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Click for New York Times Theater Review: Buff Cupid, Meet Spunky Psyche

Cupid and Psyche: Sprightly Musical Comedy

Women Who Steal

Pheonix Vaughn and Ryan Reid

Cupid and Psyche, a vest pocket, new to New Jersey, full-out musical comedy has arrived in Long Branch just in time for holiday theatre going.  Yes, it is based on a classic tale of Roman mythology.  However, it speaks our language in terms of its attitude, characterizations, comedy and music.  Its ancient sting has been replaced by comedy tonight.

This is the one about the goddess Venus getting all out of sorts because the people of Illyria have ignored her and allowed her temples to fall into disrepair because of their love and fascination with the gorgeous and radiant mere mortal, Psyche.  The pouting Venus orders her son, the god Cupid, to go to Illyria and use his golden arrows to cause Psyche to fall in love with a dreaded Cyclops, and then to loose his arrows on the people of Illyria to cause them similar pains.  However, upon seeing Psyche in all her beauty, Cupid falls in love with her and brings her to his palace.  As a mortal, Psyche is not allowed to be with a god.  So, in the adaptation at hand, Cupid cloaks himself in invisibility, so that Psyche will not know who he is while he courts her.  Eventually, Venus will interfere, initially for ill and eventually for good.

Librettist Sean Hartley has designed Cupid and Psyche to be performed by four actors.  Gaining equal footing with the cross-species lovers is Venus herself, who is here a sarcastic, domineering mother trying to keep her son single and under her domination.  The quartet is rounded out by the god Mercury who is comic sidekick and gofer to Cupid.  As this role is smaller than the others, the occasionally self-referential script informs us, the actor playing Mercury plays each of the subsidiary roles.

Liz Zazzi as Venus with her arms intact is this production's delightful top banana.  Whether warning us in song that you "Don't Mess With a Goddess" or revealing her frustrated oedipal yearnings for Cupid, Zazzi is at her zany best.  Ryan Reid (Cupid) and Pheonix Vaughn (Psyche) are charming and likeable as the young lovers.  Their performances naturally capture the casual attitudes of modern youth while permitting us to accept them as variant versions of their mythological roles.  Especially delightful is their performance of the lilting musical highlight "Trust Me," which finds Cupid teaching Psyche how to dance. Ron De Jesus' choreography makes a solid contribution here. Michael Maricondi has a deft comic touch as Mercury, a god who allows himself to be treated more as a manservant because of both his immature boyishness and affection for Cupid.  A typical sample of the play's humor is when Cupid, hiding his identity while courting Psyche, passes off Mercury as his servant "Jeevicles."  The story, which hews very closely to the mythological original, also finds Maricondi playing Pan, Cerberus and several others to good comic effect.

Jihwan Kim's music is pleasantly melodious, and encompasses a wide range of styles including Larry Hart era Richard Rodgers, a ballad with a light rocking beat, calypso and several other stops along the way.  Sean Hartley's lyrics are literate and amusing, and sit well on the music.  Musical Director Nancy Lee's piano accompaniment is so full of verve, color and detail that it becomes one of the production's highlights.

Director Alan Souza directs with a light touch, maintaining a good pace throughout.  Jessica Parks' lovely and expansive unit set encompasses marble columns, a circular platform, stairways and an impressive electrical display.

This reviewer first encountered Cupid and Psyche in an hour long staged reading eight years ago.  It was pleasant then, and it is even more so now in a version which has been newly expanded for this production.  Still, it remains an intelligent, small scale entertainment whose essential appeal is to a specialized audience.  As such, it has now found a perfect home at the intimate and enterprising New Jersey Rep.

'Cupid and Psyche': Don't myth it

"Cupid and Psyche" makes holiday theater season bright

Review by TOM CHESEK • Correspondent • December 19, 2008

Women Who Steal

Ryan Reid is Cupid and Pheonix Vaughan is Psyche in "Cupid and Psyche." Photo by SHAWN HUBER/Staff Photographer

"That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard," says Pheonix Vaughan (as the lovestruck princess Psyche) to Michael Maricondi (as Mercury, messenger to the gods of ancient Greece), when informed that the way out of her dire predicament is to break out in song.

"I know," says the impish sidekick. "Aren't musicals great?"

Sometimes, a musical is precisely what the doctor ordered — and "Cupid and Psyche," the comic tunefest now on stage at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, could not have happened along at a better time, following two rather somber dramas and a set of real-world circumstances that have hardly made for the cheeriest of seasons out there.

Positioned as a "holiday" offering by NJ Rep, the show by Sean Hartley (book and lyrics) and Jihwan Kim (music) represents a definite detour from the standard seasonal fare that tends to commandeer local stages this time each year — a fact for which you can thank the gods of your preference.

Apart from its dispensing good will and cheer in its own merry way, the production under the direction of Alan Souza (who helmed the Dorothy Parker musical "The Little Hours" in Long Branch a few months back) is swift and bright as a famous reindeer — a quality that should keep it fresh right on through mid-January, long after the various Scrooges and Nutcrackers have been boxed away for another year.

If you frittered away your school years studying Greek mythology instead of Keynsian macroeconomics, you might recall the rather convoluted tale of Cupid and Psyche as the one in which the winged, arrow-shooting love god falls for a beautiful mortal — a royal daughter of Illyria, but a mortal from the wrong side of the clouds nonetheless.

There's a perilous trip to Hades in there, along with invisibility spells, obvious disguises and a forbidden "box of beauty," but the scuttlebutt of the story is that Cupid's mom, the scheming love goddess Venus, will do just about anything to break up the budding interspecies romance.

Liz Zazzi, a member in good standing of the unofficial NJ Rep stock company, plays the aging Venus with the right balance of highbrow hauteur and lowbrow laugh-mining; addressing the audience and throwing in the odd in-joke reference to local landmarks and businesses.

While her comedic gifts shouldn't come as a shock to anyone who saw her in last summer's popular "Women Who Steal," the fact that she can sell a showstopper song (her solo spots "Don't Mess with a Goddess" and "Improvise" are among the best moments of this fast-moving piece of work) is a welcome bonus feature.

Another pleasant surprise is the work done by Zazzi's co-stars, a trio of young players who are each being seen on the local stage for the first time. Ryan Reid portrays Cupid as an earnest young guy who's grown into a rebel with an Adonis physique (he spends the opening moments of the show striking godlike poses), even while holding onto the innocence of the familiar cherub from the Valentine's Day greeting cards. Looking a little like The Who's Roger Daltrey in his (long ago) "Tommy" prime, the actor plays well with others, sharing scenes and duets with his fellow cast members with a dexterity that brings out the best in all concerned.

Pheonix Vaughan — and yes, that's how she spells it — offers a Psyche who's smart and courageous and certainly celestial enough to attract the eye of a being who dwells in the palaces of Mount Olympus. That the two physically perfect specimens in the title roles can also act and sing is a boon for director Souza, who's evidently worked closely with his dream cast and Hartley (the author penned a couple of new songs specifically for this production) to retool this previously produced show into a pleasing fit for the oddball specs of the Rep mainstage.

Short and stocky alongside his Olympian peers, Maricondi is the tireless energy source of this show, playing a somehow believable Mercury in addition to the gods Pan, Neptune, Athena and Proserpine — as well as the hellhound Cerberus, a gargoyle and sundry other comical cameos. The character man sets the pace for much of the onstage action and has some fine vocal contributions to offer, particularly in "One Little Arrow," a duet with Reid.

Onstage musical director Naomi Lee accompanies with solo piano arrangements of the breezy, pop-inspired score, keeping to the back of the pastel-colored "ruins" of the Jessica Parks set. NJ Rep's veteran costume designer Pat Doherty has risen to the occasion with a collection of vivid outfits that make a good fit with the various characters.

The gods must be crazy in N.J. Rep's 'Cupid & Psyche'

by Peter Filichia/The Star-Ledger
Monday December 15, 2008, 4:33 PM

From left, Ryan Reid, Liz Zazzi and Michael Maricondi in "Cupid & Psyche."

There's a hit and a myth at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

With "Cupid & Psyche," composer Jihwan Kim and wordsmith Sean Hartley take one of the world's oldest stories and give it a fun-filled twist. Their 2003 musical tells of Venus, the goddess of love, who's quickly becoming the goddess of jealousy. She can't understand why everyone's suddenly paying attention to Psyche, who may be pretty, but, after all, is only a mere mortal.

Venus sends her son Cupid to shoot one of his love-arrows into Psyche's heart, and to do it while she happens to be looking at a Cyclops. Of course, when Cupid goes to fulfill his task, just one look, that's all it takes, for him to fall in love.

"My son and that MAMMAL?," Venus shrieks in horror. Here, Hartley adds a new layer and complication to the myth by filling Venus with mother -- and smother -- love. His script also contains many anachronisms, and while that's usually a cheap way of mining humor, gods are eternal and immortal. So what's happening to them could be happening in the here and now.

As a lyricist, Hartley shines at wordplay. He deftly finds a way to fit four rhymes in one line. ("Dionysus is always in crisis, and Isis is twice's bad.") Admittedly, too, his "Spare the rod and spoil the god," winds up being more mellifluous than the original expression.

The lovers must be played with the utmost innocence, and able director Alan Souza found two delightful performers for his title characters. Ryan Reid, who stomps around half-naked all night, is deliciously guileless as Cupid. Many who attended Saturday night's opening went "awwww" after he said, longingly, "My mother and father don't talk to each other. I'm caught in the middle." Meanwhile, Pheonix Vaughn has the blond beauty and captivating charm of the traditional ingenue. Reid and Vaughn have pretty voices that do justice to Kim's excellent, post-modern show music.

Counterbalancing their naivete is Liz Zazzi as the calculating Venus. With a mass of hair that rather resembles Medusa's snake-filled 'do, Zazzi looks like the Wrath of Goddess, and wields an "It's not nice to fool Goddess Venus" fury. She has that Mother-knows-best confidence when confiding to the audience: "Sit up straight, darling," she chides Cupid, before flashing us a knowing, tired look that reads, "You understand; you have kids of your own."

Zazzi, who's masterful at adopting various accents, gets to do a few here, the best of which is her hilarious imitation of a world-weary Gypsy whose broken English is utterly beyond repair. Matching her imitative talents is Michael Maricondi, playing the myriad roles that new musicals always demand of one actor. He gives vocal life to a Valley Girl, a mobster and a Long Island resident.

Most musicals produced in December offer at least some sort of allusion to the holidays, but not "Cupid & Psyche." It is, however, a nice enough present in itself.

A CurtainUp New Jersey Review

Cupid and Psyche

The people of Illyria called you the "new Venus." — Cupid
I told them not to. — Psyche
Cupid & Psyche
Pheonix Vaughn (Pysche) and Ryan Reid (Cupid)
(Photo credit: Pat Doherty )
The Greco-Roman mythological legend of the romance of Cupid and Psyche first appeared in the second century A.D. in a novel by Lucius Apuleius. We have had to wait nineteen centuries for the musical version of the story by Sean Hartley (book & lyrics) and Jihwan Kim (music). Instead of asking either what was the hurry, or what took so long, let's just accept the fact that this sassy, sexy, satirical allegory has reached the stage with some of the key players from Mount Olympus in top form. Set designer Jessica Parks has provided a handsome faux alabaster columned playground for the gods. It has been lighted with the appropriate heavenly glow by Jill Nagle.

Hartley and Kim may have taken liberties with the original story, but the liberties, and there are plenty of them, add up to a zany and fun-filled time. The now seriously middle-aged but smartly accessorized goddess of love and beauty Venus (Liz Zazzi) is consumed with jealousy ("Don't Mess With a Goddess,") when she finds out that Psyche (Pheonix Vaughn), a lovely young mortal has not only been acclaimed as being as beautiful as she and but is being worshipped as a goddess by the people of Illyria . Venus hatches a revenge plan. She commands her son the curly haired and cute Cupid (Ryan Reid) (especially sporting white wings and a red skirt with gold fringe) to go down to earth and shoot an arrow at the even cuter Psyche so that she will fall in love with a Cyclops. That's doable.

Accompanied by his smart-alecky sidekick cum messenger of the gods Mercury (Michael Maricondi), Cupid reluctantly complies with his determined mother's wish. One glare from her and we understand that saying no is not on the table. But one look at Psyche is all that Cupid needs to fall in love. However, she's also studious ("Don't Talk About Love,") and wears glasses. Despite the warning of his pal Mercury that the gods are forbidden by law to love a mortal, Cupid, unable to reveal himself, makes himself invisible. He whisks Psyche off to a secret palace where things at first are blissful and then, of course, stressful when momma finds out.

One might think that the comely lovers or even the hoydenish Venus would be in charge of musical's most engaging action. But no, it's magical Mercury, as played with breathless brio by Maricondi who deserves the most accolades. It has been decreed by the gods that Maricondi play all the small roles. . . in a big way. He has also mastered the glib and witty lyrics so that they literally dance like quick steps off his tongue. With comedic aplomb, the tubby and terrific Maricondi breezes through all the nonsensical ado. And he carries a tune or two as well. The choreography by Ron De Jesus is most notable in an amusing number "Trust Me, ," in which Cupid teaches Psyche to dance. Otherwise the dancing borders on cavorting, but that's what it's all about.

Although she's got that formidable façade and the right attitude, the zaftig Zazzi has a way to go before she sounds at one with all the zings and zaps that punctuate her dialogue. The lovers are slim and blonde, sing well and look spiffy in Patricia E. Doherty's sheer out-of-this world costumes. On first hearing, the score is commendably tricky but easy on the ears and played admirably by Naomi Lee at the on-stage piano.

The direction by Alan Souza is geared toward the flighty. But this comparatively short, tightly wound and frenetically engineered show would also gain a lot without the intermission. This musical romp briefly played Off Broadway about five years ago and is a smart choice for the holiday season.



The sky’s the limit for Ryan Reid, Liz Zazzi and Michael Maricondi in CUPID AND PSYCHE, now playing at New Jersey Repertory Company.


After a couple of rather downbeat, all too human dramas in a row, New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch threw fate to the gods for their year-end, holiday season offering — a fun little musical comedy of love, jealousy and loyalty among the immortal set, by the name of Cupid and Psyche. Directed by Alan Souza and featuring some brand new songs by creators Sean Hartley and Jihwan Kim, the regional premiere of this tuneful take on the ancient Greek myth keeps the basic story of the aging love goddess Venus (Liz Zazzi) scheming to break up the forbidden fling between her curly-haired son Cupid (Ryan Reid) and mortal princess Psyche (Pheonix Vaughan). It adds loads of laughs and attitude, much of it courtesy Michael Maricondi as speedy messenger Mercury and about eight other wacky characters.


While Maricondi sets much of the manic pace, Zazzi cuts a classically comedic figure as the divine diva — she chats with the audience, tosses in some sly in-joke references to local businesses, and her two solo songs are star-quality screams — and the title-role players are godlike gorgeous figures with the added bonus of actorly acumen and singing savvy. Really, this is one of the best cast shows in recent memory, and all involved look even better matched with Pat Doherty’s costumes and the clouds-’n-columns set by Jessica Parks.


Best of all, Cupid and Psyche has absolutely nothing to do with Christmas, an asset that should keep it fresh right up to the end of its run on January 18.

Theater notes: THEATER NOTES By Tom Chesek, Asbury Park Press

December 12, 2008

Women Who Steal

Ryan Reid and Phoenix Vaughn are featured in "Cupid and Psyche" at New Jersey Repertory in Long Branch. SHAWN HUBER/Staff Photographer

"Love is like milking a centaur — it's a dangerous game," says the god Mercury in "Cupid and Psyche," the musical comedy that initiates its New Jersey premiere this weekend at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

A whimsical retelling of the familiar tale of forbidden love from Greek mythology, the show by Sean Hartley (book and lyrics) and Jihwan Kim (music) is set in a "modernish" version of Mount Olympus in which the bored overseers of the universe busy themselves with such diversions as fawn tossing and wet toga contests.

It's a milieu in which an aging goddess of love, Venus, a diva who's accustomed to getting her way, rules the roost with an iron grip on the heartstrings of humanity. Into this scene comes Psyche (Phoenix Vaughn), a "mere mortal" enchantress with an uncanny power to turn heads — including the curly-haired noggin of the jealous Venus's son Cupid (Ryan Reid).

Liz Zazzi, whose numerous credits at NJ Rep include last summer's hit "Women Who Steal," promises to bring the full thunder and fury of her prodigious comic gifts to the role of Venus, topping the cast under the direction of Alan Souza (who helmed the previous NJ Rep musical, "The Little Hours"). Musical direction is by Naomi Lee, and choreography by Ron DeJesus.

