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Suppose they gave a "War' . . . and "Two Jews" walked into NJ Rep premiere
by Tom Chesek for The Asbury Park Press

As the days counted down to Hanukkah and now to Christmas, the ongoing war in Afghanistan continues to present a situation in which the numbers are the news.

The Rant
All hopes for a community are in the hands of Reathel Bean of Montclair (left) and John Pietrowski of Long Valley, in "Two Jews Walk Into a War" at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. (STAFF PHOTO: BOB BIELK)

While a nation argues the efficacy of committing tens of thousands of new troops to that rocky and forbidding land, over at New Jersey Repertory Company the focus falls upon two souls in particular.

As delineated in "Two Jews Walk Into a War," the elderly men named Ishaq and Zeblyan are the last two surviving members of the Afghani Jewish community, holed up in the last synagogue standing during the last days of the Taliban regime.

One would think that these men of unwavering faith would have each other's backs — but this being NJ Rep, it's more a matter of them having at each other's throats.

"It's a little bit "Waiting for Godot'; a little bit "Odd Couple,' " says director James Glossman of the play opening in Long Branch this weekend. "Anything that's like oil and water."

In the script by Seth Rozin (a "rolling world premiere" from the National New Play Network, an organization once headed by the playwright), Ishaq and Zeblyan are bunkered down for the noble purpose of recreating the sacred texts of the Torah, but a little thing called lifelong acrimony keeps getting in the way.

"There's an upper-class, working-class thing going on — they haven't liked each other their whole lives," explains Glossman in reference to the story that's reportedly based in fact. "The play is very traumatic, but very funny at the same time."

Glossman, a sought-after and nationally renowned director who previously helmed "Tour de Farce" and "Circumference of a Squirrel" at NJ Rep (and who once brought his friend Stephen Colbert to Long Branch for a script-in-hand reading), has worked closely with actors ranging from Ed Asner, John Astin, Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentiss to Jack Klugman, Priscilla Lopez, Fred Savage and Vin Scelsa — yes, classic rock radio fans, that Vin Scelsa.

For "Two Jews," Glossman has called upon a couple of players with whom he's collaborated repeatedly in the past — busy stage and TV actor Reathel Bean (who worked with the director in the Arthur Miller dramas "Death of a Salesman" and "The Price") and the actor-director-educator John Pietrowski, acclaimed star of Glossman's "Sedition" at Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey.

It should be noted that Pietrowski, in addition to being a classmate of Glossman at Northwestern University, is also Artistic Director of Playwrights Theatre — and that the Madison-based Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey (PTNJ) is co-producing this show with NJ Rep.

It's a "very happy partnership" for Glossman, who's slated to follow up the Long Branch project with a chance to direct Alley Mills in a rare fully staged production of Noel Coward's "A Song at Twilight" in Los Angeles.

"Places like NJ Rep, PTNJ, care about developing new plays," he explains. "If it weren't for these theaters, there'd be no place for playwrights to bring their work."

As to the question of how he's come to have so many famous friends at his beck and call, Glossman tends to view himself as a matchmaker between people and projects.

"All the best actors are always wanting to do more interesting work," he says. "Give them the chance, and they will find a way to make it happen."


Sharing a shul in Kabul

'Two Jews Walk Into a War...' offers more than just a punchline
by Jill Huber
SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH STATE
December 18, 2009

The title implies comedic overtones, but "Two Jews Walk Into a War...", a new play by Seth Rozin that will run at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch through Jan. 10, 2010, offers a mix of comedy, tragedy, hope, faith, and compassion.

The two-character play, which features Reathel Bean as Ishaq and John Pietrowski as Zeblyan, the only surviving Jews in Afghanistan during the final days of Taliban rule, takes place in the ruins of synagogue in Kabul. While sporadic gunfire can be heard on the streets, the two men decide that the only way to preserve their religion for the next generation of Afghani Jews is to recreate the text of the Torah, which Ishaq has committed to memory -- complete with correct spelling and proper punctuation.

The project would be challenging under the best of circumstances, but the pious Ishaq and the skeptical Zeblyan have another hurdle to overcome -- they detest each other and must find a way to co-exist in order to complete their Herculean task. As Zeblyan begins transcribing the text dictated by Ishaq, the two engage in general name-calling, argue about who suffered worse torture at the hands of the Taliban, and which family led a more oppressed life.

