seen by NJ Rep audiences in "Naked by the River," Daniel Utset of Somerset; and Philip Lynch, of New York, who last appeared here in "Ends." "The Adjustment" is being directed by NJ Rep Artistic director Suzanne Barabas.


Published in the Asbury Park Press 5/01/03

Marie Antoinette in living color at NJ Rep

By TOM CHESEK
CORRESPONDENT


THE COLOR OF FLESH
Through May 25
New Jersey Repertory Company's Lumia Theatre
179 Broadway, Long Branch
(732) 229-3166


It's refreshing, here in these tense times of the Freedom Fry, to encounter someone who serves to remind us just how intertwined the destinies of France and the American colonies were in the waning decades of the 18th century; how the two countries abetted and inspired each other along their very different paths to revolution and beyond. That the messenger is a made-up person in a stage play shouldn't detract from the history lesson, since a spoonful of stagecraft always helps to ease down that historical horse pill.

There's a lot of history going on just outside the palace parlors, terraces and opera houses that comprise the setting for "The Color of Flesh," a period drama by Joel Gross (placed in France in the years between 1774 and 1793) now in its world premiere run at New Jersey Repertory Company's Lumia Theatre in Long Branch. If the real action in this dialogue-heavy character piece (enough rioting, bedhopping, battling and beheading to fill a folio) seems always to be happening offstage -- and if the story unfolds at a pace that can diplomatically be called stately -- it's worth staying with the proceedings to watch a trio of talented players (under the direction of Robert Kalfin) enact a remarkable series of transformations. Besides, as the play spells out, history is made in the boudoir every bit as much as on the battlefield.

At the heart of the text is no less an icon than Marie Antoinette, foreign-born wife of King Louis XVI and a figure both revered and reviled inequal measure by her adopted subjects. As embodied by a young actress named Ursula Freundlich, this Marie is not the larger than life, let-'em-eat-cake diva in a B-52 bouffant that we've come to expect, but rather a frustrated and unhappy 19-year-old virgin trapped in an arranged marriage; as ill-equipped to govern her people as she is clueless about her role in the perpetuation of the royal lineage. Her only apparent confidante here is the real-life court painter Elisabeth Louise Vigee LeBrun, an ambitious commoner with a tart tongue whose confidence in her own beauty and talents are tempered by a tendency to mock the Queen and others in the plump aristocracy who sit for her glossy, flattering portraits.

Played by Margot Ebling with an edgy elegance and a look that suggests classic Vivien Leigh, the artist is seen at the play's outset with a decidely difficult subject -- one Alexis De Ligne (Jacob Garrett White, the guncrazy nihilist of NJ Rep's recent "Panama"), a foppish (and fictional) count in a powdered wig who presumes to know what's best for the peasantry. Playwright Gross can't resist putting some politically charged dialogue into the mouth of this prototype limousine liberal -- particularly a brief rant on the lopsided distribution of wealth and the disappearance of the middle class that's timelier than anything you'll currently see on the TV news -- but when the situation in the fledgling United States heats up, this passionate playboy flips his wig for a chance to join Lafayette's troops.


Ursula Freundlich and Jacob White in a scene from "The Color of Flesh," being presented by the New Jersey Repertory in Long Branch.
Having sold this story as a triangle -- although the complex interrelationships of our three characters would better be represented by the baroque geometry of some Spirograph figure -- the author finds his agent for change in De Ligne's departure for the New World, and subsequent return as a wounded and ultimately disenfranchised outsider. The terrors and turmoil that follow in the wake of the French Revolution will find the Count stripped of lands and legacy, ragged and hungry and appalled by all that's been wrought in the name of lofty ideals. Having suffered a nasty divorce and exile to a largely anonymous life in Austria, Elisabeth the low-born royalist agonizes over her artistic gifts and seethes over the loss of everything she strove for, even as she matures into a true and sincere ally of the deposed Antoinette.

Kept in a cell that's little worse than the glittering prison of her royal marriage, Marie has by play's end effected the most remarkable metamorphosis. Accepting in the face of her fate, the once superficial teen monarch seems a font of wisdom and serenity; never more regal than in the shadow of the guillotine.

Assisting the actors in realizing the shifting priorities of their characters are the exquisitely detailed costumes and makeup designs of Patricia Doherty; Fred Kinney's set is an appropriately blank canvas upon which the various settings are painted with a combination of slide projections and lighting designer Christopher Weston's shadowplay effects. Special attention should also be called to NJ Rep co-founder Gabor Barabas and his always illuminating introductory comments; the good Doctor's combination of motivational pep talk, audience warm-up and classic salespitch being all the reason you need to get to the theatre on time.


Fleshing out history

Colorful people emerge in pre-French Revolution love triangle

Tuesday, April 29, 2003

BY PETER FILICHIA
Star-Ledger Staff

It's not easy being Queen.

What's more difficult, though, is being a low-born woman who aspires to be the queen's friend, not to mention a nobleman's lover. More difficult still for this parvenu is watching the queen take a romantic interest in that same nobleman.

Nevertheless, Joel Gross makes the art of playwriting look easy with his new drama, "The Color of Flesh," currently at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. The three-character play is one of the season's best.

The queen in question is Marie Antoinette, the Austrian who arrived in France to wed Louis XVI in 1770, but stayed a virgin for seven years. The marriage is still unconsummated when Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun comes to court to paint the queen's portrait.

Elisabeth sees painting as her key to fame, fortune and romance -- which is where Count Alexis de Ligne comes in.

At first glance, the count seems to be a mere dandy, from his powdered wig down to his silver-buckled shoes. What makes him interesting is that he senses a revolution is fast approaching. Elisabeth, though, believes that even better days are ahead. "In a few years," she says brightly, "you'll hardly recognize Paris." She's right, but not for the reasons she thinks.

The effects will be felt by all three, but mostly, of course, by Marie Antoinette. Gross shrewdly characterizes the queen as a human being first and monarch second. Granted, at the beginning of the play, Marie treats Elisabeth as if she were a bug under a microscope, but soon she relaxes. They are both 19, which not only bonds them, but means each has a great deal of growing up to do. Alas, they'll have to grow up all too fast -- until they do, they can romp around like girlfriends.

