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Tableaus of life and death in Long Branch
Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 10/2/07


Show a single image to several different audiences and you're often likely to get a wide range of reactions.

Kelcey Watson (left) and Spencer Scott Barros rehearse a scene from "Minstrel Show, or the Lynching of William Brown," now playing at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

That's been the case with the play on display at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch — a play in which the opening moments have drawn responses including gasps of horror, easy laughter and tense, fidgety silence.

Of course, when the image in question involves a pair of black actors in burnt-cork blackface, with painted-on white lips and the raggedy regalia of old-time minstrelsy, a reaction of some kind is pretty much in order. Before the production had completed a single dress rehearsal, a number of people in the greater Long Branch community reacted with displeasure to the show's promotional materials, resulting in posters and ads being withdrawn from circulation.

The show, however, does go on at NJ Rep — in this case, "Minstrel Show, or the Lynching of William Brown." Opening on the anniversary of the real-life incident referred to in the title, the intimate yet impactful play by Max Sparber receives a rare East Coast revival in the city that once hosted the largest Ku Klux Klan gathering in American history.

The lynching of "the Negro William Brown" — a rheumatism sufferer who was accused of molesting a 19-year-old white woman — took place not in the deep South but in 1919 Omaha, Neb. It was an event noted for its ferocity, its scale — as many as 5,000 white Omahans were said to have been involved — and the fact that the mob not only torched the county courthouse, but very nearly succeeded in lynching the mayor as well.

In Sparber's 1998 script, William Brown never appears on the stage, nor are the events of that late September night re-enacted by a cast of thousands. It's the wake of the riot, and there in the charred and battered Douglas County Courthouse (another detail-intensive piece of work by the talented set designer Quinn K. Stone), the playwright has appointed a pair of nameless, fictional characters to tell — "to teach" — a very real story.

Under the direction of Rob Urbanski, actors Spencer Scott Barros and Kelcey Watson play a pair of traveling minstrel showmen who, like many black performers of their day, make their living by rendering "tableaus of Negro life" in blackface. When the two men are detained (for purposes of testifying in the official "investigation") in the same cell that had been occupied by Brown, they review their experiences as witnesses to the terrible occurrences — and do some soul-searching as to the choices that they've made to survive in this time and place.

Despite the title, there actually is very little of a traditional "Mr. Bones"-style minstrel show on display. Having both done time at the "Parchment Farm" workhouse camp, the entertainers deliver a set of songs that originated in prison settings. We get a taste of what sort of show these characters would have put on for a black audience, including such proto-rap "toasts" as "The Signifying Monkey," along with "yahoo" songs (a format that poked fun at rural whites) and an "Amen Corner" skit involving a fiery brimstone preacher with a slick, craps-shooting congregant.

Although this marks the first time that director and cast have worked together, all three have a history with this "Show." Omaha native Watson co-starred in the play's first public showing at the Douglas Courthouse, and Urbanski has now visited this script six times.

Consequently, what could come off as preachy or didactic in lesser hands is instead invested with a mastery of the material that extends from the "complex syncopations" of the prison songs, to the voice artistry of the comic bits. Still, it's in the red meat of the story — the real-time retelling of the events leading up to the lynching and its appalling aftermath — that the actors operate on all cylinders, with their enthralling descriptions, characterizations and pantomimes abetted by Jill Nagle's lighting and the sound effects of Jessica Paz.

Given that the actors address the audience throughout, Sparber's play comes off more like a presentation than a dramatic work — a very compelling history lesson, in this case, and one (thanks to the dream-team assembled by NJ Rep) that should register well with school-age audiences and others who tend not to make a habit of the theater.

Minstrel Show or the Lynching of William Brown

A New Jersey Repertory Company presentation of a play in one act by Max Sparber.
Directed by Rob Urbinati.

With: Spencer S. Barros, Kelcey Watson.
Variety review By ROBERT L. DANIELS

Unsettling and compelling, Max Sparber's "Minstrel Show or the Lynching of William Brown" re-creates a harrowing true story about the 1919 lynching of a jailed black man, as seen through the eyes of a couple of fictional song-and-dance men. The season opener for New Jersey Repertory Company begins on a light note with a couple of knockabout minstrel comics singing "yahoo" songs from the cotton fields, then quickly turns into a graphic narrative of angry crowd hysteria.

In Omaha, Neb., amid the broken glass and debris of a ravaged county courthouse, two traveling African-American entertainers recount the mob violence they witnessed that ultimately took the lives of a half-dozen innocent spectators. Target of the collective fury was William Brown, who was accused of molesting a 19-year-old white girl.

The two-hander begins with Sho-Nuff (Kelcey Watson) and Yas-Yas (Spencer Scott Barros) illustrating the origins of the minstrel show, when white entertainers blackened their faces with burnt cork. Subsequently, even black artists had to coat themselves with shoe polish.

Through their narrative, the minstrel entertainers, who traveled the country singing and dancing in "coon shows" or "Tableaux of Negro Life,"
tell of their arrest for disturbing the peace and disorderly conduct, after a dozen hooded men beat several black members in their audience.

They witnessed the violence from their jail cell. Sho-Nuff graphically describes the mob mentality of the 5,000 rioters who stormed the Douglas County Courthouse, broke the windows and battered down the oak door to gain access to the unfortunate 40-year-old prisoner Brown, who was awaiting trial.

The "end men" are skillfully realized by Watson and Barros. One can very nearly see the mindless violence as described in Barros' chilling panoramic description of the lynching and murder. The narrative is given a sense of cinematic urgency in Rob Urbinati's taut, rhythmic staging of playwright Sparber's engrossing historical document, which resonates with unflinching horror.

The play continues to draw controversy as black members of the Long Branch community raised objections to the original poster and newspaper ad that showed cartoonish figures of minstrel performers standing near a hangman's noose. The vintage image of the entertainers was subsequently pulled from the ads.

Controversial Minstrel Show
Setting Off Sparks in Red Bank

Minstrel Show
Spencer Scott Barros and Kelcey Watson
Fact - In Omaha, Nebraska in September 1919, Agnes Loebeck, a 19-year-old white woman, reported that she was stuck up and then sexually molested by a black man while returning home with her boyfriend.  The following day, Will Brown, a 41-year-old packinghouse worker who was crippled with severe arthritis and lived with a white woman, was arrested as a suspect.  Loebeck tentatively identified this unlikely perpetrator as her attacker.  Brown was taken to the Douglas County Courthouse followed by a mob which had surrounded Loebeck's house.  Over the course of many hours, the white mob surrounding the courthouse grew to number an estimated 5,000 people.  The race riot precipitated by this mob was particularly ugly and resulted in the deaths of two white men among the mob, the attempted lynching of Omaha's mayor (who was cut down by police and barely escaped with his life), the setting afire of the courthouse, and the delivery of Brown to a celebratory mob which beat him mercilessly, shot him repeatedly (reportedly the actual cause of his death), strung his body up on a pole, and then set his body afire and tied it to a car which dragged it through the streets.

Fiction – On the evening that the mob was growing outside the courthouse, two black minstrel show actors were assaulted in an alley while trying to escape a dozen ruffians who had invaded their show and commenced to beat everyone in sight with baseball bats and wooden planks.  Police rousted the ruffians, but then proceeded to arrest the bloodied minstrels on charges of disturbing the peace and disorderly conduct.  Brought to the courthouse and placed in a cell with Will Brown, the minstrels became witness to the horrifying mob murder.  A few days later, these black men in cork blackface were rousted mid-performance and dragged back to the courthouse to testify before a committee investigating the riot.

As Minstrel Show, or The Lynching of Willie Brown begins, these minstrels, Sho-Nuff and Yas-Yas, are entering the hearing room at Douglas County Courthouse where the ad hoc committee is gathered to hear their testimony.  We, the audience, sit in place of the committee.   Understandably distrustful and cautious, Sho-Nuff and Yas-Yas try to distract us by performing bits and songs from their minstrel show act.  However, over the next 85 minutes, we will see them gain strength and self confidence as they remove the cork from their faces and increasingly less reluctantly relate from their perspective the harrowing Omaha riot of 1919.

It is certainly of value to recall this tragedy of our history (and this was only one of close to two dozen disgraceful race riots which occurred during this dreadful year in our racial history) and it is well and harrowingly told in this account by Max Sparber.  Still, these events are as powerfully and even more fully recounted in the available photographs and historic accounts of the era.  However, it is in the transformation of Sho-Nuff and Yas-Yas from self-demeaning traveling actors scuffling to make a living to proud men determined to be witnesses and teachers, educating their people as to the horrible events that they have seen that provides the inspiration and theatrical catharsis that gives Minstrel Show its distinction.

Although the actors' names appear without any notation of their roles in the program, the characters are identified by their minstrel show routine names in Max Sparber's script. These names should be restored as playwright Sparber's subtle distinctions between them do not prevent the minstrels from at first appearing to be interchangeable stock figures.  However, director Rob Urbinati and his fine cast, Spencer Scott Barros (Yas-Yas) and Kelcey Watson (Sho-Nuff), successfully convey their two distinct personalities.

Barros' Yas-Yas is clearly more confrontational and dissatisfied with his lot.  Very early on, he removes the cork from his face, and his body language displays a combativeness which exceeds that of his words.  Watson's Sho-Nuff has a touch more down home slurring dialect in his line readings, and, for a longer time, his body language remains obsequious.  When their narrative of the riot emerges, Yas-Yas does most of the witnessing at first.  However, when their story reaches the moment when Yas-Yas is knocked unconscious, the telling of the narrative falls to Sho-Nuff.  In witnessing to the committee, Watson's Sho-Nuff, who has finally removed the cork from his face, assumes a dignity and sense of purpose which stands as an early exemplar of the determination that marked the burgeoning civil rights movement of the 1950s and beyond.

Director Ron Urbinati directed the first production of Minstrel Show in 1998 in the rotunda of the Douglas County Courthouse, the actual scene of the events depicted in the play.  Quinn K. Stone's minimal set successfully sets the scene of the fire-distressed courthouse.  The evocative, ratty minstrel show costumes are by Patricia E. Doherty.  The sound design, complete with dramatic reverberation effects, is by Jessica Paz.

At the conclusion, Yas-Yas and Sho-Nuff decide that their act needs "refashioning." we witnesses to history ...

we want that history told ...

and we want it told right

Well, author Max Sparber, director Rob Urbinati and actors Spencer Scott Burros and Kelcey Watson are telling it right at Long Branch's New Jersey Rep. 

Sho nuff.

Two Plays Expose A History Of Violence

By Philip Dorian, The Two River Times

No one turned away the mob that stormed the Douglas County Courthouse in Omaha, Nebraska on September 28, 1919 and hanged William Brown. Considering that the raging throng numbered 5,000, it's doubtful even Atticus Finch could have prevailed. The Negro William Brown, to use the appellation that came to be attached to his name, had been accused - almost certainly wrongly - of raping a white woman. He and two other men, both white, were killed in the rampage. The courthouse and Brown's mutilated body were torched. It's an unfortunately familiar scenario.

Kelcy Watson (left) and Spencer Scott Borrows use a minstrel attitude to tell a harrowing tale.
Minstrel Show or The Lynching of William Brown, at New Jersey Repertory Company, is a detailed telling of the nearly ninety-year old incident. Is it old news or a timely reminder? Symbolic noose-hangings last year in Jena, Louisiana and last week in the Hempstead, Long Island, New York Police Station, where a black man was recently promoted to Deputy Chief, are your answers. That the recent nooses were not around necks is small comfort; would they be if the perpetrators thought they could get away with it?

Two actors, Kelcey Watson and Spencer Scott Barros, appear as minstrel performers who witness the Omaha lynching while being held in the courthouse on other charges. They are fictional creations of playwright Max Sparber, who uses the device to tell the otherwise factual story pieced together from contemporaneous accounts.

Appearing first in blackface (even black performers were forced to cork-up), Watson and Barros affect the subservient, shuffling attitude that was the African-American male's survival ruse. Old minstrel songs are interspersed through the 80-minute piece, setting a contrasting tone but hardly distracting from the tale. Gradually they drop the caricatures in order to tell the story in harrowing detail. Watson and Barros make the witness-bearing barely bearable.

Notwithstanding the worthiness of reaching the widest possible audience with this cautionary account, Minstrel Show isn't really a play. It's an instructional address, more tell than show. The author acknowledges as much; his characters aver several times that their intention is to teach the story, not just to tell it.

Theatrically viable plays can be instructive; The Laramie Project is one such. Considering the value of its lesson, the fact that Minstrel Show or The Lynching of William Brown is more lecture than dramatization might not matter.

Love Kills teaches little but is a worthy play about a different type of killing: random and psychopathic. Fact-based as well, it's about two young Mid­westerners whose killing spree in December 1957 and January '58 gripped the nation.

Charles Starkweather, 19, and 14-year old Caril Ann Fuhgate killed 11 people, including Caril Ann's mother, stepfather and baby sister. Their rampage has inspired several movies (Oliver Stone ran the body count to 50-plus in Natural Born Killers), a TV mini-series and many books. Starkweather is the subject of Bruce Springsteen's "Nebraska," and he's mentioned in Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire."

Charlie died in Nebraska's electric chair on June 25, 1959. Caril Ann served 18 years in prison. She was released in 1976 and lives now, at age 64, somewhere in Michigan. She refuses to discuss the case.

Last week the pair was the subject of an unlikely play at the New York Musical Festival. Love Kills tells its story via parallel couples: Starkweather (Eli Schneider) and Fuhgate (Marisa Rhodes) and Sheriff and Mrs. Karnoop (John Hickock and Deirdre O'Connell), who interrogated the killers after their capture. The four roles are impeccably cast and played. The kids are frighteningly unaware of anything but their perverse devotion to each other, and the Sheriff and his wife, while repulsed by the killings, cannot stifle compassion for their young prisoners.

A dozen intense, emo-rock songs effectively underscore the teenagers' infatuation and their wanton amorality. Composer Kyle Jarrow (music, lyrics and book): "Emo music and bands capture the angst and raw emotionalism of adolescence...this story of young love gone's loud, like a rock show come to life."

Seen on consecutive evenings, Love Kills and Minstrel Show combined for a crash course in intolerance and its attendant violence. And consider: If you were asked to pick the state in which the events of both actually took place, I bet Nebraska would be your 40-something guess. There's a lesson in there somewhere.

'Minstrel Show' targets racism

by Peter Filichia, Star-Ledger Staff
Sunday September 30, 2007, 11:06 PM
Spencer Scott Barros, standing, and Kelcey Watson in "Minstrel Show, or the Lynching of William Brown," playing at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

Needless to say, it's the second part of his title that Max Sparber wants us to notice.

The playwright didn't simply call his arresting drama "Minstrel Show," but "Minstrel Show, or The Lynching of William Brown."

True, every now and then, Spencer Scott Barros and Kelcey Watson, in portraying two early 20th-century African-American entertainers, do come out with an a capella riff or a few high-kicking steps. Most of the time, though, in the 85-minute play at New Jersey Repertory in Long Branch, these two accomplished actors face the audience and tell what their characters witnessed. And while they're fictional, Sparber is giving them his take on a true story that happened to one William Brown on a September night in Omaha in 1919.

Though the second part of the title tells us that Sparber has already divulged his ending, the play offers riveting and harrowing surprises. Better still, director Rob Urbinati's strong production creates a mood that makes an audience pay rapt attention.

Because Barros and Watson are two black minstrels, they must respectively endure the demeaning names of Yas-Yas and Sho-Nuff. Worse, though, in the regrettable tradition of the minstrel show, they wear blackface. How fascinating, though, to see that that make-up somehow makes them behave as caricatures. Once they take it off and thoroughly wipe their faces clean, they revert to become intelligent human beings

The story begins when they return to the Douglas County Courthouse, where Brown had been taken for allegedly raping Agnes Lobeck, a 19-year-old white laundry worker. Yas-Yas and Sho-Nuff were also brought there by the authorities as a cautionary measure.

As Yas-Yas dourly notes, "In Omaha, it's a crime for a Negro to be beaten in the street" -- leaving us to infer that once a black man is behind closed doors, it's unofficially acceptable for him to endure a merciless thrashing.

Both men point out that Brown was afflicted with terrible rheumatism, and each believes him incapable of forcing a healthy young woman into any compromising position. When the story gets too intense even for them, they interrupt themselves to recall a seemingly happy-go-lucky song of the era. Each tune's lyric, though, paints the black man as a scoundrel, thief or sexual wastrel.

The implication is that the average minstrel show's songlist informed its audiences that the black man was to be feared and certainly not trusted. Sparber reminds us that the amount of harm these so-called innocent songs dispensed may well have been considerable.

That's why, once the men finish a song and are proud of themselves for remembering the lyrics, they suddenly stop smiling.Â¥'Taint funny at all. Soon Sho-Nuff is telling a parable about a monkey, a lion and a sultan that has a much more compelling message about race relations.

It's at this point in the show, at the halfway mark, that all opportunities for laughter come to a stop. Sparber's play now concentrates on the lesson that hatred begets more hatred, and what began that night in Omaha was destined to be an unwieldy and unrelenting tragedy. Just when a theatergoer assumes that he's heard the worst part of the story, Sparber manages to find more atrocities.

They may have all been right there in Omaha city records, but Sparber, Urbinati, Barros and Watson have forged them into one compelling theater piece.

"Minstrel Show" at Long Branch theater
Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 09/28/07


It was the largest race riot in our nation's history, and it happened 88 years ago to this day.

On the night of Sept. 28, 1919, a mob of more than 4,000 white townspeople stormed the Douglas County Courthouse in Omaha, Neb., where a rheumatic black man by the name of William Brown was awaiting trial on charges of raping a white woman. Egged on by elements with ties to a discredited political machine boss, rioters set fire to the courthouse, stole firearms and seized Brown, hanging the 40-year-old man minutes later and setting fire to his corpse. Two other men, both white, would be killed by the rioting hordes that night — and the mayor would nearly join the death toll when he was captured and strung up from a traffic pole.

Perhaps you've seen the infamous photos of Brown's charred body surrounded by a smiling crowd of citizens, but if you're not familiar with this horrific incident, you're not alone.

The story of the 1919 Omaha riot is not generally taught in schools outside of Nebraska — in fact, it wasn't until he moved to Omaha that critic and playwright Max Sparber became acquainted with the event that continues to scar the collective memory of the Husker State.

