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THEATER

HUGLESS FOR THE HOLIDAYS

A shotgun wedding brings a hit musical comedy to NJ Rep

Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 12/8/06

BY TOM CHESEK
CORRESPONDENT

Outside it's a positively Plutonian 78 degrees below zero … cold even for far-north Bunyan Bay, Minn. Inside Gunner Johnson's bar, things are heating up from the conflicts between two couples: Gunner and his wife Clara (a former Winter Carnival Bunyan Queen), who are split between moving to Florida and staying in their hellaciously frigid hometown, along with pretty waitress Bernice, who aspires to a singing career against the wishes of her fiancee Kanute. Enter slick salesman Aarvid Gisselsen, who's got just the thing to boost business and patch up punctured romances … the LS 562 karaoke machine ("not a karaoke machine, but a lifestyle system''), a black box that lights up and spews out the songs of one Sven Jorgenson, local composer of such peculiarly provincial ditties as "I'm a Walleye Woman in a Crappie Town'' and "I Wanna Go to the Mall of America.''

An award-winning smash that's been described as " "Fargo' meets "The Music Man' without the blood or trombones,'' Paul and Phil Olson's musical romp "Don't Hug Me'' brings a frosty blast of Bunyan Bay to the Jersey Shore. It's the first-ever
holiday season offering for the Long Branch-based New Jersey Repertory Company, and it's produced in collaboration with Shotgun Productions of Manhattan. Gail Winar, who helmed "Beyond Gravity'' for NJ Rep last year and supervised one of this
play's first readings, returns to the material with a cast that includes Clark Carmichael, John Little, Cortnie Loren Miller, Michael Nathanson and Darcie Siciliano.

This holiday musical is a departure for NJ Rep in more ways than one. It's a light confection from a company known more for the edgy and experimental (the troupe's last mainstage production was the Death Row monologue "Speed Queen''), and an engagement that adds a few more scheduled performances to the mix, including a special New Year's Eve encore that boasts an after-show party.

Although Minnesota-born playwright-lyricist Phil Olson makes his home in the decidedly balmier precincts of Southern California these days, the drawn-out winters, Midwestern accents and Scandinavian values of his home state continue to
inspire his popular stage works. Witness his first produced play, "KOLD Radio, Whitefish Bay'' (a show originally titled "Krappie Talk'').

"Don't Hug Me'' had its original premiere in 2003 at L.A.'s Whitefire Theatre LA … a six-week stand that was famously held over for six months by popular demand. Since published by Samuel French, Inc., the little show that the Los Angeles Times called "a hokey-jokey, karaoke crowd pleaser'' has now been booked in close to 40 different cities in North America … and is well on its way to becoming a franchise along the lines of "Greater Tuna,'' "Forever Plaid'' and the mighty "Nunsense.'' It's even spawned a sequel: "A Don't Hug Me Christmas Carol,'' now entering its world-premiere engagement in L.A. (with a concurrent run in four other cities) featuring, for a limited time, Phil Olson himself as Gunner in the West Coast staging.

"I put the Christmas show together pretty much at the urging of the theater owners who didn't want to do "A Tuna Christmas' again,'' Olson explained from his L.A. home. "Three of the five venues booked the show before I even wrote it.''

Phil's choice of collaborator makes for another fascinating fun-fact. Brother Paul Olson … a kidney specialist whose day job is Chief of Nephrology at Allina Clinic in Shakopee, Minn. - finds himself now a published composer who, in Phil's words, is "having a blast doing this . . . he's even going to perform in the Minnesota production of "Christmas Carol'.''

"He's always been a musician; he plays a lot of instruments and uses a computer composition program called Finale,'' the author said of his older sibling. "I would try to write songs by humming into a tape recorder . . . finally he said, "just let me write the music.' '' Thus were born such regionally resonant anthems as "The Bunyan Yodel'' and "Upside Down in My Pickup Truck.''

Much as his old state-mates come in for a gentle ribbing, Phil Olson said, "I love Minnesotans . . . I don't want to offend them or treat them like the characters in (the Coen Brothers film) "Fargo.' ''

"I did a reading of the original script in the town of Ely in northern Minnesota (the show was in fact first titled "The Merchant of Ely'), and the audience thought it was a valentine to the area . . . they realize that you're laughing with, and not at, the characters.''

As for stepping into the shoes of his own character creation, the playwright is prone to confess that "as an actor, I'm a good understudy . . I would always cast good Equity actors before I would cast myself.''

"Besides, actors and directors always get nervous whenever I'm around.''


REVIEW

"Feeling Minnesota" in Long Branch
Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 12/12/06

BY TOM CHESEK
CORRESPONDENT

A frost-brewed frolic from the land of competitive curling, "Don't Hug Me" makes its Jersey Shore debut in a production that breaks down all resistance with its score of engagingly silly songs, as well as a cheerfully-rendered message of dreams fulfilled and love reaffirmed — all via the magic of karaoke. It's a rare non-"Scrooge" local stage offering this time of year, and it's an offbeat show for a number of other reasons, not the least of which is where you'll find it.

A runaway hit in its original L.A. production, "Don't Hug Me" comes to New Jersey Repertory Company's playhouse in downtown Long Branch with a proven coast-to-coast track record and a budding franchise to boot (the holiday sequel "A Don't Hug Me Christmas Carol" premiered in five U.S. cities this month). That's unusual enough for NJ Rep, a company that prides itself on developing and premiering completely new works. But in this, its first collaboration with Manhattan-based Shotgun Productions, the troupe veers as close as it will ever come to "Nunsense" territory.

Of course, it's hardly fair to characterize NJ Rep as a bunch of gloomy Gusses. Its home stages have long been the setting for some memorable comedies, including the recent "Tour de Farce" and "The Best Man." "Don't Hug Me" follows in the tradition of "Best" with a lively presentation that doesn't gloss over the hard work and heart that went into its creation.

Less than zero

Pitched as a cross between the icy-cold comic film "Fargo" and the classic slice of Americana "The Music Man," the musical comedy (book and lyrics by Phil Olson, music by Peter Olson) takes place in the northern Minnesota hamlet of Bunyan Bay, during a cold snap in which the mercury gets down to minus 78 degrees — and the customer base at The Bunyan bar doesn't manage to get much above zero.

Beneath the earflaps and flannels, some dramatic flashpoints are heating up: Tavern owner Gunner (John Little) wants to chuck it all for a new life in the swampier climes of sunny Florida — a prospect that rates a chilly reception from his wife and business partner Clara (Darcie Siciliano). Meanwhile, their amply-endowed employee Bernice (Cortnie Loren Miller) seems pleasantly resigned to a rather uneventful future with her hometown-honcho fiancee Kanute (Clark Carmichael).

This being the off-season, the Music Man who comes to town is not Professor Harold Hill but one Aarvid Gisselsen (Michael Nathanson), a traveling salesman towing a formidable black box identified as the LSS 562. The "lifestyle system" karaoke machine boasts "comfort zone enhancement," song-title voice activation and an almost mystical ability to improve both bar business and the romantic relationships of those who take hold of its wireless microphone.

It's also programmed with more than 80 songs ostensibly penned by local hero Sven Yorgenson, a chameleonic songsmith whose goofy pastiches of pop styles (from Lawrence Welk to black metal) become the vehicles by which these characters express their deepest desires and durable fantasies.

The LSS 562 is the creation of scenic designer and tech director Quinn K. Stone, who has transformed the normally spartan setting of NJ Rep's black-box performance space into a dead-on evocation of Gunner's Bunyan bar. To paraphrase a line from a song by '90s grunge band Soundgarden, the play (conceived by a native Minnesotan turned SoCal transplant) is "dressing Minnesota" but "feeling California" — a study in broad Scandinavian inflections and "Fargo" accents, delivered by a cast (under Gail Winar's direction) with the manic dexterity of a Sunset Strip improv troupe.

Smorgasbord of styles

Belting out songs such as "I Wanna Go to the Mall of America" and "My Smorgasbord of Love" in a stylistic spread that ranges from John Denver and Barry Manilow to Tito Puente and Madonna, the actors each get a moment to shine — with standout solos from Little (the poignant "Last Night I Dreamed"), Miller (the va-voom "He Wore a Purple Tux") and Carmichael (the energetic Elvis workout "You're My Woman.") Choreographer Amy Uhl makes the most of a razor-thin space between the performers and the front row.

A warm and inviting place to duck into on a nippy night, "Don't Hug Me" runs through Dec. 31.



Don't Hug Me:
Cheery Musical For The Winter Season

Don't Hug me
John Little and Clark Carmichael
Don't Hug Me, the intimate musical comedy from Minnesota by way of Los Angeles, has been making its way about the country pleasing audiences since its 2003 West Coast premiere. It has now arrived at the usually more serious minded New Jersey Rep as a bauble for the joyous holiday season. And while it breaks no new ground, it proves to be a clever and agreeable fun evening in the theatre. This is quite an accomplishment when one considers that the gags are truly terrible (which seems to be the point) and the story centers on a karaoke machine and its ability to change lives.

We find ourselves in the Bunyan, a small, rural bar in Bunyan Bay, Minnesota on the coldest day of the year. Gunner wants to sell the bar and move to the warmth of Florida, but his wife Clara is determined to stay as she loves the pleasures of ice fishing and her memories of being Queen of the local Winter Carnival. Omnipresent is their waitress Bernice who shares Clara's feelings about Bunyan Bay. They sing, "I'm a Walleye Woman in a Crappie Town/ ... but I'm never moving away/ hey hey, hey, hey." Bernice is engaged to the foolishly self-important and acquisitive supply store owner Kanute. The events that ensue are initiated by the arrival on the scene of Aarvid, a young and enthusiastic karaoke system salesmen Aarvid.

No spoilers here! We are treated to a series of comic songs and sketches involving lots of feudin' and fussin' among our five protagonists and a happy ending that finds Gunner and Clara back in love, Bernice and Aarvid in thrall to each other, and the ridiculous Kanute fuming.

The authors are brothers Phil Olson (book and lyrics) and Paul Olson (music). The former is a California based playwright (with some minor film credits), and the later is a nephrologist in Minnesota, who has always been an accomplished musician. Based on the happy, uncynical, tongue-in-cheek nature of their writing, they might be described as the anti-Coen brothers. The conceit of the music is that the songs are cornball Prairie Home Companion-like adaptations of the styles of famous composers and performers.

At times, the music is more evocative than it is at others. For example, "written by Swen Jorgensen in his Madonna phase" is "He Wore a Purple Tux," a prostitute's lament ("He was a gentleman, he paid me fifty bucks/ And I went back to the V.F.W., to find another purple tux"). Most of these songs are intentionally tacky, yet at the same time manage to be pleasant, lively and amusing. The music is recorded, but this is less of a negative than one might expect because it is mostly represents the sound of the karaoke machine (or the radio).

The entire cast performs with gusto and high spiritedness. Each performer takes advantage of any number of opportunities to shine, and the alphabetical billing is as it should be. Clark Carmichael delightfully projects Kanute's pig-headed, self-centered foolishness in a likeable, broad performance without winking at the audience or otherwise distancing himself from Kanute's ridiculousness. The key here is his excellent comic timing. John Little's Gunner is irascible, but almost always has an observant comic twinkle in his eye that makes it clear that he is not far from reaching out to his Clara and restoring their happiness. He even gets to sing a gay '90s style waltz, "Last Night I Dreamed," with homespun charm. Cortnie Loren Miller's Bernice is bright and dynamic. She performs with show business pizzazz as a waitress whose dream of becoming a professional singer is given impetus by the arrival of Aarvid and his jukebox. Michael Nathanson is a bundle of charm and eager enthusiasm as Aarvid. His likeability and vulnerability are precisely what is needed here. Darcie Siciliano brings a sense of joy to Clara's confident and gritty determination not to lose control of her life.

Among all of the groaner gags that I recorded in my notes, there is one that I found to be amusing on paper. To dissuade Kanute from assaulting him because of his attention to Bernice, Aarvid has convinced Kanute that he is gay. When Aarvid later tells Kanute that he has good news, Kanute responds, "You joined the Ice Capades?"

As it is wont to do on occasion, NJ Rep is utilizing the inner lobby-reception area rather than the main stage for this production. The long narrow space proves most felicitous for Don't Hug Me as it allows for the design of a large and richly detailed tavern set (kudos to designer Quinn K. Stone), and the entire audience can feel that it is within the confines of the Bunyan. Director Gail Winar has kept things moving at a brisk pace and elicited uniformly excellent performances. Note to the director: John Little and Darcie appear far apart in age, and no mention is made of this in the script. This makes it sound odd when Gunner speaks of going to Florida "before we die." Changing the word "we" to "I" would instantly allow the audience to see their age differential as integral to the piece.

There is a visual triumph in her production which is particularly fine. It is at the top of the second act and Gunner and Kanute are standing back of the bar drinking and (for laughs) foolishly lamenting the ascendance of Aarvid and his karaoke machine at the Bunyan, The former is wearing a red and black striped lumberjack's cap (and striped shirt) and the latter a Russian fur hat (and a reindeer sweater), strongly evoking memories of the 1940's "Road" pictures of Bing Crosby (Gunner) and Bob Hope (Kanute). In the context of Don't Hug Me's style of corny comedy, this was a perfect image to put a warm smile on my face. Now Gail Winar may not have thought of this, but, unless she disabuses me of my notion of her intent here, I won't believe that.


Asbury Radio ~ The Radio Voice of Asbury Park

Don't Hug Me
Photo: The cast of "Don't Hug Me": Clark Carmichael, Cortnie Loren Miller, John Little, Darcie Siciliano, Michael Nathanson.

Photo credit: SuzAnne Barabas
 

Asbury Radio's Review:

One thing that hits you as clear as a Minnesota Icehouse from a 100 yards is the guy who wrote "Don't Hug Me" had a helluva  good time doing it.  Phil Olson, who wrote the book and lyrics for the musical now running through Dec. 31 at NJRep's Lumia Theater in Long Branch, did just that. And the same probably goes for Phil's brother Paul, an M.D., who wrote the music. The result is that 10 minutes into this musical, you drop your big city smugness and settle into your LandsEnd boots (North Country attire is de riguer for the evening) and laugh along to goofy jokes and silly songs that you gradually realize are all rather clever, in fact.

There's a love triangle, a karaoke machine that cues itself at the strangest moments, a couple whose marriage needs a tune up and the constant specter of a now famous classmate, Sven Jorgenson, with 82 songs on the Karaoke LSS 562. The acting keeps this tongue in cheek romp from sinking through the ice. Cudos to Michael Nathanson, who lights up the stage with his irresistibly charming Karaoke salesman (a la Music Man); Clark Carmichael as the egocentric Kanute, John Little as Gunner, the romantically challenged, slightly homophobic husband who just wants to move to sunny Florida, Cortnie Loren Miller as Bernice, who glides through her character's dramatic transformation with ease, and Darcie Siciliano, as Gunner's wife Clara, who portrays a wife with one hand on the front door knob with sincerity, sentiment and humor. Gail Winar did an excellent job of directing the cast through dance routines on the postage stamp Dwek stage. Hurry on over to the Lumia Theater before the bad weather socks you in. 


THEATER NOTES

28 DELICIOUS "SINS

NJ Rep short play fest turns Deadly this weekend

Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 11/17/06

BY TOM CHESEK
CORRESPONDENT

Pride, envy, anger, greed, gluttony, lust and sloth — for centuries now, those Seven Deadly Sins have, if nothing else, ensured that playwrights are seldom left staring at a blank sheet of typing paper.

Beginning tonight and continuing throughout this weekend, the less-than-magnificent Seven take center stage once more, as the Shore's own New Jersey Repertory Company presents a three-day festival of short plays crafted around the theme of "The Seven Deadly Sins."

It's the third annual entry in NJ Rep's Theatre Brut series of short-form showcases. Founders Gabe and SuzAnne Barabas have described the series as "the creative impulse unfettered by social and artistic convention . . . where the "straitjacket of logic" and "the fossilized debris of dead language" are replaced by "innovation and wonderment."

For the 2006 edition of Theatre Brut (a riff on psychiatrist Hans Prinzhorn's studies in Art Brut, or "outsider" art created by residents of mental institutions), the NJ Rep braintrust surrendered the asylum to the inmates — putting out the call for original short works that have as their thematic foundation any one of the aforementioned Seven Deadlies (or any combo-platter thereof). From more than 500 submissions, the producers assembled three separate programs featuring a total of 28 never-before-seen dramatic works — monologues and ensembles, comedies and tragedies, even a mini-musical — employing the services of some 60 hard-working performers.

Fear not, Sloth fans: Your sin of choice is amply represented here, along with the arguably more compelling sister sins of lust and anger. As in 2004's "My Rifle, My Pony and Me" (a festival built around the image of the American cowboy) and last year's round-robin study in "Sacrifice," this Theatre Brut event promises to bring out the best in NJ Rep's incredible stock company of actors, writers and directors. It's a genuine showcase for the company's formidable human resources, and the ultimate "insider" event for the best and brightest of the area's stage pros.


The Speed Queen: A Fast Paced 85 Minutes of Engrossing Storytelling

The Speed Queen
Anne Stockton
The Speed Queen plays like the terse, exciting Hollywood crime programmers which were often sleeker and more entertaining than the main features which they supported in the double feature movie going days of my too far off childhood.

You'll likely recognize the essential elements of the story. It is told by Marjorie as she awaits her final walk (or a reprieve) in an Oklahoma jail. As she snorts speed apparently provided by a sympathetic jailer, Marjorie is talking into a recorder, answering questions submitted on cards by an author who is paying her for the rights to her story. The money will provide a little nest egg for her 10-year-old son Gainey. Unlike the B-movie melodramas evoked here, The Speed Queen is a monodrama, and only Marjorie appears corporeally. Thus, it is up to the audience to picture the other squalid players and their victims, the spare black and white settings, the cars speeding down highways to nowhere, the erotic entanglements, and the vicious and bloody criminal behavior of the protagonists. And we do see the story vividly unfold in the camera of our minds courtesy of the richly descriptive, vivid and fast paced adaptation of Stewart O'Nan's novel of the same title by Anne Stockton. In this respect, the play calls to mind the pleasurable boon to the imagination that radio drama once provided. The clear presence here of elements of both B-pictures and old time radio make for a pleasing retro experience.

Marjorie begins by telling us that she met Lamont, her husband and partner in crime, when he drove into a gas station where she was working. It is a love at first sight tale of two junkies whose pleasure together derives from taking hard drugs, hot and heavy fornication and attending car shows. In quick time, Marjorie becomes pregnant. When her newborn arrives, Marjorie has to give up her gig at the gas station. However, she services Lamont's druggie customers from their apartment. Marjorie convincingly asserts that she did not use illegal drugs during her pregnancy. After giving birth, she again gets heavily into the use of drugs. At first, she skims from each packet sold. As her habit increases, she increases prices without telling Lamont in order to cover the costs of drugs diverted for her own use. Arrested for possession after an auto accident, Marjorie is sentenced to a minimum security prison. Here she meets Natalie. Their relationship is both sexual and sisterly. When Natalie is released, and needs a place to stay, she moves in with Lamont and Marjorie. Natalie helps with the drug sales, and, before long, adds Lamont to her sexual menu.

Following the theft of the money which he had borrowed to finance a major drug deal, Lamont is viciously assaulted by the loan sharks, and the trio accompanied by 2-year-old Gainey head off onto Route 66 where they embark on a murderous, bloody and stupidity-laden crime spree, and Marjorie repays Natalie's betrayal.

As adapter, Anne Stockton, has so vividly drawn the off stage characters that I had the passing (albeit ridiculous) thought of reviewing the roles of Lamont and Natalie.

Adaptor Anne Stockton also performs the role of Marjorie under the never static, tightly wound direction of Austin Pendleton. She brings variety, vigor and conviction to her portrayal. Marjorie is the kind of person who is able to act in a stone cold, utterly vicious and horrific manner because her all consuming desire to satisfy her own wants is inextricably entwined with her inability to have any concern or compassion for others. In attempting to humanize Marjorie, Stockton may be a tad too engaging. On the other hand, sad experience has taught the world that monsters can be frightfully engaging. Certainly, Marjorie's horrendous behavior is clear enough here.

The clean, sleek prison office setting is by Jessica Parks. Marjorie's new looking, sharply pressed green prison jumpsuit is uncredited. There is a dialect coach, so I'll assume Stockton's near Southern sounding strong regional accent is accurate.

Marjorie mentions that she acquired the soubriquet The Speed Queen because of her high speed car run from the police along Route 99. Another apparent reason is her heavy, long term usage of the illicit drug known as speed.

Stewart O'Nan, on whose work the play is based, is quoted as saying that Stockton's "captured Marjorie's innocence and insanity." This reviewer cannot see Marjorie as (an) innocent in any sense of the word, and is not clear on her precise mental condition. What I look for in portrayals of people who commit unspeakable, inhumane crimes is an understanding of what causes them (and not others) to deviate from normative behavior. I rarely, if ever, find it. The fault may lie in the eye of this beholder.

Actress and adaptor Anne Stockton may have us traveling in B-movie territory, but she certainly is giving us an entertaining and fast paced ride.


Cellblock saga

Few encounters are as rewarding as an audience with 'Queen'
Tuesday, October 31, 2006
BY PETER FILICHIA
Star-Ledger Staff

NEW JERSEY STAGE

She's little and lithe, dressed in an immaculate green jumpsuit, appearing to be a gas station attendant just about to start her shift.

However, that DOC on the back of her uniform doesn't stand for Downtown Oil Company.

It's the Department of Corrections, where "The Speed Queen," Anne Stockton's riveting adaptation of Stewart O'Nan's novel, takes place. An audience is about to spend 75 minutes in solitary confinement with an inmate.