Kicking off its run with a preview performance today, "Cupid and Psyche" opens on Saturday, continuing Thursdays through Sundays until Jan. 18. New Jersey Repertory is at 179 Broadway, Long Branch. For ticket information and complete performance schedule details call (732) 229-3166 or visit


Olympic meddles: From left, Liz Zazzi (as Venus) can’t help interfering with
the thing between Cupid (Ryan Reid) and Psyche (Pheonix Vaughan),
while Mercury (Michael Maricondi) laps up the attention.



Fawn tossing. Wet toga contests. The diminished sense of fabulousness and oppressive, all-encompassing ennui that define life for an ancient Greek god, here in 2008 New Jersey.


In Cupid and Psyche, the musical comedy that goes up this week at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, things just ain’t what they used to be — not the fading looks and allure of love goddess Venus, not even the need for such things as the all-powerful beings who dwell on what’s being described as a “modernish” version of Mount Olympus.

What’s remained constant is the age-old theme of young love, forbidden and denied and interfered with by the machinations of a meddlesome parent — in this case, a jealous Venus, whose grown-up, curly-haired love cherub Cupid has stooped to fall in love with a mere mortal. A rich, royal, gorgeous beyond words mortal, but a kid from the wrong side of the clouds nonetheless.

What happens next in the original myth of Cupid and Psyche is the stuff of highest tragedy, or would be if it weren’t adapted here (by playwright-lyricist Sean Hartley and composer Jihwan Kim) into a satirical song-and-dance fest that brings the lofty problems of the immortals entertainingly down to earth. Down to Broadway, in fact, for a show that factors in elements of West Side Story and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.


Liz Zazzi, the NJ Rep regular who co-starred in last summer’s hit Women Who Steal, heads the cast as Venus, with Ryan Reid as Cupid, Pheonix Vaughan as Psyche and Michael Maricondi as the speedy messenger Mercury, and everybody else.

Red Bank oRBit talked to director Alan Souza (who helmed The Little Hours at NJ Rep just a couple of months back) for the scoop on these mythological figures — their innocence, their shoes, their choice of gym.

Click for New York Times Theater Review: A Worthy Sobfest That Pares Emotions to the Cellular Level

NJ Rep's 'Apple' is compelling to the core

By TOM CHESEK • ASBURY PARK PRESS Correspondent • October 28, 2008

Looking for a good Hallmark-channel sort of cry? Try catching "Nights in Rodanthe" at your local multiplex. But if you're wondering "what keeps us safe," it's the feeling we get knowing that the people at New Jersey Repertory Company are successfully producing some mature, honest stagework about real human emotions — work that doesn't need a beach full of wild horses to get its point across.

Women Who Steal

Deborah Baum and Carol Todd are pictured in rehearsal for "Apple," now being staged by the New Jersey Repertory in Long Branch. (STAFF PHOTO: TOM SPADER

In "Apple" — the simple, somewhat stylized drama by Canadian playwright Vern Thiessen that's now making its East Coast debut at NJ Rep's playhouse in Long Branch — snapshots from a troubled marriage are delivered by an exceptional cast under the direction of company co-founder SuzAnne Barabas.

With carefully wrought, almost poetic language and an emotional payload that sits atop a trio of powerhouse performances, "Apple" lays bare the things that worm their way into the core of a marriage — the lack of communication, the dread of the routine, the buyer's remorse.

At the same time, the script addresses the outside forces that eat away at even the happiest of hermetically sealed relationships — unemployment, worldly temptation, catastrophic illness.

In this case, breast cancer. As in October being Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Sounds like a barrel of laughs, no? While there are a few early laugh lines — most delivered by Carol Todd as Evelyn, a foul-mouthed real estate agent who doesn't work well with others — this is a very serious piece of work that adds just enough distance to keep from surrendering to the syrupy and sentimental; neither a "disease of the week" TV weeper nor a falsely inspiring "message" play.

While Evelyn doesn't exactly choose to get cancer, this is to some extent a work about choices. Her newly unemployed and unfaithful husband Andy (Michael Pollard) faces down a tough choice between caring for his sick wife or pursuing happiness with Samantha (Deborah Baum), a student who has apparently chosen him as her partner in a series of parkside afternoon delights.

When Samantha reappears in the very different context of oncologist's assistant, it's clear that some decisions need to be made all around.

Carol Todd ("Place Setting") and Deborah Baum ("The Good Daughter") have each proven their dramatic credentials many times over on the NJ Rep stage, and they both excel here.

Todd in particular is scary-good as she segues from a woman whose every human encounter is a high-tension confrontation, to a woman who reaches a point where the best of times are measured in mere moments. It's a flawless performance — cutting yet vulnerable; off-putting yet chillingly familiar to anyone who's ever watched a loved one fade like the end of a favorite old record.

A revelation

Still, good as the women are, it's Michael Pollard — the slightly nebbishy comic character actor from "Big Boys" and "Ten Percent of Molly Snyder" — who's the revelation. Rising to the considerable demands of what we suspect is the best role he's ever gotten, Pollard takes no shortcuts in presenting a deeply conflicted man whose need for love has taken him places he never intended to go; revealing himself to be what we always suspected him to be — a dramatic player of depth and intelligence. It's our hope that this production marks the start of a new and exciting chapter in his career.

Director Barabas has drawn the best from her cast of Rep regulars, in a story that earns every one of its emotional highs and lows in full. It all takes place against a spare and stylish set design by Jessica Parks that works with Jill Nagle's lighting to convey both interior and exterior planes of existence. Merek Royce Press, the company's sound designer for nearly all of its shows, contributes an original score of incidental music.

'Apple' play gets to the core of an extramarital affair

By TOM CHESEK • ASBURY PARK PRESS Correspondent • October 24, 2008

What is this play called "Apple," this drama that makes its East Coast premiere at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch this weekend?

Women Who Steal

Michael Irvin Pollard and Deborah Baum rehearse a scene from "Apple" at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. TOM SPADER/Staff Photographer

Our first guess was that it was a dramatic recreation of one of those product-intro presentations that Apple CEO Steve Jobs does at least once a year — some of the grandest pieces of theater we have these days — but no.

As it turns out, the core of Vern Thiessen's "Apple" is simplicity itself — an examination of an extramarital affair; how a bite of forbidden fruit has repercussions well beyond the original act, and how a triangle remains a triangle no matter which way it's skewed.

According to director SuzAnne Barabas, "it's really about ordinary people — this could happen to anybody, and does."

As if to reinforce the regular-guy aspect, the director (and NJ Rep co-founder) has cast as the male vertex of this triangle a familiar face from the unofficial NJ Rep stock company: actor Michael Pollard, whose bald, stocky good looks are closer to George Costanza than George Clooney.

It represents a chance for Pollard to show his considerable character talents in a more grounded role than the surreal desk jockeys he played in "Big Boys" and "Ten Percent of Molly Snyder." He's cast here alongside two other veterans of the Broadway (Long Branch) stage, Deborah Baum ("Good Daughter," "Child's Guide to Innocence") and Carol Todd ("Whores," "Place Setting").

It was Todd — a cast member in a one-shot reading of this script at NJ Rep three years ago — who recommended that Barabas take a second look at the play, following several productions throughout Canada and an American premiere in Chicago.

"When I first read the play, I thought it was a piece of cake," says Barabas, the company artistic director. "When I read it again, I discovered that it was a layer cake."

As the director explains, one of the script's strengths is its apparent simplicity, in that "the seductions are simple; it's not like a glamorous love triangle from a Hollywood movie."

At the same time, however, the play "has a lot of challenges — it's almost like a memory play; the dialogue is very specific — it gives you a rhythm, like a song."

As playwright Thiessen reported back from his trips to see the play performed outside his native Canada, "Apple" has been open to all manner of interpretation by its directors — from a "very sexual" production in Chicago, to some stagings in Poland that were shockingly violent.

"(The husband character) actually beats up his wife onstage," Barabas says of the Polish production, speculating that the prevailing cultural landscape there is decidedly cool to the notion of a woman speaking to her spouse as the "Apple" character does.

While the NJ Rep version will be avoiding extremes of sex and violence, the director emphasizes that the actors will be performing a mature play of emotions laid bare in a compelling and provocative story.

"We wanted to keep the simplicity; keep a zenlike feel," says the director of the show, which is performed against an expressionistic set design by Jill Nagle. "All very suggestive."

Pollard finds niche as character actor

by Peter Filichia/The Star-Ledger
Thursday October 23, 2008, 10:00 PM

Michael Irving Pollard and Deborah Baum in a scene from "Apple" at NJ Rep in Long Branch.

The Apple. Where: New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch. When: Through Nov. 23. Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. Howmuch: $36.50. Call (732) 229-3166 or visit


He's heard the question hundreds upon hundreds of times.

"Are you the guy from 'Bonnie and Clyde'? The one from that famous 'Star Trek' episode?"

No, that's Michael J. Pollard. This is Michael Irvin Pollard, who's in "The Apple," Vern Thiessen's play that opens Friday at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. Pollard portrays Andy, a husband who's lost his government job.

Says Pollard over lunch near his Metuchen home, "He's a numbers guy, and the numbers don't add up enough to keep him on the payroll."

Exacerbating the problem is that Andy's wife, Lynn, is doing very well in real estate. She makes him feel unimportant, and he's soon in another woman's arms.

To a degree, Pollard understands Andy's frustration. For years, if he wasn't confused with Michael J. Pollard, he was known as "Wendy Liscow's husband." She was associate artistic director of the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick from 1987-98.

"I admit that when she was set to direct a play, I would plead, 'Is there anything in it for me?,'" he recalls.

Occasionally, there was. Liscow cast him in small parts in "All My Sons" in 1989 and "The Sunshine Boys" in 1997. The problem wasn't so much that Pollard worried that the other actors thought he got the parts by sleeping with the director.

"What was worse was that the cast always bands together and at some point talks about the director," he says. "When it was Wendy, I couldn't be a part of that. I also couldn't rag about the other actors to my wife, either, and some actors would suspect I was doing that.

"I wasn't concerned that people might think she wore the pants in the family. But it's a struggle to maintain your self-esteem as an actor, anyway, so to be marginalized in a professional situation was bothersome."

The sticky situation began to change in 2002, after Pollard went to the New Jersey Theatre Alliance's annual "combined auditions." There, an actor performs a monologue for the state's artistic directors. SuzAnne Barabas of New Jersey Repertory Company was impressed with Pollard and asked him to become a member of her company.

His first role was in the two-member comedy "Big Boys," which was co-produced with Playwrights Theatre in Madison.

"Because of appearing in both towns, more and more people got to see me, and the New Jersey community got to see what I could do on my own. You can say that 'Big Boys' was my big break," Pollard says.

He was calling himself Michael Irvin then. "Just like the Dallas Cowboys' wide receiver," he says. "When he started getting into trouble with sex and drugs, I thought I'd better use my full name."

Since "Big Boys," Pollard has been seen at the Women's Theater Company in Wayne and at the Bickford Theatre in Morris Township -- though he concedes that his two stints with the Bickford have been under Liscow's direction.

"What's really happened is that I've grown into my type," says the bald-headed Pollard, who is 47. "When I was 25, I thought I should get cast in certain roles, and now I see I was too young for them. I'm clearly a middle-aged character actor, and I'm enjoying seeing all these different roles open up to me."

Peter Filichia may be reached at or (973) 392-5995.

A "License" renewed at NJ Rep

ASBURY PARK PRESS - September 16, 2008

It's one of the most basic casseroles in the playwright's recipe box. Take a situation that exists in a state of balance — a seemingly well-adjusted family unit, say — and throw in a wild card: an interloper at the dinner table who represents or even embodies some deep, dark aspect of a main character.

Place in an oven-safe vessel for about two hours on high heat, and watch the whole thing bubble and writhe. Then invite the neighbors over, charge them admission, and don't forget to baste the action with liberal splashes of cooking sherry.

With "Poetic License," in its world-premiere engagement at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, Jack Canfora follows the dysfunctional family recipe in faithful fashion, adding just enough spicy twists to satisfy the curiosity of the voyeurs at the fourth wall.

In Canfora's script, the home of acclaimed poet and academic John Greer (John Little, a last-minute substitute in the lead role) and his wife, Diane (Nancy Ringham), is rather comically invaded by their 19-year-old daughter Katherine (Anna O'Donoghue) and her new live-in boyfriend Edmund (Douglas Scott Sorenson) — an aspiring writer who seems very interested in meeting her dad.

Dad — and it's always successful, pillar-of-the-community Dad who's got the baggage, isn't it? — is a revered literary light who's just returned from a testimonial dinner thrown on his behalf. In fact, all signs seem to point to his being named Poet Laureate of the United States.

Over the course of a single evening — and with a documentary crew from cable's A&E channel due to arrive at any moment — the chitchat of a meet-the-parents dinner begins to take on some ominous shading; first with the realization that Mom tends to drink a bit too much. By the time Mr. Greer and young Edmund share a moment alone in the living room, the veil of propriety comes collapsing to the floor.

Edmund has an agenda and a secret that cuts to the core of Greer's very identity as an artist and a family man. He's even got a backup bombshell to lay on the Greers — and before too many minutes are up, it looks as though the poetic patriarch has been pushed into a hole from which he has no hope of extricating himself.

That's too bad in a way, because we're asked here to believe that this respected gentleman of letters has amassed prestige and privilege over the years by maintaining a carefully crafted wall of appearances. In other words, he's something of a con artist, and a master grifter would never let himself be bested so easily by an outsider who, for all anyone knows, could be a flim-flam man himself. Instead, Greer is reduced to sputtering lines like, "This is nonsense!" while his wife and daughter prove an attentive audience for Edmund's allegations.

There's the matter of that dread secret, too. While we're not about to divulge it, you'd probably be able to hash it out for yourself before the first finger of scotch is poured — and, while we've always been partial to the immediacy of the dead-hooker-in-the-trunk for dramatic effect, the figurative skeleton in the closet here takes the form of a series of stunners that simply don't let up. It's almost like a physical assault that renders the tall Greer a stooped and deflated figure by play's end; albeit one possessed of enough residual pride to never totally come clean with his loved ones.

Overcoming setbacks

Director Evan Bergman has done a tremendous job in getting this production up to speed following the sudden departure of the original leading man. The situation forced the postponement of the opening date to the next week, while John Little worked script-in-hand over an extended series of preview performances.

The strongest onstage work is delivered by Ringham as Diane, the long-term spouse who makes it abundantly and repeatedly clear that she has sacrificed much to prop up her husband's precious career as an "ethical" educator and much-lauded author. By the play's strange, sad final moments, she's not only come to the realization that she's been played for a fool by John — she's every bit as stripped of her identity and sense of purpose as he is.

Anna O'Donoghue portrays Katherine as a young woman who goes from take-charge confidence in the opening moments of the first act, to a sobbing wreck at the end — having been duped, disrespected and pretty much discarded by everyone she's close to. As Edmund, Sorenson is like an improvising musician calling a sudden chord change with the careful detonation of a strategically placed F-bomb — we see a shadow come across his face, and feel the smile retreat from ours, as he abruptly drops the good-guy persona of the opening sequence. We enter strange and alien territory, with the actor as our not-so-comforting guide.

"Poetic License" is a play of complex emotions, with no guarantee of closure. The cast, tight-lipped and far from exuberant at curtain call, seemed emotionally drained by the experience of wrestling with these deeply unhappy characters. It's their job for the next few weeks to illuminate these creatures of illusion; they are not here to show us a feel-good time.

Poetic License: Entertaining Variations On An Oft Told Tale

Women Who Steal

Douglas Scott Sorenson and Anna O'Donoghue

Everything old is new again in Poetic License which is receiving its world premiere in a spiffy production at the New Jersey Repertory Theatre

Anything there is to be told about Poetic License can only detract from the pleasure of discovering this play for oneself. Jack Canfora's new play is a light entertainment whose devices are most effective when they catch one by surprise. There is nothing profound here (although the clever author and production may well have you thinking differently until after the final curtain descends), and the author's literate and deftly comic set-up nicely disguises his intentions most entertainingly. Thus, if you are contemplating attending this production, I recommend that you do so without reading further.

The rest is for those still with me. Canfora has written his variation of an oft repeated plot which has oft times been employed effectively. This is the one in which a (usually young) person uses deception to gain access to the home of an elder of high reputation and accomplishment. He carries with him a shameful dark secret from the elder's past which, if true (and in time it almost always turns out that it is), exposes the dishonest hypocrisy on which his standing is based. The secret rips at the fabric of the elder's closest personal relationships and disgrace awaits him. Oh, and there is always an unexpected connection between the dreaded interloper and the elder which is torturing and driving on the interloper.