Of course, loving the same man poses a problem. The queen worries that she's looking fat. But Alexis has his own agenda -- a much more important one -- that will take him away from both women. Though all three change, he's the one who transforms the most. Jacob Garrett White makes an impressive segue from fop to freedom fighter.

As Elisabeth, Margot Ebling is a cool social climber, at times a coquette with the count, but at others, unctuous and cavalier to keep him guessing. With Marie, she's expert at maneuvering her way around, ever aware that even a pawn can capture a queen.

Most astonishing is Ursula Freundlich as Marie Antoinette. She makes her into the real person that Gross created, showing that a queen can hoist her gown above her ankles and run around with glee. When she's losing an argument, however, she's not above pulling herself up, giving a haughty gaze, then, in a low voice, uttering a sharp word. An audience cannot help but feel her pain as she goes from carefree young woman to exiled royal.

Veteran director Robert Kalfin directs in a wonderful, freewheeling way that fills the characters with life, making them much more than emotionless paragraphs in history books. He infuses the evening with a great deal of eroticism, too.

What of the play's title? Elisabeth often mentions that she has trouble painting the precise color of flesh. When she finally thinks she's mastered it, the revolution is in full force, making her skill in portraiture hardly a priority among the nobles. "The Color of Flesh" is a not-so-hot title, but it surely is a white-hot play.


The Color of Flesh -a play by Joel Gross – a review by Maureen Nevin

How is a play born? In the case of the NJRep’s latest production, “Color of Flesh”, it was the work of a French woman painter, a portraitist welcomed by the court of the ill-fated King Louis XVI, who lit the path of playwright Joel Gross. Gross was drawn to the paintings of Elisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun and wondered, “What if?”  The result of that thought process is a wonderful vehicle that transports us to this pivotally exciting 20-year chapter in French – and American – history. (pictured Ursula Freundlich and Jacob Garrett White.)

Gross’s mastery with characters, even those whose fame may have transformed them into cardboard parodies over time, emboldens them with life; by infusing them with their own quirks, self-doubts, desires, passions, moral quandaries, and jealousies – all the while imbued with a haunting melancholy. And, he does this without a false note. What could have fallen to cliché, even a line as dangerous as, “Let them eat cake,” becomes a revelation of tragic insight in the hands of this craftsman.

Robert Kalfin, a member of the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers, directs this young cast – for Marie Antoinette was a young girl when joined in marriage to the King of France. Kalfin, using a series of images of French scenes and Le Brun’s paintings, takes us through the characters’ 20-year evolution with great deft. Through his direction, the characters’ body postures even change over time, subtly revealing life’s trials pressing down.

As for the cast, Margot Ebling is as absorbing as an artist struggling with her craft as she is as a commoner grappling with her social caste resentments, a yearning to climb out of her station, and the temptation to use her feminine gifts to do so. But Gross, who has written three roles that actors would kill for, demands far more – adding a passionate attraction between Jacob Garrett White (Alexis de Ligne) for Ebling, who rises as easily to that as she does the complex relationship Gross has also created for her with Ursula Freundlich, as Marie Antoinette.

Freundlich is fascinating as a flirtatious young girl passing through childish play to adolescent arrogance and sexual trepidation into a troubled mother and disillusioned aristocrat. When Freundlich struggles from her bed after giving birth to Louis’s first heir, the viewer quickly forgets how young she is. Freundlich portrays the Austrian-born queen with a mature empathy for her sense of alienation, as she gradually gathers the duties of her royal position to her, ironically finally accepting the weight of her royal commitment in time to pay the ultimate price for it.   

And White supports both women equally well as a testosterone-driven philanderer with a nagging sense of social conscience and later as a liberator of the masses. White convincingly finesses the transition into war torn warrior, whose years of fierce battle test his conviction and maim his proud body. White’s timing is a true gift. He also has that rare ability to project intense sensuality one moment and comedy the next. This is where his sense of timing serves him so well, just a turn of the head and a nod, a look, the audience is convulsed. Watch these three! 

Without preaching, Gross has reminded us of what a short way we have come, that power – whether on the throne or in the clutches of out of control masses – whenever imbalanced is a threat to our freedom. Gross has not only made the French Revolution come alive for us; he’s revisited the question of equality at a time when insensitive deities - despotic corporations and government for the rich - seem destined to imperil human rights. This period play could not be more relevant.


LOVE IN A TROUBLED TIME
Theatre Review
by Don Clarke
triCity Theatre Critic

Mark this one on the calendar. It is the best piece of theatre on the Shore for the 2002-2003 season. I say this even though the season is not yet over.

New Jersey Rep is once again featuring a new work, this time from the pen of Joel Gross, an accomplished author. "The Color of Flesh" is set in 18th century France, the play revolves around two real people and one imaginary character. Marie Antoinette (Ursula Freundlich) is caught in a love triangle. She believes her only true friend is Elisabeth Le Brun (Margot Ebling) - a painter. Le Brun, an actual person, rose form the working class to become a society painter - a tough act for a woman in the age of "Enlightenment". Le Brun is a schemer, trying to have it all, in a world where that entails getting political favors.

They both love Alexis le Comte de Ligne, an impoverished aristocrat with libertarian ideals. This is the imaginary character.

The costumes are lovely, and, sometimes lavish, but don't be fooled, this is not a stuffy period piece. This is a timeless story of love and politics. As occurred in real life, everyone uses Marie Antoinette. We watch her develop from a lonely, naive girl to a complex woman. Her painter friend, Le Brun, is a scheming manipulator, who ultimately discovers she has more integrity than she thought. Alexis is the classic liberal, full of good ideas, and relatively ineffectual.

Their uses of one another and interdependencies change through the years. The two friends constantly assess and attempt to influence Marie, and hence government policy. Marie is haughty, needy, and questions her place in the world. History unfolds around them. They may be merely puppets, not the movers and shakers they imagine themselves to be.

There is a foreign war - the American Revolution, and local turmoil - the French Revolution. There are parallels to today and to any other time. The play is a timely reminder that princes and presidents are humans, who are susceptible to many influences.

These characters breathe and live. One woman in front of me cried through part of the performance. We all sat on the edges of our seats as the inevitable, obvious conclusion was reached.

Robert Kalfin's direction makes the actors shine. I particularly enjoyed Margot Ebling's Le Brun. She portrayed the beautiful, willful, scheming, and ultimately loyal friend to perfection.