The play, which is co-produced by NJ Rep and Playwrights Theatre in Madison and is directed by James Glossman, is inspired by a true story, said Rozin, who has written several other plays and is the founder and producing artistic director of InterAct Theatre Company in Philadelphia. (He also has directed more than 45 productions at InterAct and received a 2002 new play commission from the Foundation of Jewish Culture).

"A friend and colleague came into rehearsal one day with an article he'd read about the last two Jews in Kabul," Rozin told The Jewish State. "These two extraordinary men had seen their once-thriving community dwindle down to just themselves. They had survived the Russians and the Taliban, and, to make their true-life story even more ripe for dramatization, they hated each other."

The circumstances were rich with comedic potential and offered the chance to explore a truly existential relationship, he added.

"I imagined a kind of Near Eastern 'Waiting for Godot'," Rozin said. Though he discovered that two other playwrights had read the same article and wrote similar plays, those works had been released to tepid reviews.

"But after learning that their dramatic impulse was limited to a story about two old Afghan Jews hurling insults at each other, I decided to depart from the facts and consider what might actually come of this relationship," said Rozin. "It occurred to me that the only thing that could hold these two rivals together in pursuit of their common cause of rebuilding the Jewish community in Kabul was recreating a Torah."

The result is an existential comedy that subtly evolves into a human drama about faith, friendship, and community, he said.

"With all my plays, I'm interested in why people believe what they believe and what would rock the foundation of that belief," Rozin said. "In this play, both characters have endured a lifetime of extraordinary challenges in war-ravaged, politically dysfunctional, religiously oppressive Afghanistan. But Ishaq devoutly believes in God's higher purpose and plan, while Zeblyan has become increasingly skeptical.

"I wanted to explore whether Ishaq's faith will crumble in the face of all of Zeblyan's boorish and provocative questioning of the Torah, or will Zeblyan discover a reason for his suffering," Rozin added.

Although the play starts off on the comedic side and then takes a more serious turn, the two actors achieved the transition through the evolving circumstances of their characters.

"In Ishaq's case, I think the secret is exhaustion that weakens his resolve to be right, and heightens his need for others and consolation of his faith," said Bean. "And the issue of affirmation of faith is very relevant in today's world. For too many people, faith has come to mean fundamentalism. Thus, you hear about the 'Christian vote' and it means 'right-wing nuts.'

"There is something legitimate there, though, but I fear it will always be a minority position, as it has so often been for Christians and Jews," he continued. "And maybe that's what it ought to be. I don't think triumphalism is appropriate for any faith."

And Zeblyan's natural intelligence and abundance of curiosity are among the traits that enable him to move through the play, said Pietrowski, who also is the artistic director of Playwrights Theatre.

"Zeblyan has not been formally trained in the lore of the Torah, so when he's actually forced to confront it, as he is in this situation, his readings are new, funded by his experience and not driven by old assumptions," he said. "He's literally hearing it for the first time as he writes it, so it's an intimate connection. I feel his confrontation with God is on a very pragmatic and physical level, and that pragmatism turns into a profound respect. He's wrestling with God and it's a good match."


STOP US IF YOU’VE HEARD THIS ONE (Red Bank Orbit)

Don’t ask us why so many of New Jersey Rep’s shows wind up with the characters strangling each other — but when TWO JEWS WALK INTO A WAR, things get interactive for John Pietrowski (left) and Reathel Bean (right).  (Photos courtesy SuzAnne Barabas)

By TOM CHESEK

His résumé groans beneath the weight of high-profile productions with some of the greatest “actor’s actors” in the business — Ed Asner and Jack Klugman, for instance. John Astin and Orson Bean; Paula Prentiss and Richard Benjamin; William Schallert and Len Cariou. To say nothing of Jay O. Sanders, Priscilla Lopez, Fred Savage, Vin Scelsa. Vin Scelsa?

Don’t call him a namedropper, though — at least not while the oRBit desk is still around to show how some truly skeevy namedropping is done. No, James Glossman sees himself as more of a matchmaker — a stage professional who mates performers with a bottomless passion for their craft to the kinds of projects that they’ll give their left Emmy to do. 

The Montclair-based director remains one of the most sought-after on the theatrical landscape (not just the region but the entire map of the USA) — and this week finds him in Long Branch, where New Jersey Repertory Company is getting ready to open their latest mainstage offering; a duet entitled Two Jews Walk Into A War.

Glossman, who previously helmed two past productions at NJ Rep (and who brought his pal Stephen Colbert to town to play the part of a Nazi bureaucrat in a reading a few years back), directs actors Reathel Bean and John Pietrowski in a timely two-up set in Afghanistan during the final days of the Taliban regime — where, in the last remaining synagogue in Kabul, the last remaining Jews in the entire country hole up to survive, and to recreate the sacred texts of the Torah.

Sounds like these gentlemen of faith and courage have each other’s backs — but in the script by Seth Rozin (a “rolling world premiere” from the National New Play Network, an organization once headed by the playwright), these characters are more likely to have at each other’s throats. Nursing ancient grudges and refusing to cede an inch of philosophical turf to the other, Ishaq and Zeblyan carry on their own little war within the larger conflict that batters their besieged sanctuary from without.

As the Two Jews, Glossman has cast a couple of guys with whom he’s worked repeatedly in the past — Bean (who worked with the director in the Arthur Miller dramas Death of a Salesman and The Price) and Pietrowski, who starred in Glossman’s own Sedition at Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey (and who, as Artistic Director of Madison-based PTNJ, is co-producing this show with NJ Rep).

After the opening on Saturday night, Glossman wings out to L.A. to start working on a very rare revival of Noël Coward’s late play, A Song at Twilight. Red Bank oRBit managed to catch this busy matchmaker for a few moments; Continue Reading for best results.

RED BANK ORBIT: Welcome back down the Shore, James. Seems to me we’ve met before during one of the other shows you’ve done at NJ Rep.

JAMES GLOSSMAN: In Long Branch I did Circumference of a Squirrel, with Ames Adamson — we wound up doing that one together in five or six different places — and Tour de Farce, with Ames and Prentiss Benjamin. Also the reading of The Good German.

New Jersey Rep is such a congenial place to work — they really care about developing new plays. It’s such a happy partnership.

Well, a fightin’ little nonprofit theater has to do what it has to do to survive these days, and in this case we’re seeing anther partnership, between NJ Rep and Playwrights.

It gives a play twice the audience; it can run a month in one place and a month in the other. If it weren’t for these theaters, for places like NJ Rep and PTNJ, there’d be no place for playwrights to bring their work. I spend about 65 percent of my time working on new plays, writing and directing, and there are just a limited number of places where a non-musical play can be nurtured along and developed. It used to be that the New York producers would be looking for plays of any size to bring to town, and nowadays when something like August: Osage County makes it to Broadway, it’s because it was already a huge hit elsewhere.

So tell us about TWO JEWS, which I suppose passes for this year’s big holiday extravaganza at NJ Rep… 

It’s an absolute alternative to all of the holiday stuff, all the Scrooges. It’s a great place in which to escape the holidays.

I didn’t expect there’d be anything in there about Christmas, but no Chanukah? No touching upon holidays of any kind? 

Nope. This play is very traumatic, but very funny at the same time. It’s a little bit Waiting for Godot; a little bit Odd Couple. Anything that’s like oil and water — Laurel & Hardy, Abbot & Costello.

The characters have to rely on each other, but they can’t stand each other. There’s an upper class, working class thing going on — they haven’t liked each other their whole lives.

Now, you and John Pietrowski have worked together for years, but here you’re directing him as an actor; a context in which I’m not really familiar with him.  

Oh, I’ve known John since we went to college together at Northwestern, since 1978, and he was always very much an actor. Still is. But I guess that when you’re a multi-talented sort of person as John is, some of those talents end up having less time devoted to them. It’s surprising to me that after a number of years away from acting, he’s even better now then he was when he was 20.

John was in Sedition, which I directed him in last year; about a stubborn idealist in the World War One era. He played the lead and I knew he’d be perfect for it. When it came time to cast Two Jews, Seth Rozin and I both thought of him at the same time. 

And you’ve worked also with Reathel Bean in the past? 

I’d seen Reathel in Inherit the Wind with George C. Scott, and when I found out he lived in New Jersey, we wound up doing Death of a Salesman, and then Flying Crows, which I adapted from the Jim Lehrer novel, and which also featured Prentiss Benjamin. And then we did The Price, with Orson Bean — which meant the two of them would have to explain continually how they were not related to each other. And now I’ll be getting on a plane to L.A. to work with Orson again, in Noel Coward’s A Song for Twilight, with his wife Alley Mills.

I’m sure there’s no mystery as to why the same actors keep showing up in your projects. 

It’s because you’re giving them something that they’re always looking out for; the kind of work that relates back to why they became actors in the first place. When you work with somebody like Jack Klugman, who’s had this storied career, who could easily have just had a comfortable retirement — he wants to act, to take on those challenges the same way he approached them when he was a young up-and-coming actor.

Jay O. Sanders is another actor with whom I’ve been collaborating on different projects. We did this Jay O. Sanders piece, Unexplored Interior, with 14 people in it; it had Fritz Weaver as Mark Twain among the characters. Then Jay and my wife, Maryann Plunkett, did a reading of a new David Wiltse play — the playwright who did The Good German — it’s just this amazing comedy mystery sort of play, like a Sleuth or a Deathtrap.

You must have the most incredible Rolodex, or whatever your tech of preference, of people that you can call upon for your projects. People that will drop what they’re doing and answer the call.

You know, in 20 years I’ve never gotten a turn-down for a reading. It’s as simple as the fact that all the best actors are always wanting to do more interesting work. Ed Asner, if he has the choice between waiting for one more lovable grandpa role, or a chance to do something like Spread Eagle — a great, lost political thriller — will go where his actor’s instincts take him. Give them a chance, and they will find a way to make it happen.


Click Here for New York Times Review of Dead Ringer


"Dead Ringer' is a thriller

by TOM CHESEK • CORRESPONDENT • October 21, 2009

Of all the things that can be adapted to either the screen or the theater, the scenario commonly called the "psychological thriller" is surely the toughest to pull off on the stage. A staple genre of most moviegoers' diets (even if things skew a bit toward the "psycho" more often than the "logical"), it can be a tricky thing to manage in a setting where the camera's selective eye is absent, and where pinpoint timing is of the essence.

In other words, they can't all be "Wait Until Dark" — not even, as we're often reminded, a lot of productions of "Wait Until Dark." With "Dead Ringer," however, playwright Gino Dilorio and the folks at Long Branch-based New Repertory Company have crafted a piece in the "thriller" genre that wears the clothes of an altogether different genre — the Western.

The "cowboy creds" of director SuzAnne Barabas and her husband, executive producer Gabe Barabas have long been established. (They presented a festival of short plays with the theme "The American Cowboy" and authored a guidebook to TV's "Gunsmoke.") But the NJ Rep co-founders are also enthusiastic fans of spinetingling stories, and this love of a good scare makes itself evident in this twisted tale of the bizarre interplay between three characters in the high-lonesome setting of nineteenth century Texas.

As the play opens, a young man named Dwight (Christian Pedersen) has come to see a man about a horse — literally. Dwight (or "Dewey") has traveled to the home of trainer Tyrus Cole (Michael Irvin Pollard) for advice on how to break an uncooperative mare, when he has a tense encounter with Mary (Natalie Wilder), Ty's sister and an invalid who spends her days and nights behind padlock and chain in a detached root cellar alongside the house.

Born with a "knotted head" and useless legs, Mary is glimpsed almost entirely as hands through the bars of her little prison of stone and earth — and heard throughout as a voice that recites poetry, sings like an angel, spins the origin of the phrase "dead ringer," and cajoles Dewey into a murderous plot against her brother.

Given over to drunken benders and flashes of abusive behavior, Ty has his own rationale for doing what he does — as well as his own contradictory take on his familial relationships. He even raises the notion of having Dewey do away with Mary — a prospect that the hapless farmboy, who's apparently unable even to fire a warning shot over the head of a horse, finds particularly distressing.

Things quickly get complicated against this simple landscape of wide open spaces. Secrets are revealed (including one that ways heavy upon Dewey), oaths are sworn to, and we hear mention of a large sum of money stashed away somewhere, although exactly where seems to be at issue. As the "web of intrigue" tightens, we begin to wonder just who that lock and chain are designed to protect.

The freestanding cellar with the barred wooden door sits at the center of the characteristically detailed set by Jessica Parks (this is one time when the "postage stamp stage" at NJ Rep could surely have benefited from a touch of Texas scale), becoming an extension of the deformed shut-in's personality. With a little dressing up it might have passed for a forest creature's home in the Hundred Acre Wood (and in silhouette it looms like Winnie's big pile of dirt in Beckett's "Happy Days"), but as