Katherine Greer and her roommate-lover Edmund (cutely) gain entrance to the home of her parents. The young lovers, both writers of poetry, have arrived for a birthday celebration for her father, Pulitzer Prize winning poet and university professor John Greer. Greer expects that in short order he will be named the nation's poet laureate. Katherine is most concerned about being able to endure the overbearing, embarrassing behavior of her self-aggrandizing mother Diane. The audience is comfortably ensconced in a family comedy. The lines are sharp and fit comfortably into the mouths of this erudite crew. Katherine opines that, "when it comes to their children, most parents consider hypocrisy wisdom." Diane asks Kath to cut vegetables because, "I don't want to hear from PETA next week saying I used excessive force in chopping the carrots." Notice the way that last quote is written. It is shorthanded in the manner that an educated person would speak, but never write. It displays author Jack Canfora's fine hand with dialogue.

The extended, disarming byplay heightens the shocking moment when the thus far charming Edmund turns to John, and says, "I've been fucking your daughter a couple of months now; and I've had to stop myself from telling her things about you."

For the rest (much of which I'm certain many of you have already discerned), it is skillfully written with a full measure of doubts, defenses, jolting revelations, angst and exploration of character.

Each actor fully rounds out his/her character as well as the melodrama. Douglas Scott Sorenson is particularly convincing as Edmund. It is the most difficult role because of conflicting strains in his behavior. Sorenson manages to strike notes of youthful impetuousness which feel real and electric. Anna O'Donoghue plays Katherine as a bruised but spunky young woman. As later events unfold, O'Donoghue is plaintive as she delineates Katherine's pain with small strokes. The convincing John Little effectively uses slight gradations in the stiffness of his speech and body movements to portray the unraveling of the poet-professor. Nancy Ringham as Diane is delightful, and properly not quite as exasperating as Kath's description of her. This interpretation feels right as, after all, she is not our mother. Ringham handles her dramatic scenes with a sense of hard earned dignity.

Director Evan Bergman has created a smooth, fluid production which captures all of the play's melodramatic twists and turns with maximum effectiveness. Bergman has done wonderful work with all of his actors, one of whom (John Little) had a very short time to assume his role after personal circumstances forced his predecessor to withdraw from the production.

New Jersey Repertory produced the world premiere of author Jack Canfora's rewarding comedy Place Setting (also directed by Evan Bergman) in the Spring of 2007. In providing a stage for the work of Jack Canfora and other developing, talented authors, the New Jersey Rep is performing an invaluable service for the American theatre.

Parental license

Busy mother manages to fit New Jersey Rep role into schedule
Friday, August 29, 2008
Star-Ledger Staff

A playing schedule that runs Thursdays through Sundays? Actress Nancy Ringham can do that.

As a wife and mother of two, Ringham turned her back on Broadway, which demanded eight performances a week. But New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch only asks for five performances in four days. So Ringham will be starring in the world premiere of Jack Canfora's "Poetic License," starting on Thursday. The show is directed by Evan Bergman.

Ringham plays the fictional Diane, who, as a college student 27 years prior, fell in love with John Greer, her poetry professor. After he reciprocated, she noticed that he didn't have much business sense -- which she had in abundance.

"So she became Diane Greer, the woman behind the man," says Ringham. "Her working hard to get her husband noticed got him a Pulitzer Prize. Now he's about to be named poet laureate of the United States. But our grown daughter is artistic like him, and thinks I'm crass. I keep telling her, 'Would you have an SUV if it weren't for me? Why are there so many starving poets?' And my daughter must admit that it's because all those poets aren't married to me."

In real life, Ringham more resembles John. She prefers a quiet life, raising daughters Caitlyn, 10, and Madeline, 7, in Englewood. Her husband, Christopher C. Smith, is a production supervisor on Broadway for "Legally Blonde," "August: Osage County" and "A Tale of Two Cities."

The two met in 1981, when Smith was a carpenter for the Broadway revival of "My Fair Lady" and Ringham was suddenly promoted from understudy to Eliza Dolittle herself, opposite Rex Harrison.

Says Ringham, who is 53, "And to think it was my first job in New York. I'd been acting ever since college in Minnesota, where I grew up, and just thought if I came to New York for a year and then returned home, I'd get more parts there because everyone would be impressed by my New York experience."

Actually, she and Smith didn't date for most of the run.

"I was engaged to a lawyer back home. We'd been together seven years, but with all that was happening to me, we broke up. So I went to Chris and said, 'Uh, I'm free now.'"

They've been a couple for 25 years. During the early part of the marriage, Ringham was Sally Bowles in the national company of "Cabaret" and Molly in the Broadway revival of "The Threepenny Opera." In the early '90s, she assumed the female lead in "The Will Rogers Follies."

"Then the girls came along, and because it took us so long to become parents, I wanted to stay home with them," she says. "Most people work all their lives to get a lead in a Broadway show. Mine hit early, and I knew what it entailed. If I could sing a big song in the second act and go home, that would have been ideal."

However, when she was offered the role of understudy in the 2001 production of "Follies," she decided to take it, figuring it wouldn't be too much of a commitment.

"I wound up going on in four different roles in the first two weeks," she says, moaning, "including the lead that Judith Ivey played."

Meeting Ivey, though, turned out to be life-changing.

"Judy was offered the lead in 'Secrets of a Soccer Mom,' but said she'd prefer to direct. When they agreed, she cast me in the role she turned down. I loved the play so much, I even co-produced it off-Broadway. After all, you can raise money from a phone at home while your daughters are in the next room."

from Red Bank Orbit

Readers of the lost art: Clockwise from top left, John “Gomez Addams” Astin, Stephen Colbert, the late Oscar winner Kim Hunter, Brian “Clerks” O’Halloran, Linda “Terminator” Hamilton, Betsy “Friday the 13th” Palmer — all veterans of New Jersey Repertory Company’s script-in-hand readings series.

There was that time that Stephen Colbert took a break from his breakout TV show — to perform a dramatic turn as a Nazi bureaucrat of obscure motives and opaque sympathies.

Another memorable evening occurred when veteran actress and broadcast personality Betsy Palmer — a woman who will always be pegged as Jason’s murderous momma in the first Friday the 13th movie — took a co-starring role in Dix Tableaux, a play that was as warmly funny as it was impossible to produce, seeing as to how they would have had to suspend an entire convertible from the ceiling to fulfill the playwright’s vision.

Things like props, scenery, costumes and even rehearsal schedules don’t matter too much when it comes to New Jersey Repertory Company’s long-running series of script-in-hand readings at its downtown Long Branch playhouse. All that’s needed are some copies of the script and maybe a narrator to read the stage directions and let the audience know that the characters are supposed to be sitting in a convertible suspended from the ceiling. 

It’s an offering that’s brought an ingeniously economical perspective to the whole process of putting on a show — and it’s a series that continues tonight on lower Broadway with a little something called The People’s Pimple.

Monday night playbook: The script-in-hand readings that have gone on to become full-fledged productions at NJ Rep include (clockwise from left) October 1962, Minstrel Show, Maggie Rose, North Fork and (center) The Speed Queen.

NJ Rep’s readings are a good deal for a whole lot of reasons. First off, they’re way cheaper than a fully-staged show — available for a suggested donation (generally $10), although reservations are required. Second, they start at 7pm and don’t keep you out late on a school night (post-show Q&A sessions are often intriguing but never mandatory). And third, you just never know what you’re going to see — it’s unpredictable enough for greatness to be in the cards, far more often than you may think.

A lot of fine actors have passed through these one-shot productions, including many from what’s become the stock company of players at the Long Branch stage. Such grand dames as Salome JensKatharine Houghton and the late Kim Hunter have used these nights as a springboard for a challenging new project. They’ve also drawn the participation of well-known performers who are itching to break out of their pigeonhole roles, be they John (Gomez Addams) Astin, Linda (Sarah Connor) Hamilton or Brian (Dante Hicks) O’Halloran, who’s displayed a range here that was just hinted at in his famous projects with Kevin Smith.

Most of all, it’s the fact that this feature has functioned as something like a “farm club” for new plays that makes it so much of a must. Out of nearly 250 readings that have been performed here over the past ten years, almost 40 of them have gone on to become fully finished mainstage shows at NJ Rep — from the company’s maiden show Ends, to the forthcoming production Apple, the seeds for which were first planted here with a reading back in 2003.

That sort of a gestation process isn’t all that unusual, as it turns out. As NJ Rep Artistic Director SuzAnne Barabas has explained, “The main purpose of the staged readings is to let the author see where there may be vulnerabilities in a play, and what the audience responds to or does not respond to.

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

With the Actors Equity stage union allowing up to 15 hours for rehearsals for these things, there are generally only two rehearsals of the material — one in New York, and one at NJ Rep the day of the performance.

That keeps things interesting and, shall we say, spontaneous in places — with the audience very much a part of the development process, to the extent that Barabas admits to having presented “plays that the audience did not especially like… the playwrights would do well to listen to their comments and to heed their suggestions.”

Tonight’s script, Sean Cunningham’s The People’s Pimple, is a commodity about which we know nothing save for its being described as a “comedy about Chairman Mao and his pimple.” Could it aspire to greatness? Who knows? If you’re curious, call NJ Rep at (732)229-3166 to reserve seating — and check back here for frequent updates on future examples of theater in the raw.

World Premiere Play In Long Branch "Poetic License" at New Jersey Rep

By Philip Dorian

John Little and Anna O'Donoghue play father and daughter in Poetic License.

Just when you think you have Jack Canfora's Poetic License figured out, another development plops into the mix. Well-acted by its four-member cast, the revealing of the story in trickles through most of the play keeps the audience involved with the mystery-drama. (I'd add comedy to the description, but that element, prominent in the first half, goes missing in act two.)

The fact that key points in the play bear a close resemblance to the 2001 Pulitzer and Tony-winning Proof diminishes somewhat but does not entirely negate the respectability of Poetic License. The play straddles the line between "Reminds me of..." and "You've got to be kidding," but creative authenticity has been debated since before Shakespeare borrowed from Plautus. (Those thoughts and the reference to Proof are clues to the plot-particulars of Poetic License.)

Literature professor and writer John Greer (John Little) is to be appointed Poet Laureate of the United States. His career has been managed by his wife Diane who, sharply etched by Canfora and played to perfection by Nancy Ringham, gets my vote for Sarcasm Laureate.

On the eve of John's announcement, their 19-year old daughter Katherine (Anna O'Donoghue) shows up with her soon-to-be-live-in boyfriend Edmund (Douglas Scott Sorenson). Katherine is an aspiring poet and, as we learn, Edmund is a writer too.

The ensuing family squabbles, jealousies and revelations lead to an all-out Tension Convention, sparked by exposure of sins past and present and fueled by alcohol-spiked Diane.

The play unfolds in real-time two hours, and we learn a great deal as wounds are opened and old scores settled. Under director Evan Bergman, it's not crammed-in or rushed - at least not in the smartly-constructed first act.

Mr. Little, who replaced another actor on short notice, offers an adept portrayal of false bravado in the face of humiliation. His growing discomfort is clearly the character's, not the actor's. Ms. Ringham delivers Diane's acid-tongued put-downs with an edgy flair. ("You're the poet," she says to her husband. "You're the one who's paid to be vague.")

Ms. O'Donoghue and Mr. Sorenson work well together. They create a believable Gen Y couple, nervous over facing Katherine's parents. Their relationship breaks down in the melodramatic second act, culminating in an unsavory subtext. Edmund had deceived Katherine big time, and she ends up understandably distraught.

That abrupt second-act change of tone is a significant flaw. New developments are telegraphed, and bright dialogue is replaced by matter-of-fact exposition. That doesn't make Poetic License. a bad play - far from it. First-time stagings, New Jersey Rep's raison d'etre, allow playwrights to see their work "on its feet" and, hopefully, improve it. Tinker away with Poetic License, Mr. Canfora, but please keep this cautionary line: "Being an admirer of Shakespeare," says the Professor, "hardly puts me in the forefront of literary criticism."


A belated premiere about a poet with problems


John Little and Anna O'Donoghue are featured in "Poetic License," the play by Jack Canfora that
makes its world premiere this week in Long Branch. (NJREP)

In summing up "Poetic License," the new show that makes its world premiere at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch this weekend, playwright Jack Canfora can't resist citing Mark Twain.

"When I was 19, I thought my parents were the stupidest people in the world," the playwright quotes Twain as saying. "When I was 21, I was amazed at how much they had learned in such a short time."

For the 19-year-old daughter in Canfora's "family drama-comedy," the revelation occurs within a single evening — an evening in which her "very fixed ideas about both of her parents are challenged."

Dad in this case is a renowned poet, one who's on the short list for being named to the exalted position of United States Poet Laureate — an honor that in real life has been bestowed in the past upon a native son of Long Branch, Robert Pinsky (who served from 1997 to 2000).

"The family in this story seems basically sound," says the actor-author from Huntington, Long Island. "But there are one or two things that are perhaps not what we think they are — it's about chickens coming home to roost."

If a scenario of family conflict and rattling skeletons sounds too heavy to digest in these late days of summer, there's another great thinker that Canfora likes to reference — Mel Brooks, whose famous quote he paraphrases as, "Tragedy is me getting a paper cut; comedy is you falling down a manhole."

While the playwright allows that "Poetic License" is "fundamentally a drama," he's quick to suggest that "hopefully, it's funny along the way, as people's lives become unraveled — really, who doesn't want to see that?"

Frequent visitors to NJ Rep might recall Canfora as both creator and co-star of last year's ensemble piece "Place Setting," in which he worked with director Evan Bergman. The new show — only his second completed play, and the second one he's had produced — reunites him with Bergman, and boasts a cast featuring Anna O'Donoghue, Nancy Ringham, Douglas Scott Sorenson, and, as the poetic patriarch, John Little — who stepped in at the 11th hour when original lead Davis Hall had to bow out of the production for personal reasons.

While he's not sharing the stage this time out, Canfora was present at most of the rehearsals in Long Branch, and praises his director as one who "gives me a lot of latitude — he wants the choices that work best, and he's the least afflicted-with-ego director I've worked with."

The playwright describes his role in rehearsal as one in which he's cut a line here or tweaked a word there, owing to the fact that "the actors do so much of the heavy lifting, and some of the words become unnecessary."

As to his dalliances with the poetic form, Canfora dismisses himself as "one of North America's five worst poets — it's difficult to write poetry that matches what the audience anticipates hearing; the poet's work in the play is just the MacGuffin, to use Alfred Hitchcock's word."

"I'm trying to make a living as a playwright here in America," adds the writer, who recently finished a new work based on the professional relationship of Elia Kazan and Arthur Miller. "Ultimately, it's less expensive than therapy."


from red bank orbit

Life of the party: Davis Hall and Nancy Ringham co-star in the world premiere of Poetic License, the dramedy by Jack Canfora that starts previews tomorrow at New Jersey Repertory Company. (Photos by SuzAnne Barabas)

Poetic License, the play by Jack Canfora that begins its world premiere run tomorrow afternoon in Long Branch, might be described as a play about the sheer suckiness of being chosen as Poet Laureate.

Ever heard the phrase? In olden times, a Poet Laureate was an official author of proclamations and composer of odes to the glories of the monarch who appointed him. Things that are done today by presidential speechwriters and spinmeisters.

Although the post is basically a sort of roving ambassador for poetry appreciation, the United States has an official Poet Laureate too — and between the years 1997 and 2000, those duties were carried out by Robert Pinsky, a man who, like Dorothy Parker and Norman Mailer before him, was born in Long Branch.

Pinsky, who’s reportedly going to be in the local area this Saturday for his 50th high school reunion, declined an invite to attend a dedication of some newly reclaimed public space on lower Broadway — a “Pinsky Park” to be named in his honor.

Had the esteemed gentleman of letters opted to hang around the largely boarded-up blocks of downtown LB’s future Arts District, he would have been welcomed at the opening night of Poetic License — a play that was originally titled A World With Snow, under which name it was performed in a reading by Austin Pendleton. 

Presented by New Jersey Repertory Company, the production reunites the Long Island-based Canfora with director Evan Bergman. The two collaborated at NJ Rep last year with Place Setting — a bitter, vodka-fueled study of partner-swapping, paranoia and self-pity at a swingin’ suburban dinner party. Good stuff, it was.

An accomplished actor in his own right, Canfora also did duty as a cast member in that production. Although that’s not the case this time, he’s been present at nearly all of the rehearsals — changing a word here, cutting a line there, and just generally enjoying the process of seeing the work get pulled kicking and wailing into the living world. Red Bank oRBit found the proud poppa at the Rep’s playhouse on Broadway.

RED BANK ORBIT: I told you about Pinsky not doing the little thing in the park, right?

JACK CANFORA: Well, I’m sure he has his reasons. We should just be thankful for Pinsky’s books; everything else is gravy.