The Color of Flesh

The New Jersey Repertory Company presents the world premiere of "The Color of Flesh" at the Lumia Theatre in Long Branch.

by Shelley Treacy
redbank.com

Would you be willing to leave your homeland to fight for freedom? Would you risk your own life to save the one you love? The power and truth of live theater is once again demonstrated by this historic drama written by Joel Gross. Directed by veteran Broadway director Robert Kalfin, the NJ Rep launches a production that is high quality, compelling and very worthwhile.

Whether you are for or against US policies, this play brings to mind an opportunity for reflection and gratitude to those that have made great personal sacrifices in the past and present for equality, freedom and liberty.

Set in France from 1774 to 1793, "The Color of Flesh" chronicles a friendship between Marie Antoinette (Ursula Freundlich) and Elisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun (Margot Ebling) - a portrait artist and the queen's personal confidant. Over the backdrop of historical events during both the American and French Revolutions a fictional love triangle is created with the addition of Count Alexis de Ligne (Jacob Garrett White).

Throughout the play, the audience is guided through the various locations in France and time periods by the use of slides projected onto the back of a clean, minimalist set. The transformation is complete with period music at key intervals and beautiful 18th Century costumes designed by Patricia Doherty.

The play opens with a flirtatious exchange between Elisabeth and her unruly, portrait subject - the Count. Elisabeth, of the lower class and suppressed by her husband, aspires to become famous for painting royalty and aristocrats. Though engaged to be married, the radically, liberal Count's main aspiration is to bed all of the pretty women he encounters especially Elisabeth.

In hopes of winning Elisabeth's affection, the Count agrees to set up a portrait sitting with his fianc?e who is a cousin to Marie Antoinette. This portrait comes to the attention of the Queen and Elisabeth soon fulfills her dream of becoming a court painter. Conveniently, a scandal erupts and the Count soon finds himself without a fianc? and finally convinces Elisabeth to become his lover.

It is through the portrait sittings with Marie Antoinette that the friendship blossoms and the audience is given insight into the world of a lonely, young girl who has been married off for political diplomacy to a man she never met. Though he is King Louis XVI of France, he is much too old and repulsive to satisfy the young Marie Antoinette's desires or interests.

Her friendship with Elisabeth and eventual love affair with The Count enable the Queen to venture out into the world of her subjects in disguise and sets the stage for an intriguing love triangle. In the end it is the Count that displays the character of a true nobleman as he makes the most radical transformation. He left France to fight in the American Revolution a prissy boy, but returns an honorable man who finally marries Elisabeth before being tragically killed while trying to save the Queen after the monarchy falls during the French Revolution.

Through well-crafted dialogue, outstanding performances and a skilled production team, the audience is easily drawn into this historical triangle of the love between friends, the passion of lovers and the revolutions' of two countries.

Theater Review
THE COASTER
By Robert F. Carroll

"COLOR OF FLESH," LOVE AMID THE REVOLUTION

Marie Antoinette, the beautiful young queen of France doomed by the revolution that convulsed her country at the end of the 18th century, is center stage in "The Color of Flesh," a new play by Joel Gross now premiering at the New Jersey Repertory Company.

Sharing center stage with Marie is Elisabeth Le Brun, a contemporary artist who painted the queen's portrait many times, and a womanizing count, Alexis de Ligne. Together, and all gorgeously costumed, the superior cast construct a romantic tangle enticingly spun out by playwright Gross.

Marie Antoinette is Ursula Freundlich and Margot Ebling is LeBrun, the crafty artist, whose friendship with Marie deepens into love even as they both are attracted to--and seduced by--the court hanger-on, Count Alexis (Jacob Garrett White).

Freundlich and Ebling are two actresses at the top of their form. Freundlich maintains a queenly haughtiness, even as the revolution nears the walls of the castle. And even as Ebling, forever the pragmatist, foresees the impending tragedy chillingly foretold by the trip of Marie's husband, Louis XVI, to the guillotine.

Count Alexis is the liberal spirit of the French revolution, who quits the court for three years to campaign in America, which was embroiled in its own revolution. Playwright Gross manages to weave the politics of the times into this engrossing tale of romance under stress.

Robert Kalfin, veteran of many Broadway and Off-Broadway productions and founder of the experimental Chelsea Theater Center, which sparked the Off-Broadway movement directs.

The LINK News April 24 thru April 30, 2003
Theatre Review
'The Color of Flesh'
by Milt Bernstein

For its newest theatrical offering, New Jersey Repertory Company is presenting a first-ever production of a play about one of the most famous queens in history, Marie Antoinette of France.

The three-character work, titled "The Color of Flesh," and written by Joel Gross, also features a second woman, the artist named Elisabeth Le Brun, who as a court painter in the time of Marie Antoinette, painted her portrait many times.

Starting with these bare facts, the author of the play has imagined a close relationship to have developed between the two; and then added both passion and tension in introducing a young nobleman, a count, as lover of them both.

Using a single yet simple set, and with the help of a lighted screen at the back of the stage to record the passages of time and changes of place, the play recounts the saga of an innocent young princess, daughter of the ruler of Austria, who has been betrothed to the future king of France without ever even meeting him; and who is appalled by his person, and his personality, when she does.

Then, as she tries to live up to her role as a queen and give her husband an heir to the throne, she is finally caught in the turmoil of a country in the throes of revolution, brought on by the cruel and extreme indifference of royalty and aristocracy to the misery and poverty of a long-suffering people.

Through all this, the play depicts the artist Elisabeth as being the queen's closest confidante and friend on one side; and on the other, the socially-conscious nobleman receiving her love, but trying to warn her at the same time of the terrible danger facing her whole world if she cannot get the king to change the way the country is ruled.

The inexorable result of course, is the French Revolution and the ensuring Reign of Terror, culminating in the death of the king, Louis XVI, and of Marie Antoinette, as well as their children.

Thus, this eminently-worth-seeing play is a history lesson unfolded in the lives of three persons whose lives are intertwined.

The uniformly excellent portrayals of the three principals, are by Ursula Freundlich as Marie Antoinette, Margot Ebling as the artist Elisabeth Le Brun, and Jacob Garrett White as Count Alexis de Ligne. The director of the play, Robert Kalfin, has had a long and distinguished career of staging productions on New York City's own Broadway, Off-Broadway, in the U.S., Canada, Europe and elsewhere.

