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"Tilt Angel" soars at NJ Rep in Long Branch
Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 10/18/05

You've got to hand it to Gabe and SuzAnne Barabas and their surrogate family at New Jersey Repertory Company. While much of their concerns in running a small and scrappy professional stage company fall into the realm of the pragmatic and logistical -- scraping together funds; putting butts in seats; making sure said butts are heated or cooled to a reasonable comfort level -- the troupe has seldom played it even remotely safe in its choices of featured presentations.

Flash back to "Beyond Gravity," the Ruth Wolff drama that occupied the main stage of the Rep's Long Branch facility in April. A dense, difficult piece packed with poetic soliloquies and dreamlike atmosphere, the play featured actors who were more concepts than characters and dead-end plot points that were drenched in metaphor -- hardly the stuff of crowdpleasing closure. Other offerings from "Spain" and "Whores" to "Child's Guide to Innocence" have similarly played out inside the heads of their protagonists, with results that ranged from mind-blowing to merely head-scratching.

"Tilt Angel," the play now in its world premiere engagement at the troupe's Lumia Theatre, has a lot in common with those other productions (as well as such cultural resources as Tennessee Williams, Eugene O'Neill, David Lynch and, trust us, "Swamp Thing" comics).

It's an oddball show that tackles some big dramatic themes -- abandonment and reconciliation; confrontation and denial; hometown roots and escape routes -- in a colorfully convoluted and largely comic fashion. What this puzzler has over "Gravity" and other such arty-facts is an honest-to-goodness entertainment value that comes courtesy of a solid cast of Rep regulars and rookies.

In the award-winning script by Texas playwright Dan Dietz, a strange (and none too terribly bright) young man named Ollie (Ian August) remains a recluse within his family home in some dusty Tennessee backwater. He's been living in self-imposed exile since the plane-crash death of his mother Lois (Andrea Gallo), obsessively cleaning house and dreading any incoming calls from the monstrous hearse-black telephone on the table. His father, Red (Ames Adamson), stays holed up in the meantime at his neighborhood auto body repair shop, channeling his frustration through hammer and hacksaw and neglecting not only his slowly starving son but his once-proud vegetable garden -- an evil-looking tangle of tubes and vines that threatens to consume the entire family homestead.

This standoff of domestic stasis can't continue -- not when it becomes evident that somebody must finally pick up Lois's boxed remains after some nine years. Traveling to the vaguely mystical "Airplane Place," Ollie encounters an ethereal guide in the person of Angel Bones (Reginald Metcalf) -- a serene if somewhat less than heavenly presence in tattered wings, filthy airline uniform and carnivale mask.

What follows can perhaps only be described as a fantastic voyage through phone lines, loamy underworld and chilly stratosphere; featuring local stops at transcendence, epiphany, resurrection and rebirth.

Strong cast
Director Cailin Heffernan knows how to sell a show, and her cast follows suit. Looking like a battered Mardi Gras figure left behind in receding floodwaters, Metcalf uses his mellow-toned singing voice to keynote the action with a series of Dietz-penned blues ballads. While the angel's motives are sometimes a tad suspect, the actor comes close as anyone to providing a Zen center to the often frenzied proceedings.

Adamson takes absolute command of his role as the grizzled, sweaty, maimed (but not unloving) third-generation fix-it man. Expressing emotion as much with a toolbox as with stage-honed tonsils, the versatile actor provides a genuine source of energy and intensity.

August is an inspired fit for the weak and needy (yet ultimately resolute) Eminem-look-alike Ollie, a boy who pines for his momma even after she died attempting to forge a new life apart from him and her stuck-in-the-mud husband (for whose disfigurement Ollie bears no small responsibility). For a character who's supposed to be dead from the get-go, Gallo is able to take centerstage with her wordy and challenging role.

The crew members assembled here by tech director Quinn K. Pawlan (including scenic designers Randy Lee Hartwig and Matthew Campbell, costumer Patricia Doherty, light source Jill Nagle, sound expert Merek Royce Press and puppetmaster Jessica Scott) make this show move and flex and function, from Red's workbenched hand, to that giant phone, jigsaw-puzzle walls, hammered-steel wings and an especially eye-popping stage effect that climaxes the first act.

A fairy tale that's seriously off kilter

Wednesday, October 19, 2005
Star-Ledger Staff

Let's put this as nicely as possible: With its production of "Tilt Angel," New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch firmly establishes itself as the state's premier experimental theater.

Artistic director SuzAnne Barabas gravitates to plays that few theaters would touch. Her taste embraces the weird, as witnessed now by Dan Dietz's 2001 fantasy, which he describes as a "deadpan Tennessee fairy tale."

At its core, Dietz's story is simple enough, and has been told many times: A housewife needs more mental stimulation. A son is afraid of his father and rails against him. Some theatergoers may be excited that the tale is told in a maddeningly symbolic, experimental fashion and think admiringly, "Isn't that wild?" Others will wish that Dietz had just rolled the plot without pretentious embellishments.

Randy Lee Hartwig's set first shows a bisected Earth, where a woman is flying without benefit of airplane, somewhere over Greenland. The lights black out and come up on an Angel, whose wings are in woebegone condition. "I was only born an hour ago, and now I'm 92," he announces.

Cut to a Tennessee cabin, where a young man named Ollie is cleaning to the point of obsession. What isn't clean is Ollie's face: It sports a large tattooed question mark, from hairline to chin. (Perhaps it's a visualization of the questioning looks that many are bound to give this play.)

Ollie is the son of Lois and Red, once a happy hillbilly couple, until she started reading The New Yorker and wanted more out of life. Red had been bullying Ollie to help him in his body shop. Now he snarls at his son, "Work is important. Talk is salad dressing."

Ollie's incompetence with tools inadvertently causes his father to lose a hand, so Red now wears a menacing-looking shoulder harness and clamp. How he made this complicated device with one hand is not explained.

The guilt-ridden Ollie is then abandoned by his mother, pushing him into nine years of agoraphobia. Maybe he's right to stay inside, for when he finally leaves the house, he has a fateful encounter with a man- eating plant. Lois dies in a plane crash -- that explains her flying over the world in the first scene -- and is recycled into a garden.

As a result, she's glad to be outdoors on this lovely day. She and Ollie like nature so much that soon they're deconstructing their house, which is composed of jigsaw puzzle pieces. The play continues ....

Dietz's characters often use startlingly fresh images and rarely rely on clichés; when Lois discusses Ollie with Red, she talks about trying to "put up curtains in the empty rooms in his head." That shows a writer at work, but one who wants to express his own voice, not those of his characters.

Ames Adamson's Red has a defensive demeanor, lest he admit that his life has been a failure. Ian August's Ollie partakes in many imaginary conversations and adopts voices of different characters in a distinct manner.

Andrea Gallo's square-jawed, careworn face is an apt reflection of Lois' hard life. Even in this non-realistic play, she never lets an audience forget that the character has a life-crunching dilemma.

Then there's Reginald Metcalf as the Angel, who says he comes from Cloud Umbilical Airways and securely spouts a lot of lush language.

Credit goes to director Cailin Heffernan for staging "Tilt Angel" fearlessly, and for casting it so well. All four performers are game in treating this play as if it were a straightforward classic.

Tilt Angel

By Simon Saltzman,

Reginald Metcalf and Ames Adamson

At the beginning of Dan Dietz's play Tilt Angel, now receiving its professional premiere, Lois (Andrea Gallo), a middle aged woman, falls gracefully though a blue sky toward earth. She is the victim of a mid-air plane crash. Later in the play, she will quite literally transubstantiate herself as a vegetable garden for Ollie (Ian August), her hungry mentally impaired 21 year-old agoraphobic son, who is helping her to go peacefully into the afterlife. This is done with the help of a blues-singing Angel Bones (Reginald Metcalf), apparently a winged half angel/airlines pilot with goggles. There is no help forthcoming from Red (Ames Adamson), Ollie' s resentful, indifferent father who refuses to claim the ashes.

In Cailin Heffernan's cleverly surreal staging of this play, described by the author as "a deadpan Tennessee Fairy Tale," worlds as well as the members of a working class family collide. In actuality, Tilt Angel appears to be an impressionistic dark comedy in which the skewed perceptions of a socially disenfranchised young man are given a vivid reality. In this very imaginatively conceived yet unsettling play, we are privy to Ollie's skewed world, notably his home comprised of disquieting distortions and expectations.

Lois had taken about all she could from Red, a callous, crude 3rd generation owner of an auto body repair shop in East Tennessee. She had also done as much as she could for the pathetically limited Ollie, who hasn't left the house in 9 years. Lois, who finally made up her mind to leave them both and begin a new life that includes getting a college education, took the fateful airplane ride and died.

At home, the simple-minded Ollie, who likes to dance while doing the housework and laundry, keeps getting calls from "an airlines guy" for someone to claim Lois's remains. Ollie's pleas to the insensitive Red, who barely acknowledges Ollie's existence, only spark Red's fury which he takes out mostly on the metal parts of cars. Red has been estranged from his son ever since an accident occurred years ago in the body shop causing the loss of his arm, but continues to do his repairs with the help of a prosthetic pincer-type apparatus controlled by a harness he wears over his shoulders. Blaming Ollie for the accident, Red has left Ollie to fend for himself.

Without Red's help to retrieve Lois' remains, Ollie deals with the problem in the only way he knows: by seeking help from the angel pilot. As both Ollie and Red wrestle with their grief through flashbacks and metaphysical communication, Lois's presence asserts itself as a soul needing closure. Ollie's anxieties about his mother's burial takes him to such abstracted places as inside the telephone lines, the ethereal world and eventually into the fearsome underworld, while Red's unwillingness to claim the body or deal with his son's presence provokes a rather unexpected resolve.

Trying to analyze this play may not prove as fruitful as the experiencing of it. Heffernan's direction appears to be in complete accord with the playwright's eerily dramatic contours. And the performances are effective in their eccentricity without being cartoons. August creates a rather poignant portrait of Ollie, who, despite being a social outcast and a failure in his father's eyes, is determined to find a way to help his mother go peacefully into the after-life.

Adamson is terrific as the rage and resentment-propelled Red whose life is shattered by the accident and a disintegrating marriage. There is a disarming charm to Gallo's performance as Lois, a woman who, soon after she is married and has done all she can to nurture and protect Ollie, discovers her own potential and seeks out a new life. And perhaps capturing the essence of the ethereal most wittily is Reginald Metcalf, as the lyrical Angel Bones. Praise to the wittily integrated songs and lyrics, assumedly the creation of award-winning Texas-based playwright Dietz, who may have mixed more grit (or is its grits?) into his Southern Gothic comical-tragedy than some people will cotton to. But the experience was refreshingly haunting (seems just right for Halloween).

Production values are imaginative. Randy Lee Hartwig and Matthew R. Campbell are both credited with the expressionistic set (impressively lighted by designer Jill Nagle) that provides a virtual collage of various places in and out of this world. Costumer Patricia E. Doherty has to be praised for creating Lois' vegetable garden costume that proves to be as incredible as it is edible.


by Gary Wien
Upstage Magazine

(LONG BRANCH, NJ) October 15, 2005 -- This isn't your father's family drama, that's for sure. There really are maniacial vegetables...

New Jersey Repertory Company's latest production is Tilt Angel by Dan Dietz, a modern day family drama told as a fairy tale. It's wildly entertaining, a bit baffling, and rather humorous throughout. It is also the best collection of actors I've ever seen on the NJ Rep stage.

Ames Adamson (Red) and Ian August (Ollie) are NJ Rep veterans who star as father and son. Ames does a wonderful job as a red neck body shop worker who's abusive streak has decimated his family. Ian plays Ollie, an autistic child of 21, who gives Forrest Gump a run for his money. He is a simply loveable character performed masterfully by August. Ollie hasn't left the house in nine years, spends all day cleaning and misses his mother terribly. Together they are as far apart as a father and son could be.

Andrea Gallo (Lois) plays Ollie's mother who died in a plane crash as she was leaving her husband. After spending years home-schooling her son, she realized she had a thirst for knowledge and decided to leave for college. She knew that her husband would never understand.

Reginald Metcalf (Angel Bones) is the angel that seeks to unite the family and her ashes (which were never claimed yet). Reginald adds a spiritual feel to the play with several bluesy, soulful acapella numbers. His costume reminds me of someone from the sixties film, Barbarella - but he manages to make it look dignified nonetheless.

The play revolves around the plane crash and how their family was breaking apart long before the crash took place. Flashback scenes reveal Lois trying to explain why she needed to move on.

"If I wasn't going to make it with you, I was going to make it with Nietzsche... with Proust... with Kant," she says.

His reply, "You trying to tell me you're a lesbian now?"

One-liners are mixed in with serious matter as Dietz succeeds in transporting the audience into a fantasy world. Credit goes to the set designers (Randy Lee Hartwig and Matthew R. Campbell) who have created a scene out of "Alice in Wonderland". It is a set that extends into the audience space and peaks your interest because every part is used - sometimes in crazy ways and sometimes in ways that will totally surprise you.

The play contains adult language, but doesn't abuse it. All in all, it's a hilarious look at a Tennessee house gone amuck. Somehow I get the feeling that Dan Dietz was the type of guy who never listened when they said everything's already been written. This play is as original as they come! Dietz has done something rare - he has created a fine drama wrapped in fantasy. It's doubtful you'll be prepared for what happens when her ashes are returned to the family. Let's just say that by the time that happens you'll be so wrapped up into this fantasy world that you'll believe anything. So just sit back and enjoy the ride. It's a good one!

"Tilt Angel" Flies in Many Directions
A Review By Asbury Radio

If you're the type of theater goer who likes to sit back, relax and watch a linear plot unfold, you may want to run from the theater during the first act of "Tilt Angel". But don't. You'd miss some fantastic acting and playwright Dan Dietz's sometimes brilliant dialogue. Some lines are delivered within a verbal dance of sorts worthy of a Balanchine. There is more than one scene where the actors, separated by an unseen wall, wield their lines like deftly timed swords through the 'wall', their meanings crossing in mid-air. Whoosh!!. Timing is not the problem with this play.

No, the quandary here is, well, what exactly Dietz wants us to think about Tilt Angel. Imagine "Little Shop of Horrors" set in an auto body shop. No, maybe it's like "Alice Doesn't Live (in Tennessee) Anymore". Or, "It's a Wonderful Life" with Jimmy Stewart never getting that final taxi ride home. And yet Tilt Angel might be none of these.

Dietz wants us to think about nature and our irrevocable connection to it - and especially about death - the ultimate punctuation mark to that point. So he tries to engage all of our senses, with drumming and banging and music and singing and creative lighting, excellently executed through Jill Nagle's design. And there is no plot device Dietz will not try.  Tilt Angel is about abandonment, guilt and redemption, loss of love, hope, limb, legacy, and life -- to name but a few -- and maybe a few too many. Tilt Angel is both a comedy and a drama, which is where Dietz sometimes lost this member of the audience.

Despite his youthful appearance, this is not the Austin, TX-based Dietz's first play. He has had at least a half dozen performed and has gathered his share of awards, including the James A. Michener and Josephine Bay Paul fellowships and the Austin Critics Table Award for Best New Play. If there is an award for fearlessness, Dietz should have that one, too, for he tempts all.