Well played sir. Anyway, your new play, which is — how many have you written?

This is my second completed play. And it’s my second one produced here.

Batting a thousand. The play is about a poet, and beyond that I don’t really know much about it.

In a nutshell, it’s a family drama-comedy, about chickens coming home to roost. There’s a revelation that’s crucial to it. The father’s a renowned writer on the verge of being named Poet Laureate, and there’s something in his past — the family seems to be fundamentally sound, but one or two things are not what we think they are.

And, like a lot of the great dramas both onstage and off, it takes place at a family gathering? Place Setting had a similar vibe, I think; the night where it all comes down, and then the morning after.

Here it all transpires in one evening. There’s the character of the daughter; a young daughter of nineteen who starts off with very fixed ideas about both of her parents. And within a very short time her, and our, perceptions are challenged.

You mentioned that it’s partly a comedy, but I get the impression that it’s skewed more toward the heavy side.

Fundamentally, it’s a drama, but hopefully it becomes very funny along the way as people’s lives become unraveled. Who doesn’t want to see that?

You’ve made Dad an artist, as you are yourself, rather than a salesman or something else. Do you find the play ringing truer somehow, when it centers around a creative pursuit? Is there something of yourself in there?

I think in an odd way I’m sort of not qualified to answer how much of me is in each play. I wanted to examine the connective tissue between the art and the artist — how do you make great art? Is the artist even aware of it? Should you view poetry the same way?

Why a poet, ultimately? Why not a potter, or a guy who makes metal dinosaur sculptures out of car parts?

(laughs) We might not have had the time or the budget for that! It’s just that I’ve always esteemed poetry — just the idea of being able to condense all that thought into such a combustible form.

Do we get to hear some of the poetry that Dad’s written, within the play?

I’m one of North America’s five worst poets — it’s been documented! So, no, I don’t need that kind of competition. It’s difficult to write poetry that matches what the audience anticipates hearing.

How’s it been working out, having you, the very much alive playwright, on the set every day?

Evan gives me a lot of latitude. He’s not jealous of any of my contributions. He’s secure and open to the process, and the cast has made me feel welcome, too. The actors wind up doing so much of the heavy lifting in these things; they give you a reaction, or a facial expression, and you realize that you didn’t even need that line they were supposed to say. So I’ve been tweaking and cutting; I cut a few lines just today.

So what’s next for you as a writer or actor, or both?

Well, I just finished two plays, including my first play that’s based on actual historical figures — Elia Kazan and Arthur Miller. I’m trying to make a living as a playwright in America, which is like — well, it’s ultimately less expensive than therapy.

Hearing the music in Parker's wit

by Peter Filichia/the Star-Ledger
Tuesday July 15, 2008, 5:32 PM

photo: SuzAnne Barabas
From left, Maria Couch, Brooke Davis, Warren Kelley, Kim Carson and Ashley Puckett Gonzales in a scene from "The Little Hours" at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

Was it Dorothy Parker who wrote "Most men lead lives of quiet desperation"? No, it was Thoreau. On the basis of "The Little Hours" at New Jersey Repertory Company, Parker could have written "Most men and women lead lives of quiet desperation."

In Parker's hometown of Long Branch, five of her short stories have been set to music by playwright-adapter David Bucknam and able director Alan Souza. For his first act, Bucknam chose four stories about women, jump-cutting from one story to another. Because these are Everywoman's tales of woe, each character doesn't have a name, but rather a noun that describes what she's enduring.

"Waltz" is drolly played by a world-weary Ashley Puckett Gonzales. She's at a ball, but isn't having one. She takes us through the journey of dancing with a man when she's not engaged, literally and figuratively. "Telephone" is frenetically enacted by Kim Carson, anguished from counting the seconds until the man who promised to call comes through.

Brooke Davis excels as "Diary": She realizes that an aging, heavy-set woman had best become a turbaned grande dame. She spends her time wondering which dress will make her look best -- all the while knowing there's only so much even the hautest of couture can accomplish.

"Hours" prefers to stay in bed rather than place herself in the rat race -- and man race. Maria Couch excels in showing a woman who's trying to rationalize wasting her time, all the while aware that she's avoiding human contact because she's simply scared.

All these stories take place within Charles Corcoran's dull, black-draped set. But when the curtain rises on the second act, the drapes are gone to reveal a splendid suburban backyard. There George Wheelock trims his hedges and wonders about the road -- and the women -- he didn't take. Warren Kelley's grin has enough manic energy to suggest that George is working very hard not to lose his mind.

Bucknam writes a few traditional songs, but instead offers a type of musical wallpaper with long, languorous melody lines. Many are stirring and beautiful. Still, this isn't a musical for those who like to exit the theater humming tunes.

The quips that made Parker famous, from "Brevity is the soul of lingerie" to "If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to," are unexpectedly absent from the show. Yet, "The Little Hours" gives new meaning to that sarcastic Parker zinger, "Life is a glorious cycle of song."

The Little Hours
Written by David Bucknam
Based on the works of Dorothy Parker
Directed by Alan Souza
New Jersey Repertory Company

Review by Amy Krivohlavek,

If you’re a fan of the witty wordsmith Dorothy Parker — or just love an intelligent musical — get out to Long Branch, New Jersey, to see The Little Hours. Parker, an avowed New Yorker, was born there, and although she would probably prefer that you forget her suburban roots, the New Jersey Repertory Company has produced an enticing — and superbly performed — production that not only draws from, but also celebrates, her humor, charm and singular style.

In this ambitious work, David Bucknam has woven five of Parker’s most striking stories into a lovely pair of one-act musicals. In the first, set in 1936, he weaves together four stories that depict four very different women at moments of panic: a wide-eyed young woman (Kim Carson) waiting anxiously by the phone for a man to call; an affluent dame (Brooke Davis) dripping with feathery finery but lonely and isolated in a wealthy abyss; a young divorcee (Maria Couch) fighting insomnia and her churning mind; and a pert young woman (Ashley Puckett Gonzales) waltzing with a frighteningly clumsy man.

In the second act, the women are joined by the excellent Warren Kelley in a modern-day adaptation of Such A Pretty Little Picture. In Parker’s dissection of an “ideal” family’s life in suburban Connecticut, the frustrated patriarch drifts into a fantasy in which his wife, daughter and nosy neighbors come to life in unexpected ways.

Bucknam’s adaptation provides a strong vehicle for each of these actresses, all of whom give richly textured performances. His lyrical songs overlap each other with just a dash of dialogue, and director Alan Souza provides crisp, fluid staging to match. The music is appealing, if rarely transporting, but all the better — Bucknam wisely made room for Parker’s words to pop to the surface.

The situations might seem commonplace (hence the coy understatement of the title), but through Parker’s writing — and especially in this production — the women’s lives appear anything but small. In particular, Gonzales is a comic knockout as the dancing woman—perhaps the most like Parker herself, the character’s fierce independence is undercut by the perceived need to be on a man’s arm, whatever the cost. By turns, she icily criticizes the man’s faults but then spins around to apologize when he steps on her foot. But we know, knowing Parker, that she’ll eventually get the last word in.

'Hours' well spent with a great wit at NJ Rep



Warren Kelly and Maria Couch are among the cast of "The Little Hours." (PRESS STAFF PHOTO: BOB BIELK)

Long Branch has been bending over backward to do right by Dorothy Parker in recent years, even if the famous author and wit (1893-1967) never had an encouraging word to say about the seaside city of her birth.

With "The Little Hours," New Jersey Repertory Company offers up a work that's every bit the landmark as the writer's commemorative plaque in West End. It's a living theatrical experience that removes Parker from the realm of stony memorials and deposits her back where she more or less belongs - hovering just over our shoulder, as a bitterly funny and always trenchant observer of our modern American lives.

Even though the author never evidenced much of a musical streak, this world-premiere tunefest makes perfect sense somehow — as a crash course in the timeless themes of Parker's most enduring work, and as a collaboration between Parker and composer David Bucknam, who adapted five of her short stories and essays in ways that seem born to the musical stage.

Performed by a cast of four women and one man under the direction of Alan Souza — and accompanied on piano by onstage musical director Helen Gregory — "The Little Hours" isn't a standard sort of book-and-score musical. It's more like a pair of irreverent mini-operettas, in which Bucknam's song cycles are punctuated with spoken excerpts from Parker's cuttingly concise prose. One of the production's two distinctly different parts can be said to advance a rather bizarre sort of storyline, while the other is a kind of "revue" of some of the author's literary greatest-hits.

The show opens with this hit parade — a juxtaposition of four Parker pieces played against a darkened stage and set, according to the program, in 1936 New York City. In "The Waltz," a dance-club reveler (Ashley Puckett Gonzales) muses about the twists of fate that have paired her with her down-market "Cro-Magnon" of a dance partner, rather than the slicker specimens that have gravitated to the other girls on the floor.

"From the Diary of a New York Woman" details several days in the life of an aging social butterfly (Brooke Davis) whose options for dinner-and-show companionship are dwindling away.

The titular bit "The Little Hours" is a portrait in frustration, as an insomniac (Maria Couch) attempts to read herself through a sleepless night, only to lapse into a diatribe on lambs, literature and the overrated virtues of antique male writers.

In "A Telephone Call," a young woman (Kim Carson) runs an emotional gamut as she awaits that follow-up call from last night's date — proving some things never change.

In fact, if it weren't for the breathtaking 1930s costumes by Pat Doherty and a handful of period references, we could just as easily be viewing some scenes from the 21st century urban landscape here. Such are the universal qualities of Parker's pen.

With the four interlocking pieces played to the hilt by the four actresses, this is a show that discourages playing favorites — yet we can't help but single out Ashley Puckett Gonzales for her turn as the disappointed dancer of "The Waltz." Blessed with some of the sharpest lines of the script, she shines brightly during the interlude known as "The Loveliest Waltz"; a genuine standout in the first-act score. She's also dynamite as Midge, the nosy neighbor turned seductive spy, in the show's second act.

An adaptation of Parker's first published story, the 1922 "Such a Pretty Little Picture," the second half of "The Little Hours" opens up the stage to a sunny slice of stylized suburbia by designer Charles Corcoran, in which Connecticut homeowner George Wheelock (Warren Kelley, joining the four actresses here) goes about obsessively trimming his front yard hedges. Kelley, pitch-perfect as the milquetoast man of the house, gets top-notch support from the women here.

There's a lot of Parker's trademark sense of humor throughout "The Little Hours" — but hanging over it all is the same tremendous melancholy that forms the flip-side of the Parker style. The lies that these characters tell themselves — that they're happy and secure in their relationships; that their lives are fraught with glamour and drama; that there's anybody out there who really loves them — represent the uninvited guest that casts a pall over the party. The point being that, enjoyable as it is, this isn't exactly a light summer-stock musical in the barn.

The Little Hours


A New Jersey Repertory Company presentation of a musical in two acts with book, music and lyrics by David Bucknam, based on the works of Dorothy Parker. Directed by Alan Souza. Musical director, Helen Gregory.
With: Kim Carson, Maria Couch, Brooke Davis, Ashley Puckett Gonzales, Warren Kelley.
The worldly humor and cynical observations that marked the trademark pen of Dorothy Parker were harnessed into a chamber musical, "The Little Hours," by the late David Bucknam. Coincidentally, the tuner is having its world premiere by the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, where the scribe was born when her Manhattan family was vacationing there in summer 1893.

The first half of the play consists of four short stories. The frantic desperation of an impatient lover in "A Telephone Call," is deftly realized by a pert Kim Carson, who waits anxiously for the call that never comes from a philandering boyfriend.

In "The Waltz," Ashley Puckett Gonzales defines despair and bewilderment in a dancing soliloquy. Brooke Davis as a wonderfully sophisticated grand dame in "From the Diary of a New York Lady" is at a loss over whether to wear the "green crepe, red wool, sapphire earrings, the diamond pendant or the mink with the sable collar."

The title piece, "The Little Hours," finds Maria Couch as a divorced chronic insomniac, galloping into a state of melancholia, both manic and tragically funny.

The four players offer finely tuned contrasting performances in the four short scenes, and the elegance of Parker's archly pointed wit was set to a zesty and richly flavorful score by Bucknam. But, although the music has a consistently appealing sense of grace and flow, no single piece leaves its own boldly melodic identity.

"A Pretty Little Picture," the second half of the program, is an elusive domestic satire concerning a meekly complaisant husband (Warren Kelley), who is dominated by a chatty wife (Davis) and an ungrateful daughter (Carson), but who fantasizes a seductive proposal from his wife's best friend (Gonzales).

Kelley offers a keenly focused performance as the hapless husband consumed by a repetitious lifestyle and the futile dream of new horizons.

Director Alan Souza moves his players comfortably on the small stage, designed with modest efficiency by Charles Corcoran. The costume design for act one smartly reflects the flirty '30s with fashionable turbans, rope pearls, stylish hair styles and white gloves.

Despite her brilliant career as a short story writer, the dream of theatrical success always eluded Dorothy Parker. She would be pleased that her birthplace cradledthe preem of "The Little Hours."



Wasn't the Yale prom wonderful? If all the girls in attendance were laid end to end, I wouldn't be at all surprised.

— Dorothy Parker

The New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch this weekend is presenting a world-premiere musical based on the works of Dorothy Parker.

Most people might assume such a musical belongs on the Broadway stage, given Parker's lifelong love affair with New York City, where she worked and lived for much of her life.

Time to freshen up one of our favorite anecdotes, from author Marion Meade's "Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell Is This." (Penguin):

"She was supposed to have been born in New York City, but instead she showed up prematurely at the seashore on Aug. 22, 1893. That summer, as always, her family was living at West End, New Jersey . . . They prided themselves on renting a house at West End, which was next door to Long Branch, a seaside resort that had been the favorite spa of presidents from Grant to Arthur and that presumed to call itself "the Monte Carlo of America.' "

The author goes on to describe how Henry Rothschild left his pregnant wife and family at their Cedar Avenue vacation home one Monday morning to go to his job in New York, where summertime was the busiest season for the garment industry.

"Shortly thereafter, Eliza Rothschild went into labor. The evening after the baby came, the shore was pounded by a West Indian cyclone that knocked the chimney off their roof . . . After a terrible night, the children ventured forth to discover that not a bathhouse was left standing on the beach, and the old iron pier had been washed out to sea like a sand castle.

When Henry Rothschild returned to Cedar Avenue, he found a baby and a house that needed a new chimney."

So there you have it. Here at Jersey Alive, we celebrate Parker for her scintillating wit and outrageous humor. She was the queen of the Algonquin Round Table, the quintessential New Yorker, and although she might have been the last one to admit it . . .

. . . she was a Jersey Girl.

The wicked wit of Dorothy Parker

Long Branch musical salutes native daughter
Friday, July 04, 2008
Star-Ledger Staff


Alan Souza is getting a head start on celebrating Dorothy Parker's birthday.

He's in Long Branch, where the noted wit was born on August 22, 1893. "I'm not here to party, though," he says, "though I do hope that Dorothy would like what I'm doing."

For the New Jersey Repertory Company, Souza is directing the world premiere of "The Little Hours," David Bucknam's musical based on five of Parker's short stories.

"It's called that," says Souza, "because it tells of the little patterns we repeat hour after hour of every day -- and the little lies we tell ourselves to get through the day."

Parker was well-known for her cynical quips, from "Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses" to "This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force."

"And yet," says Souza, "Dorothy was a real champion for the underdog, especially women. She was trying to find her voice in a system that was dominated by men, so in her short stories, she had empathy for those who were trying to cope with a man's world."

Bucknam took four of Parker's stories that deal with that theme and combined them. As a result, audiences will see four stories simultaneously, on how women dealt with these issues in the '30s, when Parker wrote them.

To make a point on how much -- and how little -- has changed in the last 70-plus years, the second act is set in 2008. Those four actresses return as different characters in an adaptation of "Such a Pretty Picture," the first short story Parker ever published (in 1922).

Says Souza, "Now we meet George Wheelock, who's a good father and husband, crazy about his family, but he's stuck wondering about what he missed. Some call it a mid-life crisis. I call it hitting the wall. I know how it feels, because I hit one, too."

The Springfield native fell in love with theater at an early age, thanks to his parents Aida and Leo Souza, who often took him to shows at the nearby Paper Mill Playhouse, and on Broadway. After he was graduated from Syracuse University, Alan became an actor.

"And I worked," he says staunchly. "I wasn't rich, I wasn't famous, but many people would have liked to have had my acting career, for I never had to take a survival job."

It included ensemble work for all 501 performances of "Saturday Night Fever" on Broadway. "But," Souza says, "I did double that number -- at least 1,000 performances -- as one of the lads in 'Forever Plaid' and Freddy in 'My Fair Lady' all across the country."