Baby plays and Mondays:
The show must go on at NJ Rep series

Published in the Asbury Park Press 4/18/03
By TOM CHESEK
Correspondent

Monday, Monday -- can't trust that day. No, as pages on the calendar go, this first clocking-in of the trad workweek just never caught on with creative types who put the muse into the mundane. Try driving around in search of an open restaurant or a live band on a typical post-weekend evening, as the radio spits out a soundtrack that says "I Don't Like Mondays" or "Rainy Days and Mondays Always Get Me Down."

Look a little closer, and you'll find that the drab foothills of the midweek hump actually play host to a pretty unique entertainment option that's Jersey Shore homegrown and sufficiently established as to have transcended best-kept-secret status. Now several seasons old and fervently supported by a cross-generational core of hipsters, New Jersey Repertory Company's ongoing series of Script-in-Hand Readings soldiers on just about every Monday evening at the troupe's Lumia Theatre in downtown Long Branch.

As the name suggests, these one-shot dramatic productions are performed with script very much in hand --

  • and without benefit of scenery and costumes

  • by a cast of professionals seated on the bare stage of the Lumia's smaller secondary performance space. The 7 p.m. readings are followed by "talk-back" sessions between actors, directors, playwrights and audience members --

  • a device often regarded as a crucial exponent in the evolution of these works in progress. Selected from scads of properties by literary manager and NJ Rep regular Kittson O'Neill, these "baby" plays" sometimes go on to become full-fledged mainstage productions at the Lumia (Joe Pintauro's "The Dead Boy" being one recent example), or are just as likely to mutate into an altogether different creature.

With the weather taking a turn for the warmer on the evening of April 14, a full house took in a tax-day texting of Gary Winter's "Golem," with Winter and director Hayley Finn joining the crowd for this darkly comic riff on the centuries-old Jewish legend of the avenging man of clay, and its curious impact on the sex life of a compulsive liar and career layabout (deftly played by David Neiman, himself the author of "The Viagra Monologues"). Things weren't quite so sunny on the previous Monday, when early April's freak snowstorm threatened to put a damper on a reading of Ken Prestininzi's "A Stronger Faith," even as the playwright and noted stage-screen actress Salome Jens flew in from Los Angeles expressly for this one-time performance.

Although it played to sparse attendance, the "Faith"-based initiative went on as planned -- and it was followed by what was described by NJ Rep co-founder SuzAnne Barabas as "a very lively question-and-answer session." Even the President's Day blizzard of a couple months back couldn't totally cheese the deal, with that evening's scheduled performance of Mary Fengar Gail's "Wormwood Chronicle" done as a table reading -- something just this side of a seance -- and a more fully realized rendition of the play rescheduled for May 5.

Having already stared down the worst of Mother Nature, Barabas cheerfully vouches that "when the floods come, we'll all be sitting on top of the table, delivering a floating performance."

The Script-in-Hand series continues on April 28 with playwright Vladimir Zelevinsky directing his own "Brief History of the Soviet Union," a time-tunnel tumble that promises a full "100 years in 100 minutes." The aforementioned "Wormwood" follows on May 5, with May 19 bringing the quasi-biographical "Darwin and Fitzroy" (by Joel Gross, author of current mainstage offering "The Color of Flesh"). Jim Henry's "The Seventh Monarch" will be read on June 30, and Mike Folie's "Lemonade" is slated for July 21 (concurrent with NJ Rep's run of Folie's "The Adjustment"). Other readings will be announced for July 14, as well as for a slew of dates in August, September, October and November.

Admission to the 7 p.m. events is free and seating is first come-first served; call (732) 229-3166 to reserve, or "just show up."


When art inspires art: Playwright describes birth of ideas

Published in the Asbury Park Press 4/18/03
By MICHAEL KAABE
Correspondent

Eighteenth-century Europe always has been an interesting subject to playwright Joel Gross, but it took an experience he had in an art museum to inspire him to write his latest work.


THE COLOR OF FLESH
A play by Joel Gross
Presented by the New Jersey Repertory Company
179 Broadway, Long Branch
8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays through May 25
$30
(732) 229-3166


"I don't usually go looking for a subject about which to write," Gross explained during an interview last week. "The subject just draws me to it."

That is exactly what happened a few years ago, when Gross visited an art museum in Pasadena, Calif.

"I saw this beautiful portrait of a Polish countess, and I noticed that it was painted by an 18th-century artist named Elisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun," said Gross. "I later found out that she was very important to the history of women in art."

Gross later discovered that Le Brun painted Marie Antoinette as a subject more frequently than anyone else, and that she was also exactly the same age as the infamous French queen.

"This really excited me," Gross said, "so I did some additional research on Le Brun, only to discover that Le Brun started life as a commoner, subsequently raising herself socially, through her expertise as an artist, to become a peer of the queen. Le Brun was also very beautiful, and that worked for her as well as against her."

Gross took the idea of Le Brun's friendship with Marie Antoinette, added a fictional character named Count Alexis De Ligne, then created a love triangle that is backdropped by the French revolution -- and voila! A play was born. It's called "The Color of Flesh," and it is receiving its world premiere at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch this weekend.


ED CURRY photo

Jacob Garrett White as Alexis and Margot Ebling as Elisa rehearse a clinch in the New Jersey Repertory Company's production of "The Color of Flesh," opening this weekend in Long Branch.
"Writing for the theater is very different than writing for the screen," Gross pointed out. "In movies, images drive the story, whereas on stage, words drive the story."

Once Gross realized he had a full, solid story to tell, his play made him think about its contemporary meanings, if any.

"In order to create the love triangle, I had to create a real, live character," Gross said. 'So, I made Count Alexis a limousine liberal -- in other words, he's a guy who never worked a day in his life, always enjoyed the pleasures of being rich and privileged, yet his heart and mind focus on the poor and hungry. Later in the play, when the revolution is over and so many people are devastated and wiped out (including the Count), Le Brun accuses him of being a radical -- because he advocated more power to the people.

"Today, we have a lot of people who advocate for the poor and homeless but don't have a really accurate idea of how to help them. More power may not be the answer. So, the play may make us think about the disparities between the rich and poor in our own time -- or at least make us aware of what's going on in our own society."