Stockton, who also stars in the solo show, and Austin Pendleton, who directs, are collaborators in a solid production at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

Marjorie Standiford is a lovely auburn-haired woman who comes from the Heartland, and seems to have a heart. If only she hadn't fallen for Lamont, who impressed her with his smart-looking car.

She was dazzled, too, that Lamont was a chef of sorts -- he was able to cook up many concoctions of drugs. That's one of two reasons why Marjorie came to be known as "The Speed Queen." Audiences will hear the other before long.

Lamont is not the only person linked romantically to Marjorie. Before long, she'll take up with Natalie. They met while Marjorie was serving a six-month sentence -- "over nothin'," she insists with a rare sneer.

"But," she says evenly, "I swore that this bein' in jail would never happen to me again."

Delivering that line is Stockton's best moment. The look on Marjorie's face, when she realizes that she broke that promise to herself, is filled with shame. Then she finds the resources to plow on, telling her sordid tale to "Stephen" through a tape recorder. After all, Natalie has had a runaway best-seller telling her side of the story, so why shouldn't Marjorie cash in, too?

(A side note: O'Nan originally called his 1997 novel "Dear Stephen King." The horror writer was unenthusiastic when contacted about the book, so O'Nan chose "The Speed Queen" as his title.)

How does a prisoner have access to a tape recorder, a telephone, unlimited phone calls, and what seems to be cocaine? A good reason is furnished, putting that implausibility to rest.

Stockton has a pleading voice and a wistful look in her green eyes when she grabs at the refuge of many prisoners: "I believe I'll be saved," she says staunchly, "and I believe in Jesus Christ. I was another person before I accepted Jesus."

Part of the horror is that Stockton tells her story matter-of-factly. She has Marjorie distance herself from her account, as if she were having an out-of-body experience. Just when she lulls an audience into thinking she's not so bad, or that she was an innocent victim, she delivers a startling line that controverts. For example, when she speaks of going to the hospital to give birth, she off-handedly mentions, "I never shot anyone, though, okay, I did use a knife."

Stockton's warm Southern accent helps to play against the ugly truths she's divulging. When she offers a slight smile, it seems to ask, "Is it all right if I smile?"

There's not much to smile at in "The Speed Queen." There is plenty to admire. It's a different type of horror story for the Halloween season.


THEATER REVIEW

Anne Stockton shows she's the "Queen" of denial
Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 10/31/06

BY TOM CHESEK
CORRESPONDENT

With her red hair, chemically turbocharged energy and rapid-fire inflections, the woman in the prison-issue jumpsuit seems almost like an angular, more intense version of Reba McEntire. It's as if TV Reba converted the kitchen to a meth lab and finally did away with her cloying sitcom clan.

The lady on the stage of New Jersey Repertory Company is Anne Stockton, star and sole inhabitant of "The Speed Queen," now being staged at NJ Rep's Long Branch playhouse.

Like any other full-length fiction transmuted into a dramatic piece, "Queen" (adapted by Stockton from Stewart O'Nan's novel of the same name) presents the playwright with some hard choices as far as what to retain from the source work. Stockton is working here with a tight, fast-paced, intimate work whose central device — a narrative delivered by a convicted serial killer for the benefit of a famous horror novelist — seems a natural fit for an edgy and economically scaled theatrical troupe.

Civil Cold War

As Marjorie Standiford — an Oklahoma gal whose travels in entry-level crime and drug addiction eventually lead her to death row — Stockton addresses a stack of index-card inquiries from best-selling scaremeister "Stephen," speaking her answers into a tape recorder.

Relating the details of her involvement in an interstate killing spree — and blandly maintaining her innocence throughout — Standiford/Stockton tells of her enchantment with drug-dealing ne'er-do-well Lamont, her parallel involvement with former jailmate Natalie and the circumstances that drove the unlikely threesome (Marjorie's baby actually makes four) to hit Route 66 in a bloody road trip. It results in the deaths of a state trooper and a couple of fast-food clerks, among others.

As channeled by East Coast actress (and practicing psychiatrist) Stockton from the words of eminent literary type O'Nan, the plains and straightaways of flyover country seem a dead-eyed place where vintage Plymouth Road Runners roar past chain eateries and tired motels; a place where valuables are stashed inside Cap'n Crunch cereal boxes. Whether it's a chainsaw-massacre horrorfest or the kinder, gentler criminality of the film "Raising Arizona," any time that a bunch of perceived "elites" comment upon the ways of red-state America, it does little to soothe the ongoing Civil Cold War we seem to have gotten ourselves into.

Austin empowers

Director Austin Pendleton has shepherded "The Speed Queen" from workshops and readings to countless hours of rehearsals, right on through to this first formal "full" production. His invisible role in the proceedings is every bit as crucial as any of the offstage players in the condemned Marjorie's life story.

Still, this is Stockton's passionately conceived project in the end, and the performer-playwright is the show, attacking the material with laser focus and a knowing sense of the currents that course beneath the most "ordinary" American lives. If "The Speed Queen" is any indicator, a Stockton presentation detailing her real-life career experiences in psychiatry and law enforcement would be a hot and harrowing ticket.


A CurtainUp Review
The Speed Queen

I was a difficult person then, before I accepted Jesus.— Marjorie

Anne Stockton (Photo: SuzAnne Barabas)
Time on earth appears to be running out for convicted murderer Marjorie Standiford (Anne Stockton), who is spending the last hours on Death Row in an Oklahoma prison talking into a tape recorder. While awaiting her scheduled execution, her last meal, or, better yet, a possible last minute stay of execution, Marjorie has agreed to answer questions posed by a celebrated author who is going to write about the crimes she has committed, her drug addiction, her wild sex life and other things that will help the public understand who she is and why she has done what she has done.

As personified by Stockton with her auburn hair pulled back in a ponytail and wisp of a Southern accent, Marjorie appears neither hardened by anger nor visibly repentant. She does indicate a self-serving assurance and arrogance as she sifts through a stack of index cards that contain the questions, choosing to answer some and tossing others into the wastebasket. She knows what she want to tell and has no qualms about re-arranging the facts, justifying her acts, and modifying others' conclusions.

Stockton, who is performing in her own adaptation of Stewart O’Nan’s same-name novel about an Oklahoma inmate, appeared in this harrowing monodrama as part of the fifth annual "Women Center Stage" festival presented at the Culture Project in the summer of 05. It is a fine enough showcase, if one that is also, by right of its subjective confessional format, of limited dramatic variety. Since Stockton provides a vivid portrait of an amoral woman caught up in a series of horrific events that spiral out of her control, this is not to imply that her dramatic range is limited.

As directed with a minimalist touch by Austin Pendleton, The Speed Queen follows a rather conventional, yet curiously involving path to its inevitable conclusion. Pendleton, whose performance as a suicidal professor in the Steppenwolfe Theater’s production of The Sunset Limited (see our review) can currently be seen Off-Broadway, has been involved with this monologue since reading the book and Stockton’s adaptation. Minimalism is also set designer Jessica Park’s approach to the Death Row cell which contains one chair, two small side tables, and bureau.

Dramatic first person narratives demand a great deal and it is to Stockton’s credit that she resists grandstanding emotions in favor of her character’s tough-skinned shifts in tone and temperament. No attempt has been made to keep Marjorie overly active in the cell, except for occasional phone calls to her mother and a quick snort of smack hidden in a soft drink can. That she sees herself as a victim, even as we see her as a callous and gutsy no-regrets woman with limited intellect, gives the play its heft. We are all ears as she talks about her relationships with her drug-dealing lover Lamont, her Lesbian lover Natalie, and her young son Gainey, who will benefit from the proceeds of the book.

The detailed accounts of a killing spree that rivals Bonnie and Clyde and the death of her husband Lamont are riveting. But Marjorie’s reaction to the survival of her one-time lover Natalie (a rival for her husband’s attention whose own account of their Lesbian tryst and unholy partnership has been published), provides the insight into her decision to tell all. Marjorie’s story also alludes to her religious conversion and salvation, evidently the result of the frequent visits of Sister Perpetua.

On one level, we understand how Marjorie’s ill-fated life is a direct result of her addiction to drugs and her need to place the blame for her actions on others. Yet what makes Marjorie most fascinating comes from seeing her inability to make rational and prudent choices, and for Stockton, as her interpreter, to make sure we don’t see her in a sympathetic light.

The Speed Queen may trigger memories of the films I Want to Live, the story of Barbara Graham (with Susan Hayward), the first woman to die in an electric chair, and Monster, about serial killer Aileen Wournos (Charlize Theron). But The Speed Queen stands apart from these ill-fated women's stories for its unapologetic resolve to not encourage our empathy and without casting a rosy glow around its anti-heroine.

THEATER NOTES

THE "QUEEN" ANNE


(PHOTO: JOSEPH J. DELCONZO/SPECIAL TO THE PRESS)
Anne Stockton rehearses "The Speed Queen," now being staged at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch through Nov. 12

An actress-playwright and a star director speed-the-play to NJ Rep

Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 10/26/06

BY TOM CHESEK
CORRESPONDENT

At a time when yet another movie about Truman Capote and his fascination with capital convict Perry Smith sheds new light upon the "In Cold Blood" murder case, the folks at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch are inviting audiences to take a more intimate look at the relationship between the chronicler and the condemned.

Set on death row in an Oklahoma penitentiary, "The Speed Queen" is a one-woman show. Inmate Marjorie Standiford speaks into a tape recorder, reflecting upon her career as one of drive-through America's infamous "Sonic Killers" — and how her relationship with her speed-dealing husband Lamont and lover Natalie led her to robbery, murder and the brink of imminent execution. As she makes clear to her unseen interviewer, who just happens to be "America's most popular horror novelist" (the King to her Queen, if you will), it's an attempt to "set the record straight" in response to Natalie's best-selling tell-all.

A tour de force

As Marjorie, Anne Stockton (a busy stage and television performer who also is a practicing psychiatrist) already is poised to deliver what's being described as a bona fide tour de force performance. As if that weren't enough, she's also the playwright — having adapted the script from a novel by award-winning fiction writer Stewart O'Nan ("Snow Angels," "A Prayer for the Dying").

According to Stockton, "When I came to read the book, I could not put it down. I immediately found the main character intriguing, contradictory, funny, and shocking. . . . I quickly began to think that the book would easily lend itself to a one person play.

"I am often attracted to characters whose life experience is far from my own," the actor says. "I am drawn to understanding and then playing characters who exhibit extreme behavior."

Another way in which this medical professional (and professional player) touches upon extremes of behavior is in her sideline gig as an "actor/trainer" with the NYPD Hostage Negotiation Team — a course in which her regular role-play improvisations include "a woman in the middle of a manic episode, and a paranoid former postal worker." It's a unique experience that Stockton regards as "an incredible workout as an actor," adding that "portraying these disorders also has assisted me in understanding them as a psychiatrist."

For "Speed Queen" the novel to morph into "Speed Queen" the solo performance piece, Stockton had to first obtain the rights. She then set about deleting some of the minor characters, as well as editing certain situations and events described in the book — a process about which she maintains, "My director and I made these difficult choices on the basis of what best served the forward movement of the piece and created suspense."

That collaborator, by the way, is none other than Austin Pendleton, the Tony-lauded director ("The Little Foxes" with Elizabeth Taylor), award-winning author ("Orson's Shadow"), instantly recognizable character actor ("The Muppet Movie," along with some vivid appearances on recent "Law & Order" franchises) and eminent educator.

"It has been a great privilege to work with him," says Stockton of Pendleton, who has been affiliated with the project through several workshop and festival productions. "Austin's contribution to the development of the piece has been huge — shaping the script, clarifying the arc of the piece, and of course staging and developing the behavior and nuances of the character."

"The Speed Queen" has preview performances today and Friday. The production continues through Nov. 12 with shows at 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, as well as selected Saturdays at 4 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets for previews are priced at $20 per person, with opening night performance and post-show reception going for $35. Admission to regular-run performances is $30.


Not the retiring type

It's full 'Speed' ahead for Pendleton
Friday, October 27, 2006
BY PETER FILICHIA
Star-Ledger Staff

NEW JERSEY STAGE

There aren't many people who open a play in New Jersey and in New York in the same week.

Not that Austin Pendleton will be in two places at once. Given that he's finished directing "The Speed Queen," opening Friday at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, he needn't be on the premises. "Not that a director's work is ever done," he says ruefully.

When the curtain goes up around 8 p.m., Pendleton will be at the theater known as 59 East 59th Street, which is also its Manhattan address. There, he'll play his fourth preview of "The Sunset Limited," a drama by Cormac McCarthy. Pendleton portrays an atheist who plans to commit suicide on a train platform, but is rescued by another man.

And he turned 66 in March. "I never think of retiring. Never," he says. "I know very few actors who do. When Helen Hayes retired, three or four years later she was saying, 'I wish I hadn't done that.' So I do as much as I can."

His involvement with "The Speed Queen" began some years back, when he was introduced to actress Anne Stockton. Three years ago, she told him she was adapting Stewart O'Nan's 1997 novel about a murderess who wants to tell her side of the story to an author very much like Stephen King. Because Stockton planned to star in it, too, she asked Pendleton to coach her.

Pendleton teaches acting at the HB Studios and the New School, not far from his New York City home. "So I said maybe," he says. "I'd never heard of the novel, so I read it, and it knocked me out. Then I read Anne's script, and I thought she captured it. I said, 'Okay, I'll coach.' That led to my actually directing the play -- though I honestly don't remember if she asked me to do it, or I volunteered myself."

On Broadway, he's directed both European classics (Ibsen's "John Gabriel Borkman") to American ones (Lillian Hellman's "The Little Foxes"). He is, however, better known as a performer, albeit one of those actors who many recognize by his small, wispy frame, and looks that he describes as "geeky." He's played many a milquetoast, in "The Front Page" (1974), "The Muppet Movie" (1979) and "My Cousin Vinny" (1992).

The first chance to direct came in 1965, while he was performing in "Fiddler on the Roof." He was the original Motel, the bridegroom who goes from scared rabbit to mensch. Pendleton's mother ran a community theater in their hometown of Warren, Ohio, and she asked him to direct her as Amanda in "The Glass Menagerie."

He had to leave "Fiddler" to do it. "I went without another acting job for months, and yet, it was worth it. If I were forced to choose among the three disciplines, though, I'd taking acting," he says.

Three disciplines? "When I was 50, I promised myself I'd write a play," he says. Since penning "Booth," about the esteemed acting family with an assassin in its ranks, Pendleton wrote two plays that had off-Broadway productions. In 2001, "Uncle Bob" told of a gay uncle and his homophobic nephew. "Orson's Shadow," which played most of last year, dealt with the time when Orson Welles directed Laurence Olivier in a production of Ionesco's "Rhinoceros."

Pendleton didn't have to imagine what Welles was like.

"I worked with him in 'Catch-22,'" he says of the 1970 film version of Joseph Heller's novel. "He was nice to me personally, but very difficult to a lot of people. Only later did I realize that he was in a lot of pain because he wasn't directing that movie. He ruminated on that a lot in front of all of us, making self-deprecating remarks that showed it was eating away at him that his career had waned."

He pauses and shakes his head slowly. "It's another reason I won't retire," he says. "I'm still getting the chance to do it."


Theaters spearheading revitalization efforts

Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 10/19/06

BY GRETCHEN C. VAN BENTHUYSEN
STAFF WRITER

It was dark, real dark, on the night eight years ago that the New Jersey Repertory Company opened its doors on Broadway in downtown Long Branch.

There wasn't much activity in the area, other than a fast-food restaurant and a Brookdale Community College satellite school, both at Third Avenue, and a few hungry seagulls from the nearby beachfront looking for some french fries.

But Gabor Barabas of West Long Branch, producing director of the theater, said he sensed that somehow … and he can't explain how … there was potential for the growth of an arts community there. He said he felt "tremendous energy,'' with
theaters at its epicenter.

New Jersey Repertory, which seats about 140 people in two small spaces at 179 Broadway, has since become the anchor in the city's revitalization of the area known as the Broadway Corridor redevelopment zone.

Perhaps what Barabas sensed were the ghosts of two former theaters in the area. One of those spaces will become a 300-seat performing arts space and New Jersey Repertory's third stage.

Storage building

"The new building, at 154 Broadway, about one block east of our other building, used to be a theater about 80 years ago but you wouldn't know it as it is now stuccoed over,'' Barabas said. "It's been a storage building for some contractor for
the past 30 to 40 years.''

The other former theater was the Paramount Theater, a building which most recently housed Siperstein's Paint and Decorating Center. Barabas said that will become a 2,000-seat performing arts space.

The Broadway zone, one of six redevelopment zones in the city, is a mixed-use plan of about 725,000 square feet between Memorial Parkway and Second, Belmont and Union avenues.

In addition to shops and restaurants, the plan includes 500 housing units, about 100 of those designated affordable housing, said Patience O'Connor, managing director of Broadway Arts redevelopment. Previously she worked on such high-profile redevelopments as South Street Seaport in lower Manhattan, Boston's Faneuil Hall Marketplace and the Old Post Office building on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington.

Hopefully, she said, people living in the year-round housing … such as nurses from nearby Monmouth Medical Center and teachers from Monmouth University in West Long Branch … will be future customers at the theaters, shops and the already
existing Shore Institute of Contemporary Arts at 20 Third Ave.

World premiere

If so, they may want to order their tickets now. New Jersey Repertory's current world premiere production of Robert King's "The Best Man'' is not only sold out but also is the troupe's best-selling show ever, according to Barabas' wife and theater co-founder, SuzAnne Barabas.

Barabas, who also is director of the Long Branch Arts Council, said that group has been identifying "signature events'' to attract people to the downtown area, such as an annual poetry festival begun in 2004.

"The first festival attracted 750 to 1,000 people, including 400 schoolchildren, and featured 40 poets,'' he said. "The next poetry festival, in cooperation with Monmouth University, has poets from around the United States coming here on Nov. 16, 17 and 18.''

From Dec. 2-4, the theater, which offers plays, comedies and an occasional musical, will host 20 literary managers from the National New Play Network, an alliance of not-for-profit professional theaters devoted to new plays. Each will bring a
play and together select the best six and each of those will get a staged reading during those days.

Barabas and his wife recently returned from Slovakia where they met with other theater managers about producing new European plays at their theaters.

"My dream for eight years was to have an annual summer theater festival in Long Branch where theaters come from all over the world to do their work,'' he said.

"I've always felt we were here on the ocean in a community with a long arts heritage and now we are experiencing a gradual arts resurgence. It is dynamic and exciting.'


Review: "Best Man" leaves them laughing at the altar

THEATER REVIEW

Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 09/19/06

BY TOM CHESEK
CORRESPONDENT

A laugh-out-loud comedy set behind the scenes at a Hackensack wedding, "The Best Man" should strike a chord with just about anyone — at least anyone who's ever been involved in any way with that peculiar institution known as a wedding party.

It's a noteworthy kickoff to a new season of professional stage fare here at the Shore, in that it comes from the pen of a local author — Asbury Park's own Robert King — and it's especially surprising in light of the fact that it's being presented by the always-edgy New Jersey Repertory Company.

Long known as a go-to source for all that's left of center in modern stage circles, the Long Branch-based NJ Rep has pitched a fastball right up the middle here; finding the strike zone with an entertaining, accessible crowdpleaser of a show. If you've ever meant to check out some of what's been going on at this little treasure of a playhouse on downtown Broadway, there's probably never been a better opportunity to jump in.


(STAFF PHOTO: DAVE MAY)
Tom Tansey plays the groom's best friend and Susan Greenhill is the groom's mother in "The Best Man," being staged at the New Jersey Repertory Company theater in Long Branch.

Red meat and blue language

In King's script, it's the wedding day of our hero Patrick (Ed Jewett), a plus-size, big-hearted, self-sacrificing lug who's on the verge of being happy for the first time in his life — although that's hardly enough to keep him from sweating through his rented tux, compulsively gobbling candy bars and pacing a trench into the floor of the church dressing room as the big moment approaches. The well-meaning but distracting interventions of his mom Rita (Susan Greenhill) and best bud Ronnie (Tom Tansey) are of little help to the big guy, who's in need of a confidence boost as he prepares to walk down the aisle with his bride to be, the unseen Doreen.

Complicating matters is the fact that everyone in the wedding party apparently had a few kamikazes too many at the rehearsal dinner the night before. Meanwhile, Patrick's ne'er-do-well brother John (Dan Domingues) has come away from the affair with a story to tell — a story that threatens to torpedo Patrick's special day before it ever happens.

For such a brief and economical play (less than 90 minutes with a 15-minute intermission included), King gets a lot accomplished in terms of character background and development — it's as if one of those cheesy "interactive" dinner-theater wedding shows were magically invested with the heart and soul of Paddy Chayefsky's "Marty." There's also a healthy strain of good sitcom writing in the mix here: full of punchy dialogue and plenty of red meat for the talented cast members to sink their teeth into (although, with its dosage of blue language and casual sex talk, it could more readily compare to a sitcom like HBO's "Lucky Louie").

The big figure

As lifelong lonely guy Patrick, Jewett cuts a classically comic figure that carries echoes of everyone from Jackie Gleason and Dom DeLuise to Tom Arnold and Kevin James. Although playwright King wisely dispenses with the sentiment and syrup, Jewett is an actor of real facility and intelligence, who finds ways to connect the emotional dots without benefit of lengthy monologues (as when he likens himself to "a tugboat" rather than the graceful sailboat that Mom envisions). This is a guy who recognizes the one shot he'll likely ever have in life; a guy who does what it takes to see things through to their rightful resolution. We root for the big guy.

Under the guidance of nationally renowned director Peter Bennett, Jewett's scenes with sidekick Tansey take on a Fred Flintstone/Barney Rubble dynamic that allows for some dextrous give-and-take between the two talented character men. Playing to the audience at times and belting out some of the show's biggest laugh lines, Greenhill grabs her share of stage turf from her taller co-stars.

As the slicked-back slacker John, Domingues presents a believably plot-complicating figure and sets the pace for the proceedings with a nervous energy. All four of the cast members and their director are here making their NJ Rep debuts — altogether appropriate for a show that should make its producers a whole lot of new friends.


A Merry Marriage In Long Branch
"The Best Man" at New Jersey Rep

By Philip Dorian

One of the main characters in Robert King's play The Best Man never appears. She's bride-to-be Doreen, whose wedding is about to take place just outside the church office in which the play is set. And even though the play revolves around her misbehavior, I became so fond of her in the course of two fast-paced and delightfully amusing acts that I felt like tossing rice as I left the theater.

I'll see the play again. I suspect the sharp comedy will hold up like a re-run of Everybody Loves Raymond, which it actually resembles. In fact, this might be the first play in my experience where comparison to a TV sitcom is not a negative. Intentionally adapting that ubiquitous entertainment form to the stage is, pending the result, a legitimate endeavor. And the result here is hilarious.
 


Dan Domingues (left), Ed Jewett and Tom Tansey in The Best Man at New Jersey Repertory Company.
The Best Man is crass and vaguely misogynist. It is politically incorrect, and its main topic, sex, is hardly new. But somehow the comedy conquers its context. The play floats above its own rudeness as if enjoying the fun. Tasteless as it gets in spots, The Best Man ends up being guilt-free entertainment. (That it's so well acted and directed may have something to do with that. More below.)

The plot is set in motion by the groom's brother's admission that he had impulsive, alcohol-lubricated sex with the bride after the rehearsal dinner. John (Dan Domingues) confesses the act – indelicately – to Ronnie (Tom Tansey), the groom's best friend and designated best man. Will Ronnie tell groom Patrick (Ed Jewett) about the brotherly betrayal? ("Telling is overrated.") Will Patrick's and John's mother Rita (Susan Greenhill) thwart the nuptials for reasons of her own? You'll not find the answers here, but getting to them in the course of the laugh-packed play is more important anyway.

Patrick is written heavy – in weight, that is – and Jewett might have been the playwright's model. His bulk is deceptive, however, because he's as light and swift with a comic line as a bantamweight. Patrick is made fun of a lot, but in Jewett's playing he's far from a laughingstock. And how many actors can perspire on cue?

Ronnie is the standard ‘groom's best friend'. But Tansey makes a lot more of it, walking the tightrope between Patrick and John and getting his own laughs along the way. (He's a post-teen Jackie Cooper in appearance and style. Not bad.) As played by Domingues, John is the villain you can't hate. He's been a ne'er-do-well anyway; his carnal coupling with Doreen is right in character. And not to worry; John gets his comeuppance.

Playwright King's best-written character isn't a man at all. It's the obsessive, possessive mother, whose portrayal by Susan Greenhill could not be bettered. Rita giveth praise with loving grace one minute and taketh it away with barbed sarcasm the next. She's a half dozen different women wrapped up into the mother-of-the-groom from hell. She's both terribly annoying and, as long as she's not your mom, extremely funny.

Director Peter Bennett has honed the four actors to a fine edge. More natural behavior and movement amidst rapid-fire comic jibing can't be found this side of – well, of Everybody Loves Raymond.

The set is the perfect image of a pre-wedding holding room. Designed by Harry Feiner, constructed by a three-person crew headed by Quinn K. Stone, whose diminutive size belies her mastery of construction tools, and dressed appropriately by prop mistress Jessica Parks, the austere furnishings and peaked stained-glass windows create an ideal contrast for the play's irreverence. And for its well-staged fight scene that leaves some disarray.

The Best Man is an equal-opportunity offender. It includes quips on doing shots ("If it's worth doing it's worth overdoing"), on vibrators ("addictive… like crack cocaine"), on the aforementioned obesity (too many to even start), and on bodily functions (best left out of print). There's even a riff on mental retardation that is – forgive me– a knee-slapper. Still, in spite of its naughty behavior, the play stays...sweet. Just like Doreen. Say ‘I do' to The Best Man.

"The Best Man" continues at New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch through October 15. Performances are Thurs.-Sat. at 8 p.m., some Saturdays at 4 p.m. (call for dates) and Sundays at 2 p.m. For information or reservations ($30, with senior/student/group discounts): 732-229-3166 or on line at www.njrep.org

Note: The Best Man is also the title of a 1960 play and subsequent movie, both penned by Gore Vidal. The play was reprised on Broadway in 2000, officially re-titled Gore Vidal's The Best Man. It's rumored that playwright King is working on a new play about his small hometown. It's entitled Robert King's Hamlet.

Asbury Radio ~ The Radio Voice of Asbury Park

The Best Man is a Side-Splitting Delight

Perhaps it's the alcoholic haze that hangs over, or the eccentric strangers suddenly superimposed on our lives in forced intimacy, or the guilt and doom-laden pressure of religion and commitment - a stunning assessment of dreams and failures in one crystallized accounting - beamed nakedly on one day. Whatever contributes to the surreal quality of a wedding day, Bob King has captured it in his hilarious play, The Best Man.

King keeps the mayhem circling around his excellent story like a swirling polka, while he takes us inside the lives of the people we will love; the chubby bridegroom, Patrick, played masterfully by Ed Jewett. Patrick's sacrifices have held the family together while his rakish kid brother, John, played convincingly by Dan Domingues, has snatched nearly all the ripe fruit for himself --even Patrick's most prized possession. (photo left: Bob's other half, Nate Gorham)

King knows weddings so well that he reserves his best stuff for the star of every wedding day, the mother, played to the hilt by Susan Greenhill. Greenhill's Rita, the mother of the groom, heaves with emotion, propelled about the stage by a totally overblown image of her self-importance. Greenhill plays Rita with an interesting hint of self awareness, a knowledge that she is veering on the edge of destruction, at times we suspect to her own mild amusement, but doesn't know any other way to be. Left by a philandering husband to raise her sons, Rita has flung herself headlong to this climactic day --and it's not going well. 

There are no bad roles or small roles in The Best Man. One is convinced in the first five minutes that King isn't capable of writing one. So the groom's best friend, Ronnie, played by Tom Tansey, which might be a bit part if crafted by a lesser playwright, becomes a tour de force for this natural comedian. Tansey, like all good comedians, employs every facet of his physical and mental trappings to propel us along from one side splitting line to the next.  And this fellow knows what to do with a line. When the groom tells his friend he loves his bride so much that he's decided to give her the greatest gift he has, Tansey screams in horror, "Your car? You're giving her your car?"

 King's play was first presented by NJRep as a reading some two years ago, at which time audience members rolled with laughter. Since that presentation King has chiseled away at the character of John, who started out so cruel toward his sensitive, self-conscious older brother that murder seemed a credible direction for the plot to take. King has now honed John to perfection. While still hugely selfish and impulsive, the refined John is more of another victim of his own confusion and out of control life. Instead of hinting that he may have real feelings for the unseen bride, Domingues expresses his revelation early and for all appearances genuinely. He is intermittently remorseful and buffoonish, a credit to Domingues' versatility and King?s skill, which puts this character back into comedic range.

All of the wonderful lines are on the mark, true to character and wonderfully fun. The timing is impeccable and a credit to King's director, Peter Bennett, who also directed the brilliant NJ Rep production, Piaf in Vienna. The plot spins along flawlessly through an excellent set designed by Harry Feiner and lit by Jill Nagle. This wedding is bliss!!

An NJ Repertory Company Production at the Lumia Theater, Broadway, Long Branch - 9/14 - 10/15

Cast: Susan Greenhill, Ed Jewett, Dan Domingues, Tom Tansey, and playwright Bob King


YOU CALL THIS YOUR BEST MAN?

by Gary Wien

(LONG BRANCH, NJ) -- Weddings will always be a popular subject for comedies because so many things can go wrong, but the things one usually worries about before a wedding pale in comparison to the situation presented in Robert King's "The Best Man" - simply the most hilarious, laugh out loud play I've seen in some time.Patrick, the older of two brothers, is finally getting married. He's a bit on the heavy side but as reliable a guy there is. Patrick left school to take over his father's auto garage after his dad decided to run off with his receptionist. Sacrificing his dreams, Patrick became the bread winner for the family and kept the house going. He also paid for his younger brother John to go to college. John had other plans though and wasn't seen for years after quitting school. He reappears a few months earlier with a hefty gambling debt that Patrick pays off.
After years of taking care of everyone else, Patrick finally found the girl of his dreams in a bowling alley where she caught his eye by bowling four strikes. He just knew it meant she was something special.Patrick makes John his best man and John repays him by sleeping with his fiance after the rehearsal dinner and many, many drinks. John tells Patrick's best friend, Ronnie, the news who urges him to keep it a secret from his brother. Unfortunately, John thinks he's in love and believes that his brother's fiance loves him too. And, thus, every groom's nightmare becomes a love triangle un-imaginable just 24 hours before and turns St. Andrew's Church in Hackensack, NJ into a whirlwind of one-liners that nearly all hit the mark.The setting is a sweltering summer's day in June although the only character to really feel the heat is the groom. While Patrick sweats profusely, the others never seem that bothered by the temperature. That little omission is the only blemish in this otherwise perfect production. Dan Domingues as Patrick's younger brother, John is terrific showing a wide range of emotions and running at 100 miles per hour throughout the show. Tom Tansey does a wonderful job as Patrick's best friend since high school, Ronnie. It's Ronnie's job to keep his buddy calm on his wedding day and the secret he holds makes things that much worse. Ed Jewett is solid as the groom, steadily running through the complete array of emotions every groom feels on his wedding day. But Susan Greenhill steals the show as Patrick and John's mother. Every time she sets foot on the stage is a complete laugh riot as she completely excels in the role of the stereotypical mother who doesn't want her baby to marry that tramp. She hides her true feelings as long as she can but eventually lets them known. "She bowled four strikes... that doesn't make her special.. it means she has good aim!"Anybody that has ever gotten married or been in a wedding party will fall in love with "The Best Man." Robert King has taken a comedic staple and given it a new twist and, in doing so, has created a play which should live on for a very long time. Your chance to see it the first time around ends on October 15th.

Judging by the crowd for the first week, tickets may be going fast. NJ Rep actually had to add additional rows including one directly in front of the stage where we were seated. I swear the last time I was that close to the stage I was an actor. It is amazing to see people turn out for world premiere theatre like that. Congratulations go out to the theatre, the actors, and especially the playwright.


On the aisle

Reluctant groom inspires debuting comedy
Friday, September 08, 2006
BY PETER FILICHIA
Star-Ledger Staff

NEW JERSEY STAGE

The more weddings Robert King attended, the more he wondered why so many grooms looked as if they were on Death Row.

One husband-to-be spurred King's comedy, "The Best Man," which starts a month's run Thursday at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

"The pressure of the day was so great," King says, "that the guy opened up in a way he hadn't in all the years I'd known him. He was so off-guard that he began telling me things he would have never other wise told me. All this, as people were filing into the church."

King started writing soon after he arrived home.

"The Best Man" concerns Patrick, a 300-pound man of 35 who has finally found someone to marry. While some mothers would be thrilled at the prospect, Patrick's mother Rita isn't. Since her husband ran off with his 21-year-old secretary, Patrick's been her sole support.

He shouldn't be, for Rita has another son, John, who is Patrick's best man. John's an unemployed womanizer who always gets by on his dazzling good looks and charm. He'll add some pressure to an already pressure-packed day.

King admits he's seen grooms who didn't look bleak at their wed dings. "I've been to plenty where they've had blinders on instead. They truly think that now their lives are going to be perfect. What if they could get a glimpse of what their future would be like? If they knew the challenges, the troubles and the horrors that await them, would they go through with it?"

A wedding is a fate -- or blessing -- that King has not experienced. He and Nate Gorham have been partners for nine years. They spend much of their winters in homes in Ho-Ho-Kus and Queens, and summers in Asbury Park, in a Victorian home they bought in 2000.

Because of their Monmouth County location, they weren't living far from New Jersey Rep. They attended once, twice, and soon be came subscribers. King wasn't above mentioning to Gabor and SuzAnne Barabas -- respectively the troupe's executive producer and artistic director -- that he was an amateur playwright.

Yet, that's not quite how "The Best Man" landed at the theater.

"A friend of mine in a playwrit ing class said that she thought a di rector named Peter Bennett would like my play," says King. "I sent it to him, and he did like it. Peter had already directed 'Piaf in Vienna' at New Jersey Rep, so he recommended they do it."

It was the second copy of the script at the theater, for King had already sent in his. A literary ad viser read one copy and rejected it. SuzAnne Barabas read the other and decided to do it.

This is the first professional production for King, who started writ ing 11 years ago when he was 33. For the last 17 years, he's been a tax credit coordinator for the City of New York.

"I applied to the Herbert Berg hoff Studios, and Uta Hagen let me in," King says of the famed actress and the workshop begun by her late husband. "I thought I'd already written a great play, but I learned that all she felt was that I had potential. Now I had to learn the craft of playwriting.

"Being funny is nice, but it doesn't mean everything. I found that it's not hard to make people laugh, but in the context of a play, there must be structure. A story has to be told, and characters have to change. I've tried to make all that happen in 'The Best Man.'"

And what of the groom who in spired the play? "Oh, he's still mar ried," King says, nodding. "But it's been a pretty rocky relationship."


REVIEW

A provocative "Apostasy" onstage at NJ Rep
Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 07/18/06

BY TOM CHESEK
CORRESPONDENT

Race, faith, money, betrayal, abortion, nudity, terminal illness, medical marijuana, middle-age sex — you might say that "Apostasy," the play now in its world premiere engagement at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, has dealt itself a pretty stacked dramatic hand from the outset. Still, rather than drive home their talking points with a sledgehammer, author Gino Dilorio and director SuzAnne Barabas have crafted a serio-comic threesome that favors sense of character over soapbox cacophony. It's a button-pusher that seeks to provoke a reaction at every turn, even as it foils most attempts to predict plotlines and pigeonhole motivations.

Old man Webster defines "apostasy" as "renunciation of a religious faith" or "abandonment of a previous loyalty" — and the apostate in this case is Sheila Gold, a successful businesswoman, divorcee and Jewish mom who is dying of cancer. As portrayed by Susan G. Bob, Sheila is spending her final months in a drab hospice room. It's a place of institutional-green walls and cheerlessly functional objects (matter-of-factly realized by the talented set designer Carrie Mossman) that makes a most depressing anteroom to the afterlife.

While Sheila is regularly visited by her daughter Rachel (Natalie Wilder) — a 30-something single who works as director of a Planned Parenthood center and who brings her mother weed in an effort to get her to eat — the terminal patient is lonely enough at night to become intrigued by African-American TV preacher Dr. Julius Strong (Evander Duck Jr.). This initiates a relationship that brings the televangelist to the door of her room and, with alarming rapidity, into her heart.

The Doctor is in

As for the reason the charismatic Dr. Strong would fly in from California to make this very special house call — well, it could be a chance for him to notch another deathbed conversion to his ministry, perhaps even solicit a very generous donation to his building fund. Then again, it could be that the clergyman is genuinely fond of this woman, who despite her hair loss and pain episodes, remains full of life and quick to break into dance or laughter. Or, as an increasingly security-conscious Rachel suspects, could it be possible that a more sinister purpose lurks behind the song and dance?

Whatever the underlying factors, it's not hard to see how the headstrong Sheila could become attracted to the smoothly seductive Strong. As personified by Duck, he's an apparent angel in a crimson shirt who brings the things she's been missing — light and hope and music and a little romance — back to her world as effortlessly as he restores her appetite with a bag of Chinese food. Insisting that "every now and then you've got to do something crazy just to remind yourself that you're alive," the minister soon has the worldly woman of business on the verge of some pretty radical choices — a mission that he carries out by sheer force of personality, with little evangelical fire and brimstone (other than a deftly delivered sermonette on the topic of Chicken McNuggets). By the midway point, it's clear the actor is willing to put everything he's got on display — although, as Dr. Strong notes, it's not so easy to shed the "preacher persona."

Bob and Duck

Granted, those McNuggets act as a pulled-punch stand-in for some potentially thornier faith-based issues, but although their surnames might suggest a series of evasive maneuvers in the boxing ring, Bob and Duck actually make an effective team. They turn their extended scenes together into a pas-de-deaux that manages to make its own sort of sense within the accelerated time and depopulated space of Dilorio's play. With her Fran Drescher honk of a voice and her "two-thousand-dollar wig," the always engaging Bob ("Harry and Thelma," "Maggie Rose") elevates her character from a standard sitcom-level archetype to a three-dimensional being in record time. It's a feat made all the more impressive by the fact that most of the real action in the script occurs in the second act.

As the odd one out in this triangle, Rachel (a woman whose job has already made her paranoid and distrustful of others intentions) is herself transformed from doting daughter to a schemer of sorts — telling her mother that "just because you're dying doesn't give you the right to change your mind," and employing her own methods to set things back the way they were. NJ Rep stock company member Wilder — who played an instrumental role in shepherding this script from raw-reading to well-done — has obviously invested this project with lots of passion; sounding the notes of discord and conflict, and doing most of the overt preaching to be found here.

In the hands of company co-founder Barabas, the relatively brief play is far meatier than what you'd expect to find on local summer stages — and, if the preview and opening weekend audiences are any indicator, it's a production that should continue to prompt a good deal of strong reactions and animated discussions.



Rich, Multi-Layered Apostasy Entertains and Enlightens in Long Branch World Premiere

Apostasy
Susan G. Bob and Evander Duck, Jr.
Apostasy, an engaging, intelligent new play by emerging playwright Gino Dilorio combines ripe theatricality with an exploration of some serious personal and social issues. It provides much food for thought while nimbly avoiding any offense to differing religious sensibilities.

The entire action of the play occurs over a period of a few days in a hospice in a major Northeast city. Sheila Gold, who appears to be in her late fifties, is a terminal cancer patient. Dutifully visiting with her is her single thirty-one year old daughter, Rachel. Rachel, who had refused to continue her mother’s very successful on-line retail dress business, is a social worker who works for Planned Parenthood at an abortion clinic. This has caused her name to be published on a website which implicitly incites violence against those involved in such activities. She has brought a stash of marijuana for Sheila to smoke for medicinal purposes. However, their relationship remains quite testy.

Ruth discovers some literature from a West Coast television ministry, the Heritage Church of the Living Christ, tucked away in a drawer. Sheila explains to Rachel that she is seriously considering converting. (Rachel banters, “ ... and you made me give up my boy friend, Tony Giamarco ... .Does this mean no brisket on Passover?”) Sheila describes the comfort that she has drawn from the television ministry of charismatic black Baptist minister, Dr. Julius Strong. Rachel notes that the literature is a solicitation for money. She expresses her feeling of being betrayed by her mother. Sheila responds, “We never talk about dying. People with faith die differently than those without ... Don’t feel betrayed. It’s not about you, it’s about me.” After Rachel leaves, Sheila calls her lawyer “about changes in paperwork.” Dr. Julius Strong enters her hospice room. End of Scene One.

This set-up is provocative. The dialogue is sharp and engrossing. Each of the three protagonists is fully dimensional and complex. There may be villainy afoot here (and from more than one source), but it is neither simple nor truly evil. And Dilorio’s story is so lively, engrossing and thought provoking that viewers never have the opportunity to become depressed by Rachel’s terminal situation.

Yes, Dr. Strong has traveled coast to coast in order to secure Sheila’s promised largess for his economically troubled ministry. And yes, he will sexually seduce her (or, it may well be said, allow her to seduce him) in an attempt to insure her fealty to him, but he is also caring and sensitive to her needs and prepared to offer her value for her money. Yes, Rachel is more concerned about her own needs than those of her mother. And, yes, she will use chicanery to try to retain control over her mother, but she does care about her, and cementing a strong and loving bond with her is important to Rachel.

Under the swiftly paced and incisive directorial hand of SuzAnne Barabas, each cast member uncannily fully embodies and fleshes out his/her role. Susan G. Bob as Sheila convincingly runs the full gamut of emotions in an aggressive, nervous yet self confident, style. While Sheila’s decision to embrace a flashy television minister may cause one to question her state of mind, Ms. Bob makes it clear that Sheila still has her wits about her and knows how to get what she wants. And what she really wants is substantially more corporeal than the Holy Ghost.

Evander Duck, Jr. fires on all cylinders as the studiously charismatic Dr. Strong. Duck seems born to the calling of a glib and smooth soul stirrer. However, after Sheila tells him that “your letters made you sound smarter than that,” Duck, smooth as silk, clicks right into place the intelligence to display (a likely insincere) sensitivity.

Natalie Wilder captures the openness and affinity for counter culture of many young people in her portrayal of Rachel. However, as the stakes become higher for Rachel, Wilder brings on a steeliness which indicates that she may end up being her mother’s daughter after all. Ultimately, Wilder nicely conveys a chink in her new found armor.

Credit for these nuances in the performances must be shared with author Gino Dilorio. They may be beautifully interpreted by director Barabas and her superlative cast, but the lines supporting them are firmly implanted in Dilorio’s text. Although having the television minister drop in on and sleep with Sheila may intuitively feel too theatrical to be true, I’m certain that, when substantial money is at stake, such visits are not uncommon. The issues concerning treatment of the dying and the obligations which they and their loved ones have to one another are never raised statically as such, but rise organically from events. Additionally, Dilorio displays the ability to sustain an extended scene over the course of which the relationship of the characters evolves as they interact at length and reveal more and more of themselves. This is a virtue to be cherished and encouraged.

The detailed and realistic set by Carrie Mossman augmented bright and realistically flat lighting by Jill Nagle heighten the sense of reality. Patricia E. Doherty’s apt, and, in the case of Dr. Strong, flamboyant costumes complete the excellent design work.

We are told that Dr. Julius Strong’s television ministry show is called “The Strong Hour.” The good news is that with its production of Apostasy, New Jersey Rep is giving its audiences a couple of hours of strong and thoughtful entertainment.


REVIEW: APOSTASY IS STUNNING WORLD PREMIERE

by Gary Wien

Apostasy

(LONG BRANCH, NJ) -- From the opening conversation, it's clear "Apostasy" won't be your typical mother/daughter play. After all, how often do you see conversations starting off with the mother doing a hit of medicinual marijuana? And then offering her daughter the pipe while the two discuss her recent dating nightmare?

Rachel Gold (the daughter of Sheila Gold) is taking care of her mother at a hospice. Rachel works at Planned Parenthood and recently had a scare when her name showed up on an anti-abortion website. Her mother was an extremely successful business woman who sold her business when it became clear that Rachel didn't want to take it over.

"What the hell is in this weed?" exclaims Rachel after her mother unleases the bombshell that forms a major part in the play's plot - her mother considering converting to Christianity from Judaism. Apparently she found salvation one night when she couldn't sleep and found an evangelist (Dr. Julius Strong) on television. The mother was taken in by the preacher so much that she is planning to make an extremely large donation to his ministry. The catch was that she wanted to meet him before she would make the donation. Meanwhile, she hasn't told her daughter about her plans at all.

Sure enough, Dr. Julius Strong pays her a visit and instantly lifts her spirits leading up to a hilarious scene involving a dying cancer patient and an Evangelist dancing and singing to "Mony, Mony".

Sheila tells the preacher how everybody in the hospice has given up hope. "Some of us just give up slower than others, I guess."

The preacher tries to explain how she should put her life in Christ. As he's talking to her, she looks up to him and says, "You're always on, aren't you?" He later proves her right when he presents a brilliantly executed sermon about Chicken McNuggets.

She may be having trouble taking Christ into her heart, but doesn't have any trouble bringing the preacher into her bed. Ironically, the pair give each other just what they need to survive - so much so, that the preacher asks her to move across country and live with him. Thus begins the conflict between mother and daughter and the daughter versus the preacher with the battle for her spiritual being and millions of dollars caught in between.

There is much more than could be said about this play, but I think you should simply head to the theatre and see how it twists and turns for yourself.

Playwright Gino Dilorio has done an amazing job of presenting religion with a nice blend of faith and cynicism. This production is full of outstanding performances, surprise twists, and will keep you riveted from start to its amazing finish.


New Jersey Jewish News
Greater Monmouth County Feature

A triangle of love and faith
New play at NJ Rep examines mother-daughter tensions over an evangelist’s appeal

Thirty-something Rachel Gold finally has the kind of relationship with her mother for which she has longed. They see each other all the time. They talk. After all these years, Sheila Gold’s career — she was an extremely successful businesswoman — isn’t the most important thing in her life. Instead, Rachel, whose career path steered her to Planned Parenthood, is.

Only one problem: Mom has terminal cancer and is living out her last days in a hospice.

Make that two problems: A dashing African-American TV evangelist oozing with charisma has suddenly materialized and is on the verge of persuading Mom to go back to California with him. In short order, their relationship becomes physical. But what about Mom’s relationship with Rachel? Her Judaism? Her bank account? Gone, gone, and gone — unless Rachel can talk her mother out of this most unusual lifestyle change.

“Rachel finally has her mother where she wants her, and she’ll be damned if some snake-oil salesman is going to steal Sheila away from her,” said New York City-based playwright Gino Dilorio, whose newest work, Apostasy, chronicles this unlikely love triangle. The production will premiere at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. Previews will be July 13 and 14; the play officially opens July 15.

“Is the minister the true villain here?” Dilorio asks. “Is he attracted to Sheila or is he only attracted to Sheila’s money? And what about Sheila, who ultimately must choose between her daughter and this evangelist? Is one choice right and the other wrong, or are there gray areas?

“What I tried to do,” the playwright continued, “is put these issues on the fence and let those in the audience draw their own conclusions.”

Finding answers

The poster advertising the play depicts a star of David, bent in several places and hanging from aApostasy logo crucifix. In retrospect, director SuzAnne Barabas admitted, the poster, while eye-catching, may not capture the essence of Apostasy.

“If I was designing the poster today, I don’t know if I would have quite gone in that direction,” Barabas said. “Certainly, the storyline has the ‘Judaism versus evangelist’ component, but I wouldn’t classify this as a religious play. To me, the play is about interpersonal relationships, about the motivation behind deeds. It has to do with people from different worlds being brought together. I’ll say this: These are three roles the actors can really sink their teeth into.”

The first of several staged readings of the play took place in the autumn of 2004. Since then, the script has undergone numerous revisions, but two constants have remained. All along, the mother-daughter tandem have been played by actresses Susan G. Bob and Natalie Wilder. (Evander Duck Jr., who portrays the charismatic Dr. Julius Strong, is new to the role.)

“I’m not saying I’m anything like Sheila Gold, but I’ve tried to put a lot of myself into this role,” Bob said. “I’d describe Sheila as a woman who was energetic, independent, and driven to conquer life. Sheila’s marriage failed, and her daughter holds her responsible for that failure. Rachel also feels that the time Sheila spent building a successful business was time the two of them should have spent together. This is where the character strikes a chord with me.

“Like Sheila, when I work, I tend to get tunnel vision,” said Bob. “So when my kids were born, I knew I wanted to be there to see them grow up, and that became my priority. My approach was different, but I could definitely understand what motivated Sheila.”

Barabas, herself a Jewish parent, was drawn to the notion of self-sacrifice.

“As a Jew, you’re taught to challenge and to interpret,” she said. “It doesn’t mean we don’t believe but that we should ask questions. Here, a dying woman thinks she might have found the answers she’s looking for in an evangelist she saw on television. Is her daughter right to try to change her mother’s mind? Or, in doing so, is she denying her mother’s happiness? Maybe Mom will be bilked out of her money, but maybe she can spend her final days with a man she loves, which would be a good thing.

“The question then becomes whether Rachel is looking out for her mother’s interests or her own interests.”

Even though the playwright isn’t Jewish, the exchanges between Sheila and Rachel Gold aren’t unlike the kinds of discussions that have been going on in Jewish households for generations.

“My wife is Jewish,” Dilorio said. “I suppose being around conversations involving some combination of my wife, her sister, and her mother have rubbed off on me.”

The nuances of the script appear to have rubbed off on the cast members as well.

“The chemistry Susan and Natalie have developed is such that I have to keep reminding myself that they’re not really mother and daughter,” Dilorio said. “That adds a dimension that audiences should find intriguing.”



INTERVIEW WITH PLAYWRIGHT GINO DILORIO


by Gary Wien


 

Gino Dilorio is quickly making a name for himself in the playwriting world. The Clark University Professor has his latest work, Apostasy, currently running at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. His play, The Hard Way, won 1st place in the BBC's 2005 International Playwriting Competition and was one of just 3 plays chosen in the Utah Shakespeare Festival's New Plays in Progress Series. Other highlights include winning a Berilla Kerr Award for Playwriting and having his "Winterizing the Summer House" chosen as one of the top 10 plays in the 2002 Writer's Digest's national play competition.

Upstage had the chance to talk with Gino on the eve of the world premiere of Apostasy at NJ Rep, a theatre which has played a large role in his development as a playwright.

Tell me a little about Apostasy.

It's a play that had a reading at NJ Rep about two years ago and we've been developing it - myself and SuzAnne Barabas (the director of Apostasy).
It's based on a number of different ideas that were going round in my head. I was brought up Catholic, my wife is Jewish and my kids are Jewish and the two religions deal with the afterlife in very different ways. In Christianity the resurrection and the after life are very much a center of the religion, whereas in Judaism it's not. In Judaism, it's the Torah - the law. And it just seemed to me that there wasn't a focus in Judaism with the afterlife. So I started looking at the afterlife issues and I did some research on it and I found that a lot of people who were terminal cancer patients who were Jewish considered converting at the end of their lives because they wanted that idea of a religion that was centrally focused on that. They wanted that hopeful ending, that kind of faith. It seemed like there was a real dichotomy there.

So, I was interested in that and I had a friend who had a bout with cancer and he and his girlfriend were sort of on the outs. But when he first got sick they got back together and she took care of him for the last 18 months of his life. She said that it was the greatest time of her life. The reason, I think, is because she finally had him where she wanted him. He really needed her. So, I was interested in that dichotomy too and that's something we have in the play with the mother/daughter.

Plus I'm also interested in evangelicals and what they are all about. And finally I was trying to write a piece of erotica for an older woman. I thought that it was kind of interesting that somebody at the end of her life would decide to do something crazy so she has a thing with a black preacher.
So, all of that is sort of in the piece. Hopefully, it works in a lot of ways.

How did it evolve from the play which first had a reading at NJ Rep?

It's less talky. I think that it started out as being a heavy idea play and it became more of a personal play. What happens is that you have these ideas and things you want to say in a piece, but then you do more and more readings and you see people start to fade a little bit. People don't want to be lectured to they want these ideas to spring in their head but you need the action to be driving the ideas. So that's how it really changed. A lot of cuts. It became less of an idea play and more about a love story and a personal dynamic between the mother, the daughter and the evangelical and who was going to get this woman in the end.

A lot of writers have difficulties writing dialogues for the opposite sex, how do you think you got by that?

It wasn't really a problem. I think I modeled their relationship after my mother and my sister because they were always butting heads. I heard that in the house a lot, so it was just being a good listener, I guess.

Apostasy started out with a reading at NJ Rep and now is having a full production. How important do you think it is for a playwright to have a certain relationship with a theatre where a piece can go from stage reading to a full production in the same theatre?

Extremely. I mentioned this at the Talk Back today. NJ Rep is an absolute treasure because they do predominately new work. One of the problems new playwrights have is that nobody wants to do new work. They'd prefer to do what's tried and true. In fact, playwrights are not only competing against other new plays but they're competing against every play that was ever written. It's like "Hamlet" or this new play by an unknown guy we've never heard of... I guess we'll do "Hamlet".

They (NJREP) develop so much new work and what's even better is that not only is there a world premiere every six weeks but they take the audience along for the ride. The audience is hip to that, they like seeing new things. It's not the same old tried and true. They like that some of it works and some of it doesn't, but it's always a premiere. I can't overstate all that they've done. Suzanne and Gabor (Barabas) are just the best!

When you were in college you were headed towards an acting career. Were you interested in writing back then?

I always had my eye on it, but I predominately wanted to be an actor. I mostly started writing about ten years ago. My son was born and it was difficult to go and do acting for very little money. I thought I could just stay home and write for very little money instead! At the time, I was with a lot of companies that did new work and I'd read a play and think, "I could write this".
I'm much happier as a playwright than I ever was an actor. You write it, it's up there and it's yours. I never got used to the transient nature of being an actor. It was always a challenge going from gig to gig.

How involved do you get with your productions?

As involved as they want me to be. I'm very comfortable just showing up the first night to see the play. If they want me to be at rehearsals, I'll be there. I try not to be there too much because I think the actors get nervous. I'd rather let them play with it and find it and let the director find it.
I'm not a very good audience member. I get so nervous that I don't enjoy it much. I like to listen to it. I'll sit in the back and just listen to the words.

How did having an acting background help your writing?

I tell my playwriting students that even if you don't ever want to act you've got to take acting classes. You've got to know what it's like to be up there. Even if you're terrible... You've got to know what it's like to stand in a space and read because it gives you a sense of the spoken word.

How has teaching helped you?

I would not have been a playwright if I hadn't been a teacher. I taught Improv for many years and Improv is one of those things where you're always saying yes to your imagination. It totally unlocked it for me. That's another thing I always tell my playwrights - take Improv classes.

What advice would you give somebody that wants to be a playwright?

I'd say take Improv, take acting classes. At first you've got to write what you know. I think you have to write what you love and what you know first. Don't be afraid to tell a personal story on stage. There's nothing wrong with starting there. And then eventually you have to write what you don't know because it's the only way you can learn things.

Go the theatre a lot, go to places where people are speaking. I think the hardest thing you have to do is listen. You have to be a magnet for dialogue. Bars, subways, diners... I don't think you can learn it from books. I think you really have to go places where people are speaking. You have to learn how people converse and bounce words in a space. You have to be a dialogue thief!


A CurtainUp Review
Apostasy

By Simon Saltzman

There are no agnostics in a cancer ward.--- Rachel Gold
Apostasy: 1. The renunciation of faith. 2. Abandonment of previous loyalty. --- Webster's Dictionary:

Apostasy
Susan G. Bob and Evander Duck, Jr. in Apostasy
(Photo: SuzAnne Barabas)
Sheila Gold (Susan G. Bob) is a Jewish patient with terminal cancer living in a hospice. The closest she has come to her faith in her lifetime is preparing a brisket of beef at Passover. This presumably makes her a prime candidate for apostasy, the theme of an absorbing if slightly far-fetched world premiering play by Gino Dilorio, a New York-based playwright who's been 1st place winner place in the BBC's 2005 International Playwriting Competition and a finalist at the O'Neill Center, the Humana Festival and New Dramatists.

When Gold, a self-sufficient independent middle-aged long-divorced woman reaches out for "something," she doesn't turn to her 31 year-old daughter Rachel (Natalie Wilder), who makes daily visits and usually arrives with a fresh supply of pot, declaring "Dis is good shit mon."

Sheila has, in fact, become enraptured with the TV ministry of California-based Dr. Julius Strong (Evander Duck, Jr.), a charismatic African-American Christian Evangelist. Exhausting the alternative cures which her daughter has continually seen fit to put down, Sheila finds that she is eager and receptive to the message that the persuasive evangelist is offering and loses no time in writing to him while also secretively initiating a major change in her will.

Sheila's success as a businesswoman ("I made a bundle selling stuff on line") has resulted in a conflicted relationship with Rachel who chose not to go into her mother's thriving business, but has instead devoted her life and her time to planned parenthood and working at a women's health clinic where she is now a manager.

Although disappointed in her daughter's choices, Sheila continues to urge Rachel to find a man through the Jewish singles web site service nembership in which she has given her as a gift. This subject takes a back seat when Sheila announces, "I'm thinking of converting to…Christianity. I'm serious. People who are dying need something." In a brochure sent from "The Strong Hour," Rachel notices a request for donations and makes it clear that she feels betrayed by her mother. Sheila counters this with "Well, I'm dying. And people who have faith die differently than people who don't have faith. I know it. I've seen it. And I don't want to be like them. So do me a favor, don't feel betrayed"

Rachel discovers that the evangelist has made a personal visit to see Sheila in her room at the hospice (cleanly and functionally designed by Carrie Mossman) and has stayed the night. Have Sheila's letter and its promise of a hefty gift to his ministry prompted Dr. Strong (Evander Duck, Jr.) to do whatever it takes?

You may suspect at this point that you know where playwright Dilorio is leading us and you may be right. However, under SuzAnne Barabas' finely tuned direction, three excellent actors define Dilorio's interestingly complex characters with considerable brio. The plot is a cleverly considered mix of concealed con and overt compassion.

Dilorio's gift for the provocative shows up with Julius' visit, beginning with an exchange of gifts between him and Sheila. Although Sheila is a bit wary of his evangelistic zeal ("You're always in preacher mode".), she is disarmed by his exuberance and warmth, and his ability to make her dance with a joyous abandonment to the strains of "Dancin' in the Street." An embrace leads to a kiss and more, in time for a quick Act 1 curtain. Rachel , appalled by the direction the relationship is taking, proceeds to do what she can to prevent her suddenly rejuvenated mother from being taken in by Julius.

Although the stocky yet spiffy-looking Duck, Jr. has the misfortune to play part of a scene literally bare-ass, his character is otherwise clothed in relentless sincerity and a fully committed mission. At the opening night performance, he got a deserved round of applause for giving an overly dramatic, but highly amusing "testimony" in the form of an improvisation at Sheila's request. Whether he is the scoundrel that Rachel suspects remains an almost moot point in the light of the desperate measures she is prepared to take to get him out of her mother's life.

Wilder has appeared in numerous NJ Rep productions, and she is outstanding as the totally rattled and needy Rachel, who not only finds herself in the role of her mother's protector, but also a probable target of anti-abortion activists. Whether we find Julius' stand on abortion surprising or not, we are more surprised not to see a single member of the hospice staff. Evidently no one checks up to see if anyone died during the night.

Susan Bob, who is best know for originating the role of Dee in Charles Gordone's Pulitzer Prize winning No Place to Be Somebody, gives the play its heart and its heartiness. Reflecting a gullibility that defies logic, and a recklessness that defines irrational behavior, she makes Sheila someone you may find yourself unwittingly rooting for and embracing. To her credit, she dispenses poignancy with a vibrancy that well serves this strangely unsettling but intriguing play.

Although this is not a musical, director Barabas has brilliantly selected recorded songs that deliciously punctuate the scenes and are worth mentioning -- "Stormy Weather," sung by Etta James, "People Get Ready," sung by The Blind Boys of Alabama, "I'm Still Her"e, sung by Tom Waits," Sunday Morning,",," Trust in Me" and "At Last," by Etta James; and "It will Be Me," sung for the curtain call by Kristin Chenoweth.

The LINK News July 20, 2006

Theater review

‘APOSTASY’ rewards faithful theatergoers

By Milt Bernstein

From the title of the latest offering at New Jersey Repertory Company – “Apostasy” – and its publicity logo showing a crinkled Jewish star on top of a larger Christian cross – one might get the impression that we are about to witness a learned debate on the virtues of the two great religions.

            In reality, however, playwright Gino DiIorio has offered us a combined comedy and drama – a “dramedy,” as someone recently put it – of an unusual love triangle – involving a not-very-old but highly successful Jewish businesswoman with an incurable illness, who is supposedly spending her last weeks or months in a hospice; her only caregiver, a daughter who feels all too keenly that her mother has always been alienated from her; and a charismatic Christian TV evangelist the mother has become fascinated with during her lonely stay in the hospice.

The three-character, two-act play opens with the mother (played by Susan G. Bob) receiving a surprise visit from the evangelist (all the way from California) and ends with a fiery showdown that takes place between the daughter (played by Natalie Wilder) and the evangelist (known as Dr. Julius Strong, and played by Evander Duck, Jr.).

            Susan Bob and Natalie Wilder, both NJ Rep veterans, portray their roles beautifully. But the real surprise is the performance of the preacher by Evander Duck, in real life a doctor with a practice in Freehold, specializing in physical medicine, spinal injuries and rehabilitation. Duck offered an overpowering presence in his scenes with the all-too-vulnerable mother, interspersed with moments of high comedy.

            This eminently worth-seeing production has been superbly directed by artistic director SuzAnne Barabas, co-founder of NJ Rep. The single hospice-room set was excellent, by Carrie Mossman; the costume design by Patricia Doherty; lighting by Jill Nagle; and sound by Merek Royce Press.


THEATER NOTES: BRINGING THE PLAY TO LIFE

NJ Rep takes "Apostasy" from preemie to premiere

Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 07/14/06

BY TOM CHESEK
CORRESPONDENT

In "Apostasy," the new play now onstage at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, a wealthy, middle-aged Jewish woman by the name of Sheila Gold (Susan G. Bob) enters into a relationship with Dr. Julius Strong, an African-American evangelical minister (Evander Duck Jr.). It's an arrangement that causes no end of grief to Sheila's daughter (Natalie Wilder), and one that raises issues of sketchy motives (is the charismatic preacher more interested in Sheila's money than he is in Sheila?) and hard choices (as between faith and family).

The three-character dramedy by Gino Dilorio is merely the latest in a long line of world premieres for the ever-innovative Shore-based company founded by Gabe and SuzAnne Barabas of West Long Branch. More significantly, it's the latest graduate of NJ Rep's long-running series of script-in-hand readings — a feature that has functioned as something akin to a "farm club" for works in progress, and a popular offering which, according to SuzAnne Barabas, sends a message "that we are not just a producing theater, but a development theater as well."

Having presented readings of more than 200 plays in the past eight years — with nearly 30 of them having transitioned to fully-staged productions — NJ Rep has established a genuine reason for seekers after something different to leave the house on Monday evenings. The bargain-priced, audience-interactive series — which continues on July 24 with Juan Mayorga's concentration camp drama "Ways to Heaven" — remains a popular draw throughout the year. It has attracted the talents of such performers as Salome Jens, Betsy Palmer and Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert.

"The main purpose of the staged readings is to let the author see where there may be vulnerabilities in a play, and what the audience responds to or does not respond to," explains SuzAnne Barabas, the troupe's artistic director. "Our audience is very astute . . . the playwrights would do well to listen to their comments and to heed their suggestions."

Work in progress

According to Barabas, a typical staged reading is cast about three weeks prior to presentation (Actors Equity, a union, allows up to 15 hours for rehearsals and performance of a drama or comedy). There are generally two rehearsals of the material — one in New York, and one at NJ Rep the day of the performance.

"With certain plays, we know from just reading the script that the play is ready. However, we often will do a staged reading of it to get a stronger sense of the work," she explained.

"It also gives us the chance to feel out the playwright and see how easy or difficult he/she is to work with, and how eager they are to further refine their play."

Then there's the sort of play which can, as SuzAnne Barabas puts it, "Read one way on paper and another on its feet" — as in the case of "Apostasy," a play she characterizes as "very human . .. we were drawn to all three characters, and we found the subject matter, and the interplay between comedy and drama, intriguing."

The NJ Rep people had already worked with playwright Dilorio during their mainstage production of his "Winterizing the Summer House" in 2003, and scheduled a reading of "Apostasy" almost exactly two years ago. While SuzAnne Barabas observed that the audience was very clearly moved and very encouraging in their post-show discussion, "we felt that it needed significant development."

Working closely with Dilorio to "make some edits, build up sections, and clarify issues," Barabas and company (including actress Natalie Wilder) did a closed table reading of a new draft. After further modifications were put through, a reading of the latest version was given at Luna Stage in Montclair — after which followed more suggestions, more re-writes and more table readings.

Two years and six more scripts later, SuzAnne Barabas said that "We felt the play was well on its way and we optioned it," adding that once a play is optioned, "We are then fully committed to the project . . . the director, however, will still work with the writer before and during rehearsals on the script as needed."

From there it was on the casting phase of the process, with Barabas (now officially attached to the project as director) offering first dibs on the role of the daughter to Wilder — a member of NJ Rep's stock company of players and a person regarded by all concerned as "a strong member of the development team." Susan Bob, who played mother Sheila in the very first reading, auditioned and was cast alongside Duck, making his first Rep appearance.

While noting that "We are very proud to have been a part of the development of this world premiere," the director emphasizes that the NJ Rep braintrust and its loyal audience aren't always on the same page when it comes to the properties that are selected for staging each season.

"We have also produced plays that the audience did not especially like, but we did . . . it poses a special challenge to see if we can bring the play to life in such a way that the audience changes its mind."


Grand finale

'Exits and Entrances' ends theater season on a high note

Wednesday, May 31, 2006
BY PETER FILICHIA
Star-Ledger Staff

NEW JERSEY STAGE

The last production of the New Jersey theater season ranks as one of its best.

"Exits and Entrances," now at the New Jersey Repertory Company, has a splendid script, superb acting and masterful direction. Who could ask for anything more?

Athol Fugard's 30th play, and his most recent, had its world premiere engagement in 2004 in Los Angeles. New Jersey Repertory's artistic director, SuzAnne Barabas, and her husband, executive producer Gabor Barabas, have imported Stephen Sachs' production to their Long Branch theater.

It's the perfect play for the Barabases, because it celebrates the stage. Few rival this couple's love of theater, as they continue the difficult mission of bringing new plays to audiences.

That "Exits and Entrances" is autobiographical is easy to glean, though Fugard never refers to himself by name, but simply as "The Playwright." He could have called himself "The Dresser" just as easily, for he spends most of the play caring for the costumes -- and the ego of actor Andre Huguenet.

Fugard uses a real name here: Huguenet was a famed South African actor when Fugard worked for him during a 1956 production of "Oedipus Rex."

"The Playwright" shows Huguenet the unconditional respect that only a novice can give, and Huguenet happily takes it. When the lad compliments him on his performance, Huguenet asks, "Really?" He doesn't trust or admire the boy's opinion; he just wants to be praised again.

William Dennis Hurley is excellent as "The Playwright." The script demands that he have the starry-eyed enthusiasm of the stage-struck, but also that he stand up to the star. Hurley displays a strong backbone at these moments.

Morlan Higgins is extraordinary as Huguenet, one of those grahnd men of the theater who enjoys pretending that he's a regular, jovial guy -- but woe be to the underling who disagrees with him. Higgins uses a pretentious and portentous voice when saying, "im-purrrrr-tenant" and the de rigueur "dear boy." Yet what childishness he shows when there's a problem with his costume. Better still is Higgins' introspection when he remembers the taunts and threats heaped on him by village bullies long ago.

Self-pity can only last so long. Higgins snarls when he's corrected while rehearsing "Oedipus," then grandly orates when he's shown performing the text. How imperious he looks, too, when he takes his curtain call before the imaginary "Oedipus" audience.

Back in the dressing room, Higgins shows Huguenet's insouciant nature. He mentions "the drunkenness and sex" for which theater is famous, dryly adding, "If only that were true." Then he turns deadly serious when he speaks of another aspect of stage life: "the hard labor of dreams."

"The Playwright" finds that the realization of his dreams does indeed involve hard work. Five years later, he's about to have his first play produced. He visits Huguenet backstage to tell him about it. That leads to a surprising rift. Here, Hurley takes center stage, and delivers an impassioned speech without a trace of dishonesty.

New Jersey Repertory has replaced its hard-bottomed, armless steel chairs with plush, two-armed theater seats. But even if the company had removed the chairs and made everyone sit on the floor, "Exits and Entrances" would be worth the sacrifice.


REVIEW

"Exits" enters from a left-coast stage
Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 06/1/06
BY TOM CHESEK
CORRESPONDENT

There are a number of pin-drop moments that occur during "Exits and Entrances," the two-character Athol Fugard drama now onstage at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

They are moments in which a hush settles over the room, broken by nothing more or less than a couple of finely tuned actors performing some carefully wrought words — with the subdued lighting, the barely discernible hum of the house air conditioning and some comfortable new seats adding to the quiet-time power of this elegiac duet.

There's little in the way of real action in this 2004 play by the South African scribe who's been lauded as one of the greatest literary voices of the last fifty years. Branded a "memory play," it's essentially a couple of snapshots from a slow, sad changing of the guard — a crossing of paths between the aging, Afrikaner actor Andre Huguenet (Morlan Higgins) and an idealistic young playwright (William Dennis Hurley) who has occasion to serve as supporting player, de facto dresser and appreciative audience to the older man.

This most recent work from the pen of the playwright best known for "Master Harold . . . and the Boys" was written for and developed by director Stephen Sachs and his Fountains Theatre in Los Angeles, a premiere for which Fugard helped supervise the casting and lent his wisdom during the rehearsal process. With director Sachs and his original cast all present for the show's Long Branch engagement, the NJ Rep production of "Exits" comes to the Jersey Shore bearing its famous author's still-warm fingerprints.

(STAFF PHOTO: JEANNIE CLAUDIO)
William Dennis Hurley (left) and Morlan Higgins rehearse a scene from Athol Fugard's "Exits and Entrances" in Long Branch

Arrivals and departures

Introduced by the unnamed Playwright (a surrogate for you-know-who) on the 1961 inauguration of the Republic of South Africa — an occasion that synchronically coincides with the death of Huguenet — the play very quickly flashes back to 1956 and the aspiring literary lion's experience with the weary Andre during an ill-starred run of "Oedipus Rex." The gradual "exit" of the classically trained, old-school impresario — and the concurrent "entrance" of the Playwright's more immediate brand of socially relevant theater — are just some of the "arrivals and departures" noted by Fugard, not least of which are the passing of the old Union of South Africa amid the first stirrings of the forces that would transform his country's society a generation later.

Always among the most trenchant of observers of life in the Apartheid era, Fugard keeps the grand sweep of history offstage, channeling the sea-change currents into a more personal argument between the hidebound conservator of Afrikaner culture and the wordsmith out to change the world. It's an exchange that momentarily wrests the jaded actor from his boozy resignation, prompting him to call his young friend back for more with the plea that "we haven't exhausted all our points of disagreement."

Comings and goings

While NJ Rep is presenting "Exits" without an intermission, the script does fall into two distinct sections. The latter finds the Playwright looking up the all-but-forgotten Andre in a small-time production of "The Prisoner," in which the broken, bankrupt Huguenet's gut-wrenching turn as The Cardinal presents a proud man "slowly stripped of all his disguises . . . forced to recognize and confess to what he really is."

Once regarded as the greatest actor in all of South Africa, the real-life Huguenet was a specialist in such larger-than-lifes as Hamlet and Lear. In a role that he has every right to claim having "created," Higgins embodies Huguenet as a sardonically witty extension of his stage self, a sin-eater who seems to assume the burdens shouldered by every tragic figure he's ever portrayed. As imperious as he is insecure, claiming to have "bred antibodies" to the critics while pouring another few fingers of bottled courage, the self-proclaimed "old gay ham" stands exposed as a lifelong outsider, a dinosaur with no real friends. Whether relating his childhood epiphany at the sight of the great ballerina Pavlova, or delivering Hamlet's famous soliloquy with a world-weary, booze-bleary authority you'll likely hear nowhere else, Higgins delivers this portrait to places only skirted by the likes of "The Dresser" and other "backstage" tales.

In a considerably less showy role — one that the playwright didn't seem fit to bless with a name — Hurley endeavors to expertly balance rather than compete with the stentorian swaggers and staggers of Higgins. He's the eloquent narrator who frames the vignettes, a straight-man and interlocutor, a stand-in for author and audience alike. He makes this play happen every bit as much as his 800-pound gorilla of a co-star.

The two actors and their director have honed this show to a fine point over the course of four productions and scores of performances. While it's not for every taste, it's a welcome summer guest here on our fair Shore — and to see it is to be provided with a direct glimpse into the creative process of one of the world's greatest living playwrights.


Major Playwright, Original Cast In Long Branch
The Two River Times

By Philip Dorian

Athol Fugard's "Exits and Entraces" at NJ Rep

In Exits and Entrances one of the characters, an aging actor, asks the other, a young playwright, if stage plays can make any difference in the world. Considering the impact Athol Fugard's have had on the social and political fabric of his native South Africa, the question is hardly rhetorical.
 


William Dennis Hurley (left) and Morlan Higgins in Exits and Entrances.
Dealing primarily with relationships among whites, blacks and "coloureds" in the era of apartheid, Fugard's early, mixed-race casts (Blood Knot, Boesman and Lena, etc.) were banned in his own country, but the plays galvanized anti-apartheid opinion with productions in this country (first at Yale Repertory Theatre) and elsewhere around the world. Exits and Entrances, which premiered in 2004, centers on the relationship between the idealistic young playwright and the older, disillusioned actor, whose values have become linked with the characters he has played. Apparently autobiographical, the characters are based on Fugard himself and on an acclaimed South African actor of the 1960s, Andre Huguenot. Fugard is noted - and sometimes criticized - for a reliance on metaphor, and this latest of his plays bears that out, even to the title.

In Exits and Entrances we are led to consider the demise of the repressive Union of South Africa, and the emergence of the democratic Republic of South Africa just 15 years ago. One character, the actor, is in decline; the other, the playwright, in ascendancy. Read that metaphor into Exits and Entrances if you choose; it's surely there. Or see it as "just" penetrating exchanges of philosophies between two intriguing characters at different points in their lives. Andre's only real home has been the stage, and the young writer is switching to plays because his short stories are mostly written in dialogue.

The play is set in 1956-61, but written recently, post-apartheid, it doesn't have the sting of Fugard's earlier works. Racial, social and economic divisions still exist in South Africa, of course, but Exits and Entrances seems removed from the biting reality of earlier Fugard. ("Master Harold" …and the Boys, for example, is gut wrenching.) It's more philosophical, less piercing. This does not detract from the sterling production now running at New Jersey Repertory Company.

We first see the playwright (William Dennis Hurley) ruminating on the past before we flash back to a theater dressing room where he serves actor Andre (Morlan Higgins) as a valet-dresser, readying him for a performance of his triumphant Oedipus Rex. Andre regales his assistant with tales of past glories as he makes up and dons his costume, and Higgins's transformation from the flamboyant ‘civilian' to the obsessed Oedipus is remarkable. Taking on a Bela Lugosi eeriness, he launches into the role within the role, acting the scene where Oedipus puts out his own eyes with convincing fervor. Later, reciting Hamlet's contemplation of suicide, actor Higgins does justice to the South African actor that Fugard honors in the play. In between the Sophoclean and Shakespearean excerpts, Higgins proves a master of Fugard's intense dialogue. It's a fine performance, necessarily outsized, but not scenery-chewing.

Hurley is more constrained but no less effective. He's in awe of Andre in the early scene, but less so five years later, when he has matured and Andre has fallen into irrelevance. The playwright's one outburst, giving voice to Fugard's rage against the old South African order, is startling in contrast to the character's overall calm. Hurley acts it well, up to and including the sudden halt when the younger man realizes he's not getting through to Andre. The accent Hurley affects may be authentic white South African, but he slips in and out of it, which is somewhat distracting.

Producing an established playwright is a departure for New Jersey Rep. They've done it here with class, not only by the choice of Fugard, but by importing the play's original cast as well as its director, Stephen Sachs, who blends actors and characters - and those metaphors - seamlessly.

Plays about theater people, real or fictitious, have a unique appeal, and Exits and Entrances is no exception. Being admitted to the dressing room and hearing excerpts from classic plays makes us feel like we're in on the process. In this case, the finished product is the latest play from a world-renowned author. Fugard is rarely produced locally - never before, to my knowledge, with the original cast and director. Serious theater fans - and fans of serious theater - are well advised to take advantage of this rarity, right in Long Branch.

"Exits and Entrances" continues at NJ Rep's Lumia Theatre, 179 Broadway, Long Branch through June 25. Performances are Thurs.-Sat. at 8pm, with matinees on selected Saturdays at 4 and Sundays at 2. Information and tickets ($30): 732-229-3166 or at www.njrep.org.

Two River Times theater critic Philip Dorian's e-mail address is PDorian@aol.com.

Jersey's best (In one critic's humble opinion)

Sunday, June 11, 2006
BY PETER FILICHIA
Star-Ledger Staff

The 2005-2006 New Jersey theater season certainly hit the heights with its comedies and dramas. The five best plays ran the gamut from funny ("Miss Witherspoon") to poignant ("From Door to Door") to nostalgic ("Music from a Sparkling Planet") to theatrical ("Exits and Entrances") to harrowing ("Gem of the Ocean"). Each deserved to be named best play of the year, and picking a winner wasn't easy.

Best Play: "Exits and Entrances" by Athol Fugard (New Jersey Repertory Company, Long Branch); "From Door to Door" by James Sherman (Forum Theatre); "Gem of the Ocean" by August Wilson (McCarter); "Miss Witherspoon" by Christopher Durang (McCarter); "Music from a Sparkling Planet" by Douglas Carter Beane (The Theater Project, Cranford).


Theatrical veteran writes valentine to his art

Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 06/23/06
BY MICHAEL KAABE
CORRESPONDENT

A PLAY BY ATHOL FUGARD

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

WHEN: Today through Sunday

COST: $30-$35

CALL: (732) 229-3166

The plot is simple: An aging, seasoned actor and a young playwright battle over artistic differences. But what Athol Fugard's "Exits and Entrances" says and how it gets its point across is far more important than the simplicity of its plot.

Athol Fugard, 73, the South African playwright who has more than 25 full-length plays to his credit, is a unique voice in contemporary theater. For more than four decades, he has been writing about government oppression during the period of apartheid South Africa, and the repercussions of the artistic frustration that it has caused.

Apartheid is a system of racial segregation peculiar to the Republic of South Africa, during British rule. It was largely repealed in 1991-'92.

It is not rare for Fugard to have the conflict of his scenarios expressed through two major characters. The conflicts in "Blood Knot," "Master Harold . . . and the Boys" and "Valley Song" are all expressed through the two major characters.

Fugard's latest play, "Exits and Entrances," being staged at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, also has its conflict expressed through its two major characters.

The autobiographical drama traces the relationship of two characters over a long period of time. Andre is an aging actor on the brink of retirement. The young playwright (who represents a young Fugard) is simply known as the playwright.

The play spans 1956 to 1961, the oppressive years in which South Africa was under British rule. Due to the fact that Fugard and his plays always tried to protest apartheid, they were banned by the government and Fugard came to the United States to have them produced.

In "Exits and Entrances," the older man, Andre, believes theater should depict life as it should be, whereas the young playwright thinks theater should show life the way it really is. Andre is for lifting the spirits of the oppressed people of South Africa, by showing them some kind of positive aesthetic. He believes people go to the theater to escape real life.

On the other hand, the young playwright wants to change lives by writing plays about what's happening right now (in 1956), i.e., the horrible conditions under which the oppressed classes are living.

It may sound mundane, or even familiar, but what appears to be a simple concept is the cornerstone of a touching work. Director Stephen Sachs is passionate about it.

"The play is Fugard's valentine to the theater," Sachs said recently. "It is a series of scenes that, over a period of time, shows the relationship between the two men grow and develop."

Sachs lives in Los Angeles and works mostly at the theater he founded in 1980, the Fountain Theater, where he is artistic director.

He became aware of "Exits and Entrances" through a twist of fate.

"I was directing a play by Fugard called "The Road to Mecca' for The Fountain Theater," Sachs recalled. "Well, Fugard came to Los Angeles to see it and loved the production. We got to talking and I offered him our theater as his artistic home."

A few days later, Sachs received an e-mail from Fugard asking him to direct his latest play.

"The entire text was in a file attachment. It was "Exits and Entrances.' I read it and was very moved by it," Sachs said.


Athol Fugard’s Exceptional Exits and Entrances in Northeast Premiere

Exits and Entrances
Morlan Higgins and William Dennis Hurley
Working within the framework of simple, direct plots, the prolific South African playwright Athol Fugard brings an astonishing density and richness to his plays. Additionally, Fugard clearly possesses the admirable ability to reinvent himself and remain relevant in an ever changing world. In any number of ways, his new play, Exits and Entrances, is a stunning culmination of his oeuvre. However, it also reminds us that for as long as he retains his strength, Fugard can be depended upon to continue to evolve and illuminate the theatre with his particular genius.

The autobiographical play depicts the two encounters between The Playwright and South African Afrikaans actor Andre Huguenet. They occurred in 1956 and 1961. The Playwright is very explicitly the young Fugard, half Afrikaans and author of a play about "two coloured brothers, one dark, one light living in a pondok (shack)." (This is a description of Fugard’s first internationally famed play, Blood Knot.) Andre (as he is identified throughout), who in actuality had been known as the Laurence Olivier of the South African theatre, is an unhappy lost soul in the failing, declining days of his career. The Playwright, filled with zeal and ambition, is embarking upon a career in the theatre which we know is to be stellar. Thus the two protagonists, respectively, are making their Exits and Entrances into and from their productive lives in the theatre.

1956. Andre is producing and starring in Oedipus Rex in Cape Town, for which he has hired the 24-year-old Playwright to play the role of a shepherd and act as his dresser. Andre, while vain, bombastic and fragile, has a glory about him to which those of us with a love for the power of the theatre can relate. He describes himself as a Dopper Moffie (Afrikaans for village queer) who found in the theatre "a world where I would be safe." Citing South African poet Eugene Marais, who when asked "where is your home" responded by holding up a sheet of paper, Andre proclaims that "the theatre is my home ... my greatest sense of myself, my greatest acuity, is in pretending to be someone else." He favorably compares being loved in his "home" by Shakespeare’s Ophelia to the relationship between The Playwright and his wife.

Audiences are sparse, and having spent his last monies to produce Oedipus, Andre is at the point of bankruptcy. "What creativity is all about is the hard labor of dreams ... The awful truth is that the audience has to give you permission to dream."

1961. The Playwright meets Andre for the second and last time in Cape Town where Andre is playing a highly fictionalized version of courageous Joseph Cardinal Mindszenty, who had been prosecuted by the Hungarian Communist regime, The Prisoner. It is clear to The Playwright that Andre’s career, indeed his very life, has reached the endgame. It is now clear to both men that Andre’s florid acting style has gone out of fashion and will no longer be accepted by producers and audiences. Andre does not have the inner resources to change. At least as devastating is Andre’s loss of belief in his ability, or in the ability of any individual, to make any difference in the course of the world. When The Playwright vehemently objects to his words, Andre responds, "You didn’t take offense?. My words were directed at myself when I was your age." "What do you pray for Andre?" "Nothing much, just a little courage to wear my curse, the Dopper Moffie, as a badge of grace and not disgrace.

Despite the fact that while on the surface, Exits and Entrances, like this review, may seem to center mostly on Andre, it is at heart a journey into the mind and spirit of The Playwright. The Playwright has always been determined to "wake up the Afrikaneers and make him think." Told by Andre that he should write of his own people, he responds "as far as I’m concerned the people of the slums are my own people." Of course, we have long known that The Playwright would play a major role in raising consciousness to the plight of the indigenous populace under racist apartheid regimes.

However, almost half a century ago, The Playwright was treated to an object lesson on how not to respond to the inevitable changes that come to us all with the passage of time. Even then, based on the evidence of this play, Fugard knew that one day, he would devote more of his writings to his personal concerns. While still writing of the evolving social and political terrain of South Africa, the focus of his recent plays has become decidedly more personal, and, as a result, they have more universal application. Figuratively, Athol Fugard has found the fountain of youth, and he is generously sharing its location with us.

The world premiere of Exits and Entrances was presented at the tiny Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles. The New Jersey Rep area premiere boasts the cast and director of the Los Angeles premiere production. Director Stephen Sachs has directed with a sure hand, never allowing the conversation to become static, and smoothly blending two diverse performances into an organic whole.

Morlan Higgins is excellent in the showier role of Andre. As noted, Andre is an emotionally buffeted, bombastic and complex individual. Additionally, Andre has to perform excerpts from Sophocles and, to a lesser extent, Bridget Boland (The Prisoner) in a florid manner while still conveying a certain grandeur in the performance of the former, and hard won pathos in the latter. Higgins captures the bold strokes and complex nuances required to capture Andre. William Dennis Hurley as The Playwright meets the challenge of holding the stage equally with Higgins, despite having to rely mostly on subtler, more limited strokes.

The spare, attractive set of Jessica Parks nicely serves for the three required locations. The costume designs by Shon LeBlanc are first rate.

Athol Fugard has been quoted describing Exits and Entrances as a "small play." Perhaps he only intended that it be a brief memoir of Andre Huguenet. However, this 85 minute, one act, two character play has emerged as an all encompassing self-portrait summing up the magnificent playwriting career and evolution of one of the giants of the English language theatre. Gratitude is due to the New Jersey Rep for bringing it to us.


The LINK News June 1 thru June 7, 2006
Theatre Review
Engrossing new play at NJ Rep
 
by Milt Bernstein
 
"Exits and Entrances", the latest drama by the great South African playwright Athol Fugard, is the current offering of the New Jersey Repertory Company at the Lumia Theater on Broadway, Long Branch.
 
This is a beautifully performed two-character story of an actual friendship, in South Africa, between an aspiring young playwright (Fugard himself, although not named) and an older, egotistic and demanding actor who has specialized in bringing classic roles to the upper class in South Africa, the Afrikaners, not always with success.
 
When the narrative begins, in 1961, South Africa has become the Union of South Africa, under Afrikaner rule (the original Dutch Boers); and apartheid has become the official life in this racially divided country. The young writer, after several years as an expatriate in England, returns to his homeland imbued with the desire to throw light on and expose the terrible ills in his country. When he visits his old friend after a performances as the cardinal in "The Prisoner" (Cardinal Mindszenty) there is a riveting scene as the two clash over their different philosophy and point of view as to what is most important for one to do in life. As the play comes to an end, each of them has a greater appreciation of his friend; and we are treated to a most memorable recitation of Hamlet's "to be or not to be" soliloquy by the aging actor reclining in his dressing room armchair.
 
This eminently worth-seeing play, by the renowned author of such works as "Blood Knot" (described in this play, though not by name), "A Message from Aloes", "Master Harold and the Boys," and others too numerous to mention, is being offered for the first time in the tri-state area; and if it receives sufficient notice, may well wind up on or off-Broadway, in that other big city nearby.
 
Sterling performances are rendered by William Dennis Hurley as the young writer and Morlan Higgins as the actor - both of whom are continuing in the roles they created for the play's original performances in California, along with Stephen Sachs, the original and brilliant director.

REVIEW: EXITS AND ENTRANCES

by Gary Wien, Upstage Magazine

(LONG BRANCH, NJ) -- Exits and Entrances is the latest in a long line of NJ Rep success stories. The Long Branch company is presenting the New Jersey premiere of Athol Fugard's latest play until June 25th. In a word, the play is nothing short of powerful. Very, very powerful.

The play revolves around the relationship of a budding playwright and an aging actor in South Africa in the early 1960s. The two first meet each other during a production of Oedipus in which Andre receives raves reviews as the star and the playwright is his assistant in the dressing room. Andre is played by Morlan Higgins and the playwright is played by William Dennis Hurley. Both actors are wonderful and utterly believable with their South African accents.

After the play's run is over, the playwright asks Andre where he's off to next? Is he going home? The actor holds up a piece of blank paper and tells the story of a writer who said the words on this page of paper were his home. He then mentions how people were asking him about playing King Leer and he was debating if it was time to start having "a quiet, family life.

They meet up again a few years later when the playwright saw that the actor was back in town. He heads back to the old dressing room afterwards to drop in on him and the two reminscence.

The title of the play stems from the various exits and entrances taking place in the playwright's life at the moment. His father is dying in the hospital while his first child just was born. Exits and Entrances provides a wonderful perspective on the lives of playwrights and the actors they come in touch with through the years. The play's use of sound is very provocative and startling even. There are moments of pure silence and moments where the two old friends are literally shouting at one another higher and higher until you can feel the tension actually snap.

That tension is generally from the changing of the guard in South African theatre. The actor is of the old school while the playwright is one of the voices for the new generation. When the actor tells him that he should write about his "own people" rather than about the people in the slums, the playwright screams "these ARE my people!"

In one of the most telling moments of the play, a toast that never actually happens says so much. The two members of the theatre both shared visions of changing African theatre once, but while one still holds on to that dream the other gave up long ago. Andre's life mirrors that of the playwright's father in many ways. When asked what his father is dying of the playwright says "he's dying of unimportance".

"That's a dangerous disease," said Andre. "Yes, it can easily kill a man." -- Spoken from one who knows.

Exits and Entrances is a powerful look at a period of time when history was being written every day. Athol Fugard's script blends humor with drama effortless and the acting is spectactular. This is a play not to be missed!


What an entrance

Road-tested drama gets off at NJ Rep's exit

Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 05/26/06
BY TOM CHESEK
CORRESPONDENT

Anyone who's followed the progress of New Jersey Repertory Company could tell you that the Long Branch-based professional theatrical troupe founded by Gabe and SuzAnne Barabas has made it their prime directive to develop and debut new works for the stage. With a pretty formidable back catalog of world-premiere presentations — and a highly successful farm-club system of script-in-hand readings — it's a rare production indeed that deviates from this artistically adventurous standard.

Opening this weekend at NJ Rep, Athol Fugard's "Exits and Entrances" is just such an event. It's the newest play from the pen of the internationally acclaimed South African dramatist best known for the award-winning "Master Harold . . . and the Boys."

The two-character, single-act "Exits and Entrances" is a slice of autobiography pairing a young, up-and-coming (and unnamed) playwright with the legendary Afrikaans actor Andre Huguenet — presented here in the twilight of his career during a 1956 run of "Oedipus Rex."

It's a play in which Fugard took an especially active interest; having written it specifically for Los Angeles director Stephen Sachs (who helmed the West Coast premiere of Fugard's "Road to Mecca") and his intimately-scaled Fountain Theatre. Sachs and Fugard hand-picked the cast, and the author was on hand throughout the rehearsal process to consult with the director, as well as with the actors Morlan Higgins and William Dennis Hurley. Following the show's initial run in 2004 — a production for which both actors won major awards — Sachs, Higgins and Hurley collaborated on three stagings in California and Florida.

In a pleasantly surprising turn of events, the three men are reprising their partnership once more during the Long Branch engagement of "Exits and Entrances," onstage through June 25.

"This is still a world premiere of the newest play by one of the world's leading dramatists," says director Sachs, "and, because it's being presented by the original team, New Jersey audiences are seeing the world-premiere production at New Jersey Rep."

Actor Higgins — who, in his turn as Huguenet, gets to spout passages of Sophocles and Shakespeare in addition to the masterful language of Fugard — is also emphatic about the play's status as an all-new, all-original offering.

"It's not a homegrown production," he said, "but so what? I mean, it's not as if (Gabe and SuzAnne) have imported a touring production of "Grease II.' "

What's more, it's a work in which the two colleagues continue to find new inspiration — with Sachs observing that "the play itself is so rich and multi-layered, it constantly reveals new levels; so, the New Jersey production will be unique."

"We never stop honing it . . . we want to keep running it and working it wherever we can," says Higgins of the show. "Our ultimate goal is a New York production. We think Athol deserves that."

While the basic premise — the older actor sharing some backstage moments of reflection with a young rookie — might bring to mind such plays as Ronald Harwood's "The Dresser" or David Mamet's "A Life in the Theatre," "Exits" carries the added value of the author's own half century of life experience on and around stages that ranged from lavishly legitimate to illicitly underground. Still, even though the real-life Huguenet was regarded as the greatest South African actor of his day (and the character of the playwright is pretty much universally accepted to be a stand-in for the young Fugard), both actor and director stress that no intimate knowledge of pre-apartheid Afrikaans theater is required in order to "get" the script.

"The characters are so vivid and alive, and everything unfolds so clearly, audiences everywhere have loved this play," Sachs explained.

"Everything rings true to me about the play," said Higgins in agreement. "Here is one of the great playwrights pouring 50 years of work in the theater into 90 minutes . . like O'Neill, he knows that one reveals the universal by clearly and honestly revealing the specific."

Having created and defined the role of Huguenet with the author's blessing, Higgins can admit to feeling somewhat proprietary toward the play and his character. When asked to proffer any bit of advice to future players of the part, he said, "Early in rehearsal I asked Athol if I could only get one thing right about Andre, what should that be"?

" "Pride,' " he said. " "He was a very proud man and it made him and undid him.' "


REVIEW

"Lockerbie" is place to go for a good cry
Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 03/29/06
BY TOM CHESEK
CORRESPONDENT

"Bring a handkerchief," advised actor Al Mohrmann when discussing "The Women of Lockerbie," a drama in its regional premiere at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. Indeed, the scattered snuffling and sniffling that accompanied Saturday's opening night performance suggested hankies should have been inserted into the programs. At least one ill-prepared gentleman was forced to use his shirtsleeve, while the massive snort of emotional runoff that greeted the final blackout confirmed that the play is a successful tugger of heartstrings.

Lockerbie, of course, is the small town in Scotland that achieved international infamy as the site of the devastating 1988 crash of Pan Am flight 103. Subsequently traced to a terrorist bomb plot, the disaster killed numerous people on the ground in addition to all airborne passengers and crew.

Described as a "preamble to 9-11" in the pre-show comments by NJ Rep executive producer Gabe Barabas, the tragedy is regarded by many to have been a retaliation against the shooting down of an Iranian airliner by U.S. forces. When it's discussed at all these days, the incident tends to be viewed from a purely American perspective. All of these are among the talking points addressed by the Alaska-born Deborah Brevoort in her drama, a winner of several awards for playwriting.

Split down the middle

Set in the moss-covered hills outside Lockerbie on a moonlit December night some seven years after the crash, Brevoort's fact-based ensemble piece brings a still-grieving American couple (Marnie Andrews and Mohrmann as the Livingstons of New Jersey) to the once-anonymous Scottish village in search of their long-dead son — or rather, a personal memento or bit of earthly remains. Here on the anniversary of the life-altering event, the U.S. State Department has announced that it will close out its investigation by destroying a warehouse full of clothing and personal effects belonging to the victims. Some 200 Lockerbie women (represented by Corinne Edgerly, Alice Connorton and Margery Shaw) have mobilized to prevent the destruction from taking place, as well as take possession of the burned and bloodied apparel for the purpose of a symbolic cleansing.

This real-life incident (thousands of articles of clothing were cleaned and shipped to victims' families by the women of the town) forms the basis of a script that — ripped screaming from the headlines though it may be — departs at the gate from stark realism. Characters tend toward purple pronouncements ("We need to give love to all the families, so that evil will not triumph") and jack-handy aphorisms ("Trust in the rising sun, and the stars that shine at night"), while the trio of Edgerly, Connorton and Shaw operate primarily as a sort of classical chorus — and the modern world seems far afield from Jo Winiarski's moody, mist-shrouded set; a design that's bisected by a fully functional brook.
(STAFF PHOTO: DAVE MAY)
Al Mohrmann and Marnie Andrews star in "The Women of Lockerbie" in Long Branch.
THE WOMEN OF LOCKERBIE
By Deborah Brevoort

— Through April 30 — $20-$35

— (732) 229-3166

We're here by the side of this stream because Mr. Livingston has come in search of Mrs. Livingston, who has strayed into the hills after fleeing from a memorial service in the village. She can be seen shambling over hill and dale, calling out her son's name as the Lockerbie ladies liken her to "a tree struck by lightning; split down the middle by grief."

As it happens, Grief is virtually a character unto itself, to hear Edgerly and company tell it. We learn that "Grief is a guest who stays too long," and who "wears a dark coat." We're told that "Grief runs wild" because the sky is too big to store it — and, in an awkward juxtaposition, no sooner has Edgerly assured us that there's no point in talking to Grief (since "Grief has no ears to listen"), than she states that "Grief needs to talk."

Earned in full

With a cast of seven professional players under the direction of Jason King Jones, "Lockerbie" places more people on the mainstage of NJ Rep's Lumia Theatre than any production since 2003's "The Good Daughter." That show (perhaps not coincidentally) also was directed by Jason King Jones. With "Daughter," Jones moved his big group through a complex cavalcade that spanned several years, countless scene changes and some impressively realized stage effects.

Despite its ensemble nature, "Lockerbie" is a different species of drama. Presented without intermission, it unfolds in a static setting, with nearly all of its dramatic highlights occurring offstage. The production derives its emotional power from some standout speeches and exchanges by Andrews, Mohrmann and Edgerly, with Connorton and Shaw providing succinct (and comparatively subdued) support. David Volin and Michele Tauber, as the boorish bureaucrat from the State Department and his cleaning lady, appear at first as something akin to comic relief. Volin's trademark edgy, urban sort of characterization (very effective in the recent "Klonsky and Schwartz") seems particularly out of place in this quasi-mystical tableau, although perhaps that's the point.

It's a definite credit to this cast and director that they're able to find a real emotional resonance at the heart of an often surreal script. The very genuine issues of loss and love and closure touched upon herein mean that every teardrop will be earned in full — and that "hatred will not have the last word in Lockerbie."

"The Women of Lockerbie" continues through April 30 with performances on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings, as well as selected Saturday afternoons and Sunday matinees. For tickets and information about other upcoming offerings at NJ Rep, call (732) 229-3166.


Go to it: love, life and "Lockerbie"

An acting "marriage" is put to the test at NJ Rep

Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 03/24/06
BY TOM CHESEK
CORRESPONDENT

INFO: (732) 229-3166

Whatever its outcome, a modern (read: non-arranged) marriage is an agreement that's entered into with best intentions and highest hopes — a good idea that's generally born of some good times. But when that bond is tested by adversity — a devastating illness, a grievous loss — it can be easy for two people to lose the thread of those more carefree days and to see each other in a new and possibly unwelcome light.

Consider New Jersey Repertory Company members Marnie Andrews and Al Mohrmann. Offstage, the two Actors Equity professionals have long been married — to other people. For numerous hours of their adult lives, however, they've stood before an audience as husband and wife — and although their roles in such NJ Rep productions as "Big Boys," "Touch of Rapture" and "Maggie Rose" have put them at the center of some of the Shore-based company's most laugh-packed scenes, their local stage legacies are just as likely to spring from their time together in "Till Morning Comes," a bittersweet duet they performed on the Long Branch stage a few seasons back.

He plays a man whose strength and spirit have been stolen by Lou Gehrig's disease. She plays his energetic, ever-supportive spouse, a woman whose own spirit is tested by her husband's request for assistance in his own suicide. Both actors infuse each moment of the two-character script with a palpable sense of who these people were in the decades before the lights went up on their final act together.

Andrews and Mohrmann return as husband and wife in "The Women of Lockerbie," an award-winning drama by Alaska-born Deborah Brevoort. Making its New Jersey premiere this weekend, it's a story about a town in Scotland that was the site of an infamously tragic jetliner crash in 1988. The fiery fate of Pan Am Flight 103 — and the subsequent investigation that uncovered a bomb plot by Libyan nationals — placed a glaring media spotlight on the once-quiet hamlet where the women reached out to bereaved family members (represented here by Andrews and Mohrmann as a grieving couple from New Jersey), even as they struggled to cope with their own losses in the disaster's aftermath.

According to Andrews, it's a play that "deals with a serious subject, but contains humor, community and a vitality that is rare in modern plays." "When we did the reading last year, we got a standing ovation," the actress recalls. "I can tell you, that is rare, especially in a reading . . . it speaks to the power of the play in the hands of this director (Jason King Jones) and these actors."

An ensemble piece that features Alice Connorton, Margery Shaw, Michele Tauber, Corinne Edgerly and David Volin, "Lockerbie" is a different sort of experience for Mohrmann. He recalls his "Morning" with Andrews (during which the flu-stricken Mohrmann's struggles in rehearsals allowed the actors to better understand their roles as caregiver and patient) as a time when the two "looked back a good deal on how life used to be for these folks and how rapidly things changed."

According to Mohrmann, their new project "seems to be about moving forward . . . so this script doesn't allow for too much reminiscing."

"For this couple to have lasted the seven years prior to the time of the play, we had to have a fabulous marriage early on," Andrews says.

Asked if she's developed a genuine chemistry with her stage spouse, Andrews says, "We have a tough time as a couple in the struggle of this play, (but) the work is so much easier with good chemistry . . . timing shifts from night to night. Energy shifts."

"The really great runs are when the cast senses those adjustments and moves with them," she adds. "The exhilarating times are when I really have no clue what I am going to say next, but find it in what the other actors are doing."

Given a chance to name a project she'd love to tackle with her co-star, Andrews cites "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" and "The Lion in Winter."

For his part, Mohrmann expresses a preference for a comedy "or at least a script without fatal diseases, suicides, terrorists, or plane crashes," he says. "That would be a start."

Call it what you will, the players enjoy a professional rapport and synergistic "something" that comes across to the audience. In Mohrmann's words, "Marnie and I clearly have a relationship (that) grew out of the journey we took together in "Morning,' and for better or worse, that experience will always be with us."

"It feels very easy and natural now to think of her as a spouse," the actor says. "Obviously, it would be possible to form a bond with a different actress, but it's so much easier when you can start with someone you're already close to."

"For me," Andrews adds, "the commitment to marriage is renewed daily . . . have I imagined those moments with Al, as my stage husband? Absolutely.

"That's the beauty of working with Al," she says in summation. "I can see the glint of a laugh in him; I can feel his strength and kindness when we sit in silence listening to notes . . . he's easy to love."


ROGERS POISED TO "BUST" OUT
Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 04/2/06
DUNCAN M. ROGERS wants you to see his new short film, "Bust," but mum is the word about its specific contents. It's playing today at the Garden State Film Festival in the noon-to-2 p.m. block of screenings at Convention Hall in Asbury Park.

Admission is $8 for the two-hour film block.

Shot entirely in Long Branch in September 2004 on the second floor of the New Jersey Repertory Company's rehearsal room at 179 Broadway, "Bust" is, Rogers said succinctly, "a cop drama."

"Jessica Parks, our production designer, turned the repertory's rehearsal hall into an interrogation room," Rogers said by telephone. "We actually had cops come by — they were providing technical help — and take pictures of the set because it was so accurate." "Bust" stars Dan Lauria, who has numerous off-Broadway and regional stage, film and TV credits. They include portraying Fred Savage's father in "The Wonder Years" and a role in the film "Independence Day."

"Dan is also a huge advocate of new writers, which is part of why he did this film. Lord knows we didn't pay anybody anything, except my thanks," Rogers quipped.

A Massachusetts native and an actor before he became a writer/director/producer/editor/marketer, Rogers also is a member of the New Jersey Repertory group. A Maplewood resident, he is the founder of Freshwater Films; its first production was "The Ables House is Green," which played at festivals including the Dancing Goat Short Film Festival.

"The Reader," a winner of numerous short film festival awards, was next, followed by "Bust." Rogers said "Bust" was a "very grueling three-day shoot" about the investigation into a mob-related murder. It runs 14 minutes.

Rogers' other shorts are "The Reader" (10 minutes) and "The Ables House Is Green" (13 minutes). He said some of his colleagues make shorts "as a calling card (toward) making features, but one of my missions is to never make a long story short or a short story long. I believe in the value of short stories; that's why there are the O Henry awards."

And one of the upsides of making shorts and having them accepted on the festival circuit is getting to travel. Rogers will go to Hawaii to screen "The Reader," and he has shown it in Woods Hole and Williamstown, Mass., festivals. At this point, he pays his own expenses.

Along the way, Rogers has accumulated awards, press coverage, allegiance from prestigious actors such as Lauria and Tony Award-winner Elizabeth Franz ("Death of a Salesman") — she's in "The Reader" — and attention from the money people.

He has been approached with deals for distributing his short films, including an offer from a major Hollywood studio.

"If I had been younger I would have moved to L.A. the next day, that's how complimentary they were," he said.

Instead, Rogers is staying in New Jersey, where he and Middletown native Michael Folie are planning to shoot a feature of the Folie play "Naked by the River." The goal is to make it for less than $200,000.

"Depending on how our fund-raising goes, we will shoot 70 to 80 percent of it in New Jersey with some New York shoots," said Rogers. "We are now starting the business of setting up a company and approaching investors."


All abuzz about Steve Colbert

Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 03/31/06
BY TOM CHESEK
CORRESPONDENT

His new series on Comedy Central has emerged as a "must-watch show" and a late-night ratings boon, with The New York Times calling it "one of the best television shows of the year." A savvy spinoff from "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" and a playground bully pulpit for its creator/co-producer/writer and star, "The Colbert Report" — col-BARE re-POR to you freedom-fry fans — has become an influential, even "grippy" little zephyr in the zeitgeist. No less than the American Dialect Society named the show's Colbert-coined buzzword "truthiness" as its 2005 Word of the Year.

So then what's Stephen Colbert — the truth-spewing, flag-wearing, bear-hating, Charlene-stalking talking head of the class of TV pundits — doing in a one-shot dramatic reading Sunday in Long Branch? Particularly when he could be kicking back and living the life of O'Reilly?

According to director ames Glossman, it could be due to the fact that Colbert "has a lot of stamina" — or it could simply be that "he's an astonishing chameleon," an observation to which the veteran director adds, "he's also the nicest guy; a great family man."

Then again, it could be that there's simply more to Colbert than that Peabody Award-winning political satirist who holds forth four nights a week on basic cable. There's the familiar comic character player of big screen ("Bewitched") and small ("Strangers with Candy," a show he helped create). There's the commercial pitchman (Mr. GoodWrench), comedy writer ("Saturday Night Live," "The Dana Carvey Show") and — if you happened to have caught a memorable episode of "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" last season — a dramatic actor with the skills to pay the bills.

Truthiness be told, Colbert and Glossman — both of them Northwestern University-trained actors with a number of mutual friends in regional stage circles — have been looking for an opportunity to work together on the drama "The Good German" ever since Glossman mounted a reading at the Madison-based Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey; a show that featured, in addition to famed actors Edward Herrmann and Austin Pendleton, Colbert's wife, Evelyn McGee, in a crucial supporting role.

As Glossman tells it, "We thought it would be fun if Steve brought his quick-witted, methodical, dangerous style to the play" — and on Sunday, Shore theatergoers will be able to join in the fun, as New Jersey Repertory Company welcomes Colbert and company in a special Sunday installment of their popular series of script-in-hand readings.

The associate artistic director of Madison-based Playwrights Theatre and a visiting lecturer at Johns Hopkins University, Montclair resident Glossman should be familiar to NJ Rep fans, as director of the very recent "Tour de Farce" — as well as for his collaboration with actor Ames Adamson on "Circumference of a Squirrel," a one-man show that he helmed at both NJ Rep and Playwrights Theatre (and a happy partnership that's scheduled to continue with a production this summer at Shadowland Theatre in Ellenville, N. Y.).

Set in Germany during the World War II, "The Good German" centers around an aristocratic professor of literature named Karl (Paul Murphy), whose wife, Gretel (McGee), takes into their home a man by the name of Braun (Shadowland artistic director Brendan Burke) — a man whom she claims is a relative who has lost his family in an Allied firebombing. When tragedy strikes, the truth about Herr Braun and Gretel stands revealed — and Karl is compelled to face some essential truths about who he is and where he stands in the madness that swirls about him.

In Glossman's view, the script by James Wiltse "explores certain truths about the human heart; how even in the midst of hell we can somehow make connections with people, even against our will."

Appearing in the role played previously by Pendleton, Colbert plays Karl's cousin Siemi — an amiable chap who also happens to be a clerical worker for the SS. It's a part about which the director observes, "You're never sure if he's just a fun guy, if he's actually here to warn you, or if he's going to turn you in to the Gestapo."

"Steve brings a sharp, knifey edge to (Siemi) that's very good for the character," Glossman explains. "He's either a truly gentle and generous guy, or he's a terrifying manipulator — and Stephen can be surprisingly funny, in a terrifying way."


NJ Rep comedy a "Tour de Farce" for actor

Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 02/24/06
BY TOM CHESEK
CORRESPONDENT

Ask anyone who's trying to manage an intrepid not-for-profit theatrical troupe, and you'll be told that there are certain members of the stock company who are pretty near indispensable.

There's the young leading man who can carry a whole show on his shoulders. Then there's the mature character player who can credibly embody the (sometimes twisted) authority figures. Not to mention the utility guy who can take on a gallery of smaller supporting parts, some not much bigger than a walk-on.

Fortunately for New Jersey Repertory Company, all these positions are currently filled, thanks to a rather versatile actor by the name of Ames Adamson. A familiar face on the NJ Rep stages for the past several seasons, Adamson has starred or featured in five different main stage productions, attracting a great deal of attention and stepping into dozens of different roles.

The reason that Adamson has amassed such a gallery of personae in such a short time is that he is one of those rare artists who's been able to make a specialty of performing multiple roles in a single show. It's a multi-faceted set of skills that has served the Philadelphia-based Adamson well in his current endeavor at NJ Rep.

Now in its world premiere engagement at the Long Branch company's Lumia Theatre, the Philip LaZebnik-Kingsley Day comedy "Tour de Farce" is one of those good old-fashioned bedroom escapades — a frenzied frolic of mix-matched partners, crossed signals and slamming doors. It's the kind of romp that sends a slew of madcap characters darting in and out of a hotel suite with the choreographed grace of a particle accelerator.

The budget-conscious twist here is that said slew is conjured up entirely by two actors, with Adamson and co-star Prentiss Benjamin each handling five roles apiece.

An even bigger twist is that it's scarcely the first time Adamson has done a five-fer in a single play. It was his quintet of exceedingly nutty characters — including a mad scientist, a martinet director and a sleazy agent — that first got the attention of Rep regulars in the absurdist comedy "Panama." Then there was "Circumference of a Squirrel," a one-man tour de force in which Adamson, playing a gently neurotic young layabout with an irrational fear of rodents, channeled an assortment of parents, fiancees and other peripherals via his veritable toolbox of voices and body language.

In between the higher-profile projects at the Rep, Adamson has further made himself indispensable by participating in the regular series of script-in-hand readings, emceeing fund-raisers, performing in and directing segments of the troupe's short-play festivals, even getting involved with the administrative end of things.

"Most of my ability to dodge the occasional bullet comes from being a twerp as a kid, and having to jump through windows and out of tree houses to escape the torture of my playmates," Adamson said. "I think I was also a privileged child to have parents who had me watching the Three Stooges, Stan and Ollie, Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin from an early age."

In addition to Laurel and Hardy, the actor credits such comic icons as Peter Sellers, a master of disguise, and even Looney Tune's Foghorn Leghorn as being part of his preparation for the show, although he's quick to point out that "I didn't study them or steal from them so much, but memories of their work bathe me, as it were."

While many method actors have the luxury of "inhabiting" or even "being" their character for the run of a play, Adamson is inclined to take a more pragmatic stance when gearing up for a performance, asserting that "it's hard to "develop' or "inhabit' a character from the inside in a play like this, and frankly, not all that necessary. As long as I believe the words I'm saying, it is simple, unadulterated make-believe for a couple of hours."

When not creating a lasting legacy at the Lumia, Adamson picks up the odd movie gig (watch for him as an extra in "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days"), does commercials for the Philly market and performs in Shakespeare productions across the region.


2 performers rate a 10

Adamson and Benjamin whirl through 5 roles each in 'Tour de Farce'
Monday, January 30, 2006
BY PETER FILICHIA
Star-Ledger Staff

NEW JERSEY STAGE

The very best part of "Tour de Farce" occurs at the very end of the evening.

Not at the very end of the play, mind you. Philip LaZebnik and Kingsley Day's comedy, currently at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, doesn't end as amusingly as it might. Along the way, it isn't as funny as it could be, too.

Yet the end of the evening is wonderful because at the curtain calls, an audience gets to give tribute to Ames Adamson and Prentiss Benjamin, who do amazing work in this two-person, 10-character play.

That's right: Both Adamson and Benjamin each play five different characters in this slamming-door farce. Every time one leaves and returns, it's as a new person. The cheers the two heard after Saturday's night opening -- the longest sustained applause heard this season or maybe any other -- were in appreciation that they made it through the grueling, two-hour-plus farce.

Adamson starts out as a bellhop who ushers Rebecca into her hotel room. She doesn't want to be there, and not just because it's a dump. Her husband Herb (Adamson, of course), who's downstairs at the moment, is promoting his self-help book on marriage. He's so focused on that that he has neglected his own relationship, and Rebecca feels it.

This strife excites tabloid TV host Pam Blair (Benjamin, naturally), who sneaks in cameraman Gunnar (Adamson, as if you didn't know) into their closet so he can videotape their fights. Of course, when Pam discovers that Senator Ryan (care to guess who?) is in the next room with his bimbo Gwenda (you know who), she really smells paydirt. And so it goes, as the authors deliver a solid message about media hypocrisy, but don't come up with enough hilarious moments.

Actually, if audiences could see what's happening backstage at "Tour de Farce," they'd have much more fun. What must it be like back there, when a dresser rips a leopard-print dress off Benjamin in order to quickly get her in a blouse and pants? Granted, both actors do get by with a little help from their three friendly stage managers, but most of the achievement is their own.

In addition, both have to adopt five different voices for their five different characters. Adamson does better here, for Benjamin seems to have only four. Nevertheless, considering that they often have to do off-stage conversations between two characters in two different voices -- while getting into new costumes, yet -- is another tall hurdle each must jump.

That New Jersey Rep's stage isn't large -- some stretch limousines are longer -- makes matters more challenging, for an actor here could quickly cross the small stage and open a door all too quickly before his confederate is dressed as the next character. Director James Glossman clearly knows that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, so he smartly has Adamson and Benjamin walk in an arc when approaching a door to stall for a few precious extra seconds.

"Tour de Farce" is one of those experiences that an audience can only get in live theater. A movie or a taped TV version could show the versatility of two actors playing different roles, but we'd all know that as soon as one left the room, a director would yell "Cut!" What Adamson and Benjamin are achieving is certainly many cuts above that.


REVIEW

NJ Rep stages a grand "Tour" for two
Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 01/31/06
BY TOM CHESEK
CORRESPONDENT

At first blush, you've seen its kind before. Take a "happily married" couple, strand them in a cobbled-together "suite" at a third-rate hotel and season to taste with enough mixed-up menages, scandal-mongering schemes and dopey interlopers to fuel a week's worth of "Three's Company" reruns. Then provide sufficient bathrooms, closets and beds in which to stash everyone. It's the sort of thing that sounds like it wouldn't be out of place at a cruise-ship dinner theater; in fact, there's even a character who looks to have wandered in from a neighboring production of "Nunsense."

But this is the New Jersey Repertory Company, the innovative professional stage group that's made it a mission to disdain theatrical convention and just generally put the "New" in New Jersey with each cheerfully challenging premiere productions. So it stands to reason that the troupe's current mainstage offering, "Tour de Farce," serves up a new twist on the trite and true bedroom-comedy formula.

The script by actor/composer Kingsley Day and Philip La Zebnik (writer of "Pocahontas," "Mulan" and other animated hits) is a silly and skin-deep affair that plays its gimmicky hand from the get-go: The play's 10 broadly etched characters are performed by just two actors.
Prentiss Benjamin (left) and Ames Adamson portray 10 different characters in the frantically paced comedy "Tour de Farce" in Long Branch.

The time of their lives

The pair of very busy players are returning NJ Rep favorite Ames Adamson and new face Prentiss Benjamin, cast here respectively as wishy-washy academic (and author of "Marriage is Forever") Herb Gladney and his bored, frustrated "I-want-a-divorce" spouse Rebecca. Pretty poor company to share a room with for a couple of hours, but naturally the quarrelsome couple are soon joined by a smarmily strident local talk-show host, a fetishistic "family values"-spouting U.S. Senator, a handful of bothersome hotel employees, a bimbo with an agenda and that singing nun with the accordion.

All of them are channeled (under the sturdy direction and pinpoint choreography of James Glossman) by a tag-team of pros who are having the time of their lives, and, it goes without saying, working harder than any stage performer has ever been called upon to work in the history of live theater.

The fun derives from watching the actors put themselves through these arduous paces — entering the scene as one character, ducking into here or under there when there's a knock at the door, then re-emerging in a different place as a completely different person. Without benefit of camera effects, Adamson and Benjamin are called upon to effect lightning-fast changes of costume, hair and voice; "fight" themselves and, oh yes, remember a couple of reams of dialogue at the same time.

It's a situation that requires at the very least a crash-course in such vaudevillian skills as pratfall acrobatics, ventriloquism and plate-spinning — and we the audience, the same folks who attend auto races hoping to see a colorful crash, eat this stuff up.

Although the mechanics of it all are something to revel in, by the time this show really gets to hitting on all cylinders it's best to simply surrender to the illusion and enjoy this display of exemplary stagecraft in the service of a decidedly featherweight script. A big chunk of credit must go to costume designer Pat Doherty for her role in keeping the myriad details straight — and the stage crew at the Lumia Theatre lends crucial assistance in people-moving devices that border on Lance Burton territory.

There are times when you'd swear there were more than just the two performers onstage — wait a minute, there were more than two of them a moment ago. Now, how'd they do that?

Backward and in heels

A man who's fast becoming a genuine franchise player for New Jersey Repertory Company, Adamson had already proven his readiness for this sort of task with his quintet of memorably nutty roles in "Panama" a few seasons back. The star-quality comic character actor, who's also excelled in ensemble scenarios (as with the recent "Tilt Angel") and even carried a whole show by his lonesome ("Circumference of a Squirrel," also directed by Glossman) creates a variety-pack of vivid portrayals here, from the stammering milquetoast of a "marriage expert" to the cocksure barnyard bantam Sen. Ryan, and a particularly crowdpleasing turn as a Swedish cameraman — a fatalistic former protege of Ingmar Bergman whose dry observations are a real highlight.

Benjamin, whose famous stage-and-screen parents, Paula Prentiss and Richard Benjamin, cheered her on from the opening-night audience, does everything Adamson does (only backward and in heels), using her dance-trained body language and classic-comedienne sensibility to conjure up a Joan Rivers-ish TV personality, a kleptomaniac maid and the Senator's fame-obsessed mistress (but not the Senator's Bar Bush of a wife; you'll have to contemplate how they manage that one).

Looking and sounding in fine mettle on opening night, NJ Rep co-founder and consummate trouper Gabe Barabas was on hand to keynote the company's 2006 season — as well as to deliver his customary entertaining and impassioned pre-show monologue, a speech in which the good doctor (who's in recovery from a recent stroke) pondered "playing the stroke card" and capitalizing on the situation for the benefit of the ongoing subscription drive.

"Tour de Farce" is a precision comic machine with broad crowd-pleasing appeal.


Crackerjack Production is the Real Tour de Farce

by Bob Rendell

Lovers of farce (count me among you) are in for a real treat at the New Jersey Repertory Theatre which is presenting an amazingly fluid and fabulously performed production of the very complex and more than promising appropriately titled Tour de Farce.

As the curtain rises, Herb Gladney and his wife Rebecca are three weeks into a book tour promoting Herb’s successful book “Marriage is Forever” in which he dispenses advice on how to successfully maintain a marriage. The catch is that Herb and Rebecca’s marriage is floundering, and Rebecca is one upset away from spilling the beans and destroying all future sales for Herb’s book.

Herb and Rebecca are checking into a hotel room (they’ve lost track of what city they are in) where we will spend the next two hours with them in real time. During this time, they will be harassed by the play's eight other characters, the snoopy Pam Blair (1) who is the host of a television interview show on which they are scheduled to appear; Gunnar Gustafson (2) her Swedish cameraman whom she instructs to photograph one or the other of them in a compromising position; conservative U. S. Senator Grant Ryan (3) who has commandeered their very room (which adjoins his) for his floozy girlfriend, Gwenda Hill (4); the Senator’s wife Delilah Ryan (5) who is (well actually not quite) waiting in the wings to stir things up; Sister Barbara (6), a singing nun; and Bill (7), the meddlesome bellhop, and Nina (8), the maid, who is an illegal alien with sticky fingers. Importantly, given that this is a farce, there are four entrances (or exits, if you prefer): one each to the hall, the bathroom, a closet and the adjoining room. Additionally, the set harbors secrets that will not be described here.

Ames Adamson and Prentiss Benjamin star as Herb and Rebecca Gladney. And, as you are about to discover (in case that you didn’t know already), Adamson and Benjamin also play all of their eight tormentors (four each) - not just once or twice each, but each of these folk show up repeatedly throughout the entire play. Oh, what you probably didn’t notice is that only three of the eight are men (or, if you prefer, you probably didn’t notice five of the eight are women), so expect some shades of Dame Edna.

Ames Adamson gets most of the juicier farce material and he runs with it. His characterizations are each very specific, often inspired and supply the lion’s share of the evening’s laughs. His whiny bellhop (“I guess it’s better not to meet your idols face to face”) and dour Swede (“Once I was assistant cameraman for Ingmar Bergman; now I’m hiding in closets” – my notes say “apartments”, but “closets” sounds right) are especially funny. If commercial producers get to see Adamson’s work here, we may end up sharing this most reliable and valuable “New Jersey actor” with the Big Apple.

Prentiss Benjamin does excellent work throughout. The tormentors whom she portrays fall into a narrower range (three are conniving manipulators), and she has less opportunity for broad farcical strokes. Benjamin is a sympathetic Rebecca and mines as much humor as possible from her other roles, displaying distinctive body language, and accents and speech patterns for each.

Authors Philip LaZebnik and Kingsley Day have put together elements which seem to have been purloined from a grab bag of farce material. They are recycling material that Ken Ludwig recycled in Lend Me a Tenor, and even Peter Shaffer’s Black Comedy comes to mind (although here, when it’s dark, it’s dark). No problem here. LaZebnik and Day have come up with an unusual, if not unique, and truly delightful notion in employing only two actors to perform an old fashioned, eight character farce. However, so far, they have done so at the price of muddling their story line and throwing in too many complications that do not sustain our laughter and involvement to the extent desirable. I’m still wondering why Herb Gladney took two showers even though his luggage had been misplaced and he had no clothes to change into. So, this farce still needs work.

A possible solution would be to have four actors with two (straight men) playing the Gladneys, and two playing all the comedic tormentors. LeZebnik and Day might then have more freedom to better structure their farce, and they could up the ante with additional characters (and changes), so as not to lose the considerable and awe-inspiring fun that the current logistics provide. Of course, it is possible that LeZebnik and Day will be able to find the best answers within their two actor format. The authors should also upgrade a few of the jokes, such as the double entendres employed when Rebecca describes Herb as “soft”, “quick” and “small.” In any event, they have done so much fine and clever work so far that it is devoutly hoped that they can go the distance. None of this should deter anyone from seeing Tour de Farce, and the terrific production which it is receiving in Long Branch.

Not enough can be said about the marvelous pace and clarity provided by James Glossman’s direction. Not only is he a sensational traffic cop here (and that is no small feat), but he also has elicited richly imaginative, dimensional performances from two actors who by the nature of their roles have to be beleaguered at every performance.

It is impossible to see Tour de Farce without thinking of the second act of Noises Off in which we see the farce within that farce from backstage. Well, the complexities of staging here are so breathtaking that we can’t help but wonder and try to imagine what is going on behind the scenes. Keeping every change of character and all the lines in order is an almost unimaginable feat, even with the help of Stage Manager Rose Riccardi and her crew. Assistant stage managers Stephanie Dorian, Jane O’Leary and Corey Tazmania deserve on-stage bows and they appropriately and generously receive them. Someday, I’d like to see a production of Tour de Farce with transparent walls which allow us to see the insanity which must be going on off-stage. Yes, it is possible that it could diminish the magic. However, since it is real magic, I believe that it would double our pleasure and awe.

The excellent scenic design of Carrie Mossman provides amazingly playable space on the NJ Rep’s small stage. The costumes (Patricia E. Doherty), and the uncredited wigs and makeup are excellent, and provide for quick changes which have to be seen to be believed. Just wait until you see the entire cast of ten take their hilarious curtain calls.

So don’t just sit there, get your tickets to see Ames Adamson and Prentiss Benjamin knock themselves silly for you. You may never get the chance to see anything quite like it again.

Tour de Farce continues performances (Thurs. – Sat. 8 p.m./ Sun. 2 p.m. / Some Sat. 4 p.m.) through February 26, 2006 at the New Jersey Repertory Theatre, 179 Broadway, Long Branch, New Jersey 07740; Box Office: 732-229-3166; on-line: www.njrep.org/

Tour de Farce by Philip LaZebnik and Kingsley Day; directed by James Glossman


The LINK NEWS
Feb.2 thru Feb. 8, 2006

Theater Review

‘Tour de Farce' is a tour de force

The new offering by the NJ Rep at the Lumia Theatre, downtown Broadway, a comedy called “Tour de Farce,” by Phil LaZebnik and Kingsley Day, could just as well be called “Tour de Force, “ because that describes a remarkable evening of acting and stagecraft that leaves one wondering how in the world it was all done.

This is a comedy of average length, with just two performers, one male and one female, in the main role of a husband and wife at each other's throats in their hotel room while on tour promoting a book the husband has written. But the two actors carry off this door-slamming riot by donning completely different costumes and performing four other

roles each. This results in a hilarious cast of characters, which as mentioned above, leaves us shaking our heads at how well it is managed.

Skillfully directed by James Glossman, this delightful and surely not to be missed show features the veteran NJ Rep star of pervious offerings, Ames Adamson, as the beleagured husband; and a newcomer to the Rep, Prentiss Benjamin, as his bent-on-revenge spouse. Interestingly, Ms. Benjamin happens to be the daughter of Richard Benjamin, who starred in “Goodbye Columbus” some years ago, and Paula Prentiss, who appeared in a number of Hollywood films as well; and both of them were in the audience at Saturday night's gala to applaud their daughter's remarkable and versatile performance.

The play can be seen until Feb 26, with evening performances on Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. , some Saturdays at 4 p.m. and on Sundays at 2 p.m. Regular admission is $30, with some discounts available.

The number to call for seats is 732-229-3166. Go! You will not be disappointed.


REVIEW

NJ Rep stages a grand "Tour" for two
Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 01/31/06
BY TOM CHESEK
CORRESPONDENT

At first blush, you've seen its kind before. Take a "happily married" couple, strand them in a cobbled-together "suite" at a third-rate hotel and season to taste with enough mixed-up menages, scandal-mongering schemes and dopey interlopers to fuel a week's worth of "Three's Company" reruns. Then provide sufficient bathrooms, closets and beds in which to stash everyone. It's the sort of thing that sounds like it wouldn't be out of place at a cruise-ship dinner theater; in fact, there's even a character who looks to have wandered in from a neighboring production of "Nunsense."

But this is the New Jersey Repertory Company, the innovative professional stage group that's made it a mission to disdain theatrical convention and just generally put the "New" in New Jersey with each cheerfully challenging premiere productions. So it stands to reason that the troupe's current mainstage offering, "Tour de Farce," serves up a new twist on the trite and true bedroom-comedy formula.

The script by actor/composer Kingsley Day and Philip La Zebnik (writer of "Pocahontas," "Mulan" and other animated hits) is a silly and skin-deep affair that plays its gimmicky hand from the get-go: The play's 10 broadly etched characters are performed by just two actors.
Prentiss Benjamin (left) and Ames Adamson portray 10 different characters in the frantically paced comedy "Tour de Farce" in Long Branch.

The time of their lives

The pair of very busy players are returning NJ Rep favorite Ames Adamson and new face Prentiss Benjamin, cast here respectively as wishy-washy academic (and author of "Marriage is Forever") Herb Gladney and his bored, frustrated "I-want-a-divorce" spouse Rebecca. Pretty poor company to share a room with for a couple of hours, but naturally the quarrelsome couple are soon joined by a smarmily strident local talk-show host, a fetishistic "family values"-spouting U.S. Senator, a handful of bothersome hotel employees, a bimbo with an agenda and that singing nun with the accordion.

All of them are channeled (under the sturdy direction and pinpoint choreography of James Glossman) by a tag-team of pros who are having the time of their lives, and, it goes without saying, working harder than any stage performer has ever been called upon to work in the history of live theater.

The fun derives from watching the actors put themselves through these arduous paces — entering the scene as one character, ducking into here or under there when there's a knock at the door, then re-emerging in a different place as a completely different person. Without benefit of camera effects, Adamson and Benjamin are called upon to effect lightning-fast changes of costume, hair and voice; "fight" themselves and, oh yes, remember a couple of reams of dialogue at the same time.

It's a situation that requires at the very least a crash-course in such vaudevillian skills as pratfall acrobatics, ventriloquism and plate-spinning — and we the audience, the same folks who attend auto races hoping to see a colorful crash, eat this stuff up.

Although the mechanics of it all are something to revel in, by the time this show really gets to hitting on all cylinders it's best to simply surrender to the illusion and enjoy this display of exemplary stagecraft in the service of a decidedly featherweight script. A big chunk of credit must go to costume designer Pat Doherty for her role in keeping the myriad details straight — and the stage crew at the Lumia Theatre lends crucial assistance in people-moving devices that border on Lance Burton territory.

There are times when you'd swear there were more than just the two performers onstage — wait a minute, there were more than two of them a moment ago. Now, how'd they do that?

Backward and in heels

A man who's fast becoming a genuine franchise player for New Jersey Repertory Company, Adamson had already proven his readiness for this sort of task with his quintet of memorably nutty roles in "Panama" a few seasons back. The star-quality comic character actor, who's also excelled in ensemble scenarios (as with the recent "Tilt Angel") and even carried a whole show by his lonesome ("Circumference of a Squirrel," also directed by Glossman) creates a variety-pack of vivid portrayals here, from the stammering milquetoast of a "marriage expert" to the cocksure barnyard bantam Sen. Ryan, and a particularly crowdpleasing turn as a Swedish cameraman — a fatalistic former protege of Ingmar Bergman whose dry observations are a real highlight.

Benjamin, whose famous stage-and-screen parents, Paula Prentiss and Richard Benjamin, cheered her on from the opening-night audience, does everything Adamson does (only backward and in heels), using her dance-trained body language and classic-comedienne sensibility to conjure up a Joan Rivers-ish TV personality, a kleptomaniac maid and the Senator's fame-obsessed mistress (but not the Senator's Bar Bush of a wife; you'll have to contemplate how they manage that one).

Looking and sounding in fine mettle on opening night, NJ Rep co-founder and consummate trouper Gabe Barabas was on hand to keynote the company's 2006 season — as well as to deliver his customary entertaining and impassioned pre-show monologue, a speech in which the good doctor (who's in recovery from a recent stroke) pondered "playing the stroke card" and capitalizing on the situation for the benefit of the ongoing subscription drive.

"Tour de Farce" is a precision comic machine with broad crowd-pleasing appeal.


A CurtainUp Review
Tour de Farce
Love is an illusion. Between two people there is only despair and silence and alienation. Bergman knew about such things. --- Gunnar, A former assistant camera man to Ingmar Bergman. Into the closet, Gunnar.---Pam, a TV talk show host.




Prentiss Benjamin and Ames Adamson
(Photo: SuzAnne Barabas)

With a title that leaves little room for doubt about what we are in for, comes the sudden impulse to count the number of doors in the simply furnished hotel room (designed by Carrie Mossman), its off-yellow walls as telling as the off-color and off-the-wall action ostensibly prescribed by co-authors Philip LaZebnik and Kingsley Day. A goofy-looking bellhop escorts a discontented woman to the room. She has left her husband at the front desk where he is presumably trying to find out what happened to their luggage. Within seconds after the bellboy leaves, the husband arrives. It only takes a few seconds of their conversation to realize that their marriage is on the rocks. Nevertheless Rebecca Gladney, who is accompanying her preoccupied husband Herb on a whirlwind multi-city book-signing tour to promote his book Marriage is Forever, wants to be sure of her investment.

The conversation, mostly punctuated by Rebecca's insinuations about Herb's sexual inadequacies, goes on hold when she exits to the bathroom. Herb responds to a knock on the hotel door to find Pam Blair, a local TV host eager to have Herb appear has her guest that night. Having heard raised voices in the hall, Pam's suspicions about the couple are aroused. Nevertheless, Pam gives Herb the details of his TV appearance and leaves. Rebecca comes out of the bathroom with a headache and leaves the room to purchase some aspirin. Herb exits to the bathroom paving the way for the hotel maid to enter the room from the door to the adjoining suite. After stealing a watch she sees on a table, she gives the all-clear sign to the indiscreet Senator Grant Ryan.

The maid has mistakenly assumed that the room is vacant and will be perfect for the married Senator's peccadillo with his bimbo girlfriend Gwenda. During the ensuing hanky-panky whichincludes a little derriere slapping and handcuffs amid split-second comings-and-goings, Pam manages to hide Gunnar Gustafson, a Swedish Ingmar Bergman-trained photographer in the closet to catch Herb in the act. Of course, there is the senator's wife Delilah to contend with when she gets wind of what's going on -- and, not to be overlooked, is a singing accordion-playing nun eager to ingratiate herself with Herb with the hopes of making an appearance on the TV show.

One has only to have looked at the program to see that there are only two actors in the cast. The authors have calculated the action with a meticulous if absurdist attention to probability. The dialogue is silly to a fault: She: "There is something between us." He: "Where?" This is a comedy that unashamedly wallows in the broadly comical genre that has maintained its popularity with the public from Plautius to Moliere to Feydeau and up to the contemporary under-the-bed, in-the-closet, out-the-window farces of Britisher Ray Cooney. Hardly in that league, but nevertheless fodder for the undemanding, Tour de Farce tries hard to duplicate that air of compromising naughtiness, questionable wit, and mindless lunacy. However, respect iw owed to the actors whose job it is to make quick-second changes of costume and morph into different characters for two hours over two acts. Ames Adamson and Prentiss Benjamin hurtle bravely through the shtick-filled demands of this convoluted comedy with the speed and dexterity of Olympic champions.

Adamson, a versatile farceur, has played numerous roles at N.J. Rep. and other New Jersey venues, but none, I suspect, were as demanding as the five roles he is currently playing. Shades of the late comic Red Skelton can be seen in his recklessly over-the-top acting, facial contortions, double takes and blatant mugging. Funny as it is to see a man romping around in boxer shorts, hand-cuffed to a bed, or dressed in drag (think Barbara Bush), it is the aura of doom and gloom that Adamson hilariously projects as the Swedish photographer that rings the bell.

Benjamin may not be Adamson's peer when it comes to defining a character but she nevertheless employs some deft body language as she assumes the guise of an East European maid, the sexiest maneuvers of the publicity-seeking Gwenda, the screeching of a tone-deaf nun (eat your heart out Florence Foster Jenkins), and the haranguing of the disgruntled wife. Benjamin is the daughter of actor/director Richard Benjamin and actress Paula Prentiss, both of whom were in the audience beaming throughout the nonsense, with parental delight.

There are moments when the actors have to change a wig and a costume off-stage while they simultaneously continue a conversation as another character. If the overall impression one gets of this comedy is that it is less about its characters than it is about multi-tasking, director James Glossman makes no bones about his willingness to have his players chew the scenery with a ferocious sense of abandon. The audience appeared to be seduced by the scent of amateurism that pervaded throughout and they responded with vigorous applause at the end. However, a director with a clearer vision and a stronger control over performances could have shaped this hapless affair into a real howler. Regional and community theaters with a small budget and a pair of fearless thespians should have a field day with this one.

On a more sane note: Executive Producer of N.J. Rep. Gabor Barabas gave a short pre-show that touched the hearts of everyone as he shared with us the news that he was recovering from a stroke. “"How could I play the stroke card and encourage subscriptions," he pondered to himself as he lay in the hospital bed. Also a medical doctor by profession, Barabas is also a theater lover whose dedication to N.J. Rep. is duly noted. Hats off to wife SuzAnne, N.J. Rep's Artistic Director, for getting both a show and a husband on their feet.


Asbury Radio 88.1 FM

'Tour de Farce' is 'Tour de Force' for Adamson and Benjamin - Grab the Tickets While You Still Can!

Attendees of Saturday's cast party at NJRep's east coast premiere of Kingley Day's and Philip LaZebnik's "Tour de Farce" were treated to celebrity close ups with Hollywood's favorite couple, Paula Prentiss and Richard Benjamin, there to see daughter Prentiss Benjamin and co-star Ames Adamson bring the packed house down with their frenetic portrayal of 10 hilarious characters, expertly directed by James Glossman.

Better known for the high-budget world of musical theater, Day and LaZebnik set out to create a play so cheap to put on that no reasonable producer could resist it. The result: two actors, inside ten characters, in a humble hotel room set. But oh my what two fantastic actors can do with a great script and the imaginative genius of director James Glossman. Impossible you say? Damn near, yes.

Prentiss Benjamin, who is the obvious recipient of every talent gene from both her comedic parents, and Ames (Circumference of a Squirrel) Adamson, dart back and forth among the ten souls, and ten elaborate costumes, to a musical rhythm that gradually builds to a wild staccato beat. But the logistics would be only silly without the excellent timing the playwrights apply in deciding just when to go for the wisecrack, the character flaw, the running gag, the inside joke, the cutting wit, slapstick, and on... "Tour de Farce" may be the most economical production but they sure didn't scrimp on the humor!


Review of Tour de Farce

by Gary Wien, UpstageMagazine.com


(LONG BRANCH, NJ) -- The New Jersey Repertory Company opened its 8th season with "Tour de Farce" by Philip LaZebnik and Kingsley Day on January 28th. The extremely entertaining show continues through February 26th.

Starring Ames Adamson (a familiar face to NJ Rep audiences) and Prentiss Benjamin in a madcap adventure involving the author of "Marriage is Forever" and his wife, a senator and his mistress, a local television reporter and her Swedish cameraman, a bellboy, maid and an accordion-playing nun all somewhat trapped in a rather indistinguishable hotel in a city somewhere along the author's book tour.

Oh yeah, and all of the characters are played by Ames and Prentis!

It's a zany hour and a half that will thoroughly entertain you as apparent by the steady laughter throughout the audience on opening night. Similar to the style of Neil Simon, the play is a true farce taking on several issues (such as marriage infidelity, political hanky panky, and the media) at the same time in rather ludicrous fashion.

In spite of the rapid fire character changes and the idea of ten characters played by two actors, this is perhaps one of the most mainstream plays you will ever see on the NJ Rep stage. And judging by the response of the audience, I'd bet the company gains several new subscribers during this run. So the idea of doing something without killer vegetables yet still a little off of the standard path might be a good way to introduce people to this fine company's largely experimental and challenging work.

The premise behind "Tour de Farce" is that Herb Gladney, the author of the self help guide "Marriage is Forever" and his wife Rebecca are pretending to maintain their own marriage through a book tour. They are in town to appear on the local talk show hosted by Pam Blair. Unfortunately, Pam Blair shows up at their hotel room early and overhears an argument. She then decides to catch Herb in an affair to make her career take off. Meanwhile, a senator is arranging for a tryst and somehow gains access to the suite occupied by the Gladneys. As people go in and out of the rooms, you really have to leave logic aside and just enjoy the ride. There are loads and loads of hilarious situations and brilliant one-liners spread throughout.

In a way, the play reminds me of a live action cartoon for adults (maybe because Ames' accent for the senator sounded a bit like Yosemite Sam to me). It's funny, silly and a little insightful all wrapped up in one. Ames Adamson is absolutely wonderful in capturing five different voices and personas. My favorites are his take on the senator and Gunnar, the Swedish camerman. Prentiss Benjamin (the daughter of actor Richard Benjamin) does a fine job as well although I think the play really didn't need her maid and nun characters. Those two extra voices and personas were unnecessary. They added a laugh or two here or there but wouldn't have been missed at all. I would have prefered to see just how much extra she could have developed the three main roles without the extra burden.


AN INTERVIEW WITH THE STARS OF TOUR DE FARCE

by Gary Wien, UpstageMagazine.com

Each of you handles five characters in this play - a monstrous challenge in itself. Was that your biggest challenge? If not, what was?
PRENTICE -- I think for me it was probably differentiating the off-stage voices because we're also changing clothes in a huge hurry. So, to take the time to differentiate it was probably the biggest challenge.
The women who are backstage changing us literally have to tell us where to go and what costume to put on because we're so involved. They're like air traffic controllers - this way... that way.
AMES -- Yeah, that would be the hardest challenge because I may be putting on Mrs. Ryan and speaking as Gunnar or Herb. Just keeping that straight in your mind is sort of like driving. It's like by the end of this we can shift, pressthe clutch and gas then release and look out all the windows and mirrors. But right now we're sort of like student drivers guiding through this.

How exhausted do you get after doing this show?
PRENTICE -- I'm exhausted! Right now we just did one show and I don't know how on Thursday and Friday we did two because I feel so tired right now! We had an hour rest and that seemed to rejuvenate me.
It's like training for a marathon. Your body's muscle memory begins to kick in and your endurance goes up little by little.
AMES -- Thankfully there's some respite. I can go backstage and breathe for just a moment while Prentice is speaking or vice versa. This show is just so physically demanding because you do so much running. I've already lost two inches on my waist!

Which is your favorite character to portray?
PRENTICE -- Gwenda is probably the closest to me. She's right under the surface for sure and Rebecca too. Those are right under there for me.
AMES -- I think Herb is a chance to be a relatively normal person, which is nice, but Gunnar is a lot of fun. People respond to him. He's an interesting character.

Even though there are multiple characters and a zillion character changes and exits, this is probably the most mainstream play you've done at NJ Rep.
AMES -- Oh yeah, it really is. This is very mainstream but I think there's nothing wrong with that. It's a very interesting choice. I thought it was cute but I'm honestly used to doing either Shakespeare or doing weird, weird stuff. I was like this is cute, but it didn't bowl me over. And the more I read it the more I got into it and thought this could be quite amazing.
PRENTICE -- I think it's the type of show where afterwards you come out maybe just a little bit happier than when you stepped into the theatre. And I think that's a very valuable thing. I think that's actually worth a lot to come out of an hour and 45 minute experience a little bit happier for an afternoon or evening.


May the "Farce" be with you
Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 01/27/06
BY MICHAEL KAABE
CORRESPONDENT

Don't blink, or you might miss what's happening onstage at the New Jersey Repertory Company.

Actors are on stage one minute, off the next. They're changing characters within seconds. And those mistaken identities . . .

What's it all about?

"The two actors who appear in this play are like athletes in a relay race," explained director Jim Glossman, referring to "Tour de Farce," making its East Coast premiere at the Long Branch theater.

The play is a bedroom farce in which 10 characters are played by two people.

"Ames Adamson and Prentiss Benjamin seamlessly jump around from character to character in a way that makes the audience root for the actors as well as the characters," Glossman said.

Glossman said he came across the play, written by Philip LaZebnik and Kingsley Day, when he wanted a change of scenery after doing a string of serious opuses, like "Waiting for Godot" and "All My Sons."

"I was working with Paula Prentiss and (Richard) Benjamin in "All My Sons' last summer. I also met their daughter, Prentiss."

Glossman later directed Prentiss Benjamin in a comedy called "Sunrise at Monticello," produced at Playwrights Theater of New Jersey. He was so impressed with her that he cast her in "Farce."

Reached at her famous parents' home in Beverly Hills, Prentiss Benjamim said: " "Farce' is about a couple who are promoting a book that they wrote called "Marriage is Forever.' It all takes place in one hotel room, and we each play many characters. We have literally 10 seconds to make the costume changes."

Adamson has appeared in several plays at the Long Branch theater.

"Sometimes, I think jumping around from one character to the next is going to kill me," he said. "But it is all fun."


Comedy calls for quick change artist

'Tour de Farce' star derives name and talent from noted acting couple
Friday, January 27, 2006
BY PETER FILICHIA
Star-Ledger Staff

NEW JERSEY STAGE

Prentiss Benjamin is making sure that the door doesn't hit her on her way out. Or in.

"That's the big danger when you do a farce," says the tall, striking brunette as she prepares to open "Tour de Farce" on Friday at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

So far Benjamin has escaped injury from any of those slamming doors. "But I did smash a phone down on my thumb," she says, examining it to see how it's coming along. "That taught me to never do that again."

The show, directed here by James Glossman, is more demanding than many farces. Most have a lot of people running in and out of slamming doors. However, in Long Branch Benjamin is half the cast -- Ames Adamson is her other half -- in this 1993 knockabout by Philip LaZebnik and Kingsley Day.

Benjamin starts out playing Rebecca, whose husband has written "Marriage Is Forever," a self-help guide he's promoting on a book tour. "She's stuck in this hotel, but she doesn't want to be there," says Benjamin. "Neither does he, once a variety of characters come through the door: a housekeeper, a nun, an assistant to a senator, a reporter, and some others, too."

And Benjamin must play them all.

"It's not just the getting in and out," says Benjamin. "I've five seconds to change clothes and shoes. Thank God for those three wonderful women backstage who help me."

It's the first farce Benjamin has done since "Noises Off" in 2000 at Northwestern University -- the same school where her parents met in 1958. They're Paula Prentiss and Richard Benjamin, the actors who have been married since 1961.

"I grew up in a magical world," Benjamin says. "I remember when I was a little girl, maybe 8, for a school assignment I had to read an abridged version of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream.' Then my mother read the original to me and acted out all the characters, and I thought, 'What a wonderful thing to be able to do.'"

By this point, she'd already been taken to movie sets by her father.

"He brought my older brother, too," she says of Ross Benjamin. "I always wanted to stay in the trailer. I hated going to the set, because I felt I was getting in the way."

Still, she has fond memories of being a 6-year-old on the set of "The Money Pit," which her father directed. "That's because my brother and I played with Colin Hanks, Tom Hanks' son."

Once Benjamin decided she wanted to perform, ballet was the route she chose.

"I always had to fight my natural shape," she says, patting a stomach that's not at all large. "But of course you have to be very thin to do ballet. So like Rebecca in the play, I've looked at my fair share of self-help books -- if you count diet books as self-help ones."

Ballet quickly ages its ballerinas, so Benjamin, now 27, has been centering on theater these last few years. She's traveled from her Manhattan home to play Miss Prism in "The Importance of Being Earnest" in Lancaster, Pa.; many roles in "The Dining Room" on Cape Cod, and, last fall, appeared in "Sunrise at Monticello" at Playwrights Theatre in Madison. Her parents come to see her in every show, and will take in her stint in Long Branch, too.

"I'm not interested in being famous or being wealthy, particularly," Benjamin adds. "I really enjoy working on plays. I love the rapport with the audience. It's hard work and tiring, but it's an honor and a pleasure. If this could be my whole life, that would be a great thing. But I'll take whatever I can get."


HE & SHE MAKE THREE
Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 01/27/06
BY MICHAEL KAABE
CORRESPONDENT

One might easily say that Prentiss Benjamin, 27, was born to be in show business.

The star of New Jersey Repertory's "Tour de Farce" is the daughter of Paula Prentiss and Richard Benjamin, one of Hollywood's "it" couples of the '60s and '70s.

Paula and Richard met as theater students at Northwestern University in 1958 and were married in October 1961. Paula caught the eye of an MGM talent scout and was brought to Hollywood to co-star in "Where the Boys Are" (1960). The tall, slender actress turned out to have excellent screen chemistry with actor Jim Hutton: They would be cast together in two more MGM films, "The Honeymoon Machine" (1961) and "The Horizontal Lieutenant" (1962).

But Paula and Richard eventually would bring their real-life chemistry to screens as well, not just as stars but as characters who were married to each other, Lucy/Desi-style, in the 1967-68 CBS sitcom "He & She."

Richard made his motion-picture breakthrough in 1969 in "Goodbye, Columbus." His portrayal of Philip Roth's hero, a poor, urban-raised Jewish librarian in love with a girl from a wealthy family brought him worldwide critical acclaim and catapulted him to the top of Hollywood's A-list. He subsequently landed starring roles in several '70s films, most notably "Catch-22" (1970) (in which Paula also appeared), "Diary of a Mad Housewife" (1970) and "The Sunshine Boys" (1975). Richard has since become a director and producer.

"When I was growing up in California," Prentiss recalled during a rehearsal break in Long Branch, "the family would often sit together and watch my parents' films when they would be on TV. We particularly liked watching "Catch-22' and some movies that my dad directed, such as "My Favorite Year' (1982)."

The Benjamins also have a son, Ross, 31, an actor who lives in Beverly Hills.

One glance at Benjamin, whether she's racing across the stage in character, or just being herself, reveals her origins: Tall and sleek like her mother, with a face that bears her father's eyes and smile, she carries herself with a graceful, elegant glide, and speaks with a sweet, unaffected disposition.

"My parents have always been very supportive of anything I wanted to do," Prentiss said. When I decided to study drama (after surviving a serious knee injury as a ballet dancer) and be an actress, both my parents were very helpful.

"Both my parents come to every play in which I appear. They are the best audience members that anyone could possibly imagine."