Two years ago, at 39, Souza decided to back away from that metaphorical wall and begin directing. He staged "Fiddler on the Roof" in Oklahoma, "I Do! I Do!" in Kansas City, and "Side by Side by Sondheim" in Philadelphia, where he resides. Then his friend, musical director Helen Gregory, suggested that he read "The Little Hours." He did, liked it, and submitted it to SuzAnne and Gabor Barabas, who head New Jersey Repertory. "They read it in a day and immediately committed to it," he says.

Souza has a number of questions he'd like to ask Bucknam, but he cannot. "There is a sad irony that Dorothy Parker had three unsuccessful suicide attempts, and that David was successful 10 years ago," he says.

Surrender to Dorothy

by Tom Chesek, Asbury Park Press

Long Branch-born author is celebrated in song

There's a plaque outside a garden apartment complex in the West End section of Long Branch — a memorial unlike any other in the state of New Jersey. It confers historic landmark status upon the plot of land that once hosted a modest summer cottage, and it marks the birthplace of a woman who was one of the most celebrated American writers of her day.

Dorothy Parker (1893-1967) was a legendary purveyor of prose, verse, criticism, journalism and some of the most irresistible soundbites ever uttered in public. But if you asked the young Dorothy Rothschild what she thought of her family's summer home along Ocean Avenue, you'd get a stream of invective that could even raise eyebrows among her worldly peers at the fabled Algonquin Round Table.

If it makes you feel any better, the self-professed true New Yorker hated Hollywood every bit as much (even though her screenplays for "Smash-Up" and "A Star is Born" earned her Oscar nominations). Undaunted, the Manhattan-based Dorothy Parker Society, working closely with their friends in Long Branch, have gone to great lengths to connect the 20th century wit to the seaside city of her birth — an effort that's resulted in an annual Dorothy Parker Day observance, the 2008 edition of which happens at points around town on Aug. 16.

There's much more in store for fans of the remarkable woman who's remembered as both a keen observer of modern mores and a passionate proponent for social causes. Beginning this weekend and wrapping up around Dorothy Day, New Jersey Repertory Company presents the world premiere of "The Little Hours," an original musical adapted from the writings of an author who was as respected (for her quotably clever poems and acclaimed stories) as she was reviled (for her take-no-prisoners reviews of books and plays).

Director-actor Alan Souza, who appeared onstage at NJ Rep last year in Katharine Houghton's original musical "Bookends" (a show in which he was directed by her husband, Ken Jenkins of TV's "Scrubs"), brought the unproduced work by the late composer and teacher David Bucknam to the attention of Gabe and SuzAnne Barabas — and the Rep founders so believed in the show that they applied for and received a grant from the prestigious Edgerton Foundation's New American Plays program.

"This is purely up New Jersey Rep's alley," says Souza. "It's a play of ideas, that just happens to be a musical."

It's also an "uncategorizable" show that "doesn't act like a traditional musical," in the words of its director, a scholar of (and specialist in) the canon of stage tunefests. Not only that, but it's a show in which nobody among the four-woman, one-man cast actually appears onstage as Dorothy Parker.

Summarized by Souza as a "musing" on some of the recurrent themes of Parker's body of work, "The Little Hours" is a two-part presentation in which the first act (set in 1936) is an amalgam of four of the author's stories — "A Telephone Call," "The Waltz," "From the Diary of a New York Lady," and the title piece; an insomniac's lament that morphs into an enthusiastic essay on quotable literature. Kim Carson, Maria Couch, Brooke Davis and Ashley Puckett Gonzales perform in this section of the show.

The quartet of actresses is joined by Warren Kelley for the second half; an act-length adaptation of Parker's first published story, the 1922 "Such a Pretty Little Picture," in which a henpecked husband — his only apparent pleasure being the trimming of the family hedges — concocts some outlandish scenarios involving his wife, his daughter and other people in their smallish middle-class world.

"It's arguably about her first marriage, and how she tried to make it work within the rules of American society at the time," explains Souza, who notes that the action here has been updated to the present day. "It's a bit more linear than the first act, and it incorporates characters from that part of the show."

Bucknam's score of songs is performed to the piano accompaniment of musical director Helen Gregory, who previously collaborated with Souza on a revival of "The Full Monty" in Florida — the sort of satisfying large-scale project that, the director maintains, can be instrumental in allowing him to take on just the sort of smaller, edgier assignment that NJ Rep has made their stock in trade.

"I'm figuring out the puzzle," says Souza. "The problem is, you want to make money, but you also want to do something thrilling, precarious.

"You either ride the carousel or the rollercoaster in life," Souza sums up. "I'd rather ride the rollercoaster."

Comedy at N.J. Rep is worth stealing a look

by Peter Filichia/Star-Ledger Staff
Tuesday May 13, 2008, 11:00 PM

Stephanie Dorian, left, and Liz Zazzi in "Women Who Steal."

Early in "Women Who Steal," the refreshingly crazy comedy at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, Karen admits that she "has it all."

So why would such a woman steal?

"When you have it all," she explains, "it's natural to want something else."

There's truth in that, and in plenty of other observations made by Carter W. Lewis in his offbeat new play. "I don't even know what my regrets are," Karen says staunchly, "but I know I have them."

Karen doesn't turn to shoplifting or embezzlement. She'll pick off Peggy's husband, Jack, for a one-night stand.

"But it was Christmas Eve!," says Peggy, moaning. "He said he was going downstairs to wrap the children's gifts!"

Actually, these two would be good friends if Karen hadn't stooped to swooping up Jack. As she and Peggy show for the next two hours, they have a great deal in common: a wild sense of humor, a thirst for tequila and a love of driving many miles per hour over the speed limit.

Just as speedy, though, is SuzAnne Barabas' direction. She navigates three performers well enough to make the play resemble a 30-minute joy-ride.

Stephanie Dorian is beautifully brittle as Karen. (Describing a skin peel, she squints her left eye with let's-face-it realism: "They rev up the Black & Decker and sand your face down.") Virtually everything Dorian says is in a matter-of-fact, seen-it-all voice that's perfect for the character.

As Peggy, Liz Zazzi -- the New Jersey actress always most likely to deliver a knockout performance -- does another bravura turn. When Karen gives her roundabout rationalization of adultery, Zazzi looks up to the ceiling, eyes and mouth dully open, as if she were preparing for the dentist's drill.

When Peggy becomes a sloppy drunk, Zazzi leans like the Tower of Pisa, then weaves around convincingly, never overdoing it. Peggy sobers up fast, though, when she considers why her husband strayed. Zazzi makes an audience understand the character's pain when she worries that she was simply too plain for Jack.

Lest matters become too serious, Lewis segues to a hilarious monologue on the agonies of being pre-menopausal. Zazzi does it full justice. Though she often suggests she's a post-modern Lucy Ricardo -- red hair and all -- when Zazzi cries and wails, she sounds real.

Bill Timoney, another frequent (and stellar) Jersey actor, is on hand to play five roles. He's the men in each of these women's lives, as well as a waiter, a ruddy redneck who loves to laugh at his own jokes and a German doctor. Timoney makes each of these characters a distinct individual.

All three deliver Lewis' messages quite well: Boredom is greatly responsible for much of today's criminal behavior. People who think justice isn't well-dispensed feel free to provide their own. Lewis believes if there's nothing much constructive that we can do about it, we might as well laugh.

A Grand Theft In Long Branch
"Women Who Steal" at New Jersey Repertory Company


Stephanie Dorian (left), Bill Timoney and Liz Zazzi sort things out in "Women Who Steal."

One of the two female characters in Women Who Steal, the inventive comedy at New Jersey Repertory Company, refers to herself as being plain; the other claims to be unnervingly alluring. The actresses, Liz Zazzi and Stephanie Dorian (no relation), are contrasting physical types, and as well as they perform in the play, they could probably switch roles and still make the plain/ alluring ratio unnervingly believable. Both actresses have appeared at NJ Rep before, but not together and never better.

The play is a sort of 'road' adventure, a la Thelma and Louise, but less violent and not tragic. An exploration of feminist determinism, it suffers from some hazy and repetitious speechifying, but playwright Carter E. Lewis compensates nicely with a generous sprinkling of priceless quips and battle-of-the-sexes riffs. One such, an extended rant on pre-menopausal symptoms that stops the show, makes you marvel that Lewis is male. He's aware of women's insights and reveals them with uncommon wit. Consider this: A man with an earring would make a good husband because "he's experienced pain and he buys jewelry." Tell me those words aren't worth a thousand pictures.

Karen (Ms. Dorian) slept with Peggy's (Ms. Zazzi) husband Jack (one of several roles played by Bill Timoney) on Christmas Eve. While Peggy thought he was wrapping presents. Jack had fetishized Karen, going so far as to duplicate her style in gifts to his wife, including matching bras. (Visual confirmation is provided, if you must know.)

The women meet to compare notes, putting down the male sex in general and sharing pop-philosophy to the tune of "life is death" and other profundities. A dissection of the common reply "yes, but...," which they label "the cancelled affirmative," is a trenchant characterization for which we all should thank Mr. Lewis. And "Crying is faking an orgasm with your face" may not hold up under scrutiny, but it has a ring to it, don't you think?

The women bond, an aggressive event occurs and they go on the lam, taking all the necessary equipment: a car, a gun and a bottle of tequila. Various locations materialize on the nearly-bare stage, including a rustic tavern, a lakeside knoll and a hospital corridor. (Auto-travel pantomime is less successful, but it rarely works anyway.)

Zazzi's Peggy is the more bitter of the two; Dorian's Karen the more practical. The actors complement each other perfectly. Both toss off the comedy with pinpoint timing and hit home with the wickedly clever digs at us guys. It's a contest between equals with two winners. The tequila bottle also gets a workout, and the gals both play drunk with the necessary restraint - slurry but not sloppy. That Peggy and Karen both end up in acceptable situations isn't giving anything away; it's the journey through their angst that counts.

In more than capable support, Timoney brings variety to the roles of Karen's husband, whose wound goes deeper than his vanity; her first lover, whose plaid shirt inspires a beaut of a put-down; Peggy's admirer, who's largely confined to the car trunk; and an Emergency Room doctor, who wisely backs down before long-stem roses.

Notwithstanding actor Timoney and playwright Lewis's Y chromosomes, Women Who Steal is a distaff triumph. Director SuzAnne Barabas completes the circuit. She has honed the balance between the actresses to a fine edge. Dorian and Zazzi are indeed women who steal. They steal scenes from each other. But it's reciprocal and without felonious intent. And it's a treat to watch.

Peggy and Karen Shoot for the Funny Bone in Women Who Steal

Women Who Steal

The fast-paced direction of SuzAnne Barabas and the uninhibited performances of her top flight cast make the best possible case for Women Who Steal, an ambitious, raucous feminist comedy by Carter W. Lewis. His satiric screwball farce is a hit and miss affair with a great deal of clever writing which, for most of its length, keeps the humor coming at a fast, nonstop pace.

In two acts and fifteen scenes, Women Who Steal takes us on a more or less six hour lawless joy ride with Karen and Peggy and, in satirical fashion examines the long running battle of the sexes, middle aged female psyches (and to a lesser extent, those of the male) while very loosely poking fun at the format of such female buddy films as Thelma and Louise.

The fifty-year-old Peggy (Liz Zazzi) has concluded that Jack, her husband of twenty-three years, has been having an affair with the prettier and ten years younger Karen (Stephanie Dorian). Peggy has asked Karen to meet her for dinner. At the restaurant, Karen casually acknowledges that she has slept with Jack (just once, a few weeks earlier). The single Karen runs a successful real estate business. Fearful that she is getting old and losing her attractiveness, Karen is more concerned about another man in her life than she is about her one-nighter. Only when she sees Peggy's young daughter, Milly, at the end of the first act, will she realize the hurt that she has caused.

Peggy and Karen leave the restaurant in Peggy's car and embark on a spree. It begins with drinks at a bar where they meet Herb (all of the men in the play are played by Bill Timoney) with whom Peggy has shared a long simmering, unfulfilled passion. Their wending journey will take them to Peggy's house where the inebriated Peggy will grab a BB gun and shoot her husband Jack six times, unintentionally blinding him in one eye. Then they are off to the bedroom of Karen's not quite boyfriend Stanley, whom they kidnap. After more scenes and contretemps, there is a happy ending. Although those who remember Karen's monologue that begins Women Who Steal will know that happy endings are only delusional.

Women Who Steal is overstuffed with material, and fails to separate the wheat from the chaff. There is both wisdom and pseudo-wisdom present. And, even when the writing is strong, Carter W. Lewis often continues on well after his point has been made. The opening words spoken by the unhappy Karen (to which I just referred), depending on one's points of view, may well embody all these qualities. In part, Karen says:

... (it is) the indisputable truth, the unavoidable truth, that truth being, life is death. Germs and worms nibbling at our toes. And people who are alive are merely duping themselves into believing that they’ve survived. Come now, really, I’m alive so I’ve survived? - how sophomoric is that? How could they think that, when the very act of living is dying. Argue, if you will, that life precludes death, or life is just death in the early stages, but life by either definition is still, unequivocally, death. Of course the red herring, the great lie, the universal deception is hope. Hope is the Moby Dick of red herrings.  Hope was invented by smart people for the maintenance of stupid people. Hope is something to feed the sub-standard among us. Hope is a cheeseburger and fries for people who are too stupid to realize they’re already dead ...

The overall effect is like watching a series of "Saturday Night Live" sketches built around Peggy and Karen. In fact, some of these scenes (i.e., Herb goes to a park by a lake with Peggy and Karen) are unessential to the narrative. Still, the writing is well above that of much sketch comedy.

The following is one of the exchanges intended to show us that Peggy is from a lower class background. It's a solid example of Lewis' fine comic playwriting:

Peggy: "The Road Not Open." I always hated that poem. Fuck Carl Sandburg.
Karen: Robert Frost. All Carl Sandburg ever did was have fog come in on little cat’s feet. You can’t fuck Carl Sandburg for that
Peggy: I guess not.
Karen: And it’s "The Road Not Taken."  That’s crucial. "Not taken" is a choice. "Not open" is more...fate.  You can’t regret fate. You can be fucking pissed off about it, but you can’t regret it.
Peggy: Sorry, I didn’t know the rules.

There are many more such examples. However, your response to the following abbreviated example of feminist humor, neither the best nor the worst provided by Carter W. Lewis, should give you a good feel as to whether Women Who Steal is to your taste. The words are spoken to Herb in tag team rotation by Karen and Peggy:

No, Herb, you don’t understand, unless you’ve been reading up on estrogen levels and vasomotor symptoms.  Changes in brain chemistry that can spin the hypothalamus on its heels causing piercing flashes of heat in the lower abdomen, waves of scalding hot needles that make you feel as though you’ve been attacked by a thousand irate acupuncturists! Have you ever had to change your pajamas three times in one night to avoid chilling from the buckets of sweat you soaked them with?  Ever come home in a tennis skirt only to discover you’ve bled a big red stop sign on your butt?  Ever woken up with cramps and a one-hundred-percent cotton floral patterned nightshirt ripped at the seams from the violence of your own clenching and twisting?

Ever had your tits hurt, Herb?  Has your heart ever performed the drum solo from "Inna Godda Dovida"?  How about a collagen implant, ever had one of those?  Ever had a chemical peel?  Or a derma abrasion?  That’s the way to go. It’s far less painful, Herb. They just hook up the old Black and Decker and sand your face down like an old piece of furniture.  Then there’s fibroids, cervicitis, cervical dysplasia, osteoporosis, endometriosis, vaginitis, urethritis, honeymoon’s disease, lumps, bumps and chumps whose empathetic response is "bitch, bitch, bitch, just drink a beer and shut up."

Not that you couldn't care, Herb, but you definitely don't understand. Yes, yes, you've got your own problems, or should I say problem. You've got a prostate. I am so sick of hearing about men's prostates! (Whining) "My prostate's enlarged, it's cramping my urethra." If I've heard it once, I've heard it a thousand times! No Herb, you don't have a clue. At this age, Herb, the only similarities that exist between us is that we both have mustaches! ..."

Inexplicably, the last ten minutes of the play are virtually devoid of laughter. Suddenly the tone of Women Who Steal shifts totally, and we are given very heartfelt speeches mostly by Peggy and Jack about love, devotion and commitment. There is a disconnect here that pulls the rug out from under the viewer without any discernible reason.

Stephanie Dorian and Liz Zazzi bring dimension to their roles without sacrificing any of the humor. Without softening the thoughtless cruelty of the thoughtless other woman, Dorian makes us see and understand Karen's own desperation. Zazzi provides comic fireworks as the BB gun toting Peggy whom you betray at your own risk. Bill Timoney provides solid support as Herb, Stanley and Jack, and in two additional roles.