The play's bottom line is still a love story, the playwright insists.

"It covers a span of 19 years," Gross said. "It begins right before the French Revolution, and continues through the Revolution and afterward. Yet, this is not a play about politics and governments; it is a play about love and passion."

Love and passion are exactly what Gross feels in regard to working in theater. An accomplished novelist and screenwriter (with such films as "No Escape" and Blind Man's Bluff" to his credit), Gross said that staging a world premiere at the New Jersey Repertory Company has been a wonderful experience.

"When you write for the movies, they (the producers) don't care a thing about you or what you're trying to say as a writer. They just grab your script, toss out what they don't like, then give it to someone else to rewrite," he said. "But working in theater is so different. Even though this is my play, I am still in collaboration with a director. In other theaters where I have had a new play staged, if I got an idea, I was instructed to tell the director."

But here, my director, Bob Kalfin -- he's the sweetest man -- he has no ego attached to this. If, while rehearsing I get an idea, I can just tell the actor directly."

Gross also enjoys the commodious, homelike feeling of working in Long Branch.

"What we're doing here is what is usually done in New York -- that is, we are opening a brand new play for the first time," the playwright said. "But we're an hour and a half away from New York, and free of the pressures that you have there. This is a friendly, mutually supportive environment where we, the creative team and the actors live and breathe this play. It's an ideal place for a playwright to work on a world premiere."


Painter's affairs of state

Friday, April 11, 2003

BY PETER FILICHIA
Star-Ledger Staff

A trip to a museum has led to a play at a theater.

Two years ago, playwright Joel Gross went to the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, Calif., and found himself intrigued by the work of an 18th-century female portraitist. The visit resulted in "The Color of Flesh," which begins a world premiere run at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch on Thursday.

"I saw this beautiful portrait of a countess painted by Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun, a name that didn't exactly ring a bell to me," Gross said.

He was so enamored of the work he began researching Le Brun (1755-1842). Gross discovered Le Brun had painted more portraits of Marie Antoinette than any other painter of the era.

"With all the sittings they had, they had to have spent plenty of time together," Gross said of the painter and the doomed French queen. "If Marie continued to allow her to paint her, there must have been something approaching a friendship -- especially considering that they were exactly the same age."

Gross also discovered that in the mid-1770s, Le Brun was greatly regarded as a beauty, but far less admired as a painter. "She came from the lower class and was determined not to stay there," he says. "Everyone had suspicions of how she got as far as she did."

"The Color of Flesh" has Le Brun at 19 in a love affair with Count Alexis de Ligne, who is her entrée to the queen. "Marie was impressed with her," Gross says, "for Elisabeth had sexual experience and she had none -- even though she was already married to (the teenaged and sickly) Louis XVI."

Setting the play in the context of the liberté, egalité and fraternité of the French Revolution adds to the drama. "Elisabeth rues that she's the first in her family to have a servant -- and now comes the revolution," Gross says.

"The Color of Flesh" is Gross' first produced play. The Los Angeles-based writer concedes his Hollywood career hasn't been stellar. He wrote a 1992 TV movie called "Blind Man's Bluff," was one of three writers on the box office flop "No Escape" in 1994, and did an uncredited rewrite on the highly successful "The Mask of Zorro" in 1998.

He has had more success as a novelist. "The Books of Rachel," a fictional microcosm of 500 years of Jewish history, was a 1979 best seller. "I did a lot of historical fiction," he says. "I did the Irish and Americans, too, before I got to the French."

When Gross finished the play, he brought it to Dan Lauria, best known as Fred Savage's father on the television series "The Wonder Years" in the late'80s and early'90s, and a champion of new playwrights.

"Dan's the source of all sustenance of all L.A. playwrights," Gross says. "He gets wonderful people to do readings. One I had for this play starred Lou Diamond Phillips and Nancy Travis, and another had Julia Roberts and Elizabeth Shue in it."

The Long Branch production has three New York actors: Margot Ebling as Elisabeth, Ursula Freundlich as Marie, and Jacob White as Alexis.

After the readings in Los Angeles, Lauria suggested that veteran New York director Robert Kalfin should direct "The Color of Flesh." Kalfin cast Meryl Streep in her first Broadway lead in "Happy End" in 1977. He brought "Yentl" to Broadway, where Barbra Streisand saw it and bought the movie rights for herself. He was also artistic director of the Chelsea Theatre Center in New York from 1965 through 1982.

Kalfin read and liked "The Color of Flesh," and because he had heard about New Jersey Rep's policy of mounting new plays, brought it there. The director turns 70 during this production.

"My grandfather lived to 103, and my mother is 93," he says. "As long as there are plays as exciting as 'The Color of Flesh,' I'll never feel old."


 

Z•E•S•T
Lumia offering teens a ticket on ‘theatrexpress’
Program’s aim is to give teens a place to tell their stories
By gloria stravelli
Staff Writer

CHRIS KELLY Actor Christopher Tomaino, of Tinton Falls, is head of a new theater arts program specifically for teens at the New Jersey Repertory Company, Long Branch.

Young people navigating the turbulent teen years don’t have a voice in many art forms, and theater offers an outlet for creative expression and a place where teens can find affirmation of their experiences, according to local actor Christopher Tomaino.

"The arts in general, and theater specifically, is really one of the only places where their lives and their experiences are respected and interesting, and worthy of performance and celebration, because they are a great part of society, with all their ups and downs and craziness," said Tomaino, head of a new theater program for teens at Long Branch’s New Jersey Repertory Company.

The Tinton Falls actor can draw on his own early interest in theater in shaping "theatrexpress," an intense, conservatory-like program geared to 13- to 18-year-olds.

"I first started doing theater when I was in high school. I secretly wanted to for many years, but I was a very shy kid. Not until I was 16 did I actually get up the nerve to do it," admitted the Tinton Falls actor.

"I loved theater as a kid. I loved the majesty and mystery of it. So I used to watch old black-and-white movies and musicals on TV. It became a slight obsession," quipped Tomaino. "I knew the lyrics to every musical ever written.

"You know you’ve found what you’ve been looking for all your life when you step into it," he said. "It feels like finally putting on the perfect pair of shoes that you can walk the rest of your life in."