Here on Sept. 28, 2007, New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch prepares to raise the curtain on a new revival of Sparber's two-actor play "Minstrel Show, or the Lynching of William Brown." It's a work that NJ Rep Executive Producer Gabor Barabas characterizes as a "very sensitive piece that deals with many issues."

The 1998 play has engendered its share of controversy since it was first performed in the very courthouse building that still bears the bullet holes from that night in 1919. The show's first full-stage performance in Omaha, a critical and popular success, drew harsh criticism from Nebraska state senator Ernie Chambers, who urged a boycott by all African-American citizens.

The play's appearance in Long Branch has not been without its own measure of conflict. Last week, members of the city's black community objected to the minstrel-performer imagery displayed on the play's advertising and promotional materials.

After meeting with members of the community, NJ Rep agreed to pull the offending materials — a vintage poster image featuring a pair of long-legged, blackface caricatures standing near a noose — from circulation. An invitation to view a rehearsal of the play was extended to anyone who may have issues about the script. In addition, each performance will be followed by a talk-back session among cast, crew and audience, a chance to "let go of some of that emotion" in the actor's words.

According to the company's artistic director, SuzAnne Barabas, "We don't want anyone to feel pain over the image . . . our intent was to show the ugly face of racism, and to move beyond that."

"The play is not the issue," said Lorenzo "Bill" Dangler, president of the Greater Long Branch Chapter of the NAACP. He emphasized that those who opposed the poster "couldn't get past the blackface" of the stereotypes on display.


Bound as close as pages in a book, Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern forged a life together as dealers of rare volumes. As a candidate for dramatization, their story would appear to be a rather dusty collection of reminiscences -- and the thought of musicalization seems even more remote. However, in its world premiere from New Jersey Repertory Company, "Bookends" spins the women's memoir into a disarming musical narrative, braced by an infectiously sweet score and acted with refreshing vigor by an appealing cast.

The narrative, while crowded at times, spans eight decades, beginning as the antiquarians ponder retirement and recall pivotal moments in their long lives. As written by Katharine Houghton, both book and lyrics reveal the romanticism of youth, the determination of two impressionable Jewish girls who ponder the wonders of the past and worldly matters, the comfort of a lasting friendship, and "the women they were meant to be."

The pivotal roles are well structured with keenly contrasted performances. As the senior business companions, Susan G. Bob is wonderfully crusty as Leona, in contrast to Kathleen Goldpaugh's warm apple-pie Madeleine.

As their adventurous younger selves, credited with the discovery of some saucy Louisa May Alcott tomes, Jenny Vallancourt makes a worldly Leona and Robyn Kemp a girl-next-door Mady. Vallancourt returns to N.J. Rep following an acclaimed performance in D.W. Gregory's "October 1962" last fall. Here she offers a telling study of an eager student in a Strasbourg library under Nazi threat.

In an amusing turn as Leona's very married guide, Alan Souza defines "Fingerspitzengelfuhl" as a rare talent for intuitively telling if a book is really rare.

Set to music and lyrics by Dianne Adams and James McDowell, with additional lyrics by Houghton, the songs keenly illustrate life's most rewarding moments, its ironies and unfulfilled passion, and the bonding values of a lasting friendship.

"Waiting for Mr. Right" is a bright expectation of a sublime honeymoon, and there's exquisite longing in "Just Look at Him," urgently revealed by Vallancourt and reprised by a hopelessly smitten Eric Collins as "Just Look at Her." The bond between the girls is revealed in "I've Found a Friend," and there's a bright dash of irreverent humor in "Mary Magdalene's Blues," when a seductive Eileen Tepper queries, "Who do you think washed the dishes after the last supper?"

"Holmes and Watson" is a fanciful diversion, delightfully rendered by a quartet of sappy fictional gumshoes who reveal the pleasures of devouring a good thriller. Finale finds a young novice, brightly played by Pamela Bob in a knockout turn, who as heir to the literary legacy sings "There's Nothing New Under the Sun."

The score is admirably played by pianist Henry Aaronson with a plaintive lilt, but it's easy to imagine and hunger for a string section.

A few bookshelves serve as the setting, leaving the small stage to the large cast, which is required to play multiple roles that demand the attention of an alert audience. Ken Jenkins' acute staging works well within the somewhat cramped space but a more expansive production would help the show. "Bookends" has a promising future, its cinematic thrust suggesting a quaint musical film of the old school.


Curious tunefest has lighthearted touch
Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 07/26/07


From left: Eric Collins, Robyn Kemp and Robert Lewandowski star in "Bookends," now being staged by the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

"Dinosaurs! That's what we are," laments antiquarian book dealer Leona Rostenberg (Susan G. Bob) to her lifelong friend and business partner Mady Stern (Kathleen Goldpaugh).

The two real-life authors, editors and scholars (Rostenberg died in 2005 at age 96) are the subjects of "Bookends," Katharine Houghton's musical play now in its world premiere engagement at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

Still, brilliant and extraordinary as Leona may have been, her nonagenarian self is not beyond such generalizations as "Nobody reads anymore; kids don't read anymore" — this in a show that opened on the day that millions of young readers queued up for their fresh-baked loaf of "Harry Potter."

Literacy, in its most passionate and pulse-pounding form, is alive and well in "Bookends" — a very genuine labor of love for Houghton and some also-extraordinary collaborators. Between the formidable bookshelves of Charles Corcoran's set, moments in time exist like favorite volumes to be plucked from their place, sniffed and caressed and re-examined for those ever-elusive clues to enlightenment.

Houghton, the actress and playwright best known for "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?," took in the July 21 opening night performance from the aisle steps of NJ Rep's intimately scaled auditorium — while her husband, Ken Jenkins, watched from the exit hallway. Jenkins — whose affable, accessible presence stood in contrast to the curmudgeonly figure he cuts as Dr. Kelso in the TV series "Scrubs" — also was on hand as the director of this curious tunefest, a show which, with its 13 actors and onstage pianist, sets an all-time record for what NJ Rep founder Gabe Barabas refers to as "a postage stamp of a stage."

Fanciful yet nonfictional study

Taking its title from their shared memoirs, "Bookends" is a fanciful yet nonfictional study of two women who, by the time Houghton made their acquaintance, had entered their collective tenth decade of defying any and all expectations related to gender, culture or age. The characters are seen here as the respected scholars and authorities of later years, as well as their younger selves — with Robyn Kemp and Middletown's Jenny Vallancourt portraying Mady and Leona from their New York childhood in old-world German-Jewish families, to the establishment of their internationally renowned bibliophile business.

While the time-hopping portrait of two inseparable women might bring to mind the Bouviers of "Grey Gardens," these are hardly the dotty, self-absorbed dreamers of that recent fact-based musical — in fact, as Houghton suggests here, Rostenberg and Stern were literary detectives whose exploits eclipse those of the Nancy Drews and Miss Marples they often can't help but resemble.

Much of the show's running time concerns Leona's potentially hazardous trip to Nazi Germany in search of evidence that the printers of 16th-century Europe had a true intellectual interest in the books they produced — while Mady works the homefront in an effort to uncover the very proper Louisa May Alcott's secret life as the author of a series of salacious penny-dreadfuls.

Granted, very little of this reads like the stuff of a sprightly musical entertainment, but Houghton and composers Dianne Adams and James McDowell maintain a largely lighthearted touch with a decades-spanning saga — in which the conflict ranges from the girls' chafing at the rules and roles ordained by their old-world German-Jewish families, to the elder Leona's desire to put aside the business she worked so hard to build.

Songs spotlight a recurring theme

Sometimes corny, other times weighted with exposition and didacticism, the songs (Houghton also contributed lyrics) spotlight a recurring theme expressed variously as "Just Look at Him (Her, Us)." Some of the best material is given to secondary and even cameo characters — including "Numbers Make Sense" (performed by Matt Golden as Leona's practical brother Rusty), and a little ditty titled "Fingerspitzengefuhl," sung to Vallancourt by Alan Souza as a smitten fellow researcher.

Jenkins and choreographer Jennifer Paulson Lee have managed a minor miracle of motion within the odd shadow-box dimensions of NJ Rep's stage. The bizarre and colorful "Arab Astrologers" number makes great use of all available space, and "Lucy's Song" is a terrific tune that's as close as this modestly-sized musical gets to a high-kicking showstopper.

It's a show that's not built around the tuneful talents of the leads, and the younger Ms. Bob (working multiple roles, like most of the cast) is a standout in an ensemble that takes on the musical heavy lifting.

Pamela's mom Susan — a Rep regular remembered from last year's "Apostasy" — is an inspired choice as Leona; her sinusy delivery and dry comic instincts enlivening a woman who's come to feel like one of the brittle, age-old volumes that line her shelves. Goldpaugh, a fine stock-company player who starred alongside Bob in "Maggie Rose," is here assigned to the least interesting of the major parts. Her mature Mady is a person of unshowy intelligence and real virtue.

Vallancourt, meanwhile, adds another strong performance to a Rep career that began with her breathtaking work in "October 1962."

New Musical About Old Books
"Bookends” at New Jersey Rep

By Philip Dorian
The Two River Times

There's a musical about two 90-year old rare-book-collecting women? And some theater is actually charging money to see it? You've got to be kidding. Well, yes, someone - or ones - wrote just such a musical, and New Jersey Repertory Company is selling tickets to it. My advice is to buy one of those tickets and see Bookends. No kidding.

The pleasures of Bookends are many and varied. The acting is excellent, with exceptional leading performances backed by a talented ensemble.

Jenny Vallancourt (left) and Robyn Kemp play the young Leona and Maddy in Bookends.
The music is memorable, with twenty-plus numbers ranging from toe-tappers to tear-jerkers. And the story revolves around a deep and abiding love - between those two women and...books.

True: Leona Rostenberg (1909-2005) and Madeline Stern (1912- ) were rare-book scholars and dealers for over 50 years. Daughters of New York Jewish families, they met as teenagers and bonded through their mutual interest, bordering on obsession, in the authorship and printing history of old books. Neither woman ever married; their relationship endured and is brought to life with humor and pathos and songs that beg for a second hearing.

Stage and screen actor Katharine Houghton met Rostenberg and Stern while she was researching a performance piece on Louisa May Alcott. (A delightful thread through Bookends about the "Little Women” author could spawn a play of its own.) Houghton, best known for bringing Poitier to dinner with Tracy and Hepburn in 1967, wrote the show's book and collaborated on the lyrics with the composers Dianne Adams and James McDowell. Bookends, directed by Houghton's companion Ken Jenkins, is a collective labor of love.

Rostenberg and Stern are not household names, and 17th Century book publishing doesn't exactly inspire cocktail party banter, but ten minutes into Bookends, Leona, Mady and fine-grained leather bindings become fascinating subjects. The opening scene sets the tone with a living tintype in the women's library. "Old age is a bookend,” one of them says, and the scene flashes back to their youth in the 1920s - the other bookend.

Throughout the two-act play (that flies by), the older Leona (Susan G. Bob) and Madeline (Kathleen Goldpaugh) are mirrored by their younger selves (Jenny Vallancourt and Robyn Kemp, respectively), who discover their mutual passion and eventually go into business together. The play follows the young women as they research their topic, earn advanced degrees, reject ardent beaux and travel, eventually defying convention to live together.

The pairs of actors - Ms. Bob with Ms. Vallancourt and Ms. Goldpaugh with Ms. Kemp - are joined at the soul. They grow more and more alike through the show. Bob and Goldpaugh play old age with just the right mix of frailty and crankiness. Both accomplished veterans of many New Jersey Rep plays top themselves here. Vallancourt, a recent Middletown South grad, and Kemp carry the show musically, and a list of the highlights would fill this page. Their duets - there are six - are sung beautifully and are perfectly blended in words and music. Two titles, "I've Found a Friend” and "Unexpectedly You,” say it all.

Back-to-back duets with hopeful suitors - Vallancourt's with Eric Collins and Kemp's with Matt Golden - burst with youthful energy. (Golden plays a math nerd; he makes "Numbers Make Sense” really cool.)

Many in the cast of thirteen play several roles. Their relationships are never in doubt, and their deployment through the time-shifting scenes is a directorial triumph. Patricia E. Doherty's period costumes and Jill Nagle's mood-enhancing lighting design contribute mightily as well.

Eileen Tepper and Pamela Bob (Susan's daughter) make outstanding contributions. Aunt Annie (Tepper) joins Young Mady and her beau in a flawless counterpoint "Marry Me,” and Ms. Bob plays a young editor whose interest in old books is inspiring. "There's Nothing New Under the Sun,” she sings, but the song's inventive patter-lyrics disprove its title.

Composer Dianne Adams is Musical Director, and pianist Henry Aronson, on stage and playing virtually non-stop, is the orchestra. Aronson's playing fills the intimate NJ Rep auditorium and backs the singers impeccably.

The women's passion is not old literature, but the physical books that contain it, and after you see it, you'll tell your friends that someone actually wrote a musical about two 90-year old rare-book-collecting women. "Buy a ticket and see Bookends, you'll advise them. No kidding.


by Gary Wien

(LONG BRANCH, NJ) -- The world premiere of Bookends, a new musical by the team of Katherine Houghton (book and lyrics) and Dianne Adams and James McDowell (music and lyrics) broke new ground for the New Jersey Repertory Company. Not only did it continue its path of producing world class original productions, but it offered a field of over a dozen actors (far greater than their normal casting numbers) and even managed to have everybody on stage singing and dancing at the same time! That's something you rarely see in an intimate space of the size of the Lumia Theatre.

Bookends is based on the true story of Madeleine Stern and Leona Rostenberg who were famous rare book dealers that met as young girls and built a life-long friendship. As the play opens, the pair are now in their 90s and are completing their memoirs. Their lives were anything but dull. In an age where women were expected to simply be dutiful wives, these two resisted conventional notions and let their passion for books become their true love and watched as that romance took them around the world.

There was a bit of irony in seeing the premiere of Bookends on the same weekend as the final Harry Potter book was about to shatter all records for book sales. After all, one of the biggest fears that Leona Rostenberg had in the end was that nobody read books anymore. She was prepared to sell even the books that had the most sentimental value because she was tired of being a dinosaur. I get the feeling that both of them would get a good laugh at hearing how a book - in a period of time when nobody supposedly reads - could sell over eight million copies in a weekend!

Bookends is a musical and I'm not exactly a big fan of most musicals. For me, a musical works if you can take away the music and still have a play. Bookends would certainly work either way. The story of Leona and Madeleine will fascinate anybody who's ever picked up a book for enjoyment. It's a tale that writers will fall in love with as we know that it is people like Leona and Madeleine who have kept literature and physical books alive in an era when words could just as easily been moved to computers.

Yes, there are a few songs that I think the play could have done without, but a few like "Just Look At Us" are magical numbers. As with all NJ REP shows, the cast is phenomonal - especially the two young leads (Jenny Vallancourt as the Young Leona and Robyn Kemp as the Young Mady).

In the end, Bookends is a wonderful play about a beautiful story. It's a story about friendship, hope and dreams, and happy endings. Just like the best books are.

The LINK News July 26 thru August 1, 2007


'Bookends' supports talented cast in entertaining musical
by Milt Bernstein

Three cheers to New Jersey Rep for bringing this delightful new production to Long Branch's Broadway!

"Bookends" I sthe world premiere of a musical based on the lives of two very special real-life women, Madeleine Stern and Leona Rostenberg, who lived and worked in New York for the greater part of the last century. Their business, which they made a success of, was that of rare books dealers. To achieve their goal, they had to overcome the many rules and traditions of the families they were brought up in, and resist the offers of marriage that came their way.

This musical portrayal of their lives is a thoroughly winning and heart-warming production sure to win our admiration and affection.

The play switches back and forth from conversations between the two women as the nonagenarians they have become, and flashbacks to their eager youth; their meeting each other and beginning their lifelong friendship; and the subsequent challenges and difficulties they each encounter before they finally find the strength and resolve to live the lives they have chosen, in spite of convention.

The play is the brain-child of the well-known actress and playwright Katharine Houghton, who has been represented before at New Jersey Rep, and who happens to be the niece of the late, great Katharine Hepburn, and co-starred with her in the prize-winning film "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." Houghton wrote the musical's book and some of the lyrics to the many numbers. The rest of the lyrics and the lovely musical pieces were by Dianne Adams and James McDowell.

The large cast is headed by Susan G. Bob and Kathleen Goldpaugh, both veterans of previous NJ Rep productions, as the two elderly women, Leona and Madeleine; with Jenny Vallancourt and Robyn Kemp, radiating their exuberance touchingly, as young Leona and young Mady, respectively; and Eric Collins and Matt Golden as youthful suitors of the two young women.

Except for the parts of older and younger Leonas and Madeleines, everyone in the cast plays a variety of roles as well as being part of the ensemble numbers. Special note should be made of Pamela Bob (Susan's daughter) who sang and performed two spectacular numbers, one in each act; and Alan Souza, who portrays a married, father-of-six, official in Strasbourg, Germany, and tries to seduce young Leona in a hilarious number called "Fingerspitzengefuhl."

The play has been skillfully directed by Ken Jenkins. (He is also Dr. Kelso on the popular TV series "Scrubs.")

To quote Gabe Barabas, the executive producer at NJ Rep, "you no longer have to travel to Broadway in New York to see a new musical. You can go to Broadway in Long Branch."

Performances of this must-see show will continue through August 26.

A CurtainUp New Jersey Review

Old Age is just a bookend. — Mady

Robyn Kemp (front). Rear: Robert Lewandowski, Matt Golden, Eric Collins in Bookends.
(Photo: SuzAnne Barabas)
Two extraordinary single Jewish women, both obsessed by their love of old and rare books, forge a life-long friendship and a committed partnership. A charming new musical has made an appearance based on the memories of the celebrated antiquarians Madeleine Stern and Leona Rostenberg. Despite its literary undepinnings, this is far from being stolid, intellectual or dry and these in many ways enviable lives are seen through the frame created by book writer and contributing lyricist Katharine Houghton and composer/lyricists Dianne Adams & James McDowell.

The collaborators have fashioned a humorous, lively, adventurous and passionate musical that succeeds admirably in exalting without exhausting its feminist tract. Houghton, whose name will forever be linked to the classic film Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (starring her aunt Katharine Hepburn) in which she played the daughter, has also forged a notable career as a playwright and author. Take heart. The score that Adams and McDowell (The Wind in the Willows) have provided is neither rock or pop nor noticeably flavored with post modernist touches. It is, however, sprightly, sweet, occasionally quaint and conventional, but always unapologetically easy on the ears.

Now having its world premiere, Bookends episodically follows the unconventional careers of Stern and Rostenberg in a field noted for its domination by men. The musical also joyously embraces their devotion to their work and to the bond that grew stronger from the time they they first meet as young women in college in 1930 (Leona was a senior at NYU and Mady a freshman at Barnard) to the point when, in their 90s, we see them at work awaiting the final proofs of their memoirs.

The musical is structured as a flashback. This works efficiently to bring us back and forth and through time, each episode filling us in with more details of Leona's and Mady's dispositions and personalities. The show makes a point of illustrating the reasons they chose to spend a life together instead of with the men by whom they are courted. Seen at first in their dotage, the slightly crusty Leona (Susan G. Bob) and the more complacent Mady (Kathleen Goldpaugh) ponder their love affair with books while occupied with choosing the right pictures for their memoir.

The time is the present, the place their Manhattan apartment. A prelude, "Leona's Dream" (as played by on-stage pianist Henry Aronson), is the musical catalyst that transports us to the Bronx in 1918 and the respective homes of their German-Jewish immigrant parents and family members, including two assigned to portray a pair of cocker spaniels. That each family moves about and relates to each other independently in the opening scene while occupying the same space is a feat ingeniously engineered by director Ken Jenkins. Jenkins, who is married to Houghton, but is probably best known for his role as Dr. Bob Kelso on the hit NBC TV series Scrubs, accomplishes quite a feat with a large cast on a relatively small stage. But Jenkins' cleverness isn't defined by this or by his consistently inventive staging; also by the performances from an excellent cast, all of whom sing well— especially Jenny Vallancourt, as the young bespectacled, serious-minded Leona and Robyn Kemp, as the young and vivacious Mady.

While much is made of the blossoming and fulfilling relationship between Leona and Mady, there is no attempt to insinuate that their relationship is a sexual one, except perhaps in a scene in which Leona's traditional and distressed Papa (Howard Pinhas)and Mama (Amie Bermowitz), upon hearing that the women want to live together, sing "What Will People Think?" There are several scenes in which the young Leona and Mady are both courted and pursued by ardent young men. Leona may worry "Will I be alone?" and Mady may wonder "Will I be well known?", but we are given ample examples that they are determined not to obey the rules and conventions preferred by their families.

Bookends shares its spoken libretto and musical language spontaneously and there is a nice ebb and flow between the two that only occasionally takes a break from what might be called a fantasy moment. Leona isn't above letting us know she wouldn't have minded an affair with Byron or Keats. Their dreamy contemplations about being "lonely and blue" or "Waiting for Mr. Right," is a reasonable response to the kind of women men expected and exemplified in two contrastingly styled songs that define women they know as either a flirty showgirl or as a submissive housefrau.

Except for Leona and Mady, the musical's performers are called upon to double, which they do with infectious aplomb. Eric Colllins is a standout as Leona's earnest and patient beau Carl who just cannot understand when the love of his life calls "the old world's a prison." Leona hears "destiny calling" as surely as Mady. Despite the insistence by her mathematician beau Rusty (Matt Golden), that "Numbers Make Sense," Mady is really ignited by realizing she has found a life-long friend.

In one of the musical's more adventuring scenes, Leona has gone bravely to Strasbourg, Germany in 1939 to dig through the archives and complete a master thesis on Mary Magdelene and get her PHD amidst the ardent if inappropriate attentions paid to her by Mr. Ritter (Alan Souza), a married man with six children. It is Ritter who discovers that Leona has "Fingerspitzengefuhl," a gift that deserves the delightful song it prompts. Pamela Bob is terrific as Deborah, the woman who brings the proofs of their memoir and eventually stays to work for them.

It was Houghton's own investigation into the life and work of Louisa May Alcott that led her to meet both Stern and Rostenberg. It was their discovery and uncovering in 1942 of Alcott's literary secret life as a writer of pulp fiction under the pseudonym of A. M Barnard that became part of the plot. There is considerable pleasure in watching Leona and Mady as intrepid investigators much in the same way as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, the team that also humorously find their way into one of the many winning songs that provide purely diverting moments from two exceptional lives.

Bookends, with its large cast and female empowering theme is sure to have a future.

The musical is not to be confused with the play Bookends by M.J. Feely that recently received its world premiere in Philadelphia.

Actress was born, bred and well read for the part
Friday, July 20, 2007
Star-Ledger Staff


Some teens who graduated from high school in June are still searching for a summer job. Jenny Vallancourt learned what hers would be months ago.

After getting her diploma from Middletown High School South -- and before heading off to Barnard College this fall -- the Red Bank resident knew she'd be starring in a musical. She's playing rare-book dealer Leona Rostenberg in "Bookends," which has its world premiere Friday night at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

The musical is based on the same-titled autobiography written by Rostenberg with her professional partner, Madeleine B. Stern.

"They met when they were kids," says Vallancourt. "They were constantly discouraged by their families. 'You're only a woman,' they were told. 'You can't open a business. You should just get married and let your husband work.' They wanted more than that, and had to work together to achieve it."

The two stayed friends until Rostenberg died in 2005 at 96. Stern is now 95. "I play Leona from the ages of 10 to 30," says the 18-year-old Vallancourt. "She's smart but shy, but funny, too."

That would describe Vallancourt as well. Like Rostenberg, she's an inveterate reader. She's just started "The Blind Assassin," her third Margaret Atwood novel. "I love reading before I go to sleep," she says. "I feel it's got to be better for me to read than watch movies or TV."

Vallancourt got the part after one quick audition and call-back. "My mother called me when I was in gym class to tell me the news," says the teen, beaming but blushing, too.

Vallancourt's history with New Jersey Repertory Company certainly didn't hurt. She took acting classes there, and was cast in last winter's premiere of "October 1962." As Jean, a teen who senses that her parents' marriage is in terrible trouble, she gave one of the most dynamic performances of the season.

For someone so young, Vallancourt has had a great deal of experience.

"I didn't even think I could audition for 'Bookends' because I was busy doing 'Chess' at my school," she says. It was one of many leads she had there -- when she wasn't working in community theater in Matawan, Shrewsbury and Sandy Hook. She's done more than two dozen shows in those towns.

If that weren't enough, Vallancourt is already a produced playwright. Last year, the Young Playwrights Festival in Madison staged "Birdhouse in Your Soul," her 10-minute play.

"It's about two brothers," she says. "The 17-year-old has to baby-sit the 12-year-old. The younger one is creative, and the older one is normal," she adds, hooking her fingers into quotation marks to show she isn't quite on the side of conventionality. "The older one is jealous that his brother is the free one."

It's not autobiographical, for Vallancourt is the oldest of three girls.

"I was assigned two kids in class to act the play, so I thought about what they were like, and that's what made me write the way I did," she says, showing the instincts of a professional playwright.

Asked when it all started for her, Vallancourt says, "'Beauty and the Beast,' when I was real young. I loved the movie, then my grandmother took me to see it on Broadway. Pretty soon after, I was doing my own version in my backyard."

That the musical is about a girl who loved books isn't lost on her. "That's a pretty good sign for 'Bookends,' isn't it?" she asks, smiling.



"Scrubs" star directs musical in Long Branch

Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 07/20/07


All in all, it's a great time to be Ken Jenkins. With more than a half century of dedicated endeavor in all aspects of his craft, the veteran actor/producer/director has become something of a teen idol, thanks to his co-starring role as Dr. Bob Kelso in the NBC comedy "Scrubs." The quirky, hospital-set ensemble show is followed by a fervent fanbase that Jenkins figures to center around "medical students, surgeons — and 13- to 15-year-olds."

"Teenagers run up and introduce themselves, sticking out their hand, all very proper," the 66-year-old star says with a laugh. "At my age, for kids to think I'm cool is really something."

While the self-described "old character man" has nothing but praise for the series that first aired in 2001 — observing that "the acting and the writing have grown better and better" — the boards of the legitimate stage have remained his primary beat. It's an ongoing passion that brings Jenkins to the Jersey Shore this weekend as director of "Bookends," a new musical play now in its world premiere engagement at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

A song-filled study of the extraordinary relationship between two very remarkable real-life women, "Bookends" is a project that's grown out of another extraordinary relationship of long standing — that of Jenkins and his wife of 37 years, the actress and playwright Katharine Houghton.

Married since 1970, Jenkins and Houghton were first teamed in the roles of "loving adversaries" Kate and Petruchio in "The Taming of the Shrew" and went on to play everything from brother and sister (in "The Glass Menagerie") to father and daughter (in "Major Barbara").

With the formation of their own Pilgrim Repertory Company, the couple brought classical theater and "ragtag bits of Shakespeare" to remote rural communities, facilities for the hearing-impaired, and other places that were as far off-Broadway as could be imagined.

"Some kids in rural Kentucky had a better innate understanding of Shakespeare than we did," recalls Jenkins of his days in what Houghton calls "arts missionary work." "If you listened, you could hear leftover bits of Elizabethan accents in the way they spoke."

Best known for her role in the provocative, Academy Award-winning film "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" — a classic in which she starred alongside Spencer Tracy, Sidney Poitier and her aunt Katharine Hepburn — Houghton is an acclaimed author whose portfolio boasts an eclectic olio of short playlets, full-length works, translations and even one-woman presentations on cultural and literary topics.

It was while doing research for a piece on Louisa May Alcott that Houghton was introduced to a pair of antiquarian book dealers named Madeleine "Mady" Stern and Leona Rostenberg. Friends since childhood, the two women defied the conventional expectations of their old-world German-Jewish families to become highly educated experts on a variety of subjects, traveling the world and building a successful business in an ultra-specialized field. Drawn to Mady and Leona's warmth, energy and passion for life, Houghton befriended the pair as they entered their tenth decades — and somewhere, somehow, the concept for a musical was born.

"What those two did just makes your jaw drop," says Jenkins of the play's protagonists, whom he had the privilege of knowing personally. "I'm in awe of what they accomplished as women in a man's world."

While the subject matter might seem an oddball choice for a musical, Jenkins sees their shared saga as a very uplifting, human story of triumph, set against the changing cultural landscape of a tumultuous and eventful century.

"They were the most intellectually active people each other had ever known," the director says of Mady and Leona (who has since passed away). "Their lives were like a string of jewels . . . they're like Shakespearean characters."

Portraying Mady and Leona as adults are a couple of NJ Rep company regulars, Susan G. Bob and Kathleen Goldpaugh. Also on hand in the large ensemble is one of the youngest members of the stock company, Jenny Vallancourt, who excelled in last year's "October 1962" and appears here as Mady in flashbacks. Dianne Adams and James McDowell composed the music and lyrics in collaboration with Houghton, with Adams serving as musical director and Jennifer Paulson Lee handling the choreography.

Director Jenkins, for his part, seems ecstatic to be spending his series hiatus on this obvious labor of love, enthusing that audiences "will be proud of their humanity when they see this show . . . you'll laugh, cry, go home and talk about it and decide that being human is a good thing after all."

American Theatre Magazine, Front and Center
Early on, Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern realized they would have to choose between beaux and books. rejecting the wife-and-mother path that was expected of German-Jewish girls in 1930s Manhattan, they joined forces to become prominent dealers of antiquarian volumes.

Actor and playwright Katharine Houghton befriended Rostenberg and Stern in the 1980s when she sought their expertise on Louisa May Alcott, about whom she was writing a solo play. “I became very involved in their world,” Houghton says. “They were the most well-educated people I’d ever met.” The pair’s memoirs, journals and sheer force of personality are the basis for Houghton’s first full-length musical, written with composers Dianne Adams and James McDowell. Bookends premieres July 19Aug. 26 at New Jersey Repertory Company, directed by Ken Jenkins.

Spunky nonagenarians who collect fragile tomes and speak half a dozen languages are hardly your typical musical-theatre heroines. That’s exactly the point, says Houghton: “They were expected to have a conventional lifethe drama is that they didn’t.”

Both Stern (still vital at 95) and Rostenberg (who died two years ago) participated in the show’s development. The plot hinges on a present-day argument between the womenplayed by actresses in their fifties, says Houghton, “because that’s the kind of energy they have”about whether to retire. The debate is punctuated with scenes of their younger selves navigating tricky affairs of business and the heart.

At times, the exotic topics the women have studied in booksfrom Arab astrologers to Mary Magdalenecome alive in whimsical song-and-dance sequences to comment on their life choices. But Houghton selected her composers above all for their ability to set inner monologues to music that tugs at the emotions. “It really wouldn’t matter if it were about rare books or something else,” says Houghton. “It’s about having a passion and finding a way to realize it.” Nicole Estvanik


by Gary Wien

NJ Repertory Company in Long Branch presents another world premiere play this month. This time around it's a musical called BOOKENDS written by the playwright/actress Katharine Houghton.

Katharine Houghton is best known for her role as Joanna "Joey" Drayton, the Caucasian ingenue with an African-American fiance, whom she brings home to meet her parents, in the 1967 film Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.

Her list of other films include Ethan Frome, Mr. North, The Night We Never Met, Billy Bathgate, The Gardener and Let it Be You. Katharine has appeared on Broadway in Our Town, The Front Page and A Very Rich Woman. Her regional theatre credits include roles in over fifty productions. Her play Buddha, was published in Best Short Plays of 1988. Other plays that have been produced include Merlin, The Merry Month of May, Mortal Friends, On the Shadyside, The Right Number and Phone Play. Her newest play, Only Angels, is in development in New York.

Houghton was named after her maternal grandmother Katharine Hepburn.

Tell me a little about BOOKENDS, What is the play about?
BOOKENDS is a musical for anyone of any age who has ever had a raging dream to do something or be someone unusual and who has been told it is impossible. The songs derive from the passions of all the warring hearts and competing agendas - each one sure of what it means to live life fully. No one is right, no one is wrong, but the secret of life is to find your own unique path and travel it with joyful perseverance.

The story, which is true but not about me, revolves around two women, Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern. Two plots intertwine. One concerns the women in old age, the other concerns their youth. The problem of the seniors - one wants to quit their almost 60 year business in antiquarian books, the other doesn't. Their argument invokes scenes from their past that are relevant to their present situation, and by reliving those scenes of their salad days, it sets the stage for their ultimate solution. This is not a play concerned with nostalgia.

BOOKENDS seems pretty ambitious - it has a relatively large cast for a musical that revolves around two girls. Do the other actors have significant roles or are they more for the soundtrack?
The musical is madly ambitious and we are all insane to try it, especially with only 3 weeks of rehearsal and 1 week of tech, but we felt it was worth a go. It has a cast of 14, all wonderful singers and actors. Except for the older and younger Madys & Leonas, everyone plays a variety of important roles and everyone has at least one terrific song, as well as being part of several wonderful ensemble numbers.

What led you decide to make this a musical?
I decided to make this story a musical because I've known Madeleine and Leona well for over 20 years and I've always felt that their story was a story for our time. Women are still trying to find their way in a man's world and these two women did it with glory. They came of age in the 30s in my beloved Manhattan, but the challenges and put-downs they experienced are still felt by women today. An example: well respected director Emily Mann, currently based in Princeton, NJ, I believe, was told by her professors at Harvard in 1974 that she could never direct for professional theatre or film because she was a woman, that she would have to confine her efforts to children's theatre. Fortunately she was not deterred.

By making BOOKENDS a musical instead of a play it allows me to use the songs to reveal secret thoughts and feelings in a way that I hope will be entertaining as well as affecting.

I am hoping that a musical about charming, humorous, conquering women will have an audience - an audience of both women and the men who love them.

Have you written a musical before?
In the 80s when I was doing a lot of writing for the fabulous Downstairs Theatre Bar at the Westbank Cafe on 42nd St. I wrote a one act musical based on an O'Henry short story called The Merry Month Of May. Other than that I've written only plays and screenplays

Finally, it's always wonderful when you have a film like Guess Who's Coming To Dinner? on your resume but I was wondering if it ever bothered you that your best known film was your first?
I suppose if I'd done nothing after Guess Who's Coming To Dinner, it would be a sort of thorn in my side that it is for most people my best known work. But after that film I spent 15 years in the wonderful regional theatres of America playing over 50 leading roles in classical drama.

Also, with Ken Jenkins, who is directing BOOKENDS and who is currently best known for his six seasons on NBC's cult hit comedy, "Scrubs", playing Dr. Kelso, I ran a theatre company for 13 years called Pilgrim Repertory Co. We toured several works all around, especially to places that didn't have the opportunity to see live theatre. We called it our "Arts Missionary Work." Ken wrote a pastiche called Shakespeare For Lovers And Others, which was one of our most popular productions. We made all our own sets, costumes, props etc. as well as acting all the parts. It was colossal good fun.

I guess that was just my destiny. And hanging out with all those brilliant writers, from Shakespeare and Shaw to Williams and O'Neill, no doubt had some small effect on my playwrighting.

A template for the new woman
Playwright celebrates two extraordinary friends in 'Bookends'
Katharine Houghton
Katharine Houghton has had the honor of knowing some extraordinary women in her time, many of them no further away than her own formidable family tree.

For instance, her grandmother, the ardent suffragist and philanthropist Katharine Houghton Hepburn, was instrumental in founding Planned Parenthood with Margaret Sanger in the 1950s.

And then there was her aunt, the dynamic, iconic Katharine Hepburn, alongside whom she starred in 1967's Best Picture, "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" Although she has expressed some disappointment over the excising of a key scene (in which her character, "Joey," defends her relationship with her black fiancé to her supposedly liberal dad), Houghton remains "very proud" of that movie debut, one in which she kept pace with such screen heavyweights as Aunt Kate, Spencer Tracy, Sidney Poitier and director Stanley Kramer.

While she has remained intermittently visible on film (most recently in "Kinsey" starring Liam Neeson, with whom she also appeared in "Ethan Frome"), it's on the stage that Houghton the actress has turned in her most acclaimed work, with a lauded performance in the 1969 "Scent of Flowers," and a portfolio of leads in classics by the likes of Shakespeare ("Taming of the Shrew," "The Merchant of Venice"), Chekhov ("Uncle Vanya," "The Seagull") and Ibsen ("A Doll's House").

A scene from "Bookends," written by Katharine Houghton.
As Houghton relates in a recent e-mail interview:

"I kept getting offered fabulous roles in the burgeoning regional theaters, and so I decamped from Hollywood to play over 50 leading roles in the classics.

"It was my destiny, I think, to be a stage, rather than a film, actress, if there is such a thing as destiny."

Along the way, the actress evolved into the playwright, having penned numerous award-winning shorts and full-length plays, among them "Merlin," "Mortal Friends," a translation of Anouilh's "Antigone," and "Best Kept Secret," an autobiographical study of a 1960s love affair with a Soviet artist.

The author shared her "Secret" on the stage of New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch with a 2001 reading and, beginning this weekend, Houghton returns to NJ Rep for the fully staged, world premiere engagement of "Bookends," her first long-form musical endeavor and a labor of love that has its roots in an extraordinary relationship.

Featuring songs by the composing team of Dianne Adams and James McDowell, "Bookends" is a melodic meditation on the long professional partnership and enduring friendship of two real-life women, Madeleine "Mady" Stern and the late Leona Rostenberg.

Houghton made the acquaintance of the noted rare-book dealers while researching her own narrated presentation on the life and work of "Little Women" author Louisa May Alcott, and immediately became intrigued by these energetic, educated New York originals, then approaching their 90s and marking more than a half-century of shared business and adventures.

While an all-singing, all-dancing musical about elderly antiquarian booksellers might seem at first like something out of Max Bialystock's playbook, Houghton sets the action at various times in her subjects' lives, from their days growing up in strict German-Jewish families to their debates over retirement.

A colossal (by local professional standards) cast of 14 is headed by Rep regulars Susan G. Bob and Kathleen Goldpaugh as the adult Mady and Leona, and features Jenny Vallancourt, a young performer who made a big impression in NJ Rep's "October 1962" earlier this season.

"If you had known Mady and Leona in their 90-year-old prime, you would understand why we are not playing them as old ladies," Houghton explains. "They were ageless, unique, and to play them as old ladies would be a travesty.

"I was less interested in my relationship with the ladies and more interested in their lives as a template for the 'new woman,' a creature Mother Nature has been striving to create since Mary Wollstonecraft blasted the old female paradigms," the author continues. "We're not there yet, but we've made progress, and Rostenberg and Stern are a major example of these advancements."

Directing "Bookends" is a man with whom Houghton has maintained her own long-term personal and professional partnership, Ken Jenkins, Houghton's husband of 37 years and a newly minted household name, thanks to his role as Dr. Bob Kelso on the hit NBC TV series "Scrubs."

While the 66-year-old actor has plenty of good things to say about the popular vehicle that's garnered him instant recognition from teenage fans, "Bookends" remains a project with which he has been personally engaged from the outset, and the latest chapter in an ongoing collaboration that has taken the two dedicated stage pros to some pretty amazing places.

As Houghton says of Jenkins, whom she first met and worked with when she was 23, "He taught me everything I know about acting in the old days, and any young actor who works with him is bound to benefit from his almost 50 years of nonstop experience in the theater.

"Ken directed my first play, and we have acted together on many occasions - brother and sister in 'The Glass Menagerie,' father and daughter in 'Major Barbara,' loving adversaries in 'The Taming of the Shrew,' and on and on."

An important early project for Houghton and Jenkins was their formation of Pilgrim Repertory Company, a federally funded traveling troupe that brought live theater to Appalachia and other rural areas underserved by arts organizations, an endeavor she likens to "arts missionary work."

"We performed in log cabins, in fields and forests, in insane asylums; 'Richard III' was a great favorite in the latter," Houghton recalls. "It was thrilling … a trial by fire."

Having determined that her "Bookends" project might work well in musical form, Houghton "found my sound" and forged a new and productive partnership when she happened to attend a Broadway adaptation of the children's classic "The Wind in the Willows" scored by the team of Adams and McDowell.

"I didn't want the music to be rock, pop or too intellectual," explains the playwright, who contributed lyrics in addition to the show's book. "I wanted the music to seduce the heart and amuse the soul."

Ladies' Lives Revealed in New Musical, Bookends, Directed By "Scrubs" Star Jenkins

By Kenneth Jones 20 Jun 2007
Ken Jenkins

Bookends, a new musical by Katharine Houghton, Dianne Adams and James McDowell, will make its world premiere in a staging by The New Jersey Repertory Company July 19.

Ken Jenkins, the actor widely known as the senior doctor on TV's "Scrubs," will direct the show, which concerns nonagenarian ladies — and longtime friends — who look back on their lives. The librettist and co-lyricist Houghton is the admired actress who played the daughter in the film, "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," among many roles in her career. (She is also Katharine Hepburn's niece.)

Music and co-lyrics are by Dianne Adams and James McDowell. Music direction is by Adams.

According to NJ Rep, "Bookends is the story of Madeleine Stern and Leona Rostenberg, celebrated rare book dealers, who met as young girls and forged a life-long friendship. Both in their 90s when the play opens, the women are compiling their memoirs. Flashbacks to their youth reveal them as two outspoken girls growing up in conventional families in Manhattan in the 1930s, where they are expected to marry, have children, and live close to home. But obsessed by their unusual passion for old and rare books, they resist convention to follow their dream, one that takes them on adventures all over the world and reveals to them 2,000 years of human folly, wisdom, mystery and serendipity. Based on a true story, this hauntingly beautiful musical will stay with you forever."

The cast will include Pamela Bob, Susan G. Bob, Eric Collins, Matt Golden, Kathleen Goldpaugh, Robyn Kemp, Robert Lewandowski, Howard Pinhasik, Alan Souza, Eileen Tepper, Amie Bermowitz, Jenny Vallancourt and Rebecca Weiner.

Gabor Barabas, the executive producer at New Jersey Rep, stated, "We selected Bookends from a submission of over a thousand scripts that we receive each year not only because a new musical is a rare creation, but because we were drawn to the lushness of the music, and to the humor, dramatic tension, and beauty of the play. Bookends will provide local audiences with the rare opportunity of witnessing the birth of a musical. And keep in mind, you no longer have to travel to Broadway in New York to see a new musical. You can go to Broadway in Long Branch."

The creative team includes Henry Aronson (piano), Rose Riccardi (stage manager), Jennifer Paulson Lee (choreographer), Charles Corcoran (scenic design), Jill Nagle (lighting design), Patricia E. Doherty (costume design), Jessica Parks (properties), Jessica Paz (sound design) and Quinn K. Stone (technical director).

No secrets in N.J. Repertory's New Year's comedy




Remember Y2K?

It crosses the minds of all six characters who are celebrating New Year's Eve 1999 in "Place Setting." Jack Canfora's funny and fascinating play, at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch , soon shows that these people had nothing to fear.

Not from a computer meltdown, anyway. They certainly have plenty to worry about as secret after secret is revealed. They pile on so high that the play rivals a soap opera for the sheer number of complications.

What separates "Place Setting" from daytime TV, though, is that Canfora has wonderfully incisive wit -- and he tells the truth about how 21st century men and women view relationships and marriages.

Andrea and Greg are the evening's hosts. Laura, Andrea's sister, has brought her terribly pretentious German filmmaker boyfriend, Richard. He's furious that Laura has taken him out of the city and to -- horrors! -- the New Jersey suburbs. (Many plays have Jersey jokes. This one has Jersey insults.)

Also on hand are Lenny -- Greg's brother -- and his longtime girlfriend, Charlotte. Andrea surmised Lenny would buy Charlotte an engagement ring for Christmas; that didn't happen, but Charlotte doesn't seem concerned.

When the audience discovers why, the play kicks into high gear. Evan Bergman's skillful and secure direction is one reason, but Canfora left nothing to chance. He's full of fresh-sounding lines for his characters: "Your marriage is a china shop waiting for a bull." "I have an empty feeling in the pit of my stomach whenever I do the right thing." "I look at the best moments of my life and realize that none of them were good for me."

Plenty of truths emerge in the two-hour play because "in vodka veritas.''

The second act, which takes place the morning after, is slower in feel, as hangovers take their toll. Canfora keeps the dialogue clear-eyed as he examines the ramifications of lust in one's heart (and other places). He doesn't flinch from pointing out that spouses are disappointed by those they marry, because day-to-day life forces one to know a mate far too well.

Canfora's in the play, too, and makes an affable Greg. Carol Todd gives an exceptionally unmannered performance as Andrea, the model homemaker. (Jessica Parks gives her handsome set on which to ply her trade.) Todd is magnificent when she offers a startlingly different point of view on loyalty in marriage.

As Laura, Kristen Moser does beautifully with a speech in which she learns that if she gets a tattoo, laser surgery can remove it easily and without scarring. Just like marriage, she realizes; nothing is permanent these days.

Peter Macklin has the right insufferable qualities for Richard, and adds a pungent accent. Lenny is a character who must run through a gantlet of emotions, and David Bishins succeeds at every signpost. Guenia Lemos impressively captures Charlotte 's many amoral qualities.

En route, there's some talk about New Year's resolutions. Theatergoers who didn't make any should resolve now to see "Place Setting."

Place Setting at NJ Repertory is worth a visit to Long Branch
Theater: NJ Repertory Company, Lumia Theatre, 179 Broadway, Long Branch, NJ
Show Title: Place Setting by Jack Canfora

Opened: June 2, 2007
Seen: June 10, 2007
Reviewer: Peter Kelston
Submitted: June 12, 2007

Jack Canfora’s engaging, sharp-witted play about three adult couples in troubled relationships is given a very pleasing production at New Jersey Repertory’s comfortable theater, not far from the beach in Long Branch, NJ. It is well-written, well-acted, smartly paced and very entertaining.

It takes place in the kitchen in the upscale, suburban NJ home of Andrea, an overbearing, proudly competent housewife (Carol Todd) and her sharp-tongued, cynical husband Greg (Mr. Canfora). It is New Year’s Eve 1999, a time to reflect on the past and talk about the future while dealing with the unfulfilled present.

Sitting around the kitchen table before the other guests arrive for the New Year’s Eve party are Andrea’s sister Laura (Kristen Moser) and her boyfriend Richard (Peter Macklin) who live together in New York City; Greg’s brother Lenny (David Bishins) and his girlfriend of two years, the sexy, exotic Charlotte (Guenia Lemos).

They tease each other and trade witty, cutting barbs – many with literary and pop-cultural references, as well as share New Year’s Resolutions as they help with the party preparations. Andrea asks Charlotte if she and Lenny have discussed marriage, and offers to help plan the wedding. All is quite convivial.

But long-simmering antipathies soon emerge. Laura objects to Andrea’s bossiness. Greg shows his disaffection for Richard, a pontificating, German documentary filmmaker who disdains anything that is not part of a hip cultural scene, especially anything having to do with New Jersey.

As the party guests begin to arrive (in the unseen living room) Andrea and the others go to greet them, returning to take out plates of hors d’oeuvres and other party fare. Wine needs to be brought in from from the garage. All the activity, multiple exits and entrances, quick exchanges of dialog seem very natural under the sure hand of director Evan Bergman.

The plot thickens when Greg and Charlotte are left alone to clean up the kitchen. They have been feeling strongly attracted to each other, but they have yet to act on their feelings. That they might be interrupted at any moment by someone re-entering the kitchen creates tension, but Canfora does not lapse into melodrama. Instead, and to his credit, his characters deal with their entanglements in naturalist ways that don’t feel at all contrived.

These are people the playwright knows and with whom he is comfortable. The place provides a familiar socioeconomic context. There is rarely a word that doesn’t ring true (save for Richard’s German accent). The set (by Jessica Parks) makes the comfort believeable.

This play was a pleasure to see. Well-worth the drive from NY to Long Branch.

Place Setting Eavesdrops on a New Year's Eve Family Dinner

Table Setting, the world premiere comedy-drama at New Jersey Rep, is set on December 31, 1999. The setting is the kitchen and dining room of the comfortable, middle class New Jersey home of Greg and his wife, Andrea. The acerbic Greg, who had ambitions to be a writer, is an ad writer. Less sharp, but pleasanter Andrea is a distractingly fussy housewife (I've heard that last word objected to by one who said that it wrongly one as being married to a house. If that is true, then it aptly describes Andrea).

Two other couples are with them for a family dinner prior to the expected arrival of additional guests. Greg's close, less acerbic brother Lenny is accompanied by his sharp-looking girlfriend Charlotte. Lenny identifies himself as being in "human resources," and Charlotte is an assistant editor. Andrea's sister Laura, an East Village, counter-culture type, has brought along her new boyfriend Richard, a pretentious, pompously assured purveyor of misinformation who identifies himself as an independent film director.

It appears apparent from this set-up that feuds and crises will comprise the entire play. And, in that respect, author Jack Canfora delivers that which is expected. The major crisis is that Charlotte is in the process of seducing the sorely tempted Greg into leaving Andrea. Matters are further complicated when Lenny proposes to Charlotte and takes her evasion of an answer as a "yes".

Table Setting boasts sharp, crisp, and richly humorous dialogue. Its story and recognizable characters engage our interest and emotions throughout (even though most of the characters are supremely selfish).

There is much food for thought here, largely concerning the complex nature of marital relationships. Author Canfora seems to suggest that settling for less than everything that one wants in a marriage is terribly sad, and that all marital issues need be confronted and worked out.

Author Jack Canfora portrays Greg with a boyish likeability. Canfora has given himself the lion's share of the play's barbed one liners (after all, Greg is an acerbic wise guy), and his comic timing and phrasing make the most of them. Carol Todd brings a great deal of honesty and nuance. Her Andrea is properly a mite annoying, yet gains sympathy for her determined actions. (The motivation for her launching a missile at Lenny is unclear and does undermine our sympathy for her. However, I think that it is the author who has some work to do here.)

David Bishins as Lenny runs the table believably, delivering a full range of emotional colors. Guenia Lemos performs with a easy and likeable sensuality. Given that Charlotte is most coldly selfish (to Greg – "Your brothers going to be betrayed and your wife broken, and it doesn't matter"), Lemos has to perform with tremendous appeal to enable us to accept Greg's temptation. Lemos has one especially clever line, "Your marriage is like a china shop, waiting for a bull." Kristen Moser has a likeable, slightly ditzy take on Laura, and Peter Macklin is deadpan funny as Richard. I couldn't quite identify his accent, but that may have been intentional for this phony filmmaker.

Director Evan Bergman has kept a lively pace, directed traffic well, and elicited fine performances all around. The richly detailed (with a fully loaded kitchen), and most attractive and playable set is by Jessica Parks. The excellent costumes by Patricia E. Doherty are especially effective in conveying the differing styles of the women and are flattering to boot.

Place Setting is neither unconventional nor particularly original, but it does provide witty, involving and thought provoking entertainment.

Jack Canfora’s Place Setting

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella;

New Jersey Rep has taken another chance, and it has paid off in an incisive and penetrating new play written by Jack Canfora.

Set on the eve of the new millennium (the much-ballyhoo’d 1999 into 2000, not the real new millennium for those geeks who care), Place Setting focuses on a dinner party and it’s aftermath. The bash is tossed by a freakishly controlling Andrea (Carol Todd) and her henpecked husband Greg (the playwright Jack Canfora). Andrea’s spunky and verbose sister Laura (Kristen Moser) is in attendance with her pretentious German filmmaker-wannabe beau Richard (a hilarious Peter Maclin). Rounding out the ‘table’ are Greg’s sweet but dull brother Lenny (David Bishins) and his stunning girlfriend Charlotte (Guenia Lemos).

As the witty barbs fly, we become privy to the fact that Greg and Charlotte are secretly in love. This revelation is the springboard for the rest of the play’s action.

Nicely directed by Evan Bergman, Place Setting cleverly manages to touch on some very important and universal themes such as the need for passion in one’s life vs. the allure of complacency and stagnation. Fears are exposed, marital and otherwise and Canfora balances the comedy and drama with ease. And his love of film comes through as well, which made this critic gleeful.

Kristin Moser stands out in a stellar cast. Her Laura is filled with anger, resentment and longing (and we can understand why she is so bitter once we spend a bit of time with her sister Andrea!) Moser is killer with comedy yet handles the more poignant and dramatic moments with equal conviction. She basically steals every scene she is in. Someone get this gal a sitcom!

The Andrea character is difficult to stomach, partly because she’s a calculating and manipulative bitch, partly because she’s trying to hold on to something the audience feels she has no right having. Todd does a fine job with her and even manages to eke out some sympathy from us.

Canfora wears both hats quite impressively. I had no idea that the funny and charismatic actor onstage had also written the play. There’s nothing showy about his performance.

Lemos’ Charlotte is a feisty, desperate figure who craves love and passion. The play, unfortunately, does her a great disservice by making her disappear completely in Act Two, yet tosses out quite damaging character dialogue that Charlotte is never allowed to address. Consequently, Lemos’ rich performance is undercut once we are led to believe she’s a vamp.

My only complaint is with the very final moment of the play where Andrea does something so very against her character, it pulled me out. Otherwise the play and the production rocks!

Kudos again to New Jersey Repertory Company for continuing to present exciting new work in a state where theatre companies are usually reviving Godspell for the seven thousandth time and wondering why they have no patrons!

Couples Share a Tense New Year's Eve in World Premiere of Place Setting in NJ

By Kenneth Jones
31 May 2007

The New Jersey Repertory Company, the Long Branch, NJ, troupe devoted to new works, presents the world premiere of Jack Canfora's New Year's Eve-set comic drama Place Setting May 31-June 24.

The play offers "three couples on New Year's Eve of the millennium, as they struggle to balance the lives they have with the lives they so desperately want," according to NJ Rep. Set in the suburban New Jersey home of Andrea and Greg, "they are joined for dinner by Greg's sharp-tongued brother, his sexy girlfriend, Andrea's spirited sister, and her German filmmaker boyfriend."

Directed by Evan Bergman and co-produced by Adam Weinstock, Place Setting will feature David Bishens, Guenia Lemos, Peter Macklin, Kristen Moser, Carol Todd and Jack Canfora.

Place Setting "poses the compelling question of what to do when one's responsibilities and happiness are at irreconcilable odds."

"I think it's a fundamental tension most of us wrestle with to some degree, even if we're not always aware of it," stated Canfora, who also portrays one of Place Setting's central characters. "These characters are all keenly conscious of that struggle, which leads some of them to desperation. I think the drama and the humor of the play both come out of the desperation that people face when they feel their immediate choices are going to impact the rest of their lives."

Performances are Thursdays, Fridays at 8 PM, Saturdays at 3 PM & 8 PM, Sundays at 2 PM.

Opening night is June 2. NJ Rep performs at 179 Broadway in Long Branch, NJ.

Tickets are $35 with discounts for seniors, groups, students (18-25). Opening night is $40. Previews are $25.

For more information, visit
David Bishins and Kristen Moser in the world premiere of Jack Canfora's Place Setting.
photo by SuzAnne Barabas



"Place Setting" is comedy for a new millennium
Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 06/6/07


Love and Murder
(STAFF PHOTO: ADENA STEVENS) Carol Todd (left) plays Andrea and Kristen Moser is Laura in Jack Canfora's "Place Setting," being staged by the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

DEC. 31, 1999: the night of the Millennium Bug. You remember it: Planes were going to fall from the sky; markets would crash and take every desktop Dell with them. Clubs and restaurants sat empty as Americans bunkered down at home, counting down their post-apocalyptic fate.

It's an altogether different but equally insidious virus that invades the suburban New Jersey household of Andrea (Carol Todd) and Greg (Jack Canfora) in "Place Setting," Canfora's seriocomic ensemble piece currently in its world premiere engagement at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. Fortified by ample stocks of wine and vodka, the tag-team bugaboos of brutal honesty and lapsed inhibitions wreak havoc on this New Year's Eve get-together — with guilt, despair and self-delusion pushing back from the other side.

If actor-playwright Canfora's script never quite parties like it's 1999 (these characters are too numbingly civilized to go all Sam Shepard on the set), it does hark back to a point in time — America's Last Age of Innocence? — when we seemingly had nothing to fear but a VCR-clock meltdown. While the play's six characters laugh off the millennial hysteria, the unspoken suggestion that life as we know it could end at midnight causes these people to behave in some interesting ways.

Invited into Andrea and Greg's tasteful kitchen and dining room are Greg's brother Lenny (David Bishins) and his smart and sexy girlfriend Charlotte (Guenia Lemos), as well as Andrea's sharp-tongued sister Laura (Kristen Moser) and her date, a German documentary filmmaker named Richard (Peter Macklin). While the characters manage to keep up the small talk in the early minutes of the play, it's when the party moves to the offstage living room that the fun begins, with the kitchen becoming the setting for a series of furtive trysts, desperate advances, teary confessions and barely-bottled hatreds.

The accomplished director Evan Bergman stages the opening moments of the first act as a sequence of stills frozen in flashbulbs, and the able cast of players (many of them new to NJ Rep's stage) accomplish a great deal within what is after all merely an extended snapshot from the lives of some very unhappy people. Only Macklin, with his artsy hairdo and freely dispensed Euro-contempt, seems out of sync in a virtually thankless part — why the self-important Richard needed to be German is hard to fathom, when the whole "downtown-vs.-suburbia" thing offers more than enough opportunity for conflict in the first place.

Playwright Canfora gives actor Canfora many of the script's funniest lines — not because Jack is an applause hog, but because his Greg is a frustrated guy who often floats a joke when a heartfelt word would have sufficed. He and brother Lenny know all the best lines from the movies, while their own ongoing interpersonal drama seems stuck in the silent era — and Greg performs his role as supportive spouse to Andrea as if reading from cue cards.

It's the seductive Charlotte who makes her face-time with Greg count ("I feel like I have to crash into people to feel I know them") — and Lemos brings an energy to her limited-time part that promises big things for the Brazilian-born pepperpot. Meanwhile, it's Lenny who is actually much more apt to spill his guts to Andrea ("I sound like I'm in a Merchant-Ivory movie . . . let me be a little more Scorsese about this") — an odd choice of confidante, as the mistress of the house is all about keeping it tidy.

Last seen here in the provocative "Whores," Carol Todd positions herself at the center of this production, by virtue of a solid performance as a woman to whom even domestic upheaval must occur on a clearly delineated timetable, and under a coded sort of etiquette. As outfitted down to the last tucked-away mixing bowl by Jessica Parks, Andrea's precisely-ordered kitchen is an extension of her own mechanisms for survival in an uncertain world — a place where there's but one way to load the dishwasher, and where a successful dinner means "everything comes out at the same time" (and boy, does it ever).

As the embittered Laura proclaims, "It's the new millennium . . . we're entitled to a few new rules."

A CurtainUp Review
Place Setting

But there it is — I admit there's been damage done here, obviously. I'm admitting responsibility.—Greg Someday someone will have to explain to me why people decided that that was such a big deal.— Lenny

It is New Years Eve 1999. Families and friends are gathered to celebrate the end on one millennium and the start of another. The big question on most everyone's mind is not necessarily whether computers will malfunction, but whether their clock radio, TV, or automatic coffee maker will freak out.

In Jack Canfora's cleverly constructed and smartly written domestic comedy/drama Place Setting, the lives of three couples in their 30 somethings are more inclined to go awry than the technology around them. Canfora's characters have been variously positioned to segue into the morning after the night before with a maximum of discomfort, stress and anxiety.

Andrea (Carol Todd) and Greg (Jack Cantora, yes, the play's author) are throwing a New Years Eve dinner party in their suburban home to welcome in the New Year. Andrea has worked frenetically to prepare an elegant dinner for her slightly younger sister Laura (Kristen Moser), Greg's slightly older brother Lenny (David Bishins) and their respective dates. The meal has been a success. But it doesn't take long for Laura's beau Richard (Peter Macklin) to begin displaying his true colors as an intolerably condescending, smug and obnoxious German documentary film maker ("Suburbia. It does things to people. They should hang a sign outside of the Lincoln tunnel — Welcome to New Jersey — suicide is a technicality").

It seems that Laura, an emotionally volatile woman, has a history of picking the wrong man. Then there is picking the wrong women issue. It only takes a few minutes alone with Greg in the kitchen for Lenny's absolutely gorgeous girl friend Charlotte (Guenia Lemos) to lust after her host, whose carnal interest in her is also apparently rife with history.

Of course, Andrea's attempt to run a smooth, convivial and conflict free dinner party for those closest and dearest to her is bound to run amok considering that she has previously discovered an incriminating letter written by her husband to Charlotte and now feels obliged to share it with Lenny. Lenny, however, has already asked Charlotte to marry him. There is a bit of the Alan Ayckbourne style afoot as the convolutions of the evening and following morning becomes springboards for a potential marital breakup and grievous romantic betrayals.

Richard's disdain for the others and his growing disaffection for Laura escalate with the same intensity as does Charlotte's attempt to get Greg to leave his wife. It wouldn't be cricket to reveal more of the plot, except to say that the plot is fueled by Andrea's announcement that she is going to have a baby, Laura's inclination to go out and get a tattoo and also be more than a sister-in-law to Greg, and Lenny's revelation that his fiancée has a history (there's that word again). The theme could be summed up as "you always hurt the one you love."

Canfora, who skillfully embraces both acting and writing, may not leave any of the characters unscarred or unscathed, but we are certainly kept alert and empathetic to their quandaries. This is especially true of Andrea, as played with stoic resolve by Todd. Canfora credibly expresses Greg's notable lack of character in the face of his gullibility. Bishins is excellent as the humiliated but love-sick Lenny. Moser makes the most of her role as the unsettled Laura. As Richard, Macklin achieves his goal to be reviled and conversely Lemos, as Charlotte, has no competition when it comes to being magnetically seductive.

Director Evan Bergman, whose most recent credit is Off Broadway's Machiavelli, keeps a firm grip on the slender threads that bridge the interplay between the comical and the poignant as well as on the well executed timing of exiting and re-entering characters that lose little time exposing their transparency as well as their transgressions. Designer Jessica Parks has designed the kitchen area so that the properties don't get in the way of the improprieties. This world premiere may not have the dramatic heft necessary for the Big Apple, but it is sure to please the audiences at the New Jersey Rep. and other regional theaters.



by Gary Wien

(LONG BRANCH, NJ) -- Summer theater at the Jersey Shore used to mean another round of Broadway musical revivals, but that was before NJ Repertory Theatre made Broadway in Long Branch a place where new works were introduced year round - including the summer season. The company's latest play is "Place Setting" by Jack Canfora, which is making its world premiere after a series of readings.

The comedy/drama revolves around three couples spending New Year's Eve together at the dawn of the new millennium in a typical suburban New Jersey house. The idea of being in the suburbs is very important to the plot. The house is the home of Andrea and Greg who are joined by Greg's brother Lenny and his girlfriend Charlotte as well as Andrea's sister Laura and her German filmmaker boyfriend Richard.

Richard, played by Peter Macklin, is one of the most irritating characters you will ever see. He's an "artist" who despises everything about the suburbs and puts down people at every chance. You can practically hear the audience grown after the first time he "corrects" someone at the dinner table. His corrections would continue all night and cause tension between the guests who want to remain polite, but find it harder and harder to do so.

Greg, played by Jack Canfora who also wrote the play, works as an ad writer but has never given up on his dream to be a real writer of fiction. Richard's subtle attacks on him lead to an instead hatred of his dinner guest while his brother's girlfriend (played by Guenia Lemos who previously starred in NJ Rep's "Love & Murder") causes him a conflict of an entirely different version.

The play largely centers around the idea of dreams and being trapped - whether in a job, a relationship, or simply... the suburbs. "Place Setting" is often hilarious but it is also much more than a situational comedy. There are some really heavy themes - adultery, revenge, depression - at play here as well. The blend leads to an entirely entertaining new work, which should hit home to many people in the audience (whether the play's content deals with them or someone they know).

Speaking of the audience, it was very refreshing to see about 3/4 of the audience raise their hands when Gabor Barabas asked, in his pre-show talk, how many people were visiting NJ Rep for the first time.

The play is full of wonderful one-liners throughout and the brothers often recite lines and scenes from their favorite movies like "The Godfather". This is most definitely a contemporary play and feels almost like an updated version of what might have happened if the characters in an 80s film like "St. Elmo's Fire" got together to celebrate New Year's Eve a decade later.

Canfora does a great job of transferring the idea of suburbia - a place where everything looks nice but nobody's ever really happy because deep down something is seriously wrong - with the character of Andrea (played by Carol Todd). She is the ultimate hostess nightmare and a poster child for Suburbia. Even though she knows her husband hasn't been happy in their marriage and suspects him of cheating on her, she manages to go along every day as the model suburban wife pretending that nothing is wrong.

"Don't blame me if you feel the need to bend down and pray three times a day in the direction of the nearest Home Depot," said Richard during a fight with Laura. "In the words of John Lennon, it ain't me babe!"

"IT WAS BOB DYLAN!" his girlfriend corrects him. God you're nasty when you're drunk."

"And you're boring when I'm sober," he retorted.            

Lenny (played by David Bishins) is the sort of person who knows Suburbia isn't all that it should be but recognizes it's values as well. At one point when Richard says that growing up in the suburbs has restricted Laura's ability to full express herself, Lenny responds, "But, in defense, there's always plenty of ample parking".

His girlfriend is almost the opposite of him. The sexy Charlotte is like the girl that doesn't belong in Suburbia but doesn't resent being there either. She's the type that leads a boyfriend to constantly worry and for good reason.

Laura (played by Kristen Moser) is a wonderful character. She's the type that never seemed to fit in with her family and finds ways to keep screwing up her life, but she never gives up. "I look back on the best moments of my life and none of them were good for me," she says.

In the end, Lenny pretty much sums up the night. "I never thought I'd say this... but, so far, I miss the 90s."

"Place Setting" has a very quick, fluid movement to it. Premieres generally feel like the beginning of a play's life and show hints of places where changes will be made, but this time around the play feels as though it's already been through that stage. It's not only ready for prime time now, but it's not difficult to imagine it moving on to that other Broadway someday. Congrats to NJ Rep for once again proving that great theatre need not take the summer months off.


"Love and Murder" make a passionate pair at New Jersey Repertory

Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 04/20/07


The funniest thing about "Love and Murder," the play by Arthur Giron currently in its world-premiere engagement at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, isn't its outlandish, overripe, naughty/nasty take on human nature. It's how much this mutant melodrama appears to have been ripped screaming from the author's own background.

The esteemed author and professor is able to spin even the most leaden of life experiences into dramatic gold. With "Love and Murder," Giron riffs upon his 1960s gig as a social worker in a way-upstate New York village — a place that, thanks to its proximity to an Indian reservation, an army base and the Canada border, was pretty much an inbred little island unto itself.

Inspired by that unnamed real-world hamlet, Giron's fictional Indian River is a cold and isolated place where TV signals don't penetrate, many of the locals sport a sixth finger and folks tend not to die (since the ground is usually too frozen to bury them). Held up by the federal government as an example of good old American values, it's the kind of town where the men join fraternal lodges and the women, discouraged by the town fathers from congregating, are forced to get their hair done at the local brothel. As more than one character declares, it's a place "where men were born to kill, and women were born to be killed by them."

It's also a "sister city" to a village in Guatemala, from which a young lady named Helen (Brazilian-born actress Guenia Lemos in her NJ Rep debut) comes to live as an exchange student at the home of upstanding citizen Dr. Tuttle (John FitzGibbon) and his wife, Tex (Liz Zazzi) — staying on as a maid (and virtual slave) to Mrs. Tuttle, an aspiring singer whose showbiz dreams hinge upon a deadly revue called "Songs of All Nations." She's soon joined as a resident guest in the household by "Blackie" Swamp Cree (Dan Domingues), an alarmingly ambitious young cop of Mohawk ancestry who's hired as a local officer by the village elder Doc — and whose presence as agent provocateur and all-around "naked savage" sends the Tuttle teapot to boiling.

One look at Harry Feiner's stylized set design should tell you that we're not on solid American soil here — reducing the Tuttle home to sheets of washed-out colors and plush-pile carpeted speedbumps, it suggests a house built from the fuzzy details of half-recalled dreams; a borderland dimension that seems strangely appropriate to this place beyond laws, where the characters behave as though they've had pencils pushed into the parts of their brains that govern inhibitions.

Even so, very little is as it first appears in Indian River. It quickly becomes evident that the oily Doc Tuttle is not only not a real doctor, but most likely not even a real Tuttle. Blackie has apparently been impersonating an officer, and Tex's labored impersonation of a faithful wife is in its death throes. As for the innocent, exploited, virtuous Helen, you've got to believe Tex when she describes the guest worker as "an unreal being" from a time "before rules was invented."

FitzGibbon is the perfect choice to embody the quack doctor.

Working once again with "The Best Man" director Peter Bennett, Domingues takes a bold turn that leaves him standing revealed — particularly in a humiliatingly impromptu physical exam by the sadistic Doc. Not to be put out of a job by Blackie and his birthday suit, costumer Patricia Doherty turns in some of her finest work, including Helen's sexy spin on a Scout uniform — and a hilarious Doc Tuttle lodge get-up that looks to have been pre-owned by Oliver Hardy.

Zazzi is an agile pro who does her bewigged and Dollywooded best in a generally shrill and unsympathetic part — and Lemos makes Helen's transition from semi-invisible servant to savvy seductress a smooth and engaging journey (let's see more of her).

Enjoy "Love and Murder" for what it is: an entertaining sideshow, acted with guts and gusto and starring a bunch of human oddities who, to paraphrase Blackie, recognize no borders.

Complex Love and Murder at New Jersey Rep

Love and Murder
Guenia Lemos and Liz Zazzi
There is currently deception afoot at every turn at the New Jersey Rep.  It begins well before the curtain rises.  It starts with the world premiere play's pulp title Love and Murder and the theatre's promotional description of it, to wit: "When two men vie for the same women, there's more duplicity than meets the eye as lives hang in the balance in this serio-comic murder mystery set in an upstate New York bordertown."  Surely, a light, fun tricky mystery awaits us.  Or so we have been led to believe.

All the plot elements for such a mystery are in place here, and we are nicely misdirected from a tricky and clever surprise ending.  However, author Arthur Giron and his accomplices in this endeavor have something more unconventional in mind.  There are clues to this in the opening monologue delivered by Native American Deputy Sheriff Thomas Swamp Cree (who is most often addressed to as "Blackie"). The first scene following the monologue reveals an odd set for the home of a rich, small town power broker and his wife.  It is designed as a series of overlapping hangings of large, grey, I would think Indian rugs or blankets.  You, my sharp readers, would probably by this point have discerned that something thematically complex has been set in motion. However, although I found this design very unsettling, I must admit that it took me a while longer to realize that Love and Murder is a mythological, anthropological fable set in a fantasyland existing outside of time and space.

The stated location is Jefferson County in the far northwest corner of New York.  The time is 1967.  For the past four or five years, middle-aged Dr. Tuttle, who previously had not had any romantic relationships, has been married to former singer Tex, a fading, over the hill, flashy, bleached blonde.  Tex only married the stolid Tuttle for the shelter of his money.  Their maid Helen, a Mayan from Guatemala, had been an exchange student, but has remained illegally in New York.  Blackie makes love to Tex ("my tribe doesn't recognize borders").  When Tuttle discovers that Tex has been telling Helen that she saves her salary for her in a bank account, but has actually been spending it frivolously on herself, Tuttle becomes angry at Tex for her mistreatment of Helen.  Tex responds by informing Tuttle that she truly despises him.  Helen seduces Tuttle, who finds succor in the arms.  She becomes pregnant.  Tuttle now loves Helen, and is determined to protect her and their unborn child. Absurdist humor abounds in the form of odd occurrences. One example is when the intoxicated Tuttle dresses in a fancy dress uniform and flagellates himself for his assignation with Helen.

Most crucially, we are not in any real time or place.  We are in a time warp which has preserved the natural laws which existed before European presence in the Americas.  Author Arthur Giron posits a primal side of nature which will always seek that the land be restored to its native population.  All of this is quite stimulating and engages the intellect.  It also inherently reduces the taut suspense and easy pleasure for which conventional light mysteries strive.

The ominous mood created by director Peter Bennett employs sound and lighting most effectively.  Liz Zazzi (Tex) daringly throws caution to the wind to present us with a ripley entertaining, over the top floozy.  John FitzGibbon convincingly details Tuttle's transition from pompous bully to loving incipient father and ...."  Well, therein lies the tale, and we wouldn't want to give it away.

Guenia Lamos strongly projects Helen's anger and sincerity.  Whether or not Helen deserves our belief, Lamos appropriately makes certain that she gets it.  Dan Domingues (Blackie) efficiently conveys the smooth veneer of Blackie.

The complex mixture of elements does not always blend together smoothly.  Still, in all, Love and Murder is an intriguing blend of absurdist humor, mystery and anthropologic philosophy which will hold your interest throughout.


by Gary Wien

(LONG BRANCH, NJ) -- Arthur Giron's "Love and Murder" starts off with one of the most captivating openings I've ever seen. Dan Domingues as Blackie reveals that a murder has been committed in Upstage New York and the description and language used grabs your attention immediately. The play never relinguishes its grip on you until long after the play is finished. It's a wonderfully clever "who done it?" with enough twists and turns that you'll be scratching your head as to who the murderer truly is and how it played out.

"Love and Murder" is the latest world premiere at New Jersey Repertory Company. The play features a wonderful cast including Domingues, John FitzGibbon, Guenia Lemos, and Liz Tazzi.

"If you prayed more you wouldn't be so ugly," says Tex (Liz Zazzi). "Men do not like women who are athiests."

Tex (a small time singer who thinks of herself as a minor star) gives that advice to her maid (Helen), an illegal immigrant who has been working for her for the last few years without pay. Tex is constantly worried about her leaving, so she hides mail sent to her.

We are soon introduced to Thomas "Blackie" Swamp Cree, an Indian who was formerly a police officer. He brags about coming from a town where he put 600 kids behind bars under false pretenses, a move that brought him national attention. He's a "cop without a conscience."

Blackie is hoping to be hired as a cop in town and tried to impress Tex's husband (Dr. Tuttle) who is one of the people involved in the town council. Dr. Tuttle taunts Blackie with racist slurs and tries to humilate him by putting him through a full physical with both ladies present in the room. As Blackie stands there naked, Dr. Tuttle points a magnifying glass in front of Blackie's privates and "examines" him. He then dismisses Blackie as unfit and forces him to leave the house without his clothes since he is no longer employed as an officer and shouldn't be wearing the uniform.

Blackmail provides the Indian with the opening for the job and he joins the local police force. Meanwhile, a letter providing news that Helen's father had passed away changes things dramatically within the household. Dr. Tuttle becomes aware of how much his wife had kept secrets from him and kept Helen from the things she was owed.

"You are a thief and a liar, my dear," said Dr. Tuttle as his world unravels around him.

"You think any woman in their right mind could ever love you," replied Tex.

Suddenly everything becomes clear to the doctor. "And I thought we had a perfect life," he says quietly. "I wish I believed in divorce, but I don't."

The house becomes even more complicated when Helen reveals that the real reason she has stayed all these years was to serve the doctor - the man she loves.

"I have helped bring down governments, I have helped kill presidents... A little scandal in Indian River is nothing to me," the maid says.

And scandal there is. Blood, murder, cover-ups and investigations soon follow. The house is full of secrets and questions about what is love and what does it mean to be a man; what is religion and what is true salvation? Playwright Arthur Giron has penned a very exciting and entertaining play that should go on from here to a healthy future on additional stages.

Dan Domingues shows he is as talented as he is daring; Guenia Lemos has a commanding presence on the stage; John FitzGibbon is wonderful as the meak doctor; and Liz Zazzi rounds out an excellent cast as the singer who never made it to the big time.

This play is highly recommended!



Passions run high at NJ Repertory premiere

Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 04/13/07


To playwright Arthur Giron, "Love and Murder" is a light whodunit that's rooted in some very serious themes — the lot of the illegal immigrant, social isolation and the titular crime of passion.

Since taking a leave of absence from a career as a speechwriter for David Rockefeller some 40 years ago, the 70-year-old Manhattanite (a founding member of New York City's esteemed Ensemble Studio Theatre) has crafted nearly 20 full-length plays, several of them touching upon issues that resonate with his own origins in Guatemala. His 2006 script "The Coffee Trees" is, in fact, a version of Chekhov's "Cherry Orchard" transplanted to Guatemala. With "Love and Murder," now entering its world-premiere engagement at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, the veteran author and educator manages to revisit his Central American turf, by way of the United States/Canada border.

As Giron explains it, "Many years ago, I did social work in a village in upstate New York, where the play takes place . . . as it turned out, they were "sister cities' with a village in Guatemala."

Noting that the people of the upstate hamlet prided themselves on their "old-style American values" — attitudes not too far removed from those of rural Guatemalan enclaves that frowned upon village women congregating in public places, or even drinking coffee — Giron plucked the germ of an idea from the cool Canadian air.

In "Love and Murder," a beautiful young Guatemalan woman named Helen (Guenia Lemos) comes to live as an exchange student at the home of one Dr. Tuttle (John FitzGibbon), the town's most prominent citizen and a man mired in a largely loveless marriage with flamboyant cabaret singer Tex (Liz Zazzi).

The passion part comes into play when the student stays on illegally as maid in the doctor's household. As for the crime, well, let's just say the situation escalates to the point where it necessitates the introduction of Blackie (Dan Domingues), a cop from the neighboring Indian reservation.

It's an entertaining tale told with a dash of mystery and a dollop of music — but, in between its playful plot points, the script has much to say about some issues that the author takes very seriously, such as "America's exploitation of Third World countries" and "the limits that we tend to put on ourselves."

"Many people still tend to isolate themselves, and (the play) is set in an isolated place, with four very passionate people," the playwright observes. "It's a place where there's no sun, and all there is to do is have sex and go crazy."

In Giron's world, "Love and Murder" are two sides of the same highly charged coin, with the whole concept of "living on the borderline" exerting a major influence on the proceedings.

"The Mohawk reservation in the area where the play is set exists partly in the United States, and partly in Canada," Giron explains. "And the character of the wife, who's a Dolly Parton type with an act called "Songs of All Nations,' comes from El Paso, which is a border situation also."

The show is being directed by Peter Bennett.


by Gary Wien

Arthur Giron is one of the top contemporary playwrights in the country. His plays are performed continuously throughout America. He was awarded the Los Angeles Critics Drama-League Prize for "Outstanding Achievement in Playwriting" for his play, "Becoming Memories". A former Head of the Graduate Playwriting Program at Carnegie Mellon University, he has taught workshops across the land. His latest play is called "Love and Murder" and it will be premiering in April at NJ Rep.

We spoke to Mr. Giron about his play, what inspires him, and the new theatre in his life.

Tell me about Love and Murder.
One of the characters is a Latino woman who's an illegal alien maid. In the movie version it would be Selma Hayek. We have a very beautiful Brazilian woman acting the role. She comes to America as an exchange student but stays on illegally in the house of the richest man in the village in upstate New York and he falls in love with her. Eventually the lady she works for is murdered and that brings about Blackie, an Indian cop. And to this day no one has guessed who the killer is! Isn't that great?

The truth is that the illegal immigrant maid is taken advantage of by the lady she works for. For me, it's a big thing the way the third world countries are taken advantage of. I carry within me enormous rage about a lot of things. I read somewhere that you said you write out of pain and a question, is that still your inspiration?

If you were studying with me I would say throw away all of those books on structure. What it is is the question you are asking. For example, Hamlet wants to know who killed my father and then that detective question gives the shape. He's looking for the answer and that's the structure.

A very good example is "A Chorus Line" - who's going to get the job? In the first 5 minutes they're all saying "I need this job, I need this job" so the audience buys into the question which is who is going to get the job.

So I feel from a suspense point of view that I have a question I want to know that's personal. For example, I have a play about the Boy Scouts where I ask the question "what is a man?" The question in the play is "is this kid going to make it in the woods all night?" But I am writing out of something that's happening to me today that I don't know the answer to and so I then write the play to try to find out what the answer is.

What was the question asked in this play?
When it begins we know there's been a murder, so there's the 'who did it' question but I'm asking questions such as 'what is more important? an artistic life or a happy family life?' Also the question of 'what is our responsibility to those who have less than we do?'

I'm tormented by what we see every day in the news. As a nation, we need to do more than we know so a good part of the play has to do with an older couple and a younger couple. I would like people to start thinking about the responsibility they have to those who are coming after us and the younger generation. One of the two younger people in the play is a Mayan Indian so what about these brown people? What do we owe them and how do we relate to them?

It's a plea for understanding. Can we understand? What can we do to increase our understanding?

When a playwright has had as many productions as you have had, what gets you excited for yet another opening night? You've been through all the jitters, the reviews, etc. What gets you excited now?
This is what happens... you fall in love with your characters. I think that one of my jobs is to give a voice to people who don't have one.

I like to have people voicing certain ideas and that's why I do this - to do what other people are not doing. What's so exciting is that we're going to hear voices that as far as I know aren't talking anywhere.

I'm trying to get at the truth. Many years ago, I was hijacked to Havana in the first plane that was hijacked. It was a news blackout because it was about Cuba. I sold my story significantly to Canada but in the United States the news that went out was a lie. It was not what happened to us. What happened was the guy took the plane to Cuba but the newspapers said he was an Algerian Freedom Fighter. He wasn't.

I lost my faith in the press that day. You're not going to get the truth in the papers. You're not going to get the truth in tv. I give you information that goes into your heart so there are things I need to talk about that I'm not hearing. That's part of seeing a play for the first time. It's getting out there these new thoughts. But I also want it to be entertaining, so this play is funny and sensual too. It's all about how you do it artistically to get the information through.

You were a founding member of The Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York, which has produced over 3,000 new plays in its 36 years. Earlier today you were at a ceremony involving the company's new theatre but it was a bit bittersweet wasn't it?
The sad thing about today was that our Artistic Director, Kurt Dempster, died about a month ago. So it was extremely sad to go into this beautiful new space and he's not going to be there. Of course we kept on saying that we've got to call the theatre the Kurt Dempster Theatre. It's got to take his name because he's the one.

When we first started Mayor John Lindsay gave us the space we had on West 52nd Street for a dollar a year. Of course that's all changed now. That whole neighborhood is going gentrified and all that. Suddenly all that land is very valuable. But, in the meantime, the city has been building us a theatre which we're going to have to figure out how we're going to pay for it because they'll give us the space but it's going to cost us a lot more money.

There's more duplicity than meets the eye as lives hang in the balance in this serio-comic murder mystery set in an isolated upstate New York border town. Directed by Peter Bennett, the play stars Dan Domingues, John FitzGibbon, Guenia Lemos and Liz Zazzi.

Love and Murder follows the lives of Dr. Tuttle, the most prominent member of a community still stuck in the 1950's, and that of his wife, Tex, an aspiring singer. Their relationship appears to be stable on the surface but dark passions and frustrations seethe beneath, ready to be unleashed at any moment. The catalysts for the inevitable crisis are Helen, the couple's illegal South American maid, for whom Tuttle harbors a repressed desire, and Blackie, a Cree Indian policeman with a dark past.



Shows go from Shore tryouts to New York City

Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 03/30/07


Shore-area audiences who weren't fortunate enough to have caught Athol Fugard's drama "Exits and Entrances" when it played Long Branch last spring now have another chance: The South African playwright's acclaimed duet is making its long-awaited New York debut in a limited-run, off-Broadway engagement.

A snapshot portrait of the real-life Afrikaans actor Andre Huguenet and the societal sea changes that likely hastened his booze-soaked decline, "Exits" injects an autobiographical element in the person of an earnest young writer — an unnamed stand-in for the young Fugard — who befriends the fast-fading thespian. In a review from May 2006, Press readers learned that "to see it is to be provided with a direct glimpse into the creative process of one of the world's greatest living playwrights."

Best known for "Master Harold . . . and the Boys," Fugard wrote "Exits" expressly for director Stephen Sachs and his L.A.-based Fountain Theatre, working closely with Sachs and his cast (Morlan Higgins as Huguenet, William Dennis Hurley as The Playwright) as the director and actors premiered the show on the West Coast and fine-tuned it at engagements across the country — including a memorable few weeks at Monmouth County's own New Jersey Repertory Company.

Higgins, Hurley and Sachs are all on board once more as "Exits and Entrances" continues a New York run that opened officially on Wednesday and lasts until April 28. A production of Primary Stages, the play is being presented at 59E59 Theaters (59 E. 59th St., natch). Tickets ($60) can be reserved by calling (212) 840-9705.


Michael Nathanson (left), Ian August and Stephanie Thompson star in "tempOdyssey," now being staged by the New Jersey Repertory Company.
File this NJ Rep offering under oddities
Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 02/27/07

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While it probably doesn't appear in the troupe's mission statement, it's actually become something of a policy for New Jersey Repertory Company: cheerfully delving into the surreal and playing with any preconceptions of what a nice, suburban stage company should be doing to earn its subscription dollars.

The latest vehicle for NJ Rep's impish impulses is a little play now playing at their Long Branch main stage by the name of "tempOdyssey," an almost unclassifiable work that's set, strangely enough, in a room full of file cabinets. It's part of a "rolling world premiere" event, staged in cahoots with other affiliated members of the National New Play Network.

The script by Texas-based Dan Dietz places a young temp by the name of Genevieve (Stephanie Thompson) in the downtown Seattle suites of Ithaca Tech Solutions, a place where scientists create weapons of mass destruction and edgy micro-managers work to destroy the psyches of their beleaguered employees.

Branded as "Jane" by her co-workers since, well, all female temps are named Jane, Genny has escaped her family's Georgia chicken farm to "shake the grits out of my ears," lose her drawl and disappear into a hopefully uneventful career as a temporary receptionist.

As portrayed with barely contained manic energy by Michael Nathanson (seen very recently in NJ Rep's "Don't Hug Me"), "Jim" is a temp of a different stripe, a thieving slacker who carries an executive access card — and who knows where the permanent records are kept. Having learned from a master of inter-office intrigue (an almost Jedi-like elder temp named Fran), "Jim"
takes early control of the proceedings, showing Genny the view from the top floors and introducing her to the nearly mythical "Johnson File" — as well as the doomsday device known only as "Jane's Revenge."

Little Genny, as it happens, is a one-woman doomsday scenario in and of herself — a woman for whom death is "what I have to give." Gifted with a facility for choking chickens — a skill that's been at the heart of her relationship with her fowl-farmer dad (David Sitler) — the neck-twisting specialist has come to believe that her very touch brings death and/or despair to all those who get close to her. It's a trait that further manifests itself in an obsession with black holes, and by the time that our terrible temp gets hold of "Jane's Revenge," all hell seems poised to break loose.

Phasing in and out of her Appalachian accent, making an alarmingly smooth transition from put-upon protagonist to downright scary Goddess of Death, Thompson holds her own with the lighting and sound designs of Jill Nagle and Jessica Paz, whose swirling, pulsing projections of worlds in collision and other deep-space phenomena turn Jo Winiarski's blandly sinister file-room set into a jarring theme-park ride.

Cosmic concepts

Anyone who caught "Tilt Angel," the previous Dietz offering at NJ Rep, should know what kind of unexpected to expect — bracingly funny dialogue, eye-popping effects and a script that grapples with some cosmic concepts even as it delivers the gut-level laughs.

Carrying built-in parallels to the original "Odyssey" as well as trace elements of "The Wizard of Oz" and countless half-recalled late-night horror shows, "tempOdyssey" feeds off the NJ Rep team's flair for challenging material with an energy that flags only in the play's final moments.


by Gary Wien

(LONG BRANCH, NJ) -- The surreal mind of playwright Dan Dietz returns to NJ Rep's stage in the "rolling world premiere" of tempOdyssey, a play that is premiering in several theatres around the country at the same time as part of the National New Play Network.

tempOdyssey follows Little Genny, a woman who fled her Georgian past as a chicken choker to move to Seattle and is now embarking on her first day as a temp in an office unlike any other temp job she's ever had. Genny gets a sense of how crazy her new employer is from the very first minute she enters the office and is "trained" by the receptionist she is replacing. It's the woman's last day and she prepares Genny by reciting the office rules such as "one bathroom break in the morning, one in the afternoon - don't leave your desk unattended otherwise or you're fired." Genny laughs but soon realizes the woman is serious.

Once left alone, the phones start ringing like crazy and Genny tries frantically to not only learn how the phone system works but to learn what the name of the company is. Meanwhile another temp named Jim enters the picture and tries to start a conversation but Jenny tries to avoid him.

"I can't talk right now, I'm working" she says. "My mistake," said Jim. "I thought you were temping."

The play's first act is a wonderfully creative blend of sound and lighting effects to emulate the "big bang" and "black holes" which play major roles in the play since the company she temps for makes a product that has a small chance of creating a black hole by mistake.

tempOdyssey is a hilarious look at inner office politics and the art of temporary workers. Genny likes being able to work from place to place without ever being tied down to any one particular place. Jim feels the same way even though he's worked for the same company for over two years. The company constantly tries to get him to sign on permanently but he refuses.

"The CEO calls me 'the hold out - the one with balls" explains Jim.

Jim tells Genny that he was trained by a temp named Fran - a woman who was a temp worker for about 30 years - how to be the ultimate temp... how to be immortal. His main advice to her is that temps can do anything there as long as they don't break anything. Unfortunately, she has a history of breaking things and her streak of bad luck or doing bad things continues whenever she gets close to someone.

In Dan Dietz tradition, the play is surreal throughout with moments of pure surrealism lifting it to a plane almost unimaginable. The first act uses the sound and lighting to pull off the extra surrealism while the second act (which largely seems to take place in Genny's mind) seems to be a bit of a letdown without the visual effects. It's not necessary that the second act is weak, it's somewhat a letdown largely because the first act is so wonderfully written that it's hard to keep going at such a high level. Nevertheless, this play is well worth seeing for the first act alone. There are parts that are simply mind blowing and laugh out loud funny.

tempOdyssey stars Ian August, Andrea Gallo, Michael Nathanson, David Sitler and Stephanie Thompson. As usual, NJ Rep has comprised a truly outstanding cast of actors. Stephanie Thompson as Genny and Michael Nathanson as Jim (aka Dead Body Boy) are truly amazing and Ian August is hilarious as the Scientist (one of many roles he plays).

The set was designed by Jo Winiarski, lights by Jill Nagle, costumes by Patricia E. Doherty, properties by Jessica Parks, and sound and projections by Jessica Paz.

More than just another office place comedy, tempOdyssey tries to merge its story of the quest for meaning of life with Homer's Odyssey. While it may not always work, it does make you think. It also makes you wonder just what other crazy stories are bouncing around in the head of Dan Dietz. One thing's for sure, he's an original.

Discover The Meaning Of Life At New Jersey Rep

Michael Nathanson and Stephanie Thopmson in tempOdyssey.

Or maybe not…

By Philip Dorian, The Two River Times

Don't look for an explanation of tempOdyssey here. Opinion, sure; but as for explanation, you're on your own. Much of Dan Dietz's play at New Jersey Repertory Company is baffling. The beginning, with gobbledytalk about black holes and science gone awry, left me perplexed. So did the metaphysical ending. Then there was everything in between. There's no linear plot. No regular boy-girl romance, no "good guys v. bad guys," not even a king who dies at the end. The play swerves, seemingly randomly, from idea to idea and mood to mood.

Supposedly the playwright sees a symbiosis between office temp work and The Odyssey, the Greek epic poem traditionally ascribed to Homer. Playwright Dietz might see it, but I don't, and it's way too late to check with Homer.

So why did I like tempOdyssey so much? I asked one of the actors. "It's like an abstract painting," Michael Nathanson said, "not just a picture of something. It's got shapes and colors that grab your attention and appeal to you even if you don't know exactly why." I came home and gazed for a while at an abstract watercolor that I've cherished for years. Mike had nailed it. Rather than telling a story, tempOdyssey just happens in front of you, like a piece of music - or an abstract painting.

It helps that the play is so deliciously acted, especially by my lay-analyst Nathanson and by the beguiling Stephanie Thompson, who plays Genny, as in Genevieve, aka Little Genny. She's a former "chicken choker" (stay tuned), now office temp. Nathanson plays Dead Body Boy (now that's abstract), a.k.a. Jim, another temp in the same company, who's been there so long he "could find [his] desk in the dark."

Genny is a recent transplant to Seattle from her family's farm in Georgia, where she earned her alliterative occupational tag via her unique method of killing chickens by spinning their necks 720 degrees. (For the geometrically challenged, that's twice around.) Problem was, she couldn't confine her talent to feathered cluckers. You wouldn't want Little Genny to consider you a pain in the neck, if you get my drift.

Genny shows up at a bomb manufacturing company (wouldn't you know it), where she's given hasty instruction by the blustery CEO (Ian August), which involves mainly barking that two-word obscene phrase into the phone. She and Dead Body Boy, who's not actually dead - yet - riff on the advantages of being temporary. Lines like "Temps do everything for you except be yours," and "As long as you don't break anything you're okay," might indicate that Dietz's play is a metaphor for the odyssey (small "o") of life. Let's just go with that.

Forays into Genny's memory bank, flashbacks to her farm origins, are alternately eerie and funny. Genny's father is hardly the nurturing type; David Sitler plays papa very well, and Andrea Gallo is the rustic mama. Gallo, like Mr. August, excels in other cameo roles as well. August's astrophysicist is properly pompous, and Gallo's temp-from-the-past is the picture of irritating efficiency.

Jim and Genny are a quirky pair, to say the least, and Nathanson and Thompson match them quirk for quirk. He's an uninhibited actor whose limber-limbed, rubber-necked clown scene is a comic gem (although the bit barely sidesteps ridicule of certain handicaps). Genny is a character of extremes, from girlish innocence to intense malevolence, and Thompson, whose poise and swan neck recall Audrey Hepburn, brings it all home. Some of the Jim & Genny scenes are romantic, some confrontational, some actually disturbing (the first act curtain's a doozy); Nathanson and Thompson are in sync with each other in every one.

Plaudits to director Sturgis Warner for the ensemble work and the nimble pace, and Jill Nagle gets a major shout-out for her superb lighting design. Altogether, the tech design and execution complement tempOdyssey perfectly. Like the play itself, the various effects come out of nowhere, but somehow the shapes and colors fit just right.

Make of Dead Body Boy and Genny et al what you will; they and their play are fun to watch. It's ‘Office Temp Meets Carrie' at New Jersey Rep.



NJ Rep promotes a uniquely American voice

Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 02/23/07


You might say temporary workers are invisible Americans: that teeming gray area of the nation's workforce, a shadowy caste whose voices remain silent even as their legions swell. But in a country where the hobo, the outlaw and the gigolo have been celebrated in story and song, who sings the praises of the always-punctual, ever-efficient, non-wavemaking temp?

Dan Dietz knows a thing or two about temping, having done the time-sheet deal both full-time and every summer throughout his stint in grad school. As the Austin, Texas-based playwright sees it, to temp is to walk the razor's edge.

"On the one hand, you have no clout . . . your opinion counts for nothing," says Dietz of the temp's lot in life. "And yet, there's this incredible freedom . . . I knew I wanted to write about this sort of experience."

For Dietz, the germ of an idea began to take shape during one of those temp summers, a time in which he whiled away his downtime hours with a re-reading of Homer's classic "The Odyssey" — along with a little casual research into the topic of black holes. By the time the budding dramatist took part in a "hothouse" writers' workshop in Seattle — an event in which writers were expected to produce plays within a corporate conference-center environment — the artist had found his cubicle-bound muse.

The result? "tempOdyssey," a dark comedy about a Seattle office temp named Little Genny, who comes to believe that she is the Goddess of Death, dispatched to this godforsaken basement file room as part of some epic quest for the meaning of life itself.

Having tested there as a script-in-hand reading, the play comes to the stage of New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch for a four-week run that begins this weekend.

Produced in conjunction with National New Play Network, a loose alliance of nonprofit stage companies of which NJ Rep is a member, "tempOdyssey" is a "rolling world premiere," a work that's being presented by more than one New Play Network affiliate within the same season (the script has already been staged at member playhouses in Denver, Indianapolis and Washington).

The show also marks a return to the NJ Rep mainstage for Dietz and his uniquely skewed perspective on American life. The company previously spotlighted Dietz's jaw-droppingly surreal comedy-drama "Tilt Angel," in which a young shut-in (Ian August) travels to the afterlife via a monstrously oversized telephone; a missing mom (Andrea Gallo) is reincarnated as a sentient tree and a giant skeletal hand emerges from the most frightening backyard garden ever devised.

Although something of an underperformer at box office, Dietz's take on family bonds earned raves in these pages and established the author as a talent to watch.

Joined by Michael Nathanson, David Sitler and Stephanie Thompson under the direction of Sturgis Warner, August and Gallo return to Dietz-land in "tempOdyssey" a study in what happens when a "temp who wants only to be anonymous meets up with a temp who wants to take risks," in a place where the mundane becomes the mythic.

"We all tell ourselves little myths about ourselves to get through the day," Dietz observes. "What happens if that myth becomes so exaggerated that it takes over, and you become disconnected?"

While the playwright (who will soon be punching the clock as a faculty member at Florida State University) professes a certain admiration for the traditional American work ethic, he also marvels at such currents as the erosion of employer-employee loyalty — and the fact that "being promoted" at one's workplace often achieves the same result as being fired; namely, you get to spend more time at home.

"Work was always an escape for many people; a way to hide from the rest of the world," Dietz continues. "But, as we all eventually find out in life, everything is temp."


New Jersey Repertory Company drops a dramatic bombshell
Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 01/9/07


Juliet Kapanjie (left) and Kittson O'Neill appear in a scene from New Jersey Repertory Company's production of "October 1962," now being staged in Long Branch.

Is it too early to proclaim the Shore area's best play of 2007?

For their first mainstage offering of the year, the people of New Jersey Repertory Company have dropped something of a quiet bombshell — a production that sets the bar high for everything to follow. In "October 1962," the drama by D.W. Gregory now in its world premiere engagement at the company's Long Branch playhouse, family secrets and neighborhood tensions approach critical mass in the days immediately before and during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

It's a play in which Fidel Castro and President John F. Kennedy are conspicuous in their absence; it's a play that gives center stage to a smaller-scale (but no less lethal) crisis that starts when a young man returns to his family home after serving a prison stretch for manslaughter.

Playwright Gregory, who previously refracted several decades of American history through the prism of a Midwest farm family in "The Good Daughter," here frames this tense atom-age interlude within the modestly middle-class home shared by small-town businessman Dave Timmons (James Patrick Earley), wife Laura (Kittson O'Neill) and their daughters Jean (Jenny Vallancourt of Middletown) and Nancy (Juliet Kapanjie of Perrineville).

The Timmons household is a place where curtains are drawn against prying eyes, where a door-chain equals extra security and where the outside world (as represented by Walter Cronkite) is allowed access only at the appointed hour. It's also a household under siege, from the rattling of skeletons within as much as from the ratcheting up of tension in the community.

A decent man and a good neighbor, Mr. Timmons grants a job to the much-despised ex-con, who evidently strangled a young child when he himself was barely a teen. It's just a matter of days before threats start flying, mysterious "meetings" begin to occur and the rumor mill lurches into gear, helped in no small measure by Laura.

The author has allowed that her script bears traces of both "The Donna Reed Show" and its fellow 1962 television classic "The Twilight Zone" — the former in its unstated motif of conflicts resolved by an apparently infallible mom and dad, the latter in its recurring theme of suburban streets brought to chaos by fear and panic over bogeymen real and imagined.

Laura is a bit too friendly with the bottle, Dave makes far too many unexplained trips outside the home, and the entire household seems to operate under the credo "the less said about it, the better."

By contrast, the Timmons daughters are spirited rays of sunlight — sociable, community-minded and inquisitive to the point of playing "reporter" with strangely attractive, motorcycle-riding Tommy, a Boo Radley of sorts who remains unseen onstage. Borrowing their dad's binoculars and keeping a journal, the girls — who are not above dabbling in lies and secrets themselves — raise unanswered questions (Did he really kill the boy?) and stir up currents far darker than anything Nancy Drew ever encountered.

Under director Matthew Arbour's sure hand, the world of "October 1962" gains scale and dimension. In his company debut, Earley finds a satisfying balance between TV-dad authority and unsettling otherness; the versatile O'Neill adds another finely etched characterization to a broad NJ Rep portfolio.

No special allowances need be made for the youngest cast members — with their naturalistic, un-stagey styles and honest interactions, newcomers Vallancourt and Kapanjie rise to the challenges of their complex roles.

October 1962

A New Jersey Repertory Company presentation of a play in two acts by D.W. Gregory.
Directed by Matthew Arbour.
New Jersey Rep kicks off the New Year with D.W. Gregory's unnerving new drama
"October 1962." The date may be remembered as a cautious moment in time when President Kennedy challenged the Soviet Union's placement of threatening missiles on Cuban soil. Gregory parallels this brief but tense week in history with a small-town family crisis that may not be as harrowing, but holds similar menace.

The drama hinges upon the curious Timmons sisters, two young Catholic schoolgirls who fashion themselves into investigative reporters. The girls appear to harbor an obsessive grip on a teenage neighbor and former convict, the unseen Tom Nably, who murdered a 7-year-old boy some years before and has returned to a yellow house in the community. As a noble gesture, the girl's father provides employment for the young man, which causes quite a stir in the family.

Curtains are drawn and lights are dimmed as the community trembles with fear. But the Timmons household appears to hold even darker secrets as the older daughter reveals dim memories of a parent's indiscretion.

Just as the inherent fear of the Russian medium-range ballistic missiles was quickly dismissed, a frightening Halloween domestic nightmare erupts and disappears.

While the ominous Tom never makes an appearance, playwright Gregory has invested the drama with a cinematic feel, inserting visions of him buying rope and tape at the grocery store and looking at knives at the local hardware. There's a decided Hitchcockian fabric to the steely narrative, and director Matthew Arbour has touched the aud's nerve ends with a loping, even pace that builds to an alarming revelation.

Performances are tidy but could increase the sense of panic and intensity. Played with the appropriate calculated naivety by Jenny Vallancourt and Juliet Kapanjie, the girls fail to heighten the morbid curiosity of the situation. James Patrick Earley, as the father who harbors a dark secret, gives a well-modulated perf, and Kittson O'Neill provides an earnest account of the wife who appears to dismiss a shady secret with a few shots of vodka.

Carrie Mossman's set offers a reasonably tidy suburban living and dining area that serves the action comfortably, as does Jill Nagle's chilly lighting.

'October 1962' takes a family to the brink

Monday, January 08, 2007
Star-Ledger Staff


Where were you in '62?

Those who were alive and aware certainly can remember where they were for one month of it: The 31-day period on which playwright D.W. Gregory concentrates in her powerful new play, "October 1962."

While the world wondered if President Kennedy could force the Soviets into removing its missiles from Cuba, the Timmons family was going through its own Armageddon.

One can tell that David (James Patrick Earley) and Laura (Kittson O'Neill) are not a happy couple, even before she opens a bottle of vodka. Never mind that her daughters, the teenage Jean (Jenny Vallancourt) and the pre-teen Nancy (Juliet Kapanjie), are right there when she takes her modest first drink -- and her larger second one.

Gregory gets the audience to sympathize with David, who seems to still love his wife, always trying to find the right words that will stop her from drinking. Laura, though, rarely greets him with anything more than an "Oh. There you are."

Laura does screw the cap back on the bottle to take a stand against David's most recent decision. Some years ago, Tom Nabely, a 13-year-old neighbor, killed a 7-year-old boy. Laura is furious not only that Tom has been released from prison, but also that David has magnanimously hired him to work at his office.

Meanwhile, Jean has turned into a veritable Nancy Drew, peeking through curtains and eavesdropping at the drop of a word. Her object is simply to write a good romance novel based on the incident. What starts out as a lark turns dark. When she examines the recesses of her soul and her memory, she learns why she wanted to write this book in the first place.

Gregory makes "October 1962" one of those all-too-rare accomplished plays where theatergoers are sure they can guess what really happened, only to find that the playwright has led them down the wrong path of the maze. Her keeping Tom Nabely off-stage also makes an audience wonder if the man is as bad as Laura says, or reformed, as David insists.

The script is skillfully directed by Matthew Arbour, who accomplishes a few remarkable things here. He makes the tension between Earley and O'Neill unbearable in the first scene, yet escalates it to steadily increasing heights. In ensuring that Earley plays the victimized and brave husband while O'Neill conveys the ravages of alcoholism, he manages to mask the many revelations to come.

Granted, Gregory astutely gives Jean and Nancy the type of taunting often heard between siblings. ("Get a brain, will you?") Yet Arbour provides the chemistry for Vallancourt and Kapanjie to seem genuinely like sisters. While Kapanjie's elocution could be better, she has the lovely insouciance of a tween, and is a delight in maintaining a sunny disposition as her sister can no longer justify having one.

Hence, it's ultimately Vallancourt's play, and she wisely gets the final bow -- and a tidal wave of applause for all she's achieved. She beautifully calibrates her descent from optimism and innocence to a far sadder fate. Only the stoniest of theatergoers won't weep for her.

"October 1962" provides an excellent welcome to 2007. The first professional New Jersey theater production of the year sets a high standard for those yet to come.

A CurtainUp Review
October 1962

You don't make any sense. First you say not to worry. . . then you say we can't go to school alone. It's just like with the missiles. You want to pretend nothing is going on. But we know what's going on. We're not stupid. Why can't you just TELL US! (quick beat) Oh NEVER MIND! I DON'T CARE!— Jean to her parents.

(L to R) Juliet Kapanjie as Nancy and Jenny Vallancourt as Jean
(Photo: SuzAnne Barabas)
Don't try to deceive a child, as they know and see more than you think. That's one of the more prominent messages dramatized in D.W. Gregory's absorbing play now having its world premiere at the New Jersey Repertory Company. The title, October 1962, brings us back forty-five years to another still vivid (for some) time of anxiety and fear, the not so cold war, when the US was facing the possibility of a missile attack launched from Cuba by the Russians.

But the play only uses that time as a background for a scenario in which the people in a small town, specifically the Timmons family, are provoked by uncertainty and prompted to act often rashly in response to a perceived menace or danger. Fourteen year old Jean Timmons (Jenny Vallancourt) and her younger eleven year-old sister Nancy (Juliet Kapanjie) certainly know the drill. That is they know what they have been told to do if an atomic bomb should be dropped while they were in school, like hiding under their desks. But these are pretty clever girls and they quickly come to the conclusion, no matter what they have been told by the adults, that they would be just as dead sitting at their desks.

Undoubtedly a fan of the Nancy Drew mysteries, Jean envisions herself as part detective and part novelist as she peers through the window of the dining room using her father's binoculars. She reports what she sees going on outside the window in an engagingly descriptive manner to Nancy, who writes down her words in a diary. Apparently a young man who lived down the block has returned to his home after serving a sentence, for manslaughter of a seven year old when he was only thirteen. Jean's curiosity is peaked when she sees the young man, now old enough to drive a motorcycle, and who she only vaguely remembers as a child, in the company of their father David (James Patrick Earley).

Here is where Gregory's play begins to percolate. Apparently the townspeople are up in arms not only over the reappearance of the young man who they feel is a threat to the community and to the safety of their children but also by the fact that David has offered the young man a job in his business. His wife Laura (Kittson O'Neill) is more than irate with David's presumably generous action, which she is sure will jeopardize their standing in the community. Laura's response, as is quickly perceived, is fueled by something yet unseen, untold, or understood —as well as by the number of times she tips the gin bottle that sits readily available on a side stable.

The turn of the dramatic events, at least what transpires within the Timmons' home, is most cleverly entrusted to the girls. This provides a refreshing perspective to memories of incidents that are recalled, family secrets that are exhumed, and relationships that are tested. It takes a bit of courage to entrust so much of the play's dynamics to two very young actresses, but Miss Vallencourt responds beautifully to the challenge and is quite wonderful as the audacious undeterred detective determined to make sense of a mystery and family matters too long cloaked in denial and subterfuge. Miss Kapanjie is an unwittingly delightful accomplice, and also amusingly displays all the irritating qualities of a little sister.

Under Matthew Arbour's purposefully restrained direction, the play's darker and progressively unsettling revelations begin to surface early in Earley's tense performance as the husband who is drawn defensively and unalterably into a no-way-out situation. O'Neill's is excellent as the brittle emotionally drained wife who is forced to come to terms with a grim reality. The chief pleasure of a play that inevitably casts a long and dark shadow, however, is Gregory's insightful depiction of a child's logic and the ability that children have to persevere and to withstand all the evidence to the contrary. Despite warnings, Jean and Nancy do affect meetings with the boy (never seen). The play makes a clear enough analogy between the way that people are inclined to react in the face of fear and the way the townspeople and the family in this play respond to what they perceive as a very real and present danger.

Previously, Gregory made a big impact at N.J. Rep with her play The Good Daughter, which earned her a Pulitzer Prize nomination. Audiences will find that October 1962 packs a wallop and sustains our interest. Gregory, who also writes plays specifically for young actors, has certainly created two vivid roles for these two young actresses. Perhaps more importantly her play subtly draws parallels between the political climate in 1962 and today, and how adults are likely to unwittingly become catalysts of fear mongers. All technical credits are commendable from Carrie Mossman’s modest living room setting, Patricia E. Doherty’s costumes, particularly the Halloween get-ups for the girls, and Jill Nagle’s lighting.

Political Allegory Scores Strongly as Ripe, Suspenseful Melodrama

October 1962
Juliet Kapanjie
and Jenny Vallancourt

New Jersey Repertory has a real treat in store for its audiences in its world premiere production of D. W. Gregory's ominous and suspenseful mystery October, 1962. This engrossing and scary play makes for a thoroughly entertaining ride not unlike that provided by the finest amusement park roller coaster.

It is not coincidental that D.W. Gregory has set her play during October, 1962, when the world appeared to be on the brink of a nuclear conflagration after President Kennedy learned that the Soviet Union was deploying nuclear missiles aimed at the United States in Cuba.

October, 1962 is seen through the eyes of two precocious parochial school girls, 14-year-old Jean and, to a lesser extent, her 11-year-old sister, Nan. The entire action takes place in the decorous, conservatively furnished house occupied by the sisters and their parents, David and Laura Timmons. There is clearly a great deal of tension and edginess in the marital relationship.

Armed with a pair of binoculars, and a notebook and pencil, the girls peek out from their window in order to observe and chronicle the return to their street of Tommy, a young man who has just been released after spending many years in a mental hospital. It seems that while a child himself, Tommy had been committed to the hospital after being convicted of deliberately killing a seven-year-old boy. Jean and Laura are surprised to observe that their father David has driven Tommy home from the hospital.

To his wife Laura's chagrin, David has given Tommy a job in his plant in order to facilitate his reintegration into the community. We are led to believe that the tension between Laura and David likely stems from his having had an affair with Tommy's mother. Jean is convinced that Tommy is innocent of the long ago murder, and she seeks out Tommy in order to explore his feelings. Despite David's admonition to Tommy to avoid contact with them, Tommy lingers with his daughters. Driven by paranoia and fear, the townsfolk interpret Tommy's every observed behavior in a fearful light. Laura even fabricates a story about his behavior. However, we cannot help but worry as to whether Jean and Nan are placing themselves in serious jeopardy.

All of this builds to a terrifically tense and emotion laden scene during which their parents discover that Jean has been spending time with Tommy. Nan turns on her older sister in order to deflect her parents' wrath away from herself. The interaction of the parents and their children rings fiercely true. And, it is chillingly apparent that there is something more afoot when David lashes out at Jean, "You've been watching me. Spying on me ... What is it you're trying to find out?."

Author Gregory has a lot more in mind here than mystery melodrama. Gregory is placing the blame for the Cuban missile crisis, and, more relevantly at the moment, for the Iraqi War, on American aggression and paranoia. The Timmons are pointedly Catholic not to add specificity to the characters, but rather to accuse the Church of hypocrisy and deceit in the face of pedophile clergy. The extent to which October, 1962 succeeds as an allegory of the guilt, manipulation and paranoia of the American body politic will vary with the mindset which each viewer brings to the theatre. The more skepticism with which one views America's role on the international stage, the more one will be inclined to accept her analogies. Some will embrace Gregory's dark view of America as an paranoid, overbearing and morally challenged nation. Others will find her observations as naive in regard to the reality of the dangers which our nation faces. However, no one will be bored. For those of us so inclined, there is plenty of fodder here to provide the basis for lively and enlightening discussion wherever our views fall along the political spectrum.

Director Matthew Arbour has managed to meld his actors into a first rate ensemble. There is a strong sense of family among the four principals. Both James Patrick Earley and Kittson O'Neill solidly project a complex maze of emotions as the all too human and self-absorbed parents. It may be too kind to say that David and Laura are less than admirable, but they do love their children and are fighting to save their home and family. Unfortunately, Juliet Kapanjie's natural, unmannered performance as Nan is undermined by poor enunciation. Nevertheless, October, 1962 marks a notable professional debut for the 10-year-old fifth grader. Jenny Vallancourt is a natural in the pivotal role of Jean. Starting out in the manner of a juvenile mystery book amateur detective, her Jean grows in intensity and maturity as she delves more and more deeply into dark and scary corners. Ultimately, Vallancourt powerfully conveys the hysteria which overcomes Jean as her parents desperately attempt to shield her from the ultimate dark family secret.

Carrie Mossman has designed a richly detailed, realistic set depicting several areas of the Timmons' home on the NJ Rep's narrow stage. Patricia E. Doherty's costumes are unobtrusively evocative of the period.

In October, 1962, author D.W. Gregory explores major political themes, and integrates them into the whole without sacrificing any of the pleasure provided by one of the most entertaining suspense plays to come down the pike in quite some time.



World-premiere drama spotlights young actresses

Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 01/5/07


Whether you lived through it or simply learned about it in history class, October 1962 represents the front line of the Cold War: a time of backyard bomb shelters, "duck and cover" drills and a Civil Defense warden on every block. Even to a generation that's been personally scarred by terror on the home front, the Cuban Missile Crisis remains The Day the Hotline Got Hot — the point where the usual game of brinksmanship truly brought us to the brink.

That said, don't expect to see President Kennedy or Premier Khrushchev onstage during "October 1962," the drama making its world premiere this weekend at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. In the script by D.W. Gregory (whose play "The Good Daughter" was a stand-out production at NJ Rep), the nationwide anxiety over those missiles of October is relegated to the background: not completely out of mind, but just enough of a presence to imbue the author's tale of small-town fear and domestic discord with an extra layer of tension.

"I felt that the Cuban Missile Crisis was a good backdrop; a point of high anxiety in our history," explains the playwright noted for her reality-based "Radium Girls" of a few seasons back. "There are certain parallels to our current politics, such as how we deal with a perceived threat."

The drama's emotional ordnance comes into play when a young man, having been released from prison after serving a sentence for his part in a murder, returns to the community he once called home. When a local businessman (James Patrick Earley) decides to give the ex-convict a job, he does more than rattle the townsfolk, he drives a wedge between himself and his wife (NJ Rep mainstay Kittson O'Neill), whose concerns range from their family's standing in the community to the safety of their impressionable young daughters.

Co-starring in the cast (under the direction of Matthew Arbour) as the youngest members of the family are a pair of newcomers to the NJ Rep company, each with roots in the Shore area. Jenny Vallancourt of Red Bank appears as the eldest daughter, while her little sister is portrayed by Perrineville resident Juliet Kapanjie.

"I love to act; I've been doing it for a very long time," explains 10-year-old Juliet, a fifth grader at the Ranney School in Tinton Falls (a "school full of celebrities" that boasts Kirsten Dunst among its alumni). "I contacted (NJ Rep) about an audition, and they e-mailed me the script . . . I thought it was so interesting after I read it, I wanted to know more about it."

Juliet was previously seen by Shore audiences in the Phoenix Productions revival of "The Wiz" at Red Bank's Count Basie Theatre in 2005, when, under the direction of her dance teacher, she appeared as a Munchkin. With "October 1962," the aspiring movie actress found herself involved in a very different sort of production — a heavily dramatic, character-driven ensemble piece. During rehearsals, director Arbour "really helped me a lot," she recalles. "We sat and talked about what this family is like."

According to Juliet, "The characters are very much involved with the story of the boy . . . at the same time, they're worried about the missiles. It's interesting how they overlap."

As playwright Gregory maintains, "The bigger issues in this play are refracted through the experiences of this one family. There's a burbling strain of secrets, of terror, under the surface of their ordinary existence."

Drawing a distinction between the paranoia panorama of 1962 and our general distancing from today's clear and present dangers, the playwright asserts that "here in our so-called War on Terror, there's no call for sacrifice; no home front — whereas the Cold War was nothing but home front."

'October 1962': metaphor for the country and times
Millstone youth makes professional stage debut
Staff Writer
Juliet Kapanjie, 10, of the Perrineville section of Millstone, has a lead role in the New Jersey Repertory Company's production of "October 1962."
MILLSTONE - A 10-year-old township resident has risen to the challenge of taking on a complex role in a psychological suspense story.

Juliet Kapanjie, of the Perrineville section of Millstone, is making her debut performance this month on the professional stage in the New Jersey Repertory Company's production of "October 1962" in Long Branch.

For its first main-stage offering of the year, the world premiere of the play written by D.W. Gregory is set during the Cuban missile crisis. The story is about the re-emergence of a man who has just been released from prison after serving a term for killing a child. His presence in the small town where Juliet's character Nancy lives becomes unnerving to an already skittish community dealing with the fright of the times during the Cuban missile crisis. Most townspeople consider the man a "ticking time bomb," and it looks as if it won't be long before he acts again. Nancy's family, however, decides not to judge him.

Kittson O'Neill (l-r), Juliet Kapanjie and James Patrick Early appear in a scene from NJ Rep's production of "October 1962," now being staged in Long Branch.
The playwright has also said the story is a metaphor for the United States and how jingoistic and war-happy so many people in the country were after 9/11.

Juliet, a fifth-grader at the Ranney School in Tinton Falls and an aspiring movie actress, said that when she read a copy of the play prior to the audition she found it quite interesting and wanted to know more.

In 2005, Juliet appeared as a Munchkin in Phoenix Productions' "The Wiz" at the Count Basie Theatre in downtown Red Bank. Unlike her first role, which wasn't very trying, according to Juliet, her part in "October 1962" is quite challenging.

"It is a difficult part," she said. "My character's name is Nancy, and she asks a lot of questions."

Juliet's mother, Candice Pluchino Steven, said that when the family found out that Juliet had gotten the part, it came as a complete surprise.

"It was really thrilling," her mother said. "I'm proud of my daughter's talents."

Candice called "October 1962" an ambitious play for a 10-year-old.

"It's about turmoil in a small town," her mother said. "There's gossip and fear within the town that gets everyone going."

According to Candice, Juliet's part works to balance the dramatic production with lighthearted comedy and the overall innocence of a child. Since her character is younger than the rest of the people in the play, she doesn't fully understand what's going on all of the time and the dangers involved in living where and when she does.

The preparation for learning her part was extensive. Once Juliet got the role, she practiced her lines at home from early September through October. Rehearsals at the theater began in December, often lasting for eight hours at a time, but Juliet said she enjoyed every minute of them.

"I love acting," she said. "It's really fun getting to perform in front of people on stage."

The play runs for two hours. Since there are only four people in the entire production, each character plays an integral part and has numerous lines.

Juliet's performance demands a lot of emotion from her, requiring the 10-year-old to act scared, upset and also quizzical, which is why her mother considers it "a tough, tough role."

"There's no second take," Juliet said. "It's live, not like in a movie where you can do things over and over."

Juliet's mother said that while her daughter is taking her stardom in stride, she herself is still in shock.

"At the first performance, I didn't breathe," her mother said.

Juliet said the play's director, Matthew Arbour, and the other actors, James Patrick Earley, Kittson O'Neill and Jenny Vallancourt, all helped her during rehearsals. She also takes an actor's improvisation class at the Actors Playground School of Theatre in Eatontown.

Juliet studies improvisation with Ralph Colombino. Juliet said she's learned from the class "to just do what I want during improvisation, to just be natural and to go out there."

Besides acting, Juliet is a serious student of ballet and the dance arts. She takes dance classes at the American Repertory Ballet's (ARB) Princeton Ballet School in Princeton.

A CurtainUp Interview With D. W. Gregory

By Lucy Ann Dunlap

The following E-Mail Chat with D.W. Gregory took place prior to the opening of her new play October 1962, premiering at the New Jersey Repertory Theatre in Long Branch where it will be reviewed by Simon Saltzman. This world premiere, set during the Cuban missile crisis about the return to town of a convicted child killer and how it affects a particular family is the eighth full-length play by this writer, now known as D. W. Gregory, ho earlier in her career wrote under her maiden name, Dolores Whiskeyman. The Good Daughter, premiered in 2003 also at NJ Rep and was subsequently nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.

Gregory has won a number of awards, including a National Endowment for the Arts grant for the production in May 2000 for Radium Girls at Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey. The Newark Star-Ledger named it the Best New Play of that season. It and a number of her full-length and short plays have been published by Dramatic Publishing Co., and scenes from a number of them have been included in anthologies.

In addition to writing, Gregory is a teaching artist selected by the Maryland Arts Council to teach playwriting in the state's public schools. The Imagination Stage in Maryland commissioned her to write plays for young people. Penny Candy, her comedy for young actors, was produced at their Academy. She earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in playwriting from the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. and her bachelor's degree from Seton Hall University in New Jersey. She lives in Silver Springs, Maryland with her husband Paul, a bluegrass musician.

Q: What prompted you to write October 1962?

A: This play has two sources of inspiration. The first was a newspaper article I clipped about 10 years or more ago about how a small town dealt with a man who'd been released from prison after serving a full 12-year term for rape and kidnapping and how frightened people were just by the fact that he was there among them. He began to act very strangely — going to McDonald's, sitting in a booth and staring at young women, remarking on their appearance, that kind of thing. Very unnerving to an already skittish community. In the article the prison psychiatrist said he was convinced that the man was a "ticking time bomb" and that it was only a matter of time before he acted again — but until the man actually committed a crime, there was nothing anyone in the town could do about him, because he had served his time and he was free.

What do you do in that situation? I saw a drama in it, and I tucked it away in a clip file. And then I forgot about it.
When the Iraq War started, I remembered that story and pulled it out again. And thought about it: What if you're convinced of a danger you can't prove? What do you do? And so I began to think about what was going on at the time, about how shaken the nation was after 9-11 and how jingoistic and war-happy so many people were.

I began to think about some of these geopolitical issues on a domestic scale. We know what happens when a superpower gives in to paranoia and panic. What if we look at these problems in a more contained setting, refracted through the lens of a single family? And so the play began to take shape early in 2004 and I worked on it, off and on over the next year and a half in between other projects.

Q: Does it have any particular relevance in relation to the present day political climate?

A: Absolutely. The play could stand on its own, I guess, as a psychological suspense story — but I think it's really a metaphor for our country and our times.

Q: Two of your plays are titled, The Good Daughter and Are you the "good daughter," the "good girl?"

A: Not any more.

Q: Which of your plays are drawn from your life? Which are primarily research driven? A: It's difficult to delineate, because even the most heavily researched plays sometimes tap my personal experiences. I can definitely relate to Grace Fryer, the character in Radium Girls who moves from trusting authority to realizing that she'd been hoodwinked by people who were supposed to be looking out for her. The silent contract in that culture, in which women are expected to be supportive and sweet and unchallenging of male authority, is that in exchange for all this sweetness and subservience, the men in charge will look out for them. In this case, the men poisoned the girls — certainly not intentionally, but clearly with great negligence. And when they were confronted with the facts, they did everything they could to cover it up and put off dealing with the inevitable. That's a pattern I can relate to in my own life. I've certainly had direct experience with authority figures who turned out to be corrupt — and it's a pattern we see played out over and over and over again, most recently in the U.S. Congress and the White House -- where our leaders are more concerned about covering up their own mistakes than in finding out how to prevent the next disaster.

I have written plays that are clearly personal stories. Years ago I wrote a play called The Truth About Charlie that was really about my own family. Besides a workshop at Playwrights Theatere that play never got a production, but it's the most personal thing I've written, if by personal you mean based on true life experience. Somewhere I've read that every playwright's rite of passage is the "family play" that exorcises their personal demons. But that early play didn't exorcise any demons for me. It was a rather sanitized, sentimental view of a blue collar household wrestling with alcoholism, religious intolerance, poverty, and ultimately, the grandfather's infidelity to his wife and the impact that it had on his sons. It's all grim material presented in the shape of a sweet family comedy. Maybe that made it palatable. Maybe it made it unproducible. More likely that was also because it has six kids. At any rate, it went in the drawer. However, when I wrote The Good Girl Is Gone about six or seven years later I went back to the same material and this time, instead of a Kauffman and Hart type comedy, I wrote something much more raw and fractured — a five-character, surrealistic piece that careens from past to present to past. In the end it deals with the same questions: Why do the actions of a parent in the past continue to poison the relationships of the children in the present? Why must the sins of the fathers be passed on to any generation? That's a universal mystery, I think, upon which all psychotherapy is based.

Q: Which have proved to be the better received of your plays and whyhy do you think that is so?

A: Depends who's receiving it. Radium Girls got universally positive reviews when it premiered at Playwrights Theatre, and it did very well at the box office. Since then it has been published and has gotten a lot of productions — all of them amateur productions in high schools or colleges. Couldn't get a single professional company to consider doing it. The Good Daughter got very good notices (with one or two exceptions) when it was produced at NJ Rep. It was again a sell-out show, and again, I couldn't get any other theaters interested in it. But then neither of these plays is particularly easy to do. Radium Girls is this large-cast, sprawling Brechtian spectacle — which, by the way, got a fantastic production in London this October— and The Good Daughter is an epic story that skates on the edge of melodrama. It's not a melodrama -- but if you don't play it right, it will be, and I think a lot of theaters are afraid of that. Audiences aren't, though. They ate up both plays.

Q: What have you learned from teaching young people in the playwriting workshops?

A: I've learned to be more conscious of the choices I make in my own writing. That you can't teach talent; you can only teach technique. And that the kiss of death for any writer in any setting is to be defensive of your work. It's a strange thing, but while you need to be able to defend your choices, you should never be defensive about them because that puts up a barrier between you and your audience and denies you an opportunity to learn more about your work. But over and over again I see a lot of young writers get very upset if their work is not well received or not understood. So I urge them to think in terms of effectiveness in writing. It's not about whether the work is good or bad. It's about whether it works . . .. what they want the audience to receive. . .what they want the audience to think or feel or understand? And if the audience doesn't receive it as hoped for, analyze the work and try to figure out why. And then try to figure out what the fix is to get the reaction you want. That makes it less personal for the students and makes the point that writing isn't just about self-expression but about conscious choices and applying specific techniques towards desired ends. So the lesson I take away from all of this is to do that. No matter how personal the source of the material might be — to set all that aside and focus as dispassionately as possible on the structure of the play.