The set by Charles Corcoran features about a dozen locations (including several car trips), and is both spare and handsome. It features a large screen at the rear onto which well chosen, evocative digital images are projected. The transforming lighting is by Jill Nagle.

At NJ Rep, "Women" on the verge of something

By TOM CHESEK • Correspondent, Asbury Park Press • May 13, 2008


Liz Zazzi (right) and Stephanie Dorian star in the New Jersey Repertory Company production of "Women Who Steal." (PRESS STAFF PHOTO: BOB BIELK)

They drink and drive, and drink and drive some more. They break and enter, fish without a permit, get rude with waiters. They kill (possibly) and maim (definitely) with a BB rifle, then kidnap someone at the point of that same very authentic-looking toy gun. Mostly, they wreak havoc on the relationships that form the core of their boring, frustrating existences, on a memorably manic January night.

But do they steal?

Anyone who expects Karen and Peggy — lead characters of "Women Who Steal," the show now onstage at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch — to be little more than Bonnie-and-Connie bankrobbers (or smarter cousins to "Thelma and Louise") is bound to be taken aback by the complexity of the themes and ideas in the dense and dialogue-heavy comedy by Carter W. Lewis. But even if these women ultimately steal little more than the hours necessary to sort through the tangle of their unsatisfying lives, they're going to do it in a way that'll make you laugh.

Newly 40-year-old single Karen (Stephanie Dorian) and 45-year-old mom Peggy (Liz Zazzi) have just a single thing in common at the outset of the play; namely, a relationship with Peggy's husband, Jack. Over the course of a long tequila-soaked night, these uneasy friends will attempt to bond over such factors as a need to shoot things, a fear of physical deterioration, and the pompous glory that is Meat Loaf's music.

They'll also do a whole lot of speeding, with a pair of wooden chairs representing a $90,000 car" (there's "a mink in the trunk") that carries them to the various scenes which play out against Charles Corcoran's monochromatic memory-box of a set. Peggy looks up an ex-boyfriend, the garrulous and decidedly downmarket Herb (Bill Timoney) for a moonlit fling by a lake, while Karen confronts her apparently amorous co-worker Stanley (Bill Timoney again) over his true feelings for her.

But the real vehicle that gets them from one place in their lives to another is the power of words; thousands upon thousands of them, blasted like BBs from the mouths of the characters and strafing the landscape in a series of sharply worded monologues and pointed exchanges. Dorian even kicks off the play with a challenging staccato rant against the inherent hopelessness of the concept of Hope (the local Obama campaign should steer clear of this show); a risky opening gambit for any play, but a move that quickly establishes the tone as one in which the laughs are abundant and entirely well-earned.

As the evening progresses and the tequila flows along with the vomit, Peggy delivers a devastating diatribe on the onset of menopause — and Karen and Stanley share a cackling and conspiratorial vision of a utopian society in which 40 year olds rule supreme. The script by playwright Lewis — and yes, Lewis is a guy — is loaded with one-liners; maybe even 21 one-liners in some instances. Thus do we learn that "Hope is the Moby Dick of red herrings," and that "Crying is faking an orgasm with your face."

By the time that wayward husband Jack makes an appearance (in the person of, you guessed it, Bill Timoney), things are not so easily resolved with a simple punchline. Jack is hardly presented as the sort of cartoon ogre you might have expected to see; his second-act scene with wife Peggy offers up some food for thought, and takes some surprising turns. As we all know in real life but seldom see in our entertainments, people can be mighty complicated creatures.

NJ Rep artistic director and co-founder SuzAnne Barabas directs this very capable cast of comic character players, all of whom have racked up considerable credits at the Rep and other New Jersey professional playhouses. Together they make what must surely be a difficult play to master into a fast-moving ride that — like a thigh full of BB shot — stings for a spell, gets under the surface, and leaves you with an entertaining story.


Unlikely team of "Women" steals spotlight at NJ Rep

By TOM CHESEK • Correspondent, Asbury Park Press • May 9, 2008


Thelma & Louise," this ain't: "Woman Who Steal" features (from left) Liz Zazzi and Stephanie Dorian. BOB BIELK/Staff Photographer


There's Karen, a woman on the brink of her 40th birthday. She's sacrificed any chance at a have-it-all, "mommy track" existence in favor of a lifestyle based on careering and carousing.

Then there's Peggy, a 45-year-old housewife and mother of three whose tidily packaged present is complicated by the nagging regrets she harbors about a certain somebody in her past.

"Women Who Steal," the edgy comedy by St. Louis-based Carter W. Lewis, makes its New Jersey debut in Long Branch this weekend. In it, what starts out as a confrontation between these two women — one of whom has slept with the husband of the other — very quickly becomes something that actress Stephanie Dorian describes as "an unlikely 12-hour friendship, based on tequila (and) guns."

The advertising materials for the production by New Jersey Repertory Company evokes "Thelma & Louise" in its image of two beaming women, sporting shades and brandishing bottles as they speed into the wind in a pink convertible. Although the play's protagonists also do a lot of drunken driving and a little fishing, things tend to run a bit deeper here than in the 1991 film that had audiences of all stripes cheering its righteous outlaw heroines (and wounded male egos crying, "Foul!').

"It's a surprisingly layered play — a really fun, hilarious, broad physical comedy," Dorian says. "At the same time, there's so much insight, such depth pertaining to marriage, and to things like truth, accountability, dealing with regret, coping with bad choices."

SuzAnne Barabas, the show's director and artistic director at NJ Rep, agrees, noting that "When we all read the play we were laughing, and when we began performing it we were surprised with how dense it was."

Barabas has assembled a dream cast of familiar faces and voices for this production, bookended by Dorian (who appeared at NJ Rep in "Lemonade" and as the exasperated title character in "Ten Percent of Molly Snyder") as Karen, and Liz Zazzi (star of "The Adjustment" and "The Girl with the High Rouge") as Peggy. The roles were originally written and named for Midwest stage actresses Karen Radcliffe and Peggy Cosgrove.

To play the men in their lives — indeed, every man in the show — Barabas called upon Belmar's own Bill Timoney, a veteran voice artist and character specialist who, while new to NJ Rep's stage, has amassed TV, film and stage credits that range from "Pokemon" to the Pollak Theatre (where he co-starred last summer alongside his big scary friend Bryan Cranston in "Chapter Two").

It's Timoney who, as the philandering husband, trailer-park boyfriend, pretentious waiter and nerdy co-worker, takes the brunt of the male playwright's jokes and jibes on his own gender.

"There's some men-bashing — and rightly so — but you do see the man's side of things, too," Barabas maintains. "You see all sides of the triangle."

"This play isn't sitcom-y; it's edgy, and unfolds in an organic way," Dorian explains. "I don't think any questions are answered here, but everyone can relate to some aspect of it."

"It's a very amoral play; definitely not for kids," Barabas says. "It's empowering to women, and very smart."

"Definitely," Dorian sums up. "More Showtime than Lifetime."


Short play fest features all-American pursuits

So what comes to mind when you think of the phrase "The Great American Pastime?" Baseball, natch. Possibly sex. Definitely gluttony, then greed, sloth, envy . . .

Wait a minute; those are the Seven Deadly Sins — and they've already done those.

According to New Jersey Repertory Company, our Pastime is all of the above and more — at least when you seek the input of an all-star lineup of regional playwrights, actors and directors for what's become one of the most eagerly anticipated quasi-yearly stage events in the Garden State.

As they've done four times since 2004, NJ Rep co-founders Gabor and SuzAnne Barabas have sifted through literally hundreds of monologues, sketches and playlets to assemble the 2008 edition of their intermittently annual short play festival.

Presented under the umbrella title of Theatre Brut — inspired by the "outsider art" movement identified by Dr. Hans Prinzhorn in his 1923 study "Artistry of the Mentally Ill" — and organized within an ever-changing set of themes, the festival comes to the Long Branch playhouse Tuesday and Wednesday with its budget set to low, and the bar of expectations set high.

Like their previous exercises in theatrical Brut-ality ("My Rifle, My Pony and Me," "Sacrifice" and those "Seven Deadly Sins"), next week's "Great American Pastime" brings together many of the most valuable creative players on the NJ Rep roster, many of whom go out of their way to participate in a newly minted tradition that's become a genuine showcase for the talents and teamwork of this fantastic stock company. Rep regulars can enjoy taking in some of the newest and shortest works by such familiar playwrights as Mike Folie ("Naked by the River") and Gino Dilorio ("Apostasy"), featuring such familiar faces as Natalie Wilder ("Spain") and Dana Benningfield ("Lemonade"). There's even a new work penned by actor Ian August ("Tilt Angel"), and a piece directed by the consummate company character man John FitzGibbon.

For their first shorts showcase since 2006, the producers have scaled the event back to two nights from its original three, and have selected a baker's dozen works that are being presented more like bare-stage readings than fully furnished playlets; a nod to the exhausting effort invested in this endeavor by all concerned.

While a couple of the featured pieces (such as August's "Rookie of the Year") acknowledge the sport of summers and steroids, the "Pastime" can just as easily revolve around sex, food and (George) Bush. It's a concept the Barabases credit to their longtime stage manager Rose Riccardi, and it's a framework in which titles like "Deja vu All Over Again" and "The Purgatory of Charlie Hustle" reference the wit and wisdom of Yogi Berra, and the disgrace of hitting champ Pete Rose.

With six to seven never-before-seen works presented each of the two evenings — and a newly instituted "suggestion donation" door charge — "The Great American Pastime" is a bargain unlike any other; a real slice of Shore stage history and a possible chance to catch tomorrow's dramatic fare in its larval stage (as witness Dilorio's "The Hard Way," being expanded into the full length "Dead Ringer" for a Fall 2009 debut).

Irish wit prevails in Shavian romance

by Peter Filichia/Star-Ledger Staff
Sunday March 16, 2008, 9:47 PM

Engaging Shaw
New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch
When: Through April 13. Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 4 and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m.
How much: $35. Call (732) 229-3166 or visit

We've had "Shakespeare in Love," so why not "Shaw in Love"? Actually, the great George Bernard Shaw wouldn't have been happy that his love-life became the subject of a play long after the Bard got his Oscar-winning movie. The Irishman never much cared for Shakespeare.

Theatergoers, though, can be quite happy that John Morogiello got around to spilling the beans in "Engaging Shaw," the engaging comedy at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

Actually, a theatergoer's heart sinks as the lights come up. There's a pompous-looking man with a full beard, pince-nez glasses in place, with a ribbon hanging from them. As he orates about the values of socialism, everyone will fear a long night of Shaw's stuffiness.

Pshaw! Morogiello is playing with his playgoers. That man on-stage isn't Shaw, but his pretentious friend, Sidney Webb. How Webb's wife, the elegant and accomplished Beatrice, can stand him is never explained.

But their mutual friend Charlotte suggests that Beatrice is romantically interested in Shaw. Beatrice staunchly denies it, but neither Charlotte nor theatergoers will believe her. Charlotte brings up the subject for another reason: She herself wants to romance Shaw, and must have a clear playing field.

Enter the great author, much as an audience would expect him to be: witty to a fault. Because this is Shaw in 1896, just before he turned 40 (and thus, more than 55 years before his death), Ames Adamson is able to play him as young and zestful. Adamson conveys that the moment Shaw comes in a room, he will always make A Big Entrance. Then he displays an I'm-a-genius assurance as he strolls around Charles Corcoran's modest set with a power that Gulliver must have felt with those little Lilliputians.

What's fortunate is that Morogiello and Adamson don't limit themselves to showing an insufferable egomaniac. He'll succumb, by way of a sterling performance by Katrina Ferguson, to the attractive Charlotte, who radiates confidence -- at least until she offers a maidenly blush and confesses that she's a 40-year-old virgin.

Contrast that to Shaw, who, like his most famous character Henry Higgins, is "a confirmed old bachelor and likely to remain so." However, Morogiello wisely makes Shaw far more passionate about the subject. Adamson isn't shy about saying in no-nonsense terms that if he were to marry, "it would be the biggest defeat of my life."

Just before the first act ends, Adamson drops Shaw's superior sophistication and finds a marvelous way of humanizing him. Ferguson, meanwhile, beautifully demonstrates Charlotte's valiant struggle to not act as a woman intent on trapping her man into marriage. Morogiello keeps matters lofty, and the result is a wonderfully urbane high comedy.

Patricia E. Doherty's glorious period dresses help both Ferguson and Helen Mutch, who makes a refined and appealing Beatrice. Marc Geller, though, reduces Sidney to a cliched twit-Brit, though that may have been just what director Langdon Brown wanted.

Though Morogiello has included genuine quotations from the master, he can write his own epigrams that sound convincingly Shavian, such as "The truth is always terrible."

The truth is hardly that here, for "Engaging Shaw" is so much in the author's voice that it seems to be a play that George Bernard Shaw himself might have written.

'Shaw' proves to be engaging

Tom Chesek • Correspondent, Asbury Park Press • March 19, 2008

As Ames Adamson sees it, the title "Engaging Shaw" can be regarded several different ways.

You might find in it a promise for some time well-spent with the always-engaging George Bernard Shaw. Or it might suggest the act of engaging the legendary Irish playwright, critic, essayist and social activist in conversation — something that probably was best left to professionals.

Take it at face value, and "Engaging Shaw," the comedy by John Morogiello now being staged at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, becomes the story of the famous-but-forever-struggling Shaw, the well-born Charlotte Payne-Townsend — and the frustrating, heartbreaking, downright maddening process by which the two became engaged to be married in 1897.

What it's not is "Shakespeare In Love," that fanciful filmed frolic that sprang pretty
much from the imaginations of its makers. Shaw, Charlotte and their friends Sidney and Beatrice Webb were real people — and as such their words and actions are pretty well documented through journals, speeches and a ton of correspondence. (Shaw was said to write a letter a day just to the actress Ellen Terry.) Playwright Morogiello has done his homework here, to the point of crediting G.B. Shaw as his collaborator; thanks to the many pithy quips, comments and observations taken directly from the master's oratory, articles and letters.

Not to suggest that this is some dry and musty relic — how could it be, when the subject is the self-acknowledged "most brilliant mind in England"? While Shaw is best recalled now as the author of such timelessly potent plays as "Pygmalion" and "Caesar and Cleopatra," when we first meet him in the summer of 1896, he's an already famous — and famously full of himself — commentator on the arts, crusading socialist, advocate for women's rights and vocal vegetarian; a celebrated figure who still has the toughest time getting his bitingly satirical plays produced.

Holed up at the country house of his friends the Webbs (whose Fabian Society championed nonviolent social revolution), Shaw is a blustering man who often comes on like one of the pompous authority figures he skewers in his plays. Appearing here in his seventh major production in Long Branch, the chameleonic Adamson paints a vigorous firebrand who's just entering the middle-age phase of what will be a remarkably long life.

With reams of erudite dialogue to deliver and a staging that largely downplays his gifts for physical business, this indispensable member of the NJ Rep stock company shows us a Shaw who commands center stage in every context, yet seems to be missing a certain something in his life.

That certain something arrives with the crash of a bicycle in the person of Charlotte — and Katrina Ferguson, who originated the role in this play's Vermont premiere, makes a convincing case for Payne-Townsend as a woman who could stand as an equal with this dynamic (and often difficult) man of letters. Under the direction of Langdon Brown, her Charlotte is a person who, although emotionally vulnerable and sexually inexperienced, refuses to accept the peculiarly Shavian head-games she's dealt — and who finds herself taking the initiative in some interesting ways; offering "conventional ideas expressed in unconventional ways."

Performing a crucial Fred-and-Ethel turn to the two leads, Helen Mutch (as the determined socialist and amateur matchmaker Beatrice) and Marc Geller (as the tweedy, lisping Sidney) provide necessary context — and depart the main action all too soon. Geller is an especially welcome comic presence here, with a couple of very funny bits in the play's first act. Special shout-outs are in order also for costumer Pat Doherty, whose intriguing period get-ups add to a portfolio that encompasses more than thirty shows at NJ Rep.

Morogiello has written a script set in "a time when even the average person's verbal
dexterity exceeded the brightest public discourse of today," and his "unromantic romantic comedy" is a warm and funny show that's never meant to condescend in any egghead fashion.

Engaging Shaw

'Engaging Shaw'

Ames Adamson as George Bernard Shaw does battle with Katrina Ferguson, as the woman who tries to woo him, in 'Engaging Shaw.'

"Engaging Shaw" is exactly that. John Morogiello's romantic comedy, presented by the New Jersey Rep, finds a determined Charlotte Payne-Townshend, acted with stately reserve by Katrina Ferguson, in hot pursuit of 39-year-old confirmed bachelor George Bernard Shaw. The result is a spirited and intelligent combat of words and sparkling banter.

Shaw, superbly played by Ames Adamson, is as entertaining as he is infuriating, and a dreadful philanderer to boot. He has avoided romantic relationships, steadfastly maintaining he has a genius for hurting women. He also treasures the liberty and happiness of his bachelorhood.

Payne-Townshend, who is described as a "large, graceful woman," and who at moments appears to be plain, "approaches beauty in evening dress." Independently wealthy, she offers to be Shaw's secretary, sans salary, but secretly harbors a methodical plan to woo and wed him, despite the playwright's fixation with many lady friends, including his all-consuming daily correspondence with celebrated actress Ellen Terry.

There is a brief but beautifully structured moment at the end of the first act as Payne-Townshend subtly seduces the feisty Shaw. The second half serves as an intellectual cat-and-mouse courtship.

The rusty bearded Adamson, a frequent player on the Long Branch stage, provides an expansive, feisty account of the Irish dramatist and witty socialist that is both blustery and warmly accessible. His cheeks hurt when he smiles, and he explodes with fury at the thought of marriage, but Adamson keenly invests Shaw with a deep-harbored affection for the woman who has become his intellectual equal.

Ferguson, who originated the role of Charlotte in Vermont's 2006 Oldcastle Theater production, offers a cool, well-modulated performance in nice contrast to Shaw's often explosive temper.

Helen Mutch lends stable support as Beatrice Webb, whom Payne-Townshend sees as a questionable romantic rival, but Marc Geller as Webb's encyclopedic ninny of a husband is a tad too arch, with his clipped cockney accent and pince-nez spectacles.

Shaw finds his associate "the greatest mind in all England, though lacking in vinegar," but Langdon Brown has directed Geller as an annoying, foolish twit.

However, Brown has paced the piece effectively on the small stage. Peppered with accessible excerpts from Shaw's works and letters, the play is set in a small English cottage at Stratford, functionally void of clutter. Patricia E. Doherty's costumes comfortably reflect the smart fashions of the late 19th century.

Engaging Shaw: The Courtship of Bernard Shaw
and Charlotte Payne-Townsend

A Christmas Carol
Ames Adamson and
Katrina Ferguson

Engaging Shaw, a charming and literate comedy about the courtship of George (he did not like or ever use his first name, so I'll not mention it again) Bernard Shaw and his wife, Charlotte Payne-Townsend, provides pleasant, light entertainment, with more than a soupçon of painless enlightenment about the life of Shaw and the society in which he lived.

When Shaw and Charlotte meet in 1896, Shaw is a 42-year-old professed bachelor, and Charlotte is a 39-year-old sophisticated Irish heiress. They are brought together by their mutual friends, the recently married Sidney Webb and Beatrice (Potter) Webb. The Webbs (aided by Shaw) are the progenitors of the Fabian Society which advocated the democratic emergence of socialism, and founders of the London School of Economics which promoted Fabian theory. The Webbs complete the quartet of characters on stage.

Shaw, who has yet to taste success and recognition as a playwright, is full of pride and boastfulness about his romantic conquests. Charlotte, whose means are well beyond those of the struggling Shaw, is an unconventional, independent woman who has had more than her share of attention and conquests. The Webbs bring them together at their summer cottage in Stratford (U.K.), and they are almost immediately drawn to one another. However, their two-year courtship is hard and rocky, largely because Shaw fiercely and stubbornly clings to his determination never to have his wings clipped by the expectations of a spouse. He also has the less forcefully invoked worry of people seeing Shaw as marrying Charlotte to obtain the benefits of her wealth. Charlotte, totally devoted to Shaw, makes herself indispensable to him. It is not a ploy. She wants to devote her life to being his aide and secretary, and his caregiver. This is not enough. After all, a ploy will be necessary to break Shaw's resistance. Although they do have sex, it is important to neither. There is a comic centerpiece in the second act when Shaw alone in London, the Webbs in America, and Charlotte traveling about Europe, correspond by letter in a three-way roundelay that is both fast and funny, if a bit too broad.

Author John Morogiello's literate comedy is not Shavian in the sense that it is not concerned with the political, economic, social justice and class issues, which are at the heart of Bernard Shaw's plays. However, Engaging Shaw includes "excerpts from Bernard Shaw," and, as they are, they blend in seamlessly with Morogiello's writing. Also of great importance is that he created a fully believable Shaw. Credit for this must be shared by the performance of the reliable Ames Adamson. The brilliantly witty, crankily iconoclastic Shaw, whom we think we know, is combined with a touch of the less public, not for display, tenderly sincere Shaw in Adamson's performance. Katrina Ferguson's Charlotte has an air of easy assurance. The performance is nicely calibrated so as to never suggest arrogance. Despite her determination to capture Shaw, Ferguson embodies author Morogiello's picture of a woman who will be fine if Shaw does not capitulate.

Marc Geller is a bit too cartoonish and overly emphatic as the formidable Sidney Webb. In fairness to the accomplished Geller, he is following the template which the author has laid down. Helen Mutch brings dimension to the role of Beatrice in subtly conveying her commitment to be loyal to her husband despite her own attraction to Shaw.

Director Langdon Brown has elicited fine performances and, for the most part, has shown a smooth, well-paced stylish touch. The cottage set by Charles Corcoran, which has to double as Shaw's office in the second act, is airy and playable. The excellent period costumes by Patricia E. Doherty, and the effective, unobtrusive lighting by Jill Nagle are further assets.

Getting a little heavy here given the lightness of this play, great humanity is inherent in Shaw's writing, as well as in his 5 year marriage to Charlotte Payne-Townsend. At the time that she passed away, Shaw reportedly completely broke down. Biographers have attributed all kinds of conjectured and conflicting psychological explanations for the fact that their marriage was celibate. In actuality, Shaw's psychology in these personal areas is something of a mystery. However, sexual proclivities not withstanding, Shaw and his Charlotte would seem to have had a long, close and happy marriage.

Engaging Shaw would likely benefit from a bit more weight. Still, as it now stands, it is a well crafted and intelligent romantic comedy. Though New Jersey Rep describes Engaging Shaw in their advertising as an anti-romantic, romantic comedy, I found nothing anti-romantic about it.

A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
Engaging Shaw

I would propose that marriage become a series of renewable one year contracts —  Shaw

Don't mock me —  Charlotte

Tell someone he will be condemned to something forever, and he will exert all of his will to escape. Tell that same someone he will only be permitted a certain pleasure for a short period, and he will exert all of his will to prolong it. The fear of losing the loved one on the anniversary of the contract would keep everyone together and on their best behavior. —  Shaw

Ames Adamson as Shaw
and Katrina Ferguson in Engaging Shaw
(Photo: SuzAnne Barabas)
George Bernard Shaw had sex. Believe it. The genius playwright presumably, and by his own admission however, never consummated his marriage to Charlotte Payne-Townshend. That aspect of his relationship with the wealthy independent woman, who also served as his long-time secretary, nursemaid, friend, and benefactor, seems to have not dissuaded playwright John Morogiello of the possibility. If no physical intimacy between them can be historically and biographically validated, neither can it be dismissed as inconceivable.
Morogiello also has every right to consider them as physically attractive, intellectually compatible, and emotionally susceptible to each others idiosyncratic charms. Hooey, or not, Ames Adamson is a decidedly dashing Shaw, his red hair and trimmed beard a startling match in color to the wool suit he wears in Act I.

Here is a Shaw in 1896 virtually aglow with self-assuredness, vanity and ego. This, despite that fact that he has yet to have one of his plays produced. As Engaging Shaw would have us believe, GBS proves to be no match for the equally inscrutable, conspicuously determined, and very attractive Charlotte, as played with winning aplomb by Katrina Ferguson.

The play (it eceived its world premiere in 2006 at the Oldcastle Theater Company in Bennington, Vermont) begins at the cottage home (modestly evoked by designer Charles Corcoran) of their mutual friends and activist socialists Sidney and Beatrice Webb. You may be startled by a brief opening oration (presumably to a large public gathering) as Sidney pontificates on socialist reforms. Surprisingly Sidney (as played with a comical countenance and an abrasively styled rhetoric by the small framed and bearded Marc Geller) might easily be mistaken at first for the Shaw we are more accustomed to seeing. Beatrice (Helen Mutch) quickly puts an end to his speechifying ("Oh, Sidney, stop - - - I didn't understand a single word you were saying.") Although Beatrice and Sidney are aligned in their social-political beliefs, they seemed an odd pair physically. She is a rather pretty woman and knows how to hold the opinionated Sidney in check.

The Webb's fledgling, financially strapped Fabian Society (to evolve as the London School of Economics) needs an infusion of money. With that purpose in mind, the wealthy unwed Charlotte has been invited to their home where Shaw is currently a guest. But this occasion also affords Beatrice a chance to play matchmaker for Charlotte who claims to want "no sex just exclusivity" from the brilliantly evasive Shaw. Charlotte makes a deal with Beatrice, "Tell me I have an ally and you shall have a school."

Morogiello postulates with a resourceful (using quotations from the works and letters of GBS) and an amusing imagining of the unlikely long-term relationship between reticent and suspicious George Bernard and Charlotte, who uses her secretarial skills to infiltrate his world. Shaw's wit, his devious and devilish devotion to his own persona is exactingly and poignantly challenged by a smart woman of undeniable forbearance. Charlotte ultimately proved to be a formidable companion, a forgiving and willing caregiver for the frequently ailing and disagreeable Shaw who, nevertheless, concedes "You're my best friend."

Director Langdon Brown affects a brisk pace through the alternately turbulent and tender scenes over two acts, the constant chatter and the clash of four opposing temperaments. The four actors are splendid and have a firm grip on the essentially talky text, which blends Morogiello's cheeky inventions with what is Shavian in origin. Although the play consists of the mostly romantic dueling between Shaw and Charlotte, it also posits Beatrice's discreet infatuation with Shaw.

Bernard Shaw was indeed known to have had flirtations with celebrated women such as Ellen Terry and Mrs. Patrick Campbell. Yet, Morogiello cleverly sees the one with Charlotte as the most provocative and compelling. "The green-eyed one," as Shaw called her, gives a persuasive speech near the end of the play in which she makes the most convincing case for marrying you are ever likely to hear. It even out-wits and out-smarts the resistant Shaw, that superman of letters.

There is never a doubt that Shaw's often insensitive and occasionally cruel words regarding marriage and his perversely observant opinions on other topics emanate from the genius writer of Pygmalion, Major Barbara, Arms and the Man, among many more masterworks of dramatic literature. The pleasure of the play is how it manages to make us see an aspect of Shaw through the sheer magnetic/charismatic force of Adamson's performance. How lucky we are that Shaw's life, celibate or not under the covers, never compromised all the life he created between the acts.


Actor portrays Irish author in an "Engaging" premiere at NJ Rep

By TOM CHESEK • Correspondent • March 14, 2008



Ames Adamson and Katrina Ferguson star in "Engaging Shaw," opening this weekend at the New Jersey Repertoy Company in Long Branch.
KEITH WOODS/Staff Photographer




Long Branch long has enjoyed its own special literary pedigree. Such icons of American letters as Norman Mailer, Dorothy Parker and Robert Pinsky were born there. Robert Louis Stevenson and Bret Harte were summertime visitors in the days when the city was a playground for presidents, socialites and captains of industry. So it should come as no surprise that when George Bernard Shaw himself strolls into Amy's Omelette House on a rainy Tuesday night, there's hardly a raised eyebrow.

Perhaps it can be chalked up to the fact that Shaw seems scarcely to have left the stage — that at any moment, the celebrated Irish playwright, critic, activist and advocate for healthy living could very plausibly appear, Elvis-like, and place an order for a western omelette. Indeed, Shaw, who died in 1950 at the age of 94 - and only then after he fell off a ladder — lived a life that straddled America's Civil War and the Korean conflict; the Industrial Revolution and the Atom Age; the era of Oscar Wilde and the Oscar he won for the movie version of "Pygmalion" in 1938.

These days, the immortal George Bernard Shaw is embodied by actor Ames Adamson, here in town to perform the title role in "Engaging Shaw," the comic play by John Morogiello that kicks off a month-long engagement this weekend at New Jersey Repertory Company on downtown Broadway. In fact, he and his fellow actors are the first cast to take up residence in NJ Rep's new guest house for performers — a place colloquially referred to as the "Buffalo Bill House," since it was originally built by Buffalo Bill Cody's business partner in those famous Wild West shows (both Cody and Sitting Bull reportedly stayed in the house and its adjacent guest cottage).The Philly-based Adamson is no stranger to Long Branch, having starred or co-starred in a slew of offerings at NJ Rep - from the one-man "Circumference of a Squirrel" (a play he's performed for four different theaters) to the bizarre ensemble pieces "Tilt Angel" and "Maggie Rose." For "Panama," he crafted five extremely nutty characters, and in the choreographed quick-change "Tour de Farce" he zipped back and forth between another quintet of crazies.

"Jersey has just been better to me than any place else, and the audiences in this state are spectacular," says the former resident of Jersey City, who posits that "if you drink the water in Jersey City for enough years, you can't help but become a Jerseyan."

Enjoying the luxury of a single characterization this time, the red-haired actor (a former photo department manager for Time magazine) has cultivated a Shavian beard for the occasion. The endeavor fills Adamson with some trepidation, harkening back to the end of his run in "Old Clown Wanted," when his facial thicket was so caked with makeup that his attempt at sawing it off found "the whole thing peeling off in one piece — I handed it to the stage manager."

Billed as an "unromantic romantic comedy," the play offers snapshots of the long-term relationship between Shaw and his wife Charlotte Payne-Townshend (Katrina Ferguson), whom the confirmed bachelor met at the country home of their mutual friends, socialist theorists Sidney and Beatrice Webb. Marc Geller and Helen Mutch co-star under the direction of Langdon Brown.According to Adamson, Charlotte was "transformed" by a lecture Shaw had given on the women of Henrik Ibsen's plays, and was impressed by Shaw's own progressive views on women's rights and contributions."Shaw's women speak of what they would do if they were a man — and why," observes the actor, who prepped for his role by immersing himself in such classic Shaw works as "The Devil's Disciple" and "Arms and the Man.""Shaw's just utterly amazing," Adamson says of the author who engendered controversy and remained an ardent fan of Joseph Stalin for much of his life. "A lot of people think he's antiquated, but he took on all these tremendous issues in a way that still makes a lot of people uncomfortable.""Shaw was a "celibate womanizer' who had never allowed himself close personal relationships," Adamson explains. "He was a vegetarian, a teetotaler and non-smoker who almost never got sick, and who claimed that he would have to be sick, incapacitated and immobilized to marry."

"The ironic thing is that when (Charlotte) left him at one point he got ill; catching colds, getting abscesses in his mouth and on his foot, and cracking his head on a cabinet."

As Adamson tells it, the script remains a "work in progress" for which Morogiello has been taking comments from the cast and director.

"Every day we get new pages — I asked him about one line in particular, and a day later he changed the line and added eight more."

"The play's not dark at all; I find it very funny," the actor sums up. "And the name has so many potential meanings."

  Two chairs, no waiting at New Jersey Rep

Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 1/23/08
By TOM CHESEK • CORRESPONDENT • January 23, 2008

MaConnia Chesser (left) and Zina Camblin star in "And Her Hair Went With Her." (STAFF PHOTO: BOB BIELK)

"You're not my psychologist," a testy customer says to the young hairdresser Angie (Zina Camblin) in "And Her Hair Went With Her," the comedy-drama now onstage at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

Nothing could be farther from the truth, of course. Not only are Angie and salon owner Jasmine (MaConnia Chesser) a pair of de facto professional therapists for the loyal (and often freakish) clientele who depend upon their ears and shears, but the two women share a bond that goes beyond their appreciation for the singer Nina Simone.

Directed by Kamilah Forbes and presented without intermission, the modestly scaled play is being touted as a "rolling world premiere," one of several stagings that have been (or will be) produced at theaters across the country. For this engagement, audiences at the Jersey Shore have the added advantage of seeing this material performed by Camblin, the person who wrote it.

As hairdresser Angie also a single mom, struggling student and aspiring author Camblin plays the opinionated, ambitious foil to boss "Jas," a woman of boundless wisdom (even if her tastes often run to "American Idol" and McDonald's) and way more life experience than her intellectually curious, but not always so smart, employee.

In a series of blackout encounters effected with the help of the wigs that line the walls of Charles Corcoran's set, Camblin also takes on the personas of several comically neurotic customers. Among them is Debbie, the actress whose dreams outstrip her dramatic chops, and a very funny turn in the role of Keisha, the BOC (black obsessive-compulsive) who sees a genocidal plot in bus-borne bacteria.

Chesser stands out

Co-star Chesser gets into the multitasking act herself, portraying the white-girl wannabe Chrystal and the "broke-down acting teacher" Miss Bernadette to fine comic effect. It's in her several scenes as Felicia a hardened convict whom Angie interviews as part of a proposed book project that Chesser goes beyond wig-play dressup and into some uncharted territory. Her Felicia is so different from the broad sitcom strokes of her Jasmine that it's like watching two distinctly talented specialists at work. Camblin the playwright may have willed these people into being, and director Forbes may have contributed some crucial insights, but for as long as she's onstage, it's MaConnia Chesser who owns these characters outright.

The best thing that author Camblin has done is to take what could very well have been presented as a series of unrelated sketches or monologues and make a real play out of them. More than just a framing device, the Angie-Jasmine scenes are the true heart of the show, with roots that ultimately run much deeper than the TV-style one-liners.

While the comedy takes more than its share of serious excursions, Camblin is too talented a writer to fall into the Tyler Perry thing sitcom-gag mugging with a little sermonizing medicine shoved down your throat although she's not entirely immune to the didactic know-it-all thing. Her script drops the names you'd expect to hear, from Angela Davis, Ntozake Shange and Lorraine Hansberry, to Bell Hooks, Medgar Evers and Tupac Shakur. Like Angie, Camblin knows all about these people, and so we get to know all that she knows.

And Camblin knows all about Simone, for sure. The music, words and life story of the late great jazz singer play a tremendous part in this play informing all the key relationships, illuminating past histories and just being heard and enjoyed in between the numerous scene changes.

'And Her Hair Went With Her' opens in Long Branch

by Peter Filichia/Star-Ledger Staff
Wednesday January 23, 2008, 5:00 PM
(photo SUZANNE BARABAS) Playwright-actress Zina Camblin, right, and MaConnia Chesser co-star in
"And Her Hair Went with Her" at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

A few times a year, theatergoers discover an exciting new performer. A bit less frequently, they happen upon a promising playwright.

At New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, they're getting both in one person: Zina Camblin, author and star of "And Her Hair Goes with Her."

Camblin portrays Angie, a 2002 college grad who's also a single mother. In the months after graduation, she tries to get a grant so she can write about issues facing black women. To make ends meet, she finds a job as a hair stylist, courtesy of Jasmine (MaConnia Chesser), a big, beautiful woman who owns an urban beauty shop.

The more the two talk, the less they have in common. While Angie ponders her vote for the 2004 election, Jasmine is more concerned about who'll get her vote after the next episode of "American Idol."

Both are rabid fans of Nina Simone, but that doesn't mean much, for each likes the legendary singer for a different reason. Angie appreciates that Simone was an early advocate for social change though her songs "Four Women" and "Young, Gifted, and Black." Jasmine simply likes the sound of her voice.

Camblin excels in making their fights fair. The best moment comes when Angie accuses Jasmine of being "too 1950s" -- which spurs Jasmine to accuse Angie of being "too 1960s." Each decade has its assets and liabilities.

They can't argue all day, though, because customers keep arriving. Theatrical economics demand that Camblin and Chesser keep switching wigs to portray the shop's clients. This allows for a parade of different opinions.

Camblin portrays an obsessive-compulsive who got that way partly in reaction to the racist beliefs that blacks aren't hygienic. Chesser plays a customer who despises a relative who says "chitterlings" instead of "chitlins."

There's more controversy over the hairstyles requested by the clients. Straightened hair, cornrows or braids -- each leads to a discussion about whether the hairdos represent a "confident or uptight, free or enslaved" woman.

Camblin's open-faced curiosity makes her an astonishingly appealing performer. Her Angie is a lovely woman who's strong but never strident. Thanks to Kamilah Forbes' careful direction, she easily morphs into the other characters, and is especially amusing when playing a wannabe actress who courts Jasmine's opinion on her acting ability -- at least until Jasmine gives it.

Chesser is a warm but no-nonsense Jasmine, though her two scenes as a doomed death row prisoner make an equally strong impression. Here the actress becomes a defeated woman who nevertheless won't allow her dignity to be taken away.

The play isn't entirely successful. Camblin creates a gulf between the women that's so wide only an all-too-easy plot device can reconcile them. Many will guess what will happen long before it's revealed.

Still, "And Her Hair Went with Her" makes us want to go with Zina Camblin. Here's hoping she'll soon return to New Jersey with an even better play -- and that she writes a big part for herself.

And Her Hair Went With Her

Zina Camblin's two-hander 'And Her Hair Went With Her' explores experiences of African-American women in a beauty shop setting.

A New Jersey Repertory Company presentation of a play in one act by Zina Camblin. Directed by Kamilah Forbes.

New Jersey Rep's 10th season opener is Zina Camblin's two-hander "And Her Hair Went With Her," which finds a pair of chatty hairdressers engaging in a rambling survey of wigs, weaves, pop culture and some oddly eccentric clients. Playwright Camblin joins MaConnia Chesser as a stylist and shop owner, respectively, who take turns masquerading as salon patrons in a series of thematic sketches. The humor emanates from some rather broad characterizations, unified by the wigs worn and the therapeutic values to be found in a beauty parlor chair.

Angie (Camblin) takes on Debbie, a fledgling actress under a long straight wig, preparing an audition for Ntozake Shange's "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf"; obsessive-compulsive Keisha, armed with sanitizing wipes while bemoaning the threat of fast-food restaurants that are routinely killing off members of the black community; and defiantly manic Denise, apparently unable to hold down a new job for a single day.

Jasmine (Chesser) doubles as Chrystal, a lusty black woman under a blond weave who insists she is really white. And in one of the darker episodes, she plays Phylicia, an imprisoned murderess on death row. A linking narrative finds Jasmine boasting over a pair of tickets to a Nina Simone concert, which is ultimately canceled by the singer's sudden passing, prompting snippets of the late diva's songs.

Camblin's witty writing is incisive and expansive. She speaks knowingly of her subjects, celebrating the joy, pride and humor of the black experience. The humor gains in comic intensity in the person of misfit Denise, while the only cry of pain is found in the brief confessional of the jailed Phylicia, played with somber resignation by Chesser. The character cries out for further development.

Working on Charles Corcoran's set of a functionally mirrored two-chair salon with a black-and-white checkerboard floor, director Kamilah Forbes has given the piece pace and thrust.

An Entertaining Lesson in African-American Sisterhood

A Christmas Carol
Zina Camblin (front) and MaConnia Chesser
New playwright Zina Camblin's And Her Hair Went With Her is providing New Jersey Repertory audiences with delightful entertainment underpinned with thought-provoking ideas.  Although the characters and subject matter will have particularly strong resonance with African-American women,  And Hair Went With Her is high level popular entertainment that will appeal to all audiences.

The setting is an urban beauty parlor in 2003.  There are two hairdressers:  One is the owner, Jasmine, a middle aged black woman with mainstream attitudes who seems content with her place in the societal scheme; working for and with her is Angie, a young black woman who majors in women's studies and is raising a five year old daughter by herself.  Angie, inspired by her studies (particularly those of Angela Davis), expresses radical fervor and regards the seemingly apolitical Jasmine as ignorant.  She and we should know better.

This deft two-hander features MaConnia Chesser as Jasmine and author-actor Zina Camblin as Angie.  Additionally, each of the two limns three additional black women.  Five are customers of the beauty shop, and the sixth is a convict on death row whom Angie visits and interviews for a book project.  The persona and music of jazz singer and civil rights activist Nina Simone plays a major role in the discussions and events depicted by the author (a scheduled Nina Simone concert central to the plot is an authorial invention).

MaConnia Chesser is a joy as the sassy and happy to be alive Jasmine.    Her other portrayals are Miss Bernadette, an acting teacher whose once promising stage and screen career has gone south apparently along with her sanity; Chrystal, the blonde who has considered herself white since a sadly believable behavior by her third grade teacher; and, most tellingly, Phylicia, a dominant, mannish lesbian on death row, who has much to teach Angie about racial sisterhood both on the inside and outside.

Camblin delights and charms us by portraying Angie with the bouncy enthusiasm and surety of youth.  There is much humor and truth in her portrayals of Debbie, an aspiring actress, who lacks any depth or insight; Keisha, a germ phobic crazy lady; and, most cuttingly, Denise, a lazy, uncommitted worker who does not see the link between her poor work ethic and her inability to keep a job.  Very funny stuff (particularly the latter) redeemed from caricature by the realization that these ladies are really out and about in the world.

While there is much here that we have seen portrayed in plays, movies and stand up comedy venues, Camblin has arranged her materials in such a coherent and entertaining fashion as to give the material new life.  Additionally, you may well find yourself wanting to find out more about Nina Simone and her music, and the plays of Lorraine Hansberry and Ntozake Shange.

Kamilah Forbes has directed with energy and insight.  Some climactic moments are overemphatic for the intimate space, but this is a mere quibble.  An excellent touch is having Jasmine and Angie performing various salon chores between scenes.  Credit Charles Corcoran with the excellent, evocative black and white set with professional beauty salon chairs, large, artfully designed lightbulb-surrounded mirrors, a tiled black and white floor, and white side walls into which are built display cases in which wigs have been placed.  Corcoran (with the assistance of lighting designer Jill Nagle) has artfully designed the display cases to appear to be closed in by glass.  When Chesser and Camblin begin to don the wigs that they wear for their multiple roles, they reach directly into the display case delightfully breaking the illusion.

Notably, And Her Hair Came With Her kicks off New Jersey Repertory's 10th season.  It is its 60 production, and 55th new play.  It is also an initiative of the National New Play Network, a consortium of theatres in which member theatres produce their own productions of new work in "rolling world premiere" productions.

And Her Hair Went With Her deftly combines light entertainment with heart warming lessons in African-American sisterhood.

A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
And Her Hair Went With Her

By Simon Saltzman

We have to be friendly all the time. — Angie
Says who? — Jasmine We do. It's not like we really disagree with our customers. We're supposed to make them feel good about themselves. That's why they come here. We transform them into their ideal personas. — Angie

and her hair went with her
Zina Camblin (front) as Debbie, and MaConnia Chesser as Jasmine in And Her Hair Went With Her
(Photo credit: SuzAnne Barabas)
The scene is a beauty salon in an unspecified locale that caters to an African-American clientele. Based on information later disclosed in the play but not in the program, the time is 2003. Although there are two work stations filled with product, it is the two shelves of wigs of various styles that immediately catch our attention in designer Charles Corcoran's carefully detailed set.

The salon is where the play's author Zina Camblin is about to have herself a grand time as she shares the stage with co-performer MaConnia Chesser playing hairdressers to a steady stream of eccentric and needy clients, all of whom are played by Camblin and Chesser. The message, and there is one ("Self hatred is the black woman's poison") doesn't stand in the way of the more light-hearted approach of these two ingratiating and talented character assassinators. Their purpose appears to be to good-naturedly express and reveal their clients' best, worst and most neurotic natures.

It goes without saying that the client and the hairdresser relationship is as valued and important as that of a patient and a therapist. Essential background: According to the author in an interview, "for a long time in the black community, going to a psychologist, a therapist, was something that black people didn't do."

The petite Camblin, who has recently completed a year-long residency at The Juilliard School as part of a Playwriting Fellowship, shows great promise as a playwright. Immediately evident is her gift for dramatizing the distinguishing quirks and characteristics of a specific ethnic and cultural type, although their subtleties are not the essentials of this play. Her performance while not quite in the same league with that of Chesser, who fuels the play with her dynamic presence and comedic timing, is a hoot as well as a fashion parade of wigs.

Chesser plays Jasmine, the 40-something owner of the salon and the proud holder of a pair of tickets to a concert featuring the high priestess of soul Nina Simone. The salon hasn't yet opened for business and Jasmine is dancing to a Simone recording and teasing Angie (Camblin) to answer trivia questions about Simone's life. Angie,Jasmine's 20-something apprentice, single mom and college graduate with a desire to be a professional writer, has to answer correctly if she expects to get the other ticket.

Under Kamilah Forbes' zippy direction, there is no time lost getting into motivation, relationships, conflict or anything that might typically engine a play with a plot. Instead, and in full view, the actors divvy up who sits in the chair and who fiddles with the hair below. Basically this is a series of skits in which the clients unload bits about their lives and their struggle with racial identity crisis, mostly conceptualized in high comedic relief. "I will never forget the day I became white," recalls a black woman in a state of total denial. An untalented actress named Debbie comes in to get a trim before an audition and makes the mistake of demonstrating her audition piece only to be coached by the more instinctively expressive Jasmine. (But why does the director have Debbie face the audience and not Jasmine?) Other clients include an obsessive compulsive and a delusional woman who yells at invisible people.

The most interesting part of the play finds Angie leaving the salon on two occasions to go to the women's prison to interview a Lesbian sentenced to die for murdering the boyfriend of her former lover. Those scenes are beautifully written and Chesser shows us a different and more candid and insightful portrait of an incarcerated black woman.

Camblin tends to over-use Angie as a preacher and as a purveyor of feminist and social ideals ("Ebonics is the result of a failed educational system,") and her tirades get a bit wearying. Cleverly, however, Camblin allows the character of Jasmine to stand up to Angie's preaching. The big question is whether Angie answers the Nina Simone trivia questions and goes to the concert. Don't be surprised if you guess wrong.

This play will probably be most entertaining for those who will recognize themselves as well as others. But there will also be many more who will just sit back and howl at the way black women relate to hair and to the confidantes holding the hot comb. On a track sponsored by the National New Play Network and involving rolling premieres, And Her Hair Went With Her has been previously produced at the Phoenix Theater in Indianapolis and will be at the Fountain Theater in LA, Horizon Theater in Atlanta and the Bailiwick Theater in Chicago.


Actress/playwright wears many wigs at NJ Rep

Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 1/18/08


"Only her hairdresser knows for sure."

It's a bit of common folk wisdom that's been handed down — as folk wisdom often is — from the golden age of Madison Avenue. Still, to playwright Zina Camblin, that vaguely remembered ad slogan might go a long way toward describing the bond between a neighborhood hair stylist and her loyal clientele.

"Our stylist sees us for who we are — without wigs and makeup; without the face we show to the rest of the world," the actor and author says after a busy wig-fitting session in Long Branch. She adds that for many women in the black community, the local beauty shop is "a powerful place — a place where we can let our hair down, so to speak."

The Cincinnati native is wigging out in Long Branch as part of the preparation for "And Her Hair Went With Her," a new production of her two-actress play that inaugurates a monthlong engagement at New Jersey Repertory Company. As one of the "rolling world premiere" productions arranged by NJ Rep through the National New Play Network, the 2003 comedy arrives on the Shore stage after having been seen by Indianapolis audiences. From here, it moves on to future "world premiere" productions in Atlanta, Los Angeles and Chicago.

Ah, but the Long Branch run is the one to watch, due in large part to the fact that the playwright also is appearing in the show, playing no less than four roles. Camblin is joined here by co-star MaConnia Chesser under the direction of Kamilah Forbes — a situation that marks the first time the three women have met, let alone worked together. It's also, as the playwright notes, the first time that this material has been directed by a black woman.

When quizzed about the experience of embodying one's own scripted characters, and of entrusting those characters to another person's control, Camblin stresses that "(Kamilah) is great for this show — it's refreshing to give it over to someone with a new vision, a fresh pair of eyes, and I think it's helped me as a writer in the process."

Appearing as Angie, the young assistant to shop owner Jasmine (Chesser), Camblin trades observations on life, relationships and politics. Chesser also multitasks as blond-haired Chrystal as well as several other quirky clients.

Getting into character largely via an array of distinctive wigs, the actors endeavor to bring this insular little world — out of sight and off limits to all but a select few — to vivid life over the course of some 90 intermission-free minutes. It's a world peopled by a parade of personalities who are described variously by their creator as "based on someone I've met," "containing a piece of me" and "coming from some weird recesses of my brain."

"Being a hairdresser is kind of like being a psychologist," says Camblin. In her production notes, she adds that "for a long time in the black community, going to a psychologist, a therapist, was something that black people didn't do. That's for white people."

"But the hair salon is where black people could talk about their lives, and kind of lay their hurtings down."

While the playwright is quick to note that "And Her Hair Went With Her" is "not just about hairstyles," she's equally quick to point out that "it's about the culture, black women and our hair. You can't really separate those two things."

Camblin, who has lobbied to interest Whoopi Goldberg in this script, has found it interesting in her writings that many black women are "going back to straight and blond hair."

"Queen Latifah has straight, long hair," she says of the celebrity who maintains a home in Monmouth County. "I don't see a lot of sistahs with natural hair in the movies and on television."