Tomaino immersed himself in musical theater, appearing in community theater productions at The Barn at Thompson Park, where Angela Flynn Knox became his mentor, and at Brookdale Community College, where he currently teaches theater appreciation.

The Deal native didn’t get a chance to try his hand at drama until completing studies at Monmouth University and beginning graduate school.

"I always wanted to do nonmusical things — to be challenged in that way," said Tomaino, who said his experience in graduate school provided a new focus.

"It was like living in this little house and loving it and opening the door and realizing all around were really great things, too," he explained. "I found another interest, and it was like feeling complete. Doing musical theater all those years was wonderful, but something was missing. Being classically trained, doing Shakespeare, was such a huge challenge, it was liberating."

Following grad school, Tomaino moved to New York and worked extensively in touring companies and off-Broadway productions.

When he noticed a call for actors placed by New Jersey Repertory founders Gabor and Suzanne Barabas, Tomaino was curious.

"I wrote to them and asked, ‘Who are you?’ he said. ‘If you are a theater company in Monmouth County, I have to know you. I grew up here and have done theater all my life.’

"I’ve been in the company ever since," continued Tomaino, an original member of the theater company who was cast in NJ Rep’s first staged reading of a play called Maggots.

He has subsequently performed in other readings in NJ Rep’s popular "Script-in-Hand" series and in a production of the drama Octet.

On Friday, Tomaino will open as the lead in Winterizing the Summer House, the world premiere of a drama by Gino DiIorio at the Long Branch theater company’s Lumia Theatre on Broadway.

His character, Stephen, is a photographer who’s had a successful career in the resort community of Martha’s Vineyard but hasn’t gotten the recognition he desires.

"He’s at a frustrating point in his career. He’s had professional success, but he can’t seem to get to the next level in his career," Tomaino explained. "He can’t quite get into the commercial aspect of his work. He can’t seem to sell photos in order to make a living off that."

The up-and-coming photographer, his young photo editor and his down-and-out mentor all converge on a summer house for a final season, as the house has been sold. Each brings dreams, memories and rivalries that are stirred up, and they struggle not to become mired in the passions and regrets of the past.

For Tomaino, who moved back to Monmouth County last year, it’s a case of art imitating life.

"He doesn’t have power over it, much like the acting gig. I left New York and moved back because after 12 years I wasn’t getting where I wanted to be. My last job was understudy in one of worst off-Broadway plays ever written. I thought, This is not where I want to be. I should be doing better, more important work. I should be working with people better than me. I should still be struggling to understand what it’s all about, and I’m not.

"My character is at a very similar place artistically; he’s successful but he hasn’t gotten recognition."

Returning to Monmouth County has given Tomaino the opportunity to take his own experience as a teen interested in theater and translate that into a new theater program for teens based at NJ Rep.

As director of education for the theater company, he is working out the details of theatrexpress, which will sponsor two six-week workshops from mid-February to March, and April to May, during which students will learn all aspects of performance including acting, voice and movement. Scholarships will be available to students in need of financial assistance, he said.

As a teacher at a high school in Somerset, Tomaino is in touch with the fact that teens do not have a voice that is represented in the theater community so the program will incorporate the opportunity to write their own material.

"I’m really fascinated with the point of view of teen-agers because they don’t have a voice in the theatrical community," he explained. "As a teacher, I look at some of them and I think they have a really unique perspective on the world. They have a lot to say, and as I sit and watch them go through their lives I wonder what they are thinking.

"They’re the group that, even though they want to be heard, they’re very reluctant to speak. I really want to nurture their creative expression. I want them to perform their own and each others’ written work."

With prodding from Gabor Barabas, Tomaino began to develop a concept for the program based on his own experience.

" ‘What did you do when you were this age?’ " Tomaino said Barabas asked him. "Nothing. I didn’t have anything," Tomaino said he responded. " ‘Barabas persisted: ‘What would you have liked to have done?’

"In the back of my mind is the question of what kind of program would have really made me interested and excited and participatory. What would it be about for me?

"So that’s kind of in the back of my mind as I go about putting this together," Tomaino observed.

"This program will be about their own personal journey, expressed through every tool — voice, body, mind — they have as actors. It will be an all-around exploratory thing," he said.

Future plans call for an intensive summer theater camp program for the same age group.

"I would love to bring in other theater artists to do mask workshops, stage combat, music, all that stuff," said Tomaino, who is currently exploring funding avenues.

In addition, NJ Rep has assembled a troupe of professional actors who perform theater for young people.

As part of Family Week, an event sponsored by the New Jersey Theater Alliance, the company will present an original rock musical for children titled The Grumpy Giant during the first week of March.

Tomaino can speak firsthand about the affirmative role theater can play in young people’s lives.

"Their experience is important, and the theater is the place to express it. We hear about these tragedies involving kids who never said anything. This is the place they can come with their peers and share their experiences."


Theater Review
from The Two River Times
by Philip Dorian

WORLD PREMIERE DRAMA SUCCEEDS SPLENDIDLY

Ideally, if a play's any good, you go in not knowing anything about the characters, and two hours later you know them intimately - better maybe than they know themselves. So it is with Winterizing the Summer House, a play by Gino DiIorio that succeeds splendidly as both drama and comedy in spite of its cumbersome title. In this smooth, intelligent play, siutations evolve naturally and the dialogue flows conversationally, revealing three characters who command you fondness. Until Steven, Abbi and John need to tell stuff to one another, there's no extraneous exposition. The subtle, insightful direction is barely perceptible; under Jacqueline Berger's astute hand, these people's motivations and actions seem inner directed. And the acting is superb. Comparing plays defies apple-to-applesness, but this play ranks among New Jersey Repertory Company's best.

College teacher and photographer Steven (Chris Tomaino) and his apprentice Abbi (Dana Benningfield) are wrapping up a summer of work on Martha's Vineyard, where he snapped and she developed photos of things, places and people. most notably consenting women on the nude beach. Only now, on the next-to-last day, do they even contemplate a possible romantic involvement. (That's a real stretch, considering the isolated setting, the collaborative nature of their work and the flat-out good looks on 'em both, but it's essential to the play).

John (John FitzGibbon), a former academic colleague of Steven's shows up unannounced, ostensibly for a social visit and some fishing. He's actually packing a ton of baggage (not suitcases) and a needy agenda. Scenes ensue among the three of them and alos between the three possible twosomes. So smooth are the segues and so slick is the acting, that none of the entrances and exits, carefully times as they may be, appears contrived.