Director Cailin Heffernan, who has a long string of credits to her name as well, had her hands full with this one. Soliloquies abound, as do physical flights and fist fights. That Randy Lee Hartwig (who you may remember as the husband in Asbury Radio's production of Dave Talbot's one-act play, "Thermostat Wars") and co-designer Matthew R. Campbell's set can support all of this is a credit to the two. Through them and a superb cast of actors, Heffernan executes it all quite flawlessly. Yet, the question nags, do we need ALL of it?

But then Ames Adamson, as the Neanderthal, third generation body shop owner in this back water town, whose progenitors' spirits still permeate the walls, grabs hold of our attention again like the dented fender of a Chevy and pulls us back in. Even when Adamson's character, Red, is crude, sweaty and infuriatingly misogynistic it's impossible to turn away. Maybe it's the way Adamson physically wraps himself inside a role, even if it's playing a squirrel (in John Walch's Circumference of a Squirrel). And, when Adamson breaks the fourth wall by acknowledging the audience, as he does in Tilt Angel, we forgive him if not Dietz.

Andrea Gallo, who as the mother, Lois, must act the role of a vegetable tree, gives a whole new dimension to 'Mother Earth'. As Red's wife, Gallo makes the mistake of getting sucked into the knowledge tree by a snake bearing an uncanny resemblance to Jeopardy's Alex Trebek. Gallo's rapid-fire description of this transformation is worth the price of admission alone. As Red recalls of this period, Lois actually started reading, "The New Yorker." It's the familiar scenario of the wife mentally outgrowing the simple, but honest husband and flying the nest. Only this time the plane isn't air worthy, which explains the blues singing winged-pilot who must coerce the next of kin into claiming Lois' remains and thus cutting his earthly bonds. Reginald Metcalf plays the pilot, Angel Bones, a part which functions as both scene connector and tension breaker. Metcalf croons a mean spiritual in his first role for NJ Rep, which I strongly suspect will not be his last.

But the scene stealer in Tilt Angel is Ian August who turns the impossible part of the mentally tapped, reclusive son of this dysfunctional union into a tour de force for his singing, dancing and acting talents. Despite Red's admonition that his son would, "get a sunburn from a bright idea", and Lois' recognition that "behind those eyes is all blue sky back there," August makes us like and respect this character, something the playwright doesn't always accomplish for the entire play. Tilt Angel is experimental -- crazy, daring, corny, trite, insightful and campy --which is what theater on the cutting edge perhaps has to be. So go and laugh. Over and out!   The play runs through November 20th.

All Over the Map: Finn in the Underworld in San Francisco and Tilt Angel in Long Branch, NJ. Plus: The Oregon Shakespeare Festival wraps up its 70th season

Andrea Gallo and Ian August in <i>Tilt Angel</i><br>
(Photo © SuzAnne Barabas)  
Andrea Gallo and Ian August in Tilt Angel
(Photo © SuzAnne Barabas)
In Dan Dietz's latest play, Tilt Angel, a mother leaves her Tennessee family to pursue her lifelong dream of going to college, but her plane crashes along the way. "The story is about how the father and the son cope with this and deal wsith the fact that they're estranged from each other as well," says Dietz. Sounds like a straightforward family drama -- but Dietz throws in a couple of curveballs. In one scene, a character travels through telephone wires, and in another, someone flies.

Such stage directions can strike fear into the hearts of theater companies, but they certainly caught the attention of New Jersey Repertory, which is presenting Tilt Angel. Dietz's lush style also hooked the Salvage Vanguard Theatre in his hometown of Austin, Texas, with which he often works. "[These companies] like nothing better than to take a play that seems impossible to stage, and stage it," says Dietz, who acknowledges that finding directors intrepid enough to do them is a daunting task. "When I find a director who really 'gets' my voice," he says, "I really cling to that person."

Dietz partly developed his quirky style while writing English translations of Japanese animated films for ADD, the largest distributor of anime in North America. "I was really into anime in my teens and early 20s because I was just fascinated by its storytelling traditions, as well as the idea of fusing man and machine and the high-octane action sequences," he says. His favorite anime series that he's worked on is Dai-Guard -- about a team of hapless office workers forced to commandeer a giant robot to save the world -- which ran here briefly on the Cartoon Network.

His playwriting career began to take off after he submitted one of his short works to the Humana Festival on a teacher's recommendation to his graduating class. ("She said, 'Someone's bad play is going to win this contest; it might as well be your bad play.' ") Like most emerging playwrights, Dietz constantly submits scripts to theaters around the country. He remarks: "Those two things, really working on my voice and the pieces I was writing and being brave or stupid enough to spend all that money on postage, have seemed to work for me."

For a time, Dietz worked with an underground theatrical society known as RAT, a collective so shadowy that it never even defined its acronym. "It sort of envisioned this idea of theaters that were willing to take risks and do a lot with a little," he explains. Most of RAT's members were small companies but, according to Dietz, a few of them tried to bring their aesthetic to the mainstream. "As the audiences for larger theaters start to dwindle, which they are, my hope is that those theaters will find themselves in a position where they need to take a risk," Dietz says. "That's my hope, anyway."


A "blues-infused fairy tale" bows at NJ Rep

Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 10/14/05

From "Hamlet" to "Hairspray," "Medea" to Miller, domestic dysfunction remains a thematic stage staple that continues to pique audience interest and paint balance sheets black. After all, what better way to escape the petty pyrotechnics and molehill melodrama of one's own homelife than with a couple of hours spent literally looking down upon some angst-infested brood of flustered and frustrated family members, encapsulated like a globeful of sea monkeys on a set that's equal parts living room and lock-up?

No strangers to the more vein-popping side of family life, the producers and performers at New Jersey Repertory Company have dished up their share of dinner-table decibels: from the country-house conflicts of "On Golden Pond" to the trailerpark tribulations of "Maggie Rose."

With this weekend's debut of the new mainstage production "Tilt Angel," the acclaimed Long Branch-based theatrical troupe presents a show that's been described as a "gritty and lyrical comic-epic about a most unusual family." It's a story in which characters cross the threshold between planes of existence as easily as they darken their own doorstep.

Set in Tennessee, the play by Texas-based author Dan Dietz conjures a very unhappy household lorded over by Red (Ames Adamson), a mechanic with a prosthetic hand and a son who's even less useful to him. While the withdrawn and reclusive Ollie (Ian August) hasn't set foot outside the house in nearly a decade, it takes a tragedy — the death of his mother, Lois (Andrea Gallo), while en route to Memphis, Tenn. — to shake him from his self-imposed exile, and send him on a mission that will bring him to the uncertain border between this world and the next.

When Red shows no interest in claiming his wife's remains, it's up to Ollie to escort her on her journey back home; a journey joined by an apparently helpful but enigmatic character known as Angel Bones (Reginald Metcalf, who performed the role at NJ Rep's 2004 reading of the play).

This engagement marks the world professional premiere of Dietz's "blues-infused fairy tale," which was staged to award-winning acclaim as a community production in the author's native Austin, and workshopped in a couple of other locales before arriving in its current fine-tuned version as the last NJ Rep offering of the year 2005. It's helmed here by Cailin Heffernan, a director with an impressive list of credits among the Shore's most forward-thinking stage companies.

NJ Rep subscribers and other frequent-fliers should perk up at the presence of Adamson, a Rep regular whose colorfully vivid character portrayals (in "Old Clown Wanted," "Circumference of a Squirrel" and Mike Folie's "Panama") have made him something of a breakout performer among this stellar stock company. He's joined by fellow "Panama" survivor August (by the by, it was writer-actor Folie who played Red in last year's reading of "Tilt Angel") and company man Metcalf, as well as Rep rookie Gallo.

The odd couple of the literary world
Monday, August 29, 2005
Star-Ledger Staff

There have been plenty of plays and movies where a character proclaims, "I hate and despise him, and I can't live without him." When the line is said in "Klonsky and Schwartz," however, it manages to sound fresh.

For one thing, in Romulus Linney's play at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, the line isn't said by a woman, as it seems to be in all those other properties. A man is the speaker, but his motivation is not a homosexual one.

Linney is looking at another kind of passion here -- the highs and lows of friendship -- and in the process has created an often gripping and fascinating play.

Milton Klonsky is the speaker, and the love-hate he has is for Delmore Schwartz, the noted American poet. They meet when Schwartz is judging a poetry contest that young Klonsky has entered. Of course, Klonsky is flattered when this literary celebrity takes an interest in him, for at the moment, Klonsky is unpublished -- and will be for some time to come.

That may be because he spends so much time taking care of Schwartz. No question that Schwartz is what many people would call "a handful." Indeed, the rich and complicated character that Linney has written here would be such a handful that he'd stymie an octopus. He and Klonsky have many fights, most of them verbal, though they're not above a rowdy physical one, too.

So why does Klonsky bother? There's more than a dollop of hero-worship here, to be sure, but by often chiding Schwartz for not maintaining his health, Klonsky can find one way in which he's superior. Klonsky may admit to having an affinity for "bourbon, broads, weed, and the track," yet he doesn't let any of those escalate into addictions that keep him from writing. Still, Linney suggests that Schwartz's willingness to taste, feel, experiment, and grasp life by both hands made him the superior artist.

Certainly Schwartz has the better role, and John FitzGibbon is delivering a dynamic, must-see performance, under SuzAnne Barabas' strong direction. He's expansive and bigger than life, roaring with the rage of the frustrated artist, and wailing to the skies. Here's a dipsomaniac who enjoys a drunken dance in Times Square from time to time, but then suddenly reverts to quieter moments. With his tie askew, he weaves as he walks, and he has a squint that shows the pain of being annoyed. When he rubs his exhausted eyes, he seems to be blocking a view of his tortured soul.

FitzGibbon has perfectly captured the confident man who believes he has all the answers, as well as the high-maintenance dependent who expects unconditional love from everyone. When he states, "I feel as old as worn-out shoes," he says it with a smile that's meant to suggest he's still in control, and nobody really has to worry about him.

David Volin gives excellent support as Klonsky. He expertly shows the neurosis of the writer who's afraid to show his work, mixing it with a nervous need for approval. How flummoxed Volin looks when he says quietly, "I was a prodigy who was reading when I was three" -- wondering how after that terrific head start he fell so far behind.

Near the end of the 80-minute, intermissionless play, Schwartz tells Klonsky with certainty, "No one will remember you without me." To a degree, that's turned out to be true. And while Linney, who actually knew Milton Klonsky, has taken pains to see that his old friend's name stays before the public, he can't do it without linking it to Schwartz. But at least he's put Klonsky back in the public eye.


Absolutely, Mr. Klonsky? Positively, Mr. Schwartz
Published in the Asbury Park Press 08/31/05


David Volin (left) and John FitzGibbon star in "Klonsky and Schwartz" at the New Jersey Repertory Company's Lumia Theatre in Long Branch.
Through Oct. 2 — New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch

— $30

— (732) 229-3166
Their names have been said to sound like some classic vaudeville team, and indeed there are moments when "Klonsky and Schwartz" get off some real zingers: "A poet breaking into Yiddish is like a thief breaking into prison." Or, "Why should I make one girl miserable when I can make a hundred shiksas happy?"

Despite the audible rimshots, it wasn't all fun and games for poet and essayist Milton Klonsky in the summer of 1966 — a mean season wherein he struggled to find his own voice as a writer, even while he played self-appointed guardian to the man who had given him his first professional break, the legendary literary figure Delmore Schwartz.

The very untidy relationship between these two real-life writers — the insults and inspirations, the fistfights and forgiveness, the hugs as well as the drugs — forms the basis for Romulus Linney's play bearing their names. The acclaimed playwright, himself a friend of Klonsky's in the writer's later years, was on hand Saturday night for the opening of a major new production of his work at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

New York setting

Recalling both the many sublevels of Manhattan's hollowed-out island as well as Dante's various circles of hell, the multitiered set design by Jessica Parks is a neon-graveyard evocation of New York's jazz-age glory days, filtered through the smoggy prism of the late '60s. It's the perfect place for two talented players to skip across time and space, from the blazing energy of 1940s Greenwich Village to a chilly bench in Bryant Park.

Chronicling what would come to be the final weeks in the life of Delmore Schwartz, "Klonsky" begins, ends and continually returns to that fatal summer of '66; a time when the city's hold on the American imagination had been eclipsed by the currents blowing in from the West Coast; a time when the grand institution of New York baseball resided in the cellar and the Velvet Underground was even then working up songs that the band would come to posthumously dedicate to Schwartz.

His best work decades behind him, his marriage in ruins and his life in a shambles upon the abandonment of his academic career, Schwartz haunts the streets, saloons and Automats of the city in a last-ditch attempt to recapture the muse that made him one of the major poetic voices of the twentieth century — a paranoid drunk who believes he's being tracked by an accusatory "dybbuk" and that Nelson Rockefeller is having an affair with his wife.

Himself a figure plagued by self-doubts, unable to finish anything new and haunted by the prospect that his own career is little more than a footnote, Milton Klonsky would seem an unlikely pillar of strength for the older writer. Yet he's there at Bellevue when Schwartz is arrested for a delusional assault; he's there in Schwartz's flophouse room when Delmore needs help finding his way home; he's there to identify Schwartz's body on the morgue slab when no one else comes forward. Still, he finds it impossible to argue when Schwartz points at him and sneers his sadly prophetic "Nobody will remember you without me."

Presented without intermission and punctuated by passages of klezmer music, Linney's jazzy, Beat-inflected script is brought blazing to life by a couple of familiar faces from the New Jersey Repertory Company. As Schwartz — a role originated by TV star Chris Noth, who also initiated the project — John FitzGibbon (seen most recently as an unctuous art dealer in "Touch of Rapture") conveys the method and madness of this brilliant and burned-out man with a scary facility.

As Klonsky, David Volin (from NJ Rep's "Laramie Project") is all nervous energy channeled away from self-destruction and toward the uneasy responsibility he's saddled himself with. The brief interlude wherein a frustrated Klonsky endeavors to complete a new poem is a particular gem.

Under the steady hand of NJ Rep artistic director SuzAnne Barabas, these two really intense performers work very much in concert with each other, when one could easily imagine each of them taking on the project as a one-man show (the actors occasionally double up as various spouses and rabbis).

Volin and FitzGibbon run the material for all its worth, with the result being that an especially hard-hitting affirmation-of-friendship scene plays spot-on true. Their chemistry ranks up there with such classic New York duos as Kramden and Norton, Oscar and Felix, Seinfeld and George — and at times you might think you're watching the greatest movie that Edmond O'Brien and Tony Curtis never made together.

"Klonsky and Schwartz" is doubtless a difficult piece to master and a definite challenge to the audience — nonlinear, densely packed with references and allusions. Director Barabas and company have put forward a smart and emotionally supercharged example of local professional theater at the top of its game, acted with real conviction and presented by people who very obviously believe in it.

Suck up all of those anxieties and meet this one halfway. Its rewards are many and varied.

A CurtainUp Review
Klonsky and Schwartz

My mother named me after a Pullman car. She thought it sounded Goyishe --- Delmore Schwartz

John FitzGibbon and David Volin in Klonsky and Schwartz
John FitzGibbon and David Volin in Klonsky and Schwartz
It isn't surprising that Romulus Linney's aggressively schizophrenic play about Delmore Schwartz opens in a 1966 mental ward at New York's Bellevue Hospital. The noted American poet has been brought there for observation by the police after he has assaulted a couple on a Manhattan street. The obviously delusional Schwartz (John Fitzgibbon) is visited by his friend Milton Klonsky (David Volin), the skilled essayist to whom he has long been a mentor.

The play focuses on Schwartz' declining sanity after he has left his job at Syracuse University to write poetry and live in New York City. Imagining that his wife was stolen by Nelson Rockefeller and believing he was told what to do by Dybbuks (plural), Schwartz is nevertheless urged by Klonsky to think rationally, to recall his childhood as the son of irrational unhappily married Romanian immigrants.

Schwartz's mental instability is dramatized in fits and starts following his release from Bellevue as a kind of neurotic vaudeville act (shades of Smith and Dale on speed) as the two writers review the high and low points of their tight but testy relationship. The fast staccato paced dialogue is unleashed by the manically envious Klonsky and the manically depressive Schwartz in a lyrical point counter point style. Each man is afforded his own time in the spotlight, each confronted by his own demons. Their unlikely friendship began after Klonsky has submitted a poem in a contest judged by an expectedly condescending Schwartz. As egomaniacal as he was brilliant, Schwartz's influence on the 10 years younger Klonsky proved profound, even as it served to block Klonsky's creative flow ("You think any nutball idea that comes into your head is poetry and you can't tell the difference.")

The play moves speedily through brief scenes that focus more on the men's r emotional instability than on their intellectual gifts. Both marry and divorce, Schwartz twice. As they concede in concert: "Why should I make one Jewish girl miserable when I can make a hundred shicksas happy."

Although he doesn't get the opportunity to rant and rave like his co-star, Volin is impressive as the more conventionally dysfunctional Klonsky, whose preoccupation with horse racing and womanizing may also have led to the artistic paralysis that consumed him during his friendship with Schwartz. When you have friends like Schwartz who tells him, "You're just a prick, posing as a poet," you don't need a bad review from a literary critic.

Fitzgibbon has the tougher assignment as he has been apparently encouraged by director Suzanne Barabas to enforce and validate Schwartz's nutty behavior (that includes drunken binges and waving a loaded gun around in Bryant Park), with an excess of flailing hands and nervous body tics. One can't say that Fitzgibbon isn't acting up a storm.

Various locales are simply established within Jessica Parks' setting featuring a neon-lit cityscape. The quirky structure of the dialogue, some of it almost singspiel in delivery suggests that Linney sees his play as a lyrical convergence of these commiserating but creative poet/writers. The delivery is sharp, but it eventually grows wearisome. Although he always wanted to write like Schwartz but couldn't, Klonsky was a friend to the end of Schwartz's life. When Schwartz was found dead, destitute and alone in a rat trap of a hotel room, it was Klonsky who came to the morgue to identify him.

Though Linney maintained a friendship with Klonsky during the last ten years of Schwartz's life he maintains that Klonsky never once talked about Schwartz, even after his death. Following Schwartz's death, Klonsky began writing with a renewed intensity. One can see the motivation behind Linney's play and find it compelling if also slightly unnerving.

New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Klonsky and Schwartz
and Romulus Linney

It is 1966. Little-known, little-published poet Milton Klonsky has been contacted by the National Endowment for the Arts. It seems that the Endowment has selected his friend and mentor, the noted American poet Delmore Schwartz for an award and grant, and is trying to locate him. Klonsky knows exactly where Schwartz is. In fact, in about an hour and a quarter at the conclusion of Romulus Linney's new one-act, two-character play, Klonsky and Schwartz, Klonsky will share this terrible knowledge with us. However, first Klonsky will tell us about their twenty-five year relationship and the commonalities in their backgrounds which helped to bind them together.

Klonsky and Schwartz
David Volin and John FitzGibbon

Linney's play is about many things. The identity problems of first generation American who love their immigrant parents, but are ashamed of their accents and patterns of speech. The pain and loneliness which can arise from being turned out by a spouse with whom one remains in love. The anguish and difficulty of coping with and channeling creative genius. However, in order to best understand and enjoy Klonsky and Schwartz pay close attention to the title.

Going in, one naturally expects to see a play about the major poet, Schwartz, with the little known Klonsky providing a unique perspective regarding him. The opening gambit, the NEA search for Schwartz, re-enforces this view. As the play develops, it is only a little more even-handed in its focus. However, in the end, it may well dawn upon you that it is with good reason (beyond it being possibly more euphonious) that Klonsky's name precedes Schwartz in the play's title. It seems that foremost, Linney is concerned with the deleterious effect that the charming and brilliant, yet cruelly self centered and paranoid Schwartz had on the underachieving and insecure, yet talented and loyal Klonsky (yet, as Schwartz states in the course of the play, if Klonsky's name were to survive over time, it would be because of Klonsky's relationship to him).

Although not known to a wide public (most articles note that he is the father of actress Laura Linney), author Romulus Linney is one of America's most distinguished playwrights. Linney has authored over twenty full-length plays, several short plays, and three novels. He has taught playwriting at Columbia (where he chaired the MFA Playwriting program), Princeton, Penn and the Yale School of Drama. Currently, Linney is a Professor of Playwriting in the Actors Studio MFA program at the New School. His highly regarded work covers subject matter with a wide global expanse and different historic eras. Still the Madison, Tennessee and Boone, North Carolina (where several of his plays have set) reared Linney is a member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers.

So who would have thought that Linney would have written a play in which his characters sometimes speak in the rhythms of such ethnic comic vaudevillians as Smith and Dale? Furthermore, throughout the play, the expressions and argot, and concerns of his protagonists, unerringly reflect speech and attitudes common to mid-twentieth century New York Jewish intellectuals. Of course, Linney has been intimate with such individuals, but his ear for their speech and empathy with them is as admirable as it is remarkable. Although his tale is a cautionary one, the style in which he tells it along with his inclusion of some sharp excerpts from the pen of Delmore Schwartz, keeps things entertaining.

David Volin and John FitzGibbon fully embody Linney's portrait of Milton Klonsky and Delmore Schwartz. Volin's persona conveys likeability, kindness, enough smarts to kind to hold his own with Schwartz, and a vulnerability which renders him ineffective. FitzGibbon combines considerable charm with the bullying dominance and a very credible paranoid madness. Together, they deliver Linney's rapid fire, interlaced dialogue with the practiced ease of long time partners.

Much credit for the smooth integration of the work of Volin and FitzGibbon is due to NJ Rep Artistic Director SuzAnne Barabas, who has directed the play with skill and affection. Scenic Designer Jessica Parks has designed an impressionistic set with cutouts of New York City landmarks (including evocative signs for Klonsky and Schwartz restaurant hangouts, Katz's and the Automat) which nicely complement the play.

Although Linney has fictionalized any number of details, it is essential truths which Klonsky and Schwartz illuminates.

Review of Klonsky and Schwartz

by Gary Wien

(LONG BRANCH) - I've often wondered what it must have been like to be among the first audiences to see a Samuel Beckett play. Did the people at the early showings of "Waiting For Godot" really know they were watching history? Did they revel in the confusion? Were they laughing incredibly at the jokes? Or did the play simply sail over their heads, leaving them perplexed as to what they had just witnessed.

Was it art? Madness? Or did they walk out muttering ‘what the hell was that?'

As I watched the New Jersey premiere of Klonsky and Schwartz by Romulus Linney, I felt as if I was among the crowds at an early Beckett performance. And the experience was thrilling.

Klonsky and Schwartz is a roller-coaster ride of nonsense and true meaning rolled into one. It tells the tale of Milton Klonsky, a struggling writer and Delmore Schwartz, a brilliant poet who becomes his friend. The play is based on the true story of the two artists who lived in New York City during the 1960s.

Klonsky (played by David Volin) is haunted by the thought that he will only be remembered for being a friend of Schwartz (played by John Fitzgibbon) - a thought driven into his subconscious by Schwartz repeatedly. Klonsky finds himself constantly in a state of rewriting his work over and over. Nothing is ever good enough to be deemed finished - or good enough to present to Schwartz for his approval.

SuzAnne Barabas, the Artistic Director of the New Jersey Repertory Company, is the director of this production. She has put together a show that just might be one of the fastest paced productions I have ever seen. Between the pace of the play, the language of the artists (including moments of poetry recited throughout) and splashes of music, the play takes on the appearance of a beatnik poem.

"I think it's in the writing," explained SuzAnne Barabas. "It leads us there. It's the type of play that you should see a few times and you'll get something different out of it each time. The first time you kind of go along for the ride and then when you see it again you can begin picking out things because it's not a linear play. And yet there is a story that does have linear movement. We've tried to make it as accessible as possible.

"When I first read it I thought the payoff was amazing. I didn't know who Klonsky or Schwartz were. I was just so moved by the experience and the human relationship of the two men - it didn't have anything to do with the poetry. The poetry is glorious, but it was the relationship of these two men of 25 years and the payoff at the end, which was very moving to me."

The play was obviously very moving to her husband, Gabor Barabas as well. Prior to the performance, he told of his childhood in Hungary and how he developed his love for poetry. That love and hunger for words was the perfect introduction to the play. We've included an excerpt here.

The play succeeds on many levels and the two actors do a wonderful job. Romulus Linney, a two-time Obie Award winner, has come up with another brilliant work. If you like theatre to challenge you, you'll love Klonsky and Schwartz.


Tale-of-two-scribes "Klonsky and Schwartz" premieres at NJ Rep

Published in the Asbury Park Press 08/26/05


It's an age-old dramatic premise: the intellectual and emotional tug-of-war between mentor and protege, with the iconic hero ultimately revealed as a very flawed, very human being. In the two-character play now onstage at New Jersey Repertory Company, the mentor has pretty much bottomed out by the time the curtain goes up — and it's the protege who assumes the leadership role as the older, more famous figure spirals into the closing act of a lost life.

While the title might bring to mind a pair of polyester-age TV cops, "Klonsky and Schwartz" promises to make up for a distinct lack of airborne car chases with snapshots of a turbulent relationship between two writers — each speeding his way along a physical and spiritual journey of his own. It's that relationship between the two (real-life) literary figures that forms the basis of Romulus Linney's script — a story charged with the author's own personal connection to one of the principals.

The "Schwartz" in question is the legendary scribe Delmore Schwartz (1913-1966), a poet, prose artist and editor known as much for his own works ("In Dreams Begin Responsibilities") as he is for the posthumous tribute paid him by people from Saul Bellow ("Humboldt's Gift") to Lou Reed ("My House").

The other half of the play's equation is Milton Klonsky. A poet and scholar of considerable talent, he's a guy who also had the "genius" tag applied to him in his time — albeit a man whose reputation lacked the rock star mystique that the burned-out Schwartz would accrue in the decades after his passing.

That the name Delmore Schwartz retains a certain undeniable cachet with artistic types became evident when the playwright was approached by TV star Chris Noth (of "Law & Order" and "Sex and the City" fame) to develop a stage project based on Schwartz's life. In the course of his research, Linney (whose daughter is screen actress Laura Linney) stumbled upon an astounding fact: His own good friend Milton Klonsky had been Schwartz's closest confidante in his final days — to the point of having been the one to identify Schwartz's corpse at the city morgue following the writer's death at a local transient hotel.

"I found to my surprise that the man who was closest to him when he died had been a good friend to me in the last 10 years of his life," Linney recalled in an interview from a few years back. "Yet after Delmore died, Milton never talked about him."

Characterizing his late friend as "a very nurturing person, even though he was disappointed in his literary accomplishments," Linney set about crafting a theatrical chamber piece that honors the life and legacy of Klonsky as it examines the last days of Schwartz — a man who, as we meet him, has quit his academic job to drink, ingest barbituates and, hopefully, compose the most scintillating poetry of his once-stellar career.

Kicking around the bars, Automats and institutions of downtown Manhattan in the summer of 1966, the two men fight (to the extent that most productions have required the services of a fight choreographer), bond, reference pop-culture touchstones and work to dispel the demons that dog them.

Following a 2002 premiere in Connecticut (with Noth in the part of Schwartz), the play has appeared in professional productions on both coasts, and arrives at NJ Rep's Lumia Theatre in Long Branch for a New Jersey premiere engagement that opens Saturday night, following preview performances that continue at 8 today. Directed by NJ Rep co-founder SuzAnne Barabas, the show stars a pair of actors with an impressive list of credentials on Shore area stages.

As Schwartz, NJ Rep regular John FitzGibbon promises to bring some of the powerful stuff that informed his role as a washed-up alcoholic professor in "Winterizing the Summer House" a couple of seasons back. David Volin, whose resume includes a fine turn as Bottom in "Midsummer Night's Dream" at Holmdel Theatre Company, tackles the part of Klonsky after a busy summer spent with Monmouth University's Shadow Lawn Stage series in West Long Branch.

Driven actor racking up miles, roles
NJ Rep show is Volin's 6th this year in his home state
Friday, August 19, 2005
Star-Ledger Staff

David Volin marks his sixth Garden State show of 2005 on Thursday, when he opens in "Klonsky and Schwartz" at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

"I'm racking up thousands of miles on my car," the 39-year-old Tenafly native and resident says.

Volin feels the commuting is worth it to play Milton Klonsky (1921-81) -- "a poet, a writer and a recluse when he wasn't a womanizer. Very little is written about him."

All of Klonsky's books -- including the well-received "The Fabulous Ego" (1974), which dealt with the corruption of power -- are out of print.

"Klonsky wrote poems that, he admitted, nobody understood but him," Volin says. "Maybe he felt that if you can't understand a piece of writing, you really can't say if it's bad or good."

The play by Romulus Linney, father of actor Laura Linney, concerns Klonsky's relationship with Delmore Schwartz (1913-66) -- also a poet, writer, recluse and womanizer, though a far more famous one.

"He was the only person Klonsky would let judge him, even though Schwartz was often uncomplimentary. In fact, they met when Schwartz was judging him in a poetry contest," Volin says.

The play takes place in 1966. The National Endowment for the Arts is trying to find Schwartz to give him an award and can't find him. They finally do, thanks to Klonsky.

"Klonsky embraced his poverty," Volin says. "He held it up as a shield to anyone who said he wasn't successful. 'No,' he said, 'I am writing. What I do isn't business, but art.' And I relate to that."

Between 1993 and 1999, Volin was working in a low-level job for a consulting firm. By night, he would act with his own New York troupe, The White Buffalo Theatre Company. ("The great thing about working in an office is that you can Xerox scripts for free.")

When the company shut down, Volin went for broke. He gave up his day job, moved back to Tenafly and concentrated on acting.

He has worked steadily ever since. "I'm my own publicist-manager-agent, always checking to see who needs an actor at what theater. That's led to a lot of repeat work. So many theaters say, 'We'd like you to do this play because we know you can.'"

After he appeared at New Jersey Rep in "Raft of the Medusa" in 2001 and "The Laramie Project" in 2002, SuzAnne Barabas, the theater's artistic director -- and the director of "Klonsky and Schwartz" -- decided that Volin was her man.

He'll be busy until October, which precludes his doing "Art" at the Women's Theater Company in Wayne, where he played an obsessed Mae West fan in "Dirty Blonde" in January. In March, he was at Tri-State Actors Theatre in Sussex, playing Bottom in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" -- "which means playing part-animal, part- human," he says, before noting that he got to play an entire animal in "Go, Dog! Go!" at The Growing Stage in Netcong. "As emcee," he says, "I was the only dog to have lines."

This summer at Shadow Lawn Stage in West Long Branch, he was in Steve Martin's "The Underpants" as the mortified husband. As soon as it closed, Volin grew six weeks' worth of beard to play a 70-year-old judge in Jules Feiffer's "Little Murders."

Volin points out that though Feiffer had written the judge for the play's original 1967 production, he dropped him just before the Broadway premiere. "I'm glad he put him back."


Drama depicts three ages of 'Innocence'
Published in the Asbury Park Press 07/13/05


Corey Tazmania (left), Catherine Eaton (center) and Deborah Baum star in "A Child's Guide to Innocence" at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.
New Jersey Repertory Company — 179 Broadway, Long Branch — Through Aug. 14 — $30 — (732) 229-3166
"Something is happening to us somewhere — but not here," intones first-generation Italian-American Francie (Catherine Eaton) at more than one point during Vincent Sessa's "A Child's Guide to Innocence," the drama now in its world-premiere engagement at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

Francie (or Frances or even Francesca, as she's variously branded throughout) could be commenting upon the fact that the dramatic peaks of her family's history — the births, the deaths, the challenges of forging a new life in a strange place — mostly occur offstage, or in a time frame separate from that in which the characters are interacting.

Unseen, too, are the men who figure prominently in Francie's life — her husband, her neighborhood grocer Papa, her seaman brother Johnny — although these absent characters are vividly invoked at times through reminiscence and a bit of playful imitation.

As it turns out, much of "A Child's Guide" revolves around what's not there — the missing persons, misplaced objects and unspoken secrets taking center-stage prominence over the more mundane details of what at first glance appears to be a largely uneventful life. What we do have on display (in a production directed by NJ Rep regular Dana Benningfield) are snapshots of a 50-year span in the life of a woman who's spent a lot of time "praying that God doesn't lose interest in me" — a woman who comes late to the realization that it's impossible to make it through the present while living in the past.

The Brooklyn-born Sessa's script opens in the wartime summer of 1944, with Francie and her sisters Catherine (Corey Tazmania) and Marion (Deborah Baum) in tentative mourning over brother Johnny, gone missing from the naval vessel on which he was stationed. Adding to the anxiety is the fact that Francie's beau also is off to fight the good war — and assuming a bizarre prominence is the apparent loss of a glass crystal decoration from a table lamp, an object variously described as a "prism" and a "star."

Then again, certain objects take on a special significance in this play, tinged as it is with a realism that's distinctly more magical than matter-of-fact. The family dinner table is said to possess a soul, celery plays a recurring role in the proceedings and the eventual rediscovery of the glass "star" treats the bargain-store bauble with the deference normally granted some talisman out of Tolkien.

A saga of bonds

In fact, you'd do well to check all preconceptions of what this play is all about at the door. Playwright Sessa has cited the script as "autobiographical" in its origin with his own Italian-American family members, but if you're anticipating a lot of caricature "fuhgeddaboutit" accents and expecting the action to be punctuated by busy kitchen scenes, then get thee instead to a venue that's showing "The Godfather's Meshuggenah Wedding." While the actresses occasionally affect a Lawn Guyland inflection or two and Papa Luigi hovers just this side of tangibility, it's first and foremost a saga of bonds that can never be severed — of words and deeds that resonate across time, of ordinary lives that have a profound influence.

What it's not is a true ensemble piece. While Tazmania and Baum lend solid support in their triple-duty roles as sisters, daughters and grandchildren, it's indisputably Francie's story. Eaton, onstage for every moment of this no-intermission production, fixes her pale blues toward the audience and conjures things from V-E Day in Times Square to the fate of her sailor brother — as "unstuck in time" as Kurt Vonnegut's Billy Pilgrim, with the Great War every bit as much at the center of her being.

Carrie Mossman's set design — a slightly surreal amalgam of 1944 store, 1975 dining room and 1995 bedroom — suggests as well that it's Francie's head we're looking into, appropriate to a show that captures the liquid flow of time and memory (and reminds us that very few people in this life are afforded an "intermission" to change into their future selves). Company veterans Jeff Knapp and Jill Nagle provide a music-and-lighting environment that's smoothly cinematic and fitting with the often dreamlike quality of the production — although a climactic oooh-aaah effect is arguably not a necessity.

Director Benningfield has been quoted to the effect of having taken a less-is-more approach to Sessa's play, trimming expository lines and pitching the material as "more universal than just the Italian-American experience." With her first full-length professional production, Benningfield makes some intriguing choices — and reminds us that New Jersey Repertory remains a laboratory in which new works come to evolve, often right before our eyes.

Three Sisters, With No Chekhov in Sight

Published: July 17, 2005

THE New Jersey Repertory Company may never win the Tony Award for regional theater, but it deserves some kind of prize for sheer unpredictability. Its last show here, ''Ten Percent of Molly Snyder,'' was as whacked-out a comedy as New Jersey is likely to see this year. But its new show, ''A Child's Guide to Innocence'' by Vincent Sessa, is as delicate and nuanced a drama as you'll find, its three actresses telling a sublime intergenerational tale beautifully.

At the center of it is Catherine Eaton as Frances, whom we first meet in Brooklyn in 1944. She is the oldest of three sisters, and of course it is wartime and there is a brother overseas. Corey Tazmania and Deborah Baum play Frances' sisters in the opening vignette, but by the final segment of Mr. Sessa's intriguingly structured triptych they are playing her grandchildren, and it is 1995. We don't see much of Frances' life over this 51-year span -- the play's middle segment is set in 1975 -- but somehow by the end we know a lot about her, and about those she loved and lost.

Mr. Sessa's inspired stroke is to tackle almost nothing head-on. Indeed, it takes a while in the opening segment for a story to catch hold -- the sisters are so chirpy (far chirpier, in fact, than any real sisters would be) that they're hard to listen to. Gradually, though, it sinks in that their brother is missing in action and what we're seeing is their collective defense mechanism; each copes with the news differently.

Even so, though, Mr. Sessa stays away from anything overt; the first segment remains a collection of fragments. It's a deliberate device and an effective one; not until 31 years later, in a harrowing, heartbreaking monologue by Ms. Eaton midway through the play, does he let all the pieces coalesce, and the waiting makes the moment all the more powerful.

''A Child's Guide'' becomes irritatingly New Age-y at times (''I think a table has a soul when a family sits at it''), and the final segment, with its ''greatest generation'' references and Frances in a coma, feels a bit shopworn. But in general Mr. Sessa shows great restraint, as does the director, Dana Benningfield; they don't try to do too much with the story, and thereby do quite a lot. It's a lovely portrait of how ordinary lives can be defined by a few pivotal moments, of how the world's great events can have a profound impact at a very small, personal level.

''A Child's Guide to Innocence'' continues through Aug. 14 at the New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch, (732)229-3166,

A Child's Guide to Innocence -- a review by Restore Radio

This review was broadcast live on July 14th, 2005

In the Sicilian-American, Brooklyn household of 1944 that Vincent Sessa transports us to, something is always left on the dinner table. The spirits of the people who sit there over the years are infused into its very wood, animating it -- if you will. So you leave a bit of food for the table.  I noticed an audience member nod at this. But the few pieces of fruit that can be spared for this ritual are covered. Sessa's character explains, "Nothing that people want should be seen all of the time."

Indeed Sessa's play, A Child's Guide to Innocence, is run through with themes of anticipation, yearning, longing, joy deferred and innocence lost. And yet there is a delicious taste to this hunger unrequited.

He conjures at times truths, half-truths and downright superstitions so distantly familiar that their sudden recollection can cause one to physically ache. 

Sessa also touches on the metaphysical element that exists in every period, present in the everyday as well as the profound. Francie, the eldest sister in the first act played by Catherine Eaton, declares, "Something is happening to us -- somewhere else." And we believe her feeling is palpable. That we can be affected by the actions of others somewhere else acting in our name is a powerful theme. One can't help but draw parallels between the World War whose scars our three principals carry through three generations and the Iraq War we find ourselves in now. Just as the characters strive to retain -- or feign -- their innocence about the war, because knowledge would carry responsibility maybe even complicity, we can't help but make comparisons between Mr. Sessa's quote-unquote just war and the atrocities at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.   

That we can affect and be affected by actions of others near or far is a tantalizing concept. Marion, played by Deborah Baum, says, "Mama is ready to go now. I hear her. She has a different walk when she holds her handbag." We are affected consciously or unconsciously by even the most subtle of actions.

Perhaps it is not the recognition of how buried in our pasts the experiences are that Mr. Sessa resurrects for us, but how innocent we were when we first had them. And it is the interplay between knowing and not knowing and the fear that occupies both states that is the central theme of Mr. Sessa's excellent play.

Corey Tazmania, as Catherine, Joan and Julia, has exquisite comic timing. All three actors are flawless. Dana Benningfield does an excellent job of direction. One suggestion: since the three actors play numerous characters -- with no intermission, some cues -- black outs between acts, changes in dress or hairdos might smooth these transitions a bit.  For tickets call 732-229-3166 or call to win a pair of tickets now. Vincent Sessa has accepted our invitation to join us in the studio very soon, hopefully with Dana Benningfield.  And the cast and I discussed doing a radio drama -- they're very excited about the prospect... Maureen Nevin

Review: A Child's Guide To Innocence

by Gary Wien, Upstage Magazine

Shortly before the world premiere of Vincent Sessa's "A Child's Guide to Innocence" I overheard one of the patrons at NJ Rep's Theatre tell somebody a little about the theatre. He said that the acting was always incredible but to remember that the plays were experimental...

In case you're familiar with NJ Rep (New Jersey Repertory), it's a wonderful theatre company located in downtown Long Branch. It uses Equity actors - sometimes well known, sometimes not so well known - but it is not an experimental theatre. It's a theatre that prides itself of presenting NEW work. In fact, the overwhelming majority of productions through the company's seven years have been world premieres. Some of those works have been outstanding, some have needed a little polishing, and some have already moved on to many more productions across the world. But theatres like NJ Rep are where these works get a chance to be performed in front of an audience. And, every now and then you get a glimpse of brillance from an emerging playwright. Last Saturday night, I saw such brilliance from Vincent Sessa.

I can't say that "A Child's Guide to Innocence" is a perfect play. The production had many flaws, but the final two scenes were as good as any American drama I've seen in the past decade. So good, in fact, that it almost makes you forget about the problems that marred the production in the beginning.

The play starts out telling the story of three sisters from Brooklyn who are awaiting their brother's return from World War II. One of the sisters (Francie) is also awaiting the return of a soldier she has fallen in love with. As the play progresses we follow Francie's life through the next fifty-odd years with stops in 1975 and 1995. It's a remarkably well written look at how the generations change within a family as we are introduced to Francie's daughters and later her granddaughters.

"A Child's Guide to Innocence" is held together with a secret that Francie kept to herself throughout her life until revealing to her children one day. It's a secret that will most likely take everybody by surprise and plays a significant role in shaping her life. The little things in life - like family secrets and the bond between family members - are a major part in Sessa's creation.

The final two scenes are so good that it makes me yearn to see a slight rewrite of the first scene to take this production to the level it deserves. Sessa tries too hard to make us like three sisters (two of which we will not see again) to develop the idea of the family tree. As the trio waits for news of their brother the conversation simply rambles back and forth. The effect is that while the sisters are waiting for any news, the audience begins to wait for something new to happen. Waiting is very difficult to show on stage and Sessa needs to trim some of the early pages to get the story moving a bit quicker. The early one-liners almost make it seem like a drama that wishes to be a comedy. But once the story is allowed to breathe, it is a breathtaking dramatic piece.

The play mixes in ideas about family and religion amidst the hopes and dreams of the sisters. Francie's big dream is to be a good housewife - and Sessa shows how even that dream is much bigger than we ever imagine. Francie touches so many lives through one lifetime that it makes you wonder who are the lives that you yourself may have changed.

One flaw in this production was a rather poor selection of accents from the sisters. They sound nothing like first generation Italian-Americans or even resemble the accents one hears in Brooklyn. This wouldn't be so bad in many parts of the country, but in an area where so many people are from New York City - it becomes very noticeable.

All in all, it is refreshing to see playwrights still digging deep into their soul to produce dramatic works like "A Child's Guide To Innocence". Even more refreshing is to see theatres like NJ Rep continue to take chances and succeed more often than not.

You can catch "A Child's Guide To Innocence" at NJ Rep Theatre in Long Branch until August 13th.


"A Child's Guide to Innocence" gives women a positive voice

Published in the Asbury Park Press 07/8/05


— Through Aug. 14 — NJ Repertory Company — 179 Broadway, Long Branch — 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; also 4 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays — $30 — (732) 229-3166
Dana Benningfield has found a creative haven at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

"I like to wear many creative hats," explained Benningfield, originally from Texas.

As an actress, she has appeared in several NJ Rep productions, including Mike Folie's "Lemonade." As a literary manager, Benningfield assists with the reading and assessment of original scripts that are considered for staging by NJ Rep.

While reading through the many submissions the troupe receives, Benningfield came across a drama by Vincent Sessa called "A Child's Guide to Innocence."

"The play is about a series of ordinary women who can make an extraordinary difference in the lives of people around them, not necessarily by doing extraordinary things," Benningfield said.

Having taken an interest in directing, and already having a directing credit at NJ Rep, Benningfield is making her directing debut with "A Child's Guide."

The story originated for Sessa as an autobiographical piece, said Benningfield, who believes her experiences as an actress have influenced her in developing the desire to direct.

"I found that I was focused on how to present a story theatrically, and dramatically in terms of seeing it onstage and not just being about the research of the piece or writing revisions," she said. "My contributions to the plays were really becoming about putting the play on its feet and cutting lines that I felt . . . you don't have to tell an audience."

With this play in particular, Benningfield has felt the artistic scheme with the play from the printed page and enjoys the opportunity to stage it, working with actors.

"The thing about Vincent is that he grapples with big ideas and then puts them in settings in which they can be easily identified," she said.

In "A Child's Guide," the big ideas are exploration of family tradition during a time of war, religion and secrecy. The action of the play takes place in a grocery store in Brooklyn in 1944. It is the beginning of a family story that sprawls 50 years into the future, capturing a legacy of hope tradition and courage in three Italian women.

According to Benningfield, Sessa originated his work as an autobiographical drama because the women in the play contain elements of his mother and his aunt, both Italian, "but we wanted the play to be more universal than just the Italian-American experience, so that the play can be seen as an experience of very ordinary people and how they influence their future generations."

Also, World War II has a very significant impact on the characters, she added.

Thematic message

There are a few surprises in the play the director will not give away, but she does want us to know what message she sees in this work.

"The play makes a point about the importance of knowing your past," Benningfield explained. "There's a line in the play when Franchesca, the main character, says, "Knowing the best, knowing the worst, knowing is the only innocence.' And, in a sense it provides us with a release because knowing one's past gives one license to move forward with a new sense of wonderment and astonishment of going through life. It's that tie to the past that gives input into the experience of moving forward."

July 14, 2005

Theater Review By Madeline Schulman

"A Child's Guide to Innocence," by Vincent Sessa, is a beautiful and touching play, designed to move and delight an audience. Running at the New Jersey Repertory Company, on Broadway in Long Branch, this family history is wonderfully acted by Catherine Eaton, Corey Tazmania and Deborah Baum, and splendidly directed by Dana Benningfield. An actress herself, the director brings out the nuances of the characters as they re-live three days, but decades apart.

Eaton serves as the connecting thread, playing the same woman at 21, 51, and 71, as she believable changes from young woman to matron to older woman without altering makeup or costume. Her two co-stars each cleverly morph into three very different characters, appearing first as her sisters, then as her daughters, and finally as her granddaughters.

The action starts in a Brooklyn grocery store in June, 1944, at the height of the war (WWII) as sisters Francie, Catherine and Marian wait for news of their brother Johnny, lost at sea, and Francie, the oldest, longs for letters from her fiance, Freddy. They vacillate between hope that Johnny has survivied and fear that he has not.

The events of that day echo through the years in the second and third scenes, as the years pass and we learn how that day in 1944 has affected the family's life. Throughout, the dialog is leavened with flashes of humor - while describing the movie "Jaws" one daughter says she would need a "horse Valium" to go swimming in the ocean at night. A granddaughter, challenged to identify Charles Lindbergh, mutters, "He invented the Lindy?"

One symbol throughout the play, as evocative as Laura's unicorn in "The Glass Menagerie," is a piece of glass which dangles from a hurricane lamp, variously described by the characters as a star or a prism. We learn in the first scene that it is missing, but not how or why. Just as we learn Johnny's fate and Freddy's, we do find out the significance of the prism, and as a star or prism should, it scatters a light on all that has gone before.

The single set serves equally well as a grocery store, Long Island dining room, and grandmother's bedroom.

"A Child's Guide to Innocence" is highly recommended as an emotional and intellectual pleasure.


A paranoia paradise at NJ Rep

Published in the Asbury Park Press 05/24/05


Stephanie Dorian and Michael Irvin Pollard in "Ten Percent of Molly Snyder."
By Richard Strand — New Jersey Repertory Company — 179 Broadway, Long Branch — Performances through June 26 — $30 — (732) 229-3166
A conspiracy buff's comic fantasy that's all too disconcertingly rooted in 21st-century reality, "Ten Percent of Molly Snyder" is a sharply written and performed bit of burlesque for the X-Philes among us. It's also a show that should really strike a chord with anyone who's ever experienced a "Twilight Zone" moment at the local motor vehicles office (read: anyone who lives in Jersey).

If you're a nonhabitual theatergoer who's looking for something a little edgier than "Annie" but still accessible in its own way, Richard Strand's two-actor play — now being seen for the first time on the East Coast in a new production by New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch — is a good place to get your dash of bitter social commentary, chased by a frosty mug of flat-out funny business. Under the direction of NJ Rep co-founder SuzAnne Barabas, it's an entirely accessible and (at a tad under 90 minutes) economical excursion into paranoia paradise, the Abbott and Costello routine that famed funnyman Franz Kafka never got around to writing.

The "fun" begins when one Molly Snyder (Stephanie Dorian) arrives at the office of one Mr. Aaron (Michael Irvin Pollard) with a simple request to have her street address corrected on her driver's license. When the blandly annoyed civil servant suggests she accept what has been given to her — insisting that he's only looking out for her best interests — Snyder moves to take control of the situation.

Big mistake. While Molly — a somewhat full-of-herself artist who dresses in what she probably thinks is some sort of thrift-store chic — attempts to assert her rights as an individual, she opens up a wormhole that sends her careening into a pencil-pushing purgatory. Issued a death certificate instead of a corrected license, she very quickly finds her house repossessed, her assets frozen and her butt in convict orange as she awaits execution for Murder One.

Molly's attempts to put her affairs in order — from pleading with the local bank officer to seeking a pardon from the president of the United States — are met each step of the way by Mr. Aaron, or a whole lot of people who happen to look exactly like him. Ostensibly appearing as several different characters of assorted races, genders and sexual preferences (all of which seem to take the form of that same bald-headed bureaucratic Beelzebub with an office painted in what's variously described as beige, ecru, alpaca and champagne), the enigmatic man behind the desk never fails to throw down roadblocks of paperwork and protocol at every turn. It's a process that leads our frustrated heroine from a mild simmer to volcanic eruptions of verbal vitriol and vein-popping violence.

Identity crisis

As an underlying theme, loss of one's identity used to be largely the province of Rod Serling and his sci-fi brethren; these days the dehumanizing effects of modern American life and the very real threat of identity theft put all of us at the threshold of our own personal trip to the Zone. Playwright Strand knows that we know this, and consequently his script avoids beating the audience over the head with an obvious stick in favor of going for the gut-level laugh.

There's even some knock-down, drag-out slapstick (Pollard seems to wind up getting strangled in every show he's in), as well as a positively shocking climax and a weird little denouement that turns the whole shebang on its ear.

The main thing that keeps Strand's play from being little more than a padded-out skit is the power of the players involved, and Barabas (who's also the artistic director of the Shore-based professional troupe) has wisely cast her show from the ranks of Rep regulars. Both cast members have proven their comic credentials many times over on the NJ Rep stage.

Anyone who enjoyed their efforts in such past productions as "Big Boys" and "Lemonade" can pretty much guess that Dorian doesn't skimp on her masterful slow burns and cathartic tirades, even as Pollard delivers his patented portrayal of the suit-and-tie good guy with a heart of daffy darkness.

While it's often helpful to enter into a theatergoing experience without a preconceived set of notions, this correspondent has always looked forward to the shows that feature some of our favorite faces from what has become the finest stock company of actors in the state.

Presented without intermission, "Ten Percent of Molly Snyder" continues through June 26 with performances on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings, as well as (newly introduced) Saturday and Sunday matinees.

There's also a cool and concurrent exhibit of artworks by Red Bank Regional High School students, built around the theme of driver's licenses and the good old DMV.

MOLLY SNYDER 100 Percent Enjoyable at NJ Rep

The Link News

Review by Milt Bernstein

“The Percent of Molly Snyder,” a fast-moving two-person play, and the latest offering of the NJ Repertory Company in Long Branch , can easily qualify as one of the funniest and most original comedies seen there.

To anyone who has ever had to visit a Bureau of Motor Vehicles, a tax department, or any similar governmental organization, Molly Snyder's experience in trying to correct a tiny error in her records will evoke a spark of recognition. In this case, the results are quite hilarious, though eventually tragic as the unfortunate young woman, beautifully played by Stephanie Dorian, encounters the “ultimate bureaucrat” in a rapid succession of tableau-like scenes which differ from each other in very subtle but suggestive ways.

Playwright Richard Strand spares no opportunity to satirize the self-serving pomposity and indolent indifference of the bureaucrat, played wonderfully well by Michael Irvin Pollard, in a succession of various guises – each one more ridiculous than the one preceding it.

This little play comes full of surprises, and was enthusiastically received by the full house on the night we saw it. SuzAnne Barabas, who is artistic director of the company, and with husband Gabor founded the company seven years ago, did an outstanding job of staging this comedy, which ought not to be missed by anyone with a free evening or afternoon and a lover of the theatre.

Here's a comic nightmare all New Jerseyans can relate to

Published in the Asbury Park Press 05/20/05


By Richard Strand — New Jersey Repertory Company — 179 Broadway, Long Branch — 8 p.m. today and tomorrow; 2 p.m. Sunday; performances through June 26 — $20-$35 — (732) 229-3166
If you've lived at or near the Shore for the past fistful of years — and have an appetite for culture that at the very least transcends turkey bowling and turtle races — you probably know the New Jersey Repertory Company as the intrepid professional stage troupe that has made it its mission to produce, promote (and often premiere) stage works that are stimulating, innovative and seldom "safe." It's a mission and a mandate the company has fulfilled many times over — but with the words "New Jersey" in its name, one could rightfully expect NJ Rep to address issues that are of particular interest to residents of the Car-den State.

Of course, if you've lived for as little as a month in New Jersey, you've probably got at least one good true-life horror story centered around the old Department of Motor Vehicles and its no-less intimidating successor. Soviet-style waiting lines, "Twilight Zone" losses of identity, "X-Files" bureaucratic conspiracies, Kafka-esque runarounds — jaded Jerseyans have seen all this and more in their time.

And it's about time somebody in the arts community did something about it, even if that somebody is West Coast-based playwright and professor Richard Strand.

In "Ten Percent of Molly Snyder," a two-character play making its East Coast premiere at New Jersey Rep's Lumia Theatre in Long Branch, author Strand presents a comic rhapsody-in-red-tape that commences when a young woman (Stephanie Dorian) sees a DMV agent (Michael Irvin Pollard) with a simple request to rectify an incorrect bit of information on her driver's license.

Suffice to say that it goes on from there, spinning off into a nightmarish scenario that director SuzAnne Barabas characterizes as "capturing the frustration that we all experience in dealing with things like the cable provider, the credit card company, the insurance company . . . only done in a very funny way."

According to the NJ Rep co-founder and artistic director, "Simply trying to get a person on the phone sometimes illustrates how our society is taking away all trace of the individual . . . it's as if everybody is becoming the same person."

The play, which was originally staged by Chicago's legendary Steppenwolf company, features a couple of familiar faces from NJ Rep's fantastic stock company. Both actors were seen to fine advantage in previous Rep productions — Dorian as a fiancee and mistress in the riotous romantic quadrangle "Lemonade," and Pollard as a nebbishy corporate neophyte in the giddily absurd "Big Boys."


Written by John de la Parra,

They laugh, they cry, they scream, they live life right before our eyes and it all comes crashing down with the weight of the metaphysical, with the weight of words. The NJ Repertory Theatre presents the world premiere of Ruth Wolff's compelling Beyond Gravity.

The NJ Repertory has brought the specter of high art to Long Branch and the whole cast and crew are ready to blow your mind with it. Beyond Gravity is a play about life's seemingly neurotic nuances that challenges the viewer to admit that we all have to fool ourselves sometimes in order to deal with life. In the very act of attending the theatre we are invited to willfully suspend our disbelief, and Ruth Wolff's expertly crafted play reminds us that we live constantly inside various states of "the willful suspension of disbelief." Such nuance could not be conveyed on stage without skilled performers. They have indeed honored us with their presence and surpassed any possible expectations. Gail Winar (Jan), Peter Brouwer (Harry) and Ellen Wolf (Frederica) are class acts and you will feel very privileged to have them emote for you. The smallness (there really is no better way to put it) of the Lumia Theatre actually works to the great advantage of this work by putting you practically on stage with the actors, who are themselves cramped together, physically and emotionally. The intimate setting created by Carrie Mossman comes to vivid and surprising life through the top-notch lighting design of the skilled Jill Nayle.

Originally titled "The Aviators", this play is better represented by that flighty title than by the less direct (and likely less copyrighted) "Beyond Gravity". With identity invention and glamorous role playing Wolff has created a tiny world of believable illusion. She leads us on a journey inside the mind of what should be your typical academic couple, college professors Jan and Harry Hawkesworth. We first encounter the raw oozing brains of Jan trying to deal with her reality. In her titular (and maybe bizarre?) aviation fantasy she perhaps seems more hysterical than she actually is. But then quickly unfolds a story about couples and what happens in the mind-meld when two people are closed up together for a long time. A curious visitor, a questionable past, and a secret kept from one half of a couple combine and disrupt the carefully fabricated life of Jan and Harry. Problems thought forgotten, fester like a secret kept from oneself. Brushing away the intense superficial cobwebs of seeming insanity reveals the kernel of truth. Wolff's work demonstrates that if the fiction is instantiated for long enough, a kind of schizophrenia takes over. At the same time it is shown that we all could be like Jan and Harry, creating our own realities to help us cope with our own existence.

They laugh, they cry, they scream, they live life right before our eyes and it all comes crashing down with the weight of the metaphysical, with the weight of words. The high energy of the cast is to be praised. The tension bursts off the stage with a crescendo in the second act and then increases again to an emotionally wrought collapse of a finale. These fine actors push it to places you did not think it could go as they involve you in this mysterious fable about coping. As a study in life and human adaptation, the production succeeds and soars beyond expectations with the subtle character exploration of the cast. This unique and delicate work is a testament to the depth of culture to be unearthed in our community.

John de la Parra is a writer and poet living in Red Bank, NJ.

"Gravity" goes up at NJ Rep
Published in the Asbury Park Press 03/31/05


Peter Brouwer, Gail Winar (center) and Ellen Wolf star in "Beyond Gravity," opening this weekend at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.
By Ruth Wolff —New Jersey Repertory Company —179 Broadway, Long Branch —Previews at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. today and 8 p.m. Friday; openings at 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; continues Thursdays through Sundays through May 8 —$20-$30
—(732) 229-3166
New Jersey Repertory Company founders Gabe and SuzAnne Barabas are preparing for another in an impressively long string of world premieres at their Lumia Theatre in downtown Long Branch.

"Beyond Gravity" (a play that was billed as "Aviators" until the success of the Leonardo DiCaprio/Howard Hughes biopic apparently forced a name change) is a newly unveiled work by the celebrated author Ruth Wolff, whose prodigious portfolio has been staged at such venues as the Old Vic in London and the Kennedy Center in Washington (and who has penned plays and screenplays for the likes of Glenda Jackson, Liv Ullmann, Lilli Palmer and Peter Finch).

In Wolff's script, under the direction of Donald Brenner, Jan and Harry Hawkesworth (Gail Winar and Peter Brouwer) are "two middle-aged college professors living a comfortable life in a comfortable home on the beach" — a recipe for disaster, according to the tenets of American theater. The cracks in the couple's staid facade appear soon enough, as Jan is mistakenly led to believe that she's been awarded a major honor for her work as a poet — followed soon thereafter by the unexpected appearance of an ambitious journalist (Ellen Wolf), whose presence casts doubt upon every aspect of this respectable couple's past.

Secure in their carefully crafted existence just moments before, the Hawkesworths are suddenly forced to reveal their secrets, abandon their elaborate fantasy life and deal with reality — all of which causes their world to literally crash around them.

In addition to director Brenner, all three actors are undertaking their first mainstage project as members of the NJ Rep stock company. Their efforts will be augmented by the talents of a crew of company regulars. They include set designer Carrie Mossman, whose expressionistic, nightmarish environment for the recent "Old Clown Wanted" lent that Iron Curtain absurdity a great deal of its power. NJ Rep also will present another new work by Wolff, "Shakespeare Road," as part of the troupe's Monday-night series of script-in-hand readings on May 2.

"Beyond Gravity" previews with three performances this week and opens with an 8 p.m. show with a reception on Saturday. The play then continues its Long Branch run with performances at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through May 8.

Admission is $30. There is a $10 discount for anyone who brings a toy airplane, to be donated to the Ronald McDonald House in Long Branch. In keeping with the theme of the play, NJ Rep also is hosting an exhibit of aerial-view paintings by Jill Kerwick in the Dwek Theatre Gallery. Admission to the exhibit is free.

An Interview with Ruth Wolff

The play was originally called The Aviators. I'm guessing you changed it because of the film.
How did you guess that? Beyond Gravity is a better title actually. Everybody kept asking, “who's the aviator?” So this is more philosophical or something like that... more interesting.

The play is really being marketed in a very vague way...
I know. It's because it's a complex play. I can't come up with one sentence but I'll try. It's about an academic couple, it takes place in a college that's nameless, in a house by the sea. They've been married for over 20 years and are facing a personal and professional crisis when a mysterious young woman enters their lives.

The meaning of Beyond Gravity is that gravity is the force that holds you down and going beyond gravity is somehow being able to life up above that. Some things that happened in their past now explode and the way the woman deals with it is through her imagination and the way the husband deals with it is kind of through sarcasm and wit.

It's a play about marriage and that's a subject that I've come back to again and again in a lot of my plays. Marriage is a basic thing and I'm just very interested in that relationship; why some stay together and some break apart. Some marriages that have a lot of challenges manage to stay together. Like the Clintons and the Roosevelts for example. You can name an awful lot of those and there's a lot of drama in that.

Is it more of a drama or a drama with comedic elements?
It's kind of a mixture. I'll be happy to have any laugh I can get! I love to have laughter in the midst of a lot of angst.

How does the play run?
It's four scenes played without intermission.

This is the world premiere, right?
Yes, this is the world premiere. It's also going to be done at the Barter Theatre in September to November. The Barter did my play, “The Second Mrs. Wilson” which is about Woodrow Wilson and his second wife. That play opened the week of September 11th. It was very strange because a lot of the themes in that were very apt.

What does the set look like?
It's an interior. The play takes place in one room and there are elements which keep it less than totally real. I like to do things where people are using their imagination. I've never loved realism. And so I like when the sets have a kind of abstractism to them.

In addition to plays, you have also written a few screenplays. How do you find the difference between writing for film and for the stage?
I happen to love both. I love words, but I also love images.

Your plays have been produced all over the place, yet you hold the traditional playwright's home in New York City. What are your thoughts on regional theatre?
I think it's wonderful. I say this before everyone comes here, of course! I feel protected. I feel nurtured certainly and the Barabas' are wonderful. They just tenderly let every one of their plays grow. They will also be doing a reading of my newest play, “Shakespeare Road” on May 2nd.

What would you like an audience member to leave with?
I hope they are able to both feel and to think. I hope they'll be moved. I am! I'm always like, ‘where's my Kleenez!' because the actors are terrific and they get me every time. I know this play. I really know the play, but they're marvelous and they make things very moving and they make me laugh. I would like an audience to feel that way too.
-- Gary Wien, Upstage Magazine

Who's Afraid of Ruth Wolff? (Not NJ Rep)
Published in the Asbury Park Press 04/6/05

Ruth Wolff's "Beyond Gravity" is being staged by the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.
"Everything you see before you is illusion," imparts poet and educator Jan Hawkesworth (Gail Winar) to her history prof hubby Harry (Peter Brouwer) at one point during "Beyond Gravity," the three-character drama by Ruth Wolff now in its world premiere engagement at New Jersey Repertory Company's Lumia Theatre in Long Branch.

Harry, for his part, peppers his conversation with reverie on "the lies we perpetrate to burnish our image with our unperpetrated sins." Even a supposedly neutral third party character (played by Ellen Wolf with one "o") gets into the act, helpfully goading the middle-aged academics to "play along . . . pretend!"

The esteemed playwright Wolff drops enough clues into her new script (a single-act work that originally showed up on NJ Rep's schedule under the title "Aviators") to drive home the fact that we are not looking in on a simulacrum of "real life" here. The little beach-house world that these characters inhabit is a fragile box propped up by lies and delusions, caulked and insulated with hallucinatory episodes and confessional monologues.

At face value, it's a setting straight out of the playwright's standard playbook — the long-married professional couple, the skeletons in the closet, the uninvited guest who serves to shake up their razor-thin margin of comfort.

Wolff's "Beyond Gravity" seeks to soar free of the forces that serve to pin most American dramas to the floorboards of "realism," with enough materialized metaphors, stream-of-consciousness soliloquies and puzzling plot points to keep the audience off-balance for the duration of its relatively brief time on stage.

With the NJ Rep tech team doing its best to conjure the unseen world beyond the fruit-crate walls of the (college-owned) house, the play kicks off with an auditory illusion. It then moves immediately into a bizarre sequence wherein wife Jan is mistakenly anointed the winner of a Pulitzer Prize — an odd bit of business that is just as quickly reversed and never discussed again.

Enter Frederica

It's the appearance of an intrepid freelance journalist named Frederica — who slips Lois Lane-like into the house and hides behind a screen as the old-timers make whoopee — that throws the weird plot mechanism into drive. More a literary device than a fully-fleshed character, Frederica serves to penetrate the veneer of domestic bliss (and the hallucinatory haze of role-playing) that surround the spouses; drawing out not just the secrets but the secrets within the secrets — and revealing that she herself has a prominent personal stake in the couple's past, present and future.

Oh, and then there's that obsession with Charles Lindbergh. It would appear that the quasi-sane Jan lapses at times into a belief that she is Anne Morrow Lindbergh — celebrating her famous husband's solo success with a re-enactment of his famous flight, mourning the loss of her kidnapped son and chastising her spouse for his apparent support of the Nazi regime. Lucky Lindy is just one of the forces pushing and tugging on the beleaguered little people inside the box. There's the true nature of the reporter, as well as the offstage visitor who arrives with her at play's end in a beam of bright light.

There's also the alarmingly sudden appearance of a wrecking crew outside that comes to forcibly evict the couple from the property when they're unceremoniously canned from the faculty in a twist that relates to one of those aforementioned nesting secrets. The sequences having to do with the beach house under siege (and the literalized demolition of their safe haven) are impressively staged by tech director Randy Lee Hartwig, lighting designer Jill Nagle and sound sultan Merek Royce Press.

Winar stars

The cast works hard under director Donald Brenner, but none more so than Winar in her debut main stage production as a member of the NJ Rep stock company. Winar generates genuine momentum and lends flashes of levity to "Gravity," breaking down resistance with her mastery over some purplish prose and oft-times ridiculous business.

Published in the Asbury Park Press 04/3/05


Paintings by Jill Kerwick are on view at the New Jersey Repertory's Dwek Theater in Long Branch.
Featuring paintings and prints by Jill Kerwick — Through May 8; public reception at 4 p.m. today — The Dwek Theater at New Jersey Repertory Company — 179 Broadway, Long Branch — (732) 229-3166

of a theater production and finding that themes from the play are portrayed in original artworks displayed on the lobby wall.

Although not created by the playwright, they carry the play's themes from inside the darkened theater into the light of day.

Instead of hushed silence, chit-chatting is encouraged, as the audience processes its responses to both the play and the artworks in a casual, public setting.

"The Art and The Artist" series is New Jersey Repertory Company's way of honoring visual artists of all kinds. In addition to embracing theater and the people that make it happen, a new effort began with the last production to turn the more intimate Dwek Theater, adjacent to the larger Lumia Theatre on Broadway in Long Branch, into a permanent art gallery.

Artists are chosen to complement and reflect a specific production, and their work is on display throughout the run of that individual play. This is the theater's second collaboration with an artist and features Fair Haven resident Jill Kerwick, an established painter and printmaker.

The current play at NJ Rep, "Beyond Gravity" by Ruth Wolff, focuses on the complex life and fallen dreams of a suburban couple. Therefore, the theater has chosen to exhibit several of Kerwick's paintings reflecting suburban life from an aerial view.

"I often feel like I have landed in suburbia, as if it were an alien, fictitious, humorous, lonely and comforting place," she said.

Kerwick, originally from Hawthorne in Passaic County, has taken views from the 17th floor of Monmouth Beach's Channel Club to telescope the ordinary observance of local neighborhoods. In keeping with the theme of a new perspective, Kerwick recently has developed a far more distant view.

Since 2002, Kerwick has taken extended trips to Costa Rica and has exchanged images of Jersey's track housing for one of Costa Rican lusciousness- rich, full, green fruit trees, fabulously colored birds, and nature in a raw, voluptuous state.

"It's a totally different perspective on life," Kerwick said. "Here (in New Jersey) everybody watches the news — there you watch the sunrise and the sunset."


Theatre Brut Festival explores art unfettered by convention
Second festival features 19 short plays this weekend at NJ Rep

Brian O'Halloran (above, foreground) and Betty Hudson (r) performed in plays that were presented during NJ Rep's first Theatre Brut Festival last year.
Gabor Barabas, executive producer of the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, isn't content just to produce new plays. His upcoming second annual Theatre Brut Festival encourages playwrights to speak a new theatrical language and provides adventurous theatergoers with the opportunity to see 19 short plays written by 16 different playwrights, directed by 19 directors and performed by 45 actors in just one weekend.

A different series of plays will be presented each day of the three-day festival, which will take place at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and at 2 p.m. Sunday in the Dwek Studio Theatre at NJ Rep, 179 Broadway, Long Branch.

“It's a goal and a dream of the theater,” he said. “We are so involved in developing new works that try to explore and stretch the boundaries of theater as an art form.”

Barabas' motivation for creating the festival grew out of his vision of theater as a vital social force.

His inspiration for its framework came from the early 20th-century “outsider” art movement first described in 1923 by the German psychiatrist Hans Prinzhorn, who saw artistic merit in paintings and drawings by untrained inmates in insane asylums. Later Jean Dubuffet and the surrealists broadened the idea of “outsider art” to include intuitive and original works produced by anyone who worked free of normal cultural influences. It was later renamed art brut (raw art).

According to the NJ Rep Web site, Theatre Brut celebrates “the creative impulse unfettered by social and artistic convention.”

Last year, the first Theatre Brut Festival titled “My Rifle, My Pony and Me” explored the myth of the American cowboy. Despite taking place during a major snowstorm, the event sold out all three days.

One of last year's plays went on to be selected as a finalist at the Humana Festival in Louisville, one of the largest festivals of new plays in the country. Another was expanded into a full-length work that was given a reading at NJ Rep.

More than 250 submissions were received for this year's festival, which is organized around the idea of “sacrifice.”

“We want to get new playwrights involved and get them to do something they wouldn't automatically think about by encouraging them to focus on a specific topic and use that topic as a catalyst to get them to think outside the box and explore,” said NJ Rep's artistic director SuzAnne Barabas.

Everything is up to the individual director almost as if it is self-produced. It's all about trusting the raw theater aspect of it,” she said.

“We want to get away from traditional ideas, do something quickly, creatively, get the ideas out there without resorting to old tricks,” she added.

The festival also showcases NJ Rep's large company.

“Part of it is to give a lot of our company members, designers, actors and directors an opportunity to show their talent,” she explained.

SuzAnne Barabas thinks the fast-paced experience is something the audience will enjoy.

“When you hear the word sacrifice you have a certain image, but then you see all the different interpretations. It's amazing. Sometimes we would read a play and say, ‘We really like this, but what does it have to do with sacrifice?' Then we'd find it. I think it's something the audience will enjoy trying to figure out as well.

“There's comedy, drama, theater of the absurd, and everything in between. We are calling it a smorgasbord of raw theater,” she continued. “You go quickly from one thing to another and you see how creative and inventive people can be on a single theme and all the different ideas that come up. It's an experience, especially if you see all of the plays.”

Company member Ian August, a graduate of Rutgers with a degree in English, has two plays in this year's festival. Although he has written longer pieces, August enjoys writing within the limitations of a 10-minute time frame.

“Ten minutes is exciting, refreshing. I find that the 10-minute piece is just long enough to express an idea creatively and still keep it contained,” he said. His play “Le Supermarche or What I Did for Lunch” was the first one selected for this year's festival.

“It's a fairy tale in food speak, a lovely little revenge story with constant food references,” he said. “I had never had anything produced professionally before. I was so pumped I went home and wrote ‘Abraham on the Mount' and submitted it two weeks later.”

That play, which takes place the week before the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac, also made the cut. The work features Abraham and a “Bugs Bunnyesque” goat. August describes the piece as a cross between “a vaudeville sketch and a Warner Brothers cartoon.”

The author will play the goat. The part of Abraham is played by Mike Foley, one of NJ Rep's playwrights in residence, who had two pieces in last year's festival.

Foley, a Middletown native, studied acting at Rutgers and at the HB studio in New York and performed professionally as an actor for eight to 10 years before starting to write plays.

He has participated in many short play festivals but thinks that Theatre Brut is special.

“Other festivals have a theme, but Gabe and SuZanne always do something that means something to them,” he said. “NJ Rep is a very unusual organization, very inventive. They have such a broad group of actors and writers and people love them [the Barabases], so they do their best work for them. Everybody brings a lot of themselves to it.”

As an experienced playwright, Foley understands the pros and cons of a festival that presents “raw work.”

“It's a double-edged thing. In some ways it's nice to write a short play quickly and see it go up fast. You get gratification quickly. That's good. The other side is, it's hard to write a good 10-minute play. You have to be so succinct, establish your conflicts and characters quickly, get to the resolution and get off,” he said.

He thinks the variety of pieces is important to the audience's enjoyment.

“It's like the weather,” he said. “If you don't like something, wait 10 minutes — another one will come along that you might love.”

While Foley appreciates the festival's role in helping playwrights hone their skills, company member Brian O'Halloran, who starred in Kevin Smith's “Clerks,” is enthusiastic about the opportunity to attract new theater audiences.

“As an actor, live theater is my favorite medium, and something I've always gravitated to,” he said. “Taking live theater and doing it in a way that is different and leads to a great audience experience, I'm all for it.”

Brian appears in two of the festival's more dramatic works, “Trouble on the Path” with Bob Senkewicz and “Sara” with Donna Morrazzo.

“If you can only see one theater experience this season, this is what you should see,” he said. “It's like seeing an entire season of a theater company wrapped up in one weekend.”


Asbury Park Press 2/18/05
Tom Chesek

The smell of Brut

This correspondent called it the Shore area's "theatrical event of the year" for 2004 — a three-evening festival of short dramas, comedies, sketches, monologues and all-around madness that pooled the talents of a staggering number of actors, directors and playwrights from around the region, built around the theme of the American cowboy and presented to full houses (on some very icy midweek nights) under the umbrella title "My Rifle, My Pony and Me." The event, produced by New Jersey Repertory Company as an experiment in what founder Gabor Barabas has branded Theater Brut or "outsider theater" (check the Website at for a mission statement/manifesto on the concept) would have remained encapsulated as a happy memory were it not for that unmistakable whiff of Brut in the air today.

Yep, Theater Brut returns to NJ Rep's Lumia Theatre in Long Branch on the nights of March 4, 5 and 6 — that's a weekend engagement this time out; and if you've ever wanted to dip a tentative toe into the more adventurous waters of the area stage scene, this smorgasbord looks to be the perfect point of entry.

Built around the concept of "Sacrifice" — a theme that resonates within settings from biblical days to the baseball diamond — the tri-night series will feature some 19 new works from such scribes as Dickey Nesenger (whose liltingly surreal "Harvest Moon" was a particular highlight of last year's fest), Joel Gross and Vladimir Zelevinsky; with writing contributions also coming from Ian August and Barney Fitzpatrick, a pair of familiar onstage faces at the Lumia. Cast members have yet to be announced, but with so many talents on display, the seats are sure to fill up fast with friends and family — reserve your place at the table now by calling (732) 229-3166.


This review by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the January 26, 2005 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

NJ Rep: 'Touch of Rapture'

At the opening of "Touch of Rapture," a new play by Mary Fengar Gale, Clovis Myrtle Minton, a reclusive sculptress, is dying. She asks her husband Quince Dillingham, a patron of the arts and the proprietor of the prominent Shallots Gallery in the West End of London, "Will you take my hands?" At first, Quince assumes that Clovis is merely requesting that he hold and caress her hands in her final moments. But then, just as his wife dies, something miraculous happens. To Quincy's amazement, he is suddenly filled with the urge to not only begin sculpting, but to continue working on a series of figurative statues of mythological goddesses begun by his wife, whose work has never been shown. For reasons that the play later explores, Quince has kept Clovis' work under wraps.

Working under a pseudonym, Quincy is soon displaying and promoting the sale of the goddesses in his gallery. Running a business and sculpting round the clock like a man possessed, Quincy is near exhaustion. The new sculptures, however, are recognized as the work of Clovis by her elder brother and barrister Garlin Mandrake Minton. He accuses Quince of hiding from him his sister's most recent work, all of which was supposedly left to him in her will. It is not surprising that Quince's explanation does not satisfy Garlin, who feels that Quince is trying to deny his sister her glory and cheat him out of an inheritance. Garlin is dumbfounded when Quince demonstrates that he has, in fact, somewhat miraculously gained the ability to draw in the exact style of Clovis.

Quincy, who believes that a dealer who exhibits the work of his wife would be perceived as nepotistic, convinces Garlin that they should form a partnership to exploit the sculptures, which are sure to be very valuable. Things get even more strange and unsettling when Clovis' talent is transferred to Garlin, and then transferred to Rosemary, Clovis' frumpish cousin.

Under the facile direction of Stewart M. Schulman, "Touch of Rapture" which seems at first like a barrage of silly chatter and absurd situations evolves into a rather sweet and gentle allegory about gender and the rules of the game.

Just know that when Garlin and Quincy decide to bring Rosemary into their scheme to pose as the artist at public appearances, the play begins to assert itself with whimsical twists and turns. The play takes an audacious approach to its theme - the circuitous route to recognition and empowerment that women strive for in a world where men either provide the way or put up the roadblocks.

John Fitzgibbon, as the smug motor-mouthed Quince, rattles off his dialogue faster than the patter of Gilbert and Sullivan's modern major general. Davis Hall is increasingly amusing as Garlin, a closeted prig. Probably the most interesting turnabout is offered by Marnie Andrews, as the earthy Rosemary. Her transformation from an unappreciated and unmotivated woman to a graceful artist allows for a change in the balance of power, providing the play with its most affecting resonance.

Designer Carrie Mossman's stylized setting (cleanly lighted by Jeff Greenberg) brings us from a bedroom and parlor at the estate of Fennfield in Hampstead Heath to Shallots Gallery with rotating white panels, some sculptured figures, and a few chairs and tables. Despite frequent lapses into verbosity, "Touch of Rapture," ultimately wins us over through the sheer playfulness of its fantastical plot.


Touch of Rapture

Artistic talent is tricky. Is it innate or the province of critics? And if you possess it, is it a blessing or a curse? Touch of Rapture delves into the meaning of art — with a catch. The breezy drama, now playing at the New Jersey Rep Company, a little jewel box of a theater in Long Branch, addresses both the nature of art and the reality of women artists. The playwright, Mary Fengar Gail, understands that men dominate the art world. Women's achievements, long relegated to second-class status, demand attention.  But as this zippy production makes  abundantly clear, misogyny prevents it. Until providence intervenes. 

In Rapture, a dying sculptor whispers a simple phrase to her husband: “Will you take my hands?” He does and in one transcendent moment, her remarkable talent becomes his — setting off a stunning chain of events. Suddenly, Quince (John FitzGibbon), a successful gallery owner, has an awakening: His long-neglected wife, who crafted large, exquisite goddess sculptures, was supremely talented. How does he know? Because he can duplicate her artistry. Once he has the power to create, the work is bestowed with meaning, beauty, and most importantly, it will sell.  In a nod to Pgymalion, Gail gives the sculptures, a living quality, a touchable quality, that proves seductive and irresistible. Art, she explains, is a living, breathing entity. Women birth; men take.

Thus, while Clovis, Quince's deceased wife, gets short shrift in life, she's a marketable commodity in death. Trouble is, the public likes to celebrate live artists. So Quince and Clovis' staid barrister brother, Garlin (Davis Hall), concoct a clever scheme: In fairness, Garlin, a sincere booster of his sister's work, is appalled by Quince's chicanery. Unlike Quince, he realizes women artists haven't received their due. The siren call of commerce, however, proves too hard to resist.

Enter Rosemary (Marnie Andrews), Clovis' kooky, albeit literate cousin, who smokes cigars and worships literature. She's wacky and wonderful and recognized Clovis' genius long ago. Unfettered by sexism, she sees art, not gender. But can the two men pass her off as the real thing?  More pointedly, which of the three has the right to inherit Clovis' gift?

Artistic possession and the nature of creation are just two of the heady themes Rapture confronts. Yet the play isn't didactic, thanks to the deft, fluid direction of Stewart Schulman, who wisely keeps the action moving, and Gail's clever storytelling. Schulman uses the small stage to good effect; his talented ensemble inhabit their roles so completely, audiences fall in love with the notion of artistic creation. Strip away the gallery politics, the greed, the critics and the hype, and what's left is magical. Gail reminds us that art is a calling. And we are all humbled before it.  —Fern Siegel

The LINK News January 20, 2005
Theater Review
By Milt Bernstein
Long Branch - Saturday night saw the world premiere production of New Jersey Rep's newest dramatic offering, a play called "Touch of Rapture," written by a promising young playwright, Mary Fengar Gail.
The three-character play, done with one partly movable set, is an interesting combination of drama and fantasy, with some comic touches, about a gifted sculptress, Clovis, whose plaster creations of nymphs and goddesses adorn the paneled walls of her home - but whose art gallery owner husband has never seen fit to exhibit her work. (Perhaps he didn't think they were good enough.)
In any event, the play begins with Clovis on her deathbed, mysteriously managing to pass her sculpting gift, through a holding of hands, to a disbelieving spouse. Quince (his name) is both transformed and seduced by this cloning of artistic gifts; but convinces the reluctant Garlin, a friend and supporter of his late wife, that someone still living (like Garlin) should take credit for the works to be shown.
Before the action has stopped, the mysterious gift has passed from Quince to Garlin and eventually to the female in the cast, Rosemary, the cousin of Clovis, (for whom the gift may have originally been intended.)
The play, ably directed by Stewart Schulman, features fine performances by John FitzGibbon as husband Quince, Davis Hall as friend Garlin; and Marnie Andrews, as cousin Rosemary, who undergoes a transformation from a dowdy and frowsy persona in Act I to a radiance in Act II that put me in mind of Eliza Doolittle in "My Fair Lady."
The opening night performance was followed by a gala reception for the audience and company, generously provided by the Ocean Place Resort and Spa.
A fascinating addition to the evening was also provided in the Dwek theater space where the reception was held, with a display of sculptured bronzes by the Israeli-American artisti Benjamin Levy. The sculptures, all for sale, will be on view through Feb 20, and are well worth seeing.
"Touch of Rapture" is also very much worth seeing.


Review: Touch Of Rapture

(LONG BRANCH) -- It takes imagination to lie. So says one of the characters in Touch Of Rapture, the latest production from New Jersey Repertory Company. In this wonderfully creative comic-drama imagination and lies truly run wild.

The play starts with a London artist (Clovis) dying in her bed asking her husband (John Fitzgibbon as Quince) to “take her hands”. Little does he know that she was about to pass on her gifts as a sculptor to him. Quince was the owner of an important art gallery, but had no artistic talent before suddenly having his “hands” guide him through the process. Essentially, he became able to make sculptures that were virtually identical to those by his late wife.

Unfortunately, his brother-in-law (Davis Hall as Garlin) learned of the sculptures and thought Quince was trying to rip him off by hiding sculptures that were given to him from her will. Garlin is first seen bringing Quince a notice that he is being sued. Quince does his best to convince him that he created the sculptures but Garlin doesn't buy it. Finally Quince gets him to pose very quickly while Garlin sketches his portrait. Knowing that Garlin had no artistic talent before he is intrigued by the wonderful sketch drawn.

Eventually, Garlin is convinced that Quince is the sculptor but still refuses to believe that his sister passed on her hands and her gift to him. The two agree to go into business together selling her sculptures and those he had created as well. Since she was a virtual unknown artist who specialized in sculpting goddesses, and since none of her sculptures had sold while she was alive, it was up to Quince to use his gallery to drum up attention for her work. The only question left was what would they do when people eventually wanted to see the artist?

They decided they needed someone to play the role of the sculptor and they agreed that it had to be a woman. Garlin suggested Clovis' cousin Rosemary, an un-employed “hag” of a woman; unkempt and the farthest thing from what one would expect an artist to look like. As she herself remarks, “who would ever believe such beautiful sculptures were created by me?”

It's after the introduction of Rosemary that the zaniness and comedy really kick in. All three actors are simply wonderful in their roles and the chemistry is perfect. As the play moves on, the laughs seem to come more and more often and the jokes get stronger and stronger.

The play is actually a brilliant display of character development. As the audience learns more about each character, they become more and more comfortable to peer into the fantastical world created by playwright Mary Fengar Gail. It's a world in which anything can happen including passing the gift of artistry from person to person and a woman can literally go from being an overweight woman who smells like cabbage to one of the world's most important artists.

Touch of Rapture reminds me somewhat of the off-Broadway classic Prelude To A Kiss by Craig Lucas; however, Mary Fengar Gail seems to have created a better (and far more believable) plot line than Lucas. Although this world is clearly fantastical, it's highly believable as well, especially when considering that no one truly knows how great artists receive their abilities.

Touch of Rapture runs until February 20th at the Lumia Theatre in Long Branch (179 Broadway). In addition, the theatre's lobby is currently showing an exhibit featuring bronze statues by Israeli-American sculptor Benjamin Levy. These are not your ordinary sculptures I can assure you. Some will make you laugh and even blush! -- Gary Wien


Interview with Playwright Mary Fengar Gail

Q) What do you think Touch of Rapture is about?
I think it's about love and loss. It's the idea of possessing a gift and passing it on. I've actually have always been fascinated by genetics and the idea that people will be customizing their babies and someday they may find the genetic marker for gifts such as being a musician or a painter or mathematician; someone's destiny will be completely figured out for them before they're even born. So I thought, what if a gift could be passed through shear will? And that's the impetus of the play. Also there's a red cloth that goes from scene to scene and it's about how we perceive an object. They've discovered that the person perceiving the object actually affects the object at a subatomic level. All of these ideas coalesced in my mind - my demented mind - and became this play.

Q) Was there a particular reason that you have the play set in London?
Well, one of the characteristics of the English people is eccentricity, so I thought it would be more fun to have it take place there. There's also a big sculpture movement in England; a very active art world. And I'm allowed a lot more liberties with regards to language. I can use words like bullocks. It's a wonderful language that I couldn't use if it took place in New York.

The other thing I like is a heightened passion that takes me to unfamiliar worlds. If the characters have English accents and a kind of slanted speech it asks the audience to listen in a different way. And maybe they'll enter the whole fantastical world... Or maybe they'll resist but it's more fun for me.

Q) The laughs in Touch Of Rapture seem to grow larger as the play moves on.
I think people need to get comfortable with the play and each other and give themselves permission to laugh. It is a comic drama.

Q) The play is very much based in fantasy but plot driven as well.
Aristotle said the essence of drama is story and I think he means plot. I have to admit I do love plot. Look at the shows on tv that are successful - shows like Law & Order - and they're plot driven. So, because I love story I do put the story element in my plays. And sometimes it takes me a long time to figure out what the story exactly is but the characters are clear and they help write the story.

I'm just grateful when anybody agrees to my run with my perversions. I don't think I write in the normal, more conventional-linear-sequential-domestic-realism style. I prefer a more fantastical theatre and not everyone's willing to enter my demented world. -- Gary Wien

A Look Inside The Set With Carrie Mossman

Every now and then when people leave the theatre the design of the stage is on their mind. That was the case after the opening night of New Jersey Rep's production of Touch of Rapture. As the groups gathered to talk about the play, the production's sparse yet effective set design came up often in conversation. Set design is something that often gets overlooked, but set design is a very important part of each production. Upstage decided to talk with Carrie Mossman, the designer for this production to get her feelings on the set, and the role of set designers in general. Her answers were a bit surprising...

Q) Tell me a little about your work with Touch of Rapture. You not only designed the set but helped create the sculptures on stage as well.
It was very interesting. The thing about the script is that they talk about the sculptures being so magnificent and so overwhelming that there was a concern at first whether or not we would be able to create something that would still make you feel that. Honestly the set that you see is quite different from my original idea. The director and I originally talked about an idea of having the walls actually being a stretchable fabric with the sculptures being living people pushing through the back of the fabric because they talk about the sculptures being alive. But, as it turned out it was going to be much more difficult to do in a small space. So the sculptures sort of come out of the wall. It's not a sculpture that you can walk around. It's not a 3-D sculpture and yet, at the same time, it is 3-D because it's coming out and you can physically touch it and it's not flat.

Q) What is the goal of a set designer?
The truth is that designing a set is really a glorified way of designing entrances and exits. My job is to help the flow of the action of the play; to move the actors on and off stage in the best and easiest and most interesting way possible. But if it doesn't serve the play and if what I do upstages what they do then I haven't done my job. It's not about my set. It's about the play and what's going on between the actors. The best thing I can do is serve that in a way that helps it and moves it along. I don't think you go into set design to be a star; you go into it because it's a collaborative process. There are many Broadway set designers who want to shine, but I don't agree with that. -- Gary Wien

NJ Rep to host art exhibit

LONG BRANCH — The art of internationally renowned sculptor Benjamin Levy will be on view at the New Jersey Repertory Co. Jan. 13 though Feb. 20. A special reception for the artist will be held on Sunday, Jan. 16 from 5:30-8:30 pm.

The exhibit will coincide with the world premiere of “Touch of Rapture” by Mary Fengar Gail, a play that celebrates the love of art. The exhibit will feature Levy's bronze sculptures.

Reservations for the reception are recommended. Gallery hours are Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays 5:30-7:30 pm, Sundays 11:30-1:30 p.m., and by appointment.

Levy, an Israeli/American artist originally from Tel-Aviv, Israel, has had over 100 one-man exhibitions in museums and galleries around the world, as well as 500 group exhibits.

For more information about the artist visit

Dan Lauria Wants to Bring Theatre Back To It's Wonder Years
from Upstage Magazine
The theatre needs more people like Dan Lauria. He's best known for his role as the father on TV's “The Wonder Years”, but, in addition to his work in television and movies, he's a true champion of the theatre. More importantly, he's a true champion of new theatre.

Dan will be making his return to the George Street Playhouse stage this January for Lee Blessing's new production, The Winning Streak. In the play, he portrays a retired major league umpire who lives near a ballpark. His world is shaken up a bit with the introduction of his son, the byproduct of a one-night stand that happened roughly 30 years ago.

The play takes you inside a father-son relationship that's never existed and may never get off the ground. As with most plays by Lee Blessing, there are comedic moments, bitter-sweet moments, and harsh doses of honesty making for a highly enjoyable story.Dan Lauria's return to George Street was largely due to Lee Blessing. For 10 years, he ran a writing program in Los Angeles where they read a new play every Monday night. The idea was to help writers get literary agents. One of the writers they read each year was Blessing.

“It's always the writing that attracts me,” explained Dan Lauria. “I was supposed to go back to L.A. for pilot season right after the first of January and Lee called and said, ‘hey, I've got a new one' so I said let's go. It's a crime that we have so many good new writers that can't get produced.”

Lauria knows a thing or two about getting new work produced. As an actor that has performed in theatres from coast to coast, Lauria is adamant about only acting in new productions.

“I don't do plays by dead white guys,” said Lauria. “I've only done one revival in 17 years. Jack Klugman made me do The Price. He only got me to do it because he said Arthur Miller's not dead yet! But that's the only revival I've done.”

When Lauria talks about theatre, you hear a passion in his voice that yearns to see theatre reclaim its place in the entertainment world. He mentions places like Seattle and Chicago, but admits that there isn't any one true spot for new works anymore. And he's seen the changes happen firsthand.

“Even 15 years ago, 50 regional theatres would all do a new play that was not done anywhere else,” he explained. “Now five or six theatres will do a new play. One will make a little noise and the other 45 theatres will do that play and say it's a new play. This year it's Richard Dresser's Rounding Third; a couple of years ago it was Marc St. Germain's Camping With Henry and Tom. The Laramie Project must have been done in 50 regional theatres and every one said it was a new play. But it wasn't new, it was new the first time it did it.

So, we don't have regional theatres now trying to discover the new writer and get to New York. We have somebody in New York who will put up a play and make a little noise and then that play is done as the new play for the regional theatre. And you wonder why the audience is getting older and older when you don't bring kids in. Well, we don't do plays by younger people.”

Lauria believes that there are two main reasons why the theatre has failed to attract younger audiences. One is that the young group of actors coming up now don't feel the need for theatre. The other is that theatre itself has simply gotten too expensive.

“When I started, we got a few dollars together, went into a basement, built a set, put on a new play and hoped that agents would come and see us,” recalled Lauria. “We knew that no agents were going to come see another revival or something, so we were always looking for something new that would make a little noise. If you talk to people like Gary Sinise at Steppenwolf it was always young people looking for young writers and that's what started a group off. But nowadays, it's too expensive to do a showcase. For the same amount of money you can go to a Radio Shack, buy a digital camera and shoot a 20-minute movie that the actors have to show agents forever. So, we have a core of young actors who don't have a theatre background and feel no obligation to the theatre; therefore, they don't go back. See, I blame my fellow actors for the demise. Moreso than critics. Because if these young stars would go back to the theatre with new plays, it would build a whole new audience. I did a play with Fred Savage (The Wonder Years) about 7 years ago. It was his first professional play and we played Westport, Cape Cod and Algonquin, Maine and we sold out every night.”

Lauria wishes that there was one major regional theatre close enough to New York City that it would attract the stars on a regular basis. The theatre would be committed to developing new works. Critics would be encouraged to come to only the last night so the plays would not be about success or failure but development. He feels that stars would feel safer going there if the critical pressure was removed.

In the Upstage coverage area, Lauria is encouraged by the work of George Street Playhouse (although he keeps pressing David Saint to add more premieres each season) and the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. Lauria has known Gabor Barabas, NJ Rep's Executive Producer, for quite a while.

“I wish Gabe was the Artistic Director of a major theatre,” said Lauria. “See, he only does new plays. And he went from two-week runs to three-week runs and now they're up to four-week runs. He's built an audience. You cannot pick a style because every style is done there. They do abstract plays, realistic plays - but they do new plays. And his audiences are young and old.

“I think it's a terrible thing to assume that the old people only want to see old plays,” he continued. “One old fan told me, ‘I was there when Willy Loman first walked on the stage. I was there when Blanche first walked on the stage. What makes you think I don't want to see a new Willy Loman or a new Blanche?' I think it's so insulting to assume that they're only going to see Kiss Me Kate.”

You can see Dan Lauria in action during this month's run of The Winning Streak at the George Street Playhouse. After the run is over, Lauria will probably be seen in some television shows or maybe a film or two. His passion is the theatre, but the other mediums help financially to keep his passion alive. His work on The Wonder Years will always follow him wherever he goes, but he says that he regards it as a blessing.

“They wouldn't be considering me for these regional theatres if I didn't have some kind of name. John Ritter always said the same thing and he was right. He said start worrying when they stop bothering you about The Wonder Years. That's when you're in trouble...” -- Gary Wien

Review: A charming 'Touch of Rapture' in Long Branch
Published in the Asbury Park Press 1/19/05


'Take my hands," the dying artist pleads from her deathbed, meshing her fingers with those of her husband as the last bit of strength ebbs from her earthly vessel. And in those moments a miracle transpires, as the woman's gift of creation passes from her hands to those of her spouse -- endowing the worldly-minded man with a newly-minted passion to create, and a newfound appreciation for the spirituality of art.

New Jersey Repertory Company Lumia Theatre
179 Broadway, Long Branch
Through Feb. 20
(732) 229-3166

It all comes off sounding more than a little bit precious, but if we learn anything from "Touch of Rapture" -- the play now in its world-premiere engagement at New Jersey Repertory Company's Lumia Theatre in Long Branch -- it's that an idea really only comes together when it's in the right set of hands. Fortunately, the key-stroking digits of playwright Mary Fengar Gail seem to be the right hands for the task; putting a playful stamp on a potentially ponderous premise (and avoiding the scenario of artists who are so intoxicated with the act of creating art that they fall out of synch with their stone-cold-sober audience).

Played out on one of Carrie Mossman's characteristically inventive shadowbox set designs for this economically-scaled stage, "Touch" opens with just-widowed gallery owner Quince (John FitzGibbon) working feverishly to continue a series of plaster goddess figures initiated by his late wife Clovis -- a body of work that has the artist's barrister brother Garlin (Davis Hall) accusing the art dealer of secretly warehousing pieces that should rightfully have been willed to him. Quince manages to convince his erstwhile in-law that a miraculous and supernatural process has indeed taken place, and -- still very much the businessman in mind and soul -- hatches a scheme to keep supplying the art-buying public with fresh product in the Clovis style; transforming the uptight attorney into a one-man production line by (rather forcibly) transferring the sculptor's gift to him.

What the two partners require is a public face to play the part of the sculptress at all of the anticipated art-world events, and they find it (more or less) in the person of Clovis's unemployed cousin Rosemary (Marnie Andrews), a self-described "frumpy old bubbler" who smells like sauerkraut and has split ends on her split ends. While something of a familial resemblance exists (Andrews also has a cameo as Clovis at the outset of the show), the attempt to place the well-read but socially-challenged Rosemary as the purported star of a one-woman show is not exactly a resounding success at first (witness her pigging out at the gallery buffet and the attendant consequences).

aving introduced these farcical elements, however, the playwright shifts direction as Rosemary grows ever more comfortable in the spotlight, and makes an unexpected request: that she herself become the logical custodian of "The Hands"; insisting even that her deceased cousin would have wanted it that way (the "unseen" character Clovis is a magical being indeed, communicating with the others via direct contact with her plaster creations). Naturally, each of the three cohorts has their own design upon the gift -- a source of conflict that's further complicated by some tricky interpersonal dynamics among the principals.

Under the direction of Stewart M. Schulman (who helmed a very satisfying script-in-hand presentation of Mark Dunn's "Dix Tableaux" here last summer), the three cast members -- all of them veterans of major turns in previous NJ Rep productions -- work together like the stock-company pros they very well are. And why not; the same players originated their respective roles in a tryout reading of Gail's text last February -- making "Rapture" merely the latest of the company's 'raw' productions to be successfully developed as a mainstage offering.

The story's fanciful conceit aside, the actors manage to make the most of the situation even when the last remaining dollop of logic goes missing. While the script has as many unresolved ends as Rosemary's frizzle-fried 'do (more than one audience member brought up the question of why a stand-in would be required for an artist who labored largely in anonymity), the fact that this American author's action is set in the British art world is a puzzlement, when the search-and-destroy of the New York scene would have filled the bill quite nicely. This requires the stars to affect put-on accents, with FitzGibbon having particular fun oozing his plummy baritone around some drolly drawling put-downs -- as when he describes Rosemary's "purple trowel of a tongue," or legs that conjure "pills of gorgonzola."

The route between points A and B is dotted with other off-ramps best left unexplored (an undercurrent about the transcendent powers of the Goddess seems almost a parody of old-school feminist writing), but suffice to say that this ultimately charming little play ends happily, pleasingly and in an economical time frame. Continuing Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings (plus Sunday matinees) through Feb. 20, "Touch of Rapture" is paired with a concurrent exhibit of whimsical bronze statues by Israeli-American sculptor Benjamin Levy. For information about both events, call (732) 229-3166.

Touch of Rapture
By Simon Saltzman:

Marnie Andrews, John Fitzgibbon, David Hall

At the opening of "Touch of Rapture," a new play by Mary Fengar Gale, Clovis Myrtle Minton, a reclusive sculptress, is dying. She asks her husband Quince Dillingham, a patron of the arts and the proprietor of the prominent Shallots Gallery in the West End of London, "Will you take my hands?" At first, Quince assumes that Clovis is merely requesting that he hold and caress her hands in her final moments. But then, just as his wife dies, something miraculous happens. To Quincy's amazement, he is suddenly filled with the urge to not only begin sculpting, but to continue working on a series of figurative statues of mythological goddesses begun by his wife, whose work has never been shown. For reasons that the play later explores, Quince has kept Clovis' work under wraps.

Working under a pseudonym, Quincy is soon displaying and promoting the sale of the goddesses in his gallery. Running a business and sculpting round the clock like a man possessed, Quincy is near exhaustion. The new sculptures, however, are recognized as the work of Clovis by her elder brother and barrister Garlin Mandrake Minton. He accuses Quince of hiding from him his sister's most recent work, all of which was supposedly left to him in her will. It is not surprising that Quince's explanation does not satisfy Garlin, who feels that Quince is trying to deny his sister her glory and cheat him out of an inheritance. Garlin is dumbfounded when Quince demonstrates that he has, in fact, gained the ability to draw in the exact style of Clovis.

Quincy, who believed that a dealer who exhibits the work of his wife would be perceived as nepotistic, convinces Garlin that they should form a partnership to exploit the sculptures, which are sure to be very valuable. Things get even more strange and unsettling when Clovis' talent is transferred to Garlin, and then to…

Under the facile direction of Stewart M. Schulman, "Touch of Rapture" initially gives one the impression that it is propelled by a superficial glibness that strives to summon up the ghost of Oscar Wilde (unfortunately without his wit). Within what seems at first like a barrage of chatter and absurdities, emerges a rather sweet and gentle, rather fantastical, allegory about the genders and the rules of the game.

Just know that when Garlin and Quincy decide to bring Clovis' frumpish cousin Rosemary into their scheme to pose as the artist at public appearances. Ms. Gail's play begins to assert itself as a whimsical allegory. Although I'm not familiar with any of Gail's plays that include such curious titles as "Drink Me," "Fuchsia," and "Carnivals of Desire," this play takes an audacious approach to it theme: the circuitous route to recognition and empowerment that women must take and their relationship with the men who unwittingly provide the way or put up the roadblocks.

It isn't clear to me why the playwright thought it necessary to set the play in London and its players so veddy veddy British. But John Fitzgibbon, as the smug and condescending motor-mouthed Quince, rattles off his dialogue faster than one would expect the patter from Gilbert and Sullivan's modern major general. Davis Hall is increasingly amusing, as Garlin, a closeted prig who not only inherits for a time Clovis' talent but her sexual interest in Quince. Probably the most interesting turnabout is offered by Marnie Andrews, as the earthy Rosemary. Her transformation from an unappreciated and unmotivated (except when it comes to eating) woman to a graceful and energized artist enabled to change the balance of power provides the play with its most affecting resonance. Despite frequent lapses into verbosity, "Touch of Rapture," ultimately wins us over through the sheer force of its fantastical conceits.

Designer Carrie Mossman's stylized setting (cleanly lighted by Jeff Greenberg) brings us from a bedroom and parlor at the estate of Fennfield in Hampstead Heath, to Shallots Gallery with rotating white panels, some sculptured figures, and a few chairs and tables.

"Touch of Rapture" (January 15 th – February 20th)

New Jersey Repertory Company at The Lumia Theatre

179 Broadway, Long Branch, N.J.

For tickets ($30) call 732 – 229 – 3166 or e-mail

Reviewed by Simon Saltzman -

Reviews of NJRep - Restore Radio

Touch of Rapture Roars Through NJ Rep's Lumia Theater

Leaving Everyone Satiated  (A Restore Radio Review)

"People can't pass along talent like a tray of salami" -- or can they?

That tantalizing question forms the basis for Mary Fengar Gail's witty, sophisticated farce, set appropriately in a country manor house just outside London.  Gail's choice of locale affords her the right to take more than a few hilarious jabs at the eccentric Brits with her sharp tongue: Referring to barristers as having the usual attractions "to torts and tarts" and Cambridge spawning "fruiters". Think of your first British movie, the one that had you rolling over the inside jokes. Then add a generous dollop of delicious bawdiness and unapologetic lust. The latter by the way is perfectly matched, by the Rep's new Assistant Stage Manager and PR person Lily Mercer, with sculptor Benjamin Levy's charmingly zaftig ladies in bronze. His exhibit opened officially today (Jan.16).

The acting team of Marnie Andrews, as the wonderfully self-indulgent (zaftig) cousin Rosemary, John FitzGibbon as the widower Quince, and Davis Hall as Garlin, the sexually uncertain brother-in-law with a hopelessly pathetic crush on Quince, are flawlessly directed by Stewart M. Schulman. All are superb. Kudos to them for not overplaying their excellent and varied accents and for squeezing every drop of caustic wit from Gail's rapid-fire dialogue.

Schulman must be commended for his creative bag of tricks. When Rosemary achieves sudden fame, Schulman handles the media frenzy, despite his tiny working room, by flashing a square box of light on her from the waist up. Bingo, we?re watching her live on TV and then in video recorded form, sound on, sound off, freeze frame, smooth as a remote control, all through the magic of expert direction and fantastic timing on the part of Andrews and FitzGibbon. And, a lesser actor might have turned the crestfallen Garlin into a creepy sap. But Hall plays this character with the depth and sensitivity of a Leslie Howard, while handling the comedic elements with equal success.

Rather than give more away, watch how Gail handles the obvious temptation to go down a Pygmalionesque path. This play is a box of chocolates without the calories. Indulge!! Maureen Nevin, Host