Tomaino's role is the least flashy, but to say he contributes less than the others is like saying Dean Martin was less than half of that team. Steven is conflicted toward Abbi, conflicted toward John, and really conflicted toward Abbi and John. His integrity actually gets in his way, but straight arrow that the character might be, Tomaino explores layers of Steven well beyond th obvious. Benningfield is a sublime actor. She does more while listening than most do speaking, and more with a glance than most with a flourish. If Abbi is not both virtuous and eminently desirable, Winterizing doesn't work. Benningfield's Abbi is both, and the play definitely works.

FitzGibbon plays a character given to extremes: John is a boisterous alcoholic, subject ot mood swings, self-deception and occasional outbursts. In short, Mr. DiIorio's character John overacts. But Mrs. FitzGibbon's son John does not. The dissolute, aging academic is not exactly an original figure, but when craftily written and acted, as here, he's a venerable one. (His morning-after hangover - agin, not overacted - actually left me cotton-mouthed.)

Fred Kinney's set design is masterful. A perspective and a slight rake deepen the space, and this summer house comes with a deck and a ramp to the beach. The lighting design (Jeff Greenberg) not only capture the times of day perfectly, but we even sense approaching autumn.

The play is about emotional neediness, academic integrity and important stuff like that, but it doesn't stint on humor. These are intelligent people and their repartee, sometimes coarse, often sarcastic, scores a direct hit on your brain's funny bone. Small cast plays, especially full length ones, often rely on external devices to supplement their sparse population: Phone conversations, for example, or pivotal other characters who never appear. Not so with Winterizing. It all happens in-house and in near-real time, with other people mentioned only to flesh out DiIorio's trio.

Winterizing certainly isn't perfect; one can question some of the behavior, and the ending is vaguely unsatisfying - either too abrupt or too protracted, not sure which. But this is the play's first professional production, and there are inches (well, yards) to go before they sleep. Besides, how can you quibble about a play that shows you how to concoct a margarita right in your mouth? Now if DiIorio will only dump that title.


theatre review

Winterizing the Summer House

Escape the winter doldrums and enter a world of sex, sand and the fine arts at NJ Rep's Lumia Theatre in Long Branch. Compelling world premiere drama and photography exhibit not to be missed.

In Gino Dilorio's drama "Winterizing the Summer House", three characters explore their dreams, desires and memories during the final days of summer at Martha's Vineyard.

The play opens with Steven (Chris Tomaino), a struggling, ambitious photographer and academic, trying to finalize the selections for yet another submission to the Museum of Modern Art. He has embarked on this quest many times before with no success and thus has turned to a position at a local university as an opportunity for stability and recognition. This year the subjects of his latest photo series are from the local nude beach and during the opening scene he struggles with the decision of whether to include a portrait of a woman that has revoked her permission to use the photograph.

A local island girl, Abbi (Dana Benningfield) has spent the summer as his assistant and hopes to continue this position when Steven returns to school. This will be her chance to leave her small-town life behind and pursue her two greatest passions - photography and Steven. As the opening scene continues, Abbi has successful convinced Steven to join her for a romantic dinner - an agreement that was reached after a very passionate kiss.

As the couple prepare for a romantic evening together, their tryst is interrupted by the arrival of Steven's former mentor John (John FitzGibbon). John, a has-been novelist, with a roving eye for the co-eds and an affinity for fine wine, makes a boisterous entrance and is the catalyst for stirring up the past and bringing uncertainty to the union of Steven and Abbi. John will also challenge his friendship with Steven as he desperately seeks support for reclaiming his position at the university. The tension rises as Steven sorts out his feelings for Abbi and his obligation to John - a difficult task since Abbi is his young prot? and he disdains John's freewheeling lifestyle of booze and young women.

Directed by Jacqueline Berger, this cast has great chemistry and easily draws the audience into seductive encounters and intense moments as Steven, Abbi and John try to reconcile their relationships with past memories and present desires during the close of the summer season. Though categorized as a drama, "Winterizing the Summer House" has many humorous and entertaining moments. With set design by Fred Kinney, lighting design by Jeff Greenberg and sound design by Neal Arluck, this unique black-box stage has been transformed into the perfect beach cottage, complete with deck, sand and squawking seagulls.

As a companion to this world premiere production, audience members also have the opportunity to view the work of photographer Stephen DiRado. The "Beach People" series features a variety of local subjects enjoying the clothing-optional beaches at Martha's Vineyard. While the playwright Gino Dilorio insists that his friend DiRado is not actually the character Steven of the play, it is clear that the photographer and his work provided a strong inspiration. The exhibit provides a unique opportunity for the audience to develop their own parallels between the onstage performance and the actual photographs.


Review: 'House' finds a home in Long Branch

Published in the Asbury Park Press 2/04/03

By TOM CHESEK
CORRESPONDENT

"There's nothing more depressing than a beach house after Labor Day, "declares one of the trio of frustrated creative types in "Winterizing the Summer House," a drama in its world-premiere engagement at the New Jersey Repertory Company. Those of us who live for the off season might beg to differ, but for the people onstage at the Lumia Theatre in Long Branch, the waning days of summer are no day at the beach.


WINTERIZING THE SUMMER HOUSE
A play by Gino Dilorio
New Jersey Repertory's Lumia Theatre
179 Broadway, Long Branch
Performances through March 2
$30
(732) 229-3166


In the Martha's Vineyard setting of Gino Dilorio's three-character mood piece, we are first introduced to Steve (Chris Tomaino), a young photographer and educator who's just received a big promotion in his academic career -- and who has spent the past few seasons attempting to capture the attention of the gallery world by snapping the habitues of the nearby nude beach. His assistant Abbi (Dana Benningfield) is a talented townie whose developing and printing skills have become indispensable to Steve -- and who appears to have developed something of a crush on the work-obsessed lensman. While these two NJ Rep mainstays navigate the shoals and shallows of their roles with dexterity, they'd probably be the first to admit that this cautiously cute couple just aren't the stuff of two compelling hours in and of themselves.

Into every swimsuit must come some sand, and as if on cue -- in fact, mere minutes into the play -- the cottage takes a turn for the cattywampus withthe unexpected arrival of John (John FitzGibbon), a down-on-his-luck novelist and former mentor of Steve's with a sweet tooth for the sauce and a bloodshot eye for the very young ladies. These career-killing pursuits have more or less brought the fallen faculty member to Steve's back-porch doorstep, and come to provide more than enough fuel for some interesting intrapersonal dynamics over the course of the evening.

The introduction of such a plot-complicating fly-in-the-ointment is just one of many time-tested theatrical conventions observed by Dilorio's script, which comes fully equipped with factory-standard devices ranging from boozy confessions and dredged-up secrets, right on down to the manner in which one of the characters chooses to make their escape from the vacation hotspot known ominously to many locals as The Rock.

So then, how to go about summarizing the "Winterizing?" Suffice to say that the three principals mix and match in some often devastating ways -- and if their problems still don't add up to a hill of beans, they at very least put three talented players through a brisk jog in the salt air. Standing out in the showiest role, FitzGibbon seems at first to channel the spirit(s) of Richard Burton in his gin-soaked Virginia Woolf glory, all jocular sarcasm barely masking a bottomless well of despair, dashed hopes and devastated relationships. As the lost weekend wears on, however, John the commanding character actor really sets up shop inside the stooped and sagging figure of John the piece of human driftwood, appearing so completely used up by play's end that it's almost amazing to see the guy standing up and smiling at curtain call.

It sort of makes sense, then, that the bright and lovely Abbi would feelsome attraction toward this red-eyed rascal, who in his own perverse way at least carries a whiff of the America beyond the place that she maintains is smothering her -- a freedom that doesn't seem to exist within the arms of the ever-hesitant hunk with the box camera. Steve is therefore made to feel like the odd man out; the artist driven by his search for some elusive image, yet perplexed by his inability to see and state the obvious.

Under the direction of Jacqueline Berger, the capable cast is aided enormously by Jeff Greenberg's richly textured and evocative lighting, as well as by a Fred Kinney set design that uses the Lumia stage's unusual depth-to-width aspects to create a three-layer shadowbox scene, which even features a strip of sandy shore that could qualify for an Army Corps beach replenishment project by the end of the show's run.

In a welcome bit of synergy, the theater is concurrently displaying some of photographer Stephen DiRado's "Beach People" series, featuring a smorgasbord of subjects snapped on the sands of the Vineyard's clothing-optional beaches. While playwright Dilorio has insisted that his friend Stephen is not actually the Steve of the play, the photographer and his work served as a profound inspiration for the drama, and savvy oglers will have a figurative field day discerning parallels between the images and specific events referenced onstage. Both play and exhibit continue Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through March 2.


Theme from A Summer Place

Published in the Asbury Park Press 1/31/03
Whether you're a summer-only resident of these parts -- or the most vehement of "bennies begone" banner-wavers, you've probably been touched at some point by the peculiar brand of melancholy that heralds the off-season at the Shore -- when porch furniture and kiddie rides disappear beneath sheets and tarpaulins; when the light turns to gold and the sea breezes turn steely.


Toon by Tom Chesek

WINTERIZING THE SUMMER HOUSE
A play by Gino Dilorio
New Jersey Repertory Company's Lumia Theatre
179 Broadway, Long Branch
8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays through Feb. 23
$30
(732) 229-3166


Ray Bradbury nailed the vibe just right in his classic story "The Lake," and Woody Allen set one of his biggest cinematic bummers in a "September" populated by moody method actors. VH1 fans out there could even make reference to the breakup ballad "Seasons Change" by Expose, whose video featured those now-forgotten ladies of the '80s washing the boys of summer out of their hair as they put the beach house down for a long winter's nap.

Here on the verge of February, our thoughts begin to creak inexorably toward warmer weather. In the Martha's Vineyard of "Winterizing the Summer House" -- a new drama receiving its world premiere at the Lumia Theatre in Long Branch -- the New Jersey Repertory Company turns back the clock a bit, offering up characters who are desperate to squeeze the last few drops of life from the summer season, even as the things they value most in their own lives begin to slip through their fingers.

"The play isn't really about Martha's Vineyard -- it's about the summer place and what the summer place takes from you," said New York-based playwright Gino Dilorio, a Vineyard vacationer himself and frequent visitor to the Jersey Shore. "We go back to the beach in summer, we take our clothes off, go back to our origins, try to recapture our youth -- somehow, even as a kid, it always left me feeling hollow, when it was supposed to make me feel enriched and alive."


MICHAEL SYPNIEWSKI photo

Dana Benningfield plays Abbi and John FitzGibbon is John in Gino DiIorio's "Winterizing the Summer House."
Completed in 2000 and performed previously at the Lumia as a script-in-hand reading in August 2001, Dilorio's three-character piece -- a top finalist in a number of play-writing competitions -- brings together Steven, a young photographer whose star is on the ascendant (Chris Tomaino of Tinton Falls), his dedicated photo editor Abbi (Dana Benningfield) and his washed-up mentor figure John (John FitzGibbon) for a few days of what was supposed to be a little late-season r'n'r. It isn't long before the house that once signified escape boils over with old rivalries, dashed hopes and hurt feelings.

Under the supervision of director Jacqueline Berger, the cast assembles a group of talents with some formidable NJ Rep credits from either side of the stage (Benningfield and her late husband Stewart Fisher ranked as charter members of the troupe, and Tomaino will soon be taking on the position of director of education for the company).

According to the playwright, "The characters find their lives weighted down by the popular summer haven that's not always favorably referred to as The Rock. "John is in kind of a spiral that he can't pull out of. Steven is on a different kind of spiral, further and further into his work -- all his relationships are seen through the camera. Abbi is in the middle of all this -- she feels the weight of the island; what the summer place is to everyone else, is really a ball and chain to her."

Still, Dilorio is quick to point out that "the play has a lot of humor, "But I'm not going to lie to you; these characters kind of crash into each other, and when that happens, there's going to be some tension," he said."

Featuring a set design by Fred Kinney, costumes by Pat Doherty and lighting and sound by Jeff Greenberg and Neal Arluck respectively, "Winterizing the Summer House" has its world-premiere opening tonight. Performances continue on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., along with Sunday matinees at 2 through Feb. 23 -- with a "keepin'-the-summer-alive" extension to March 16 well within the realm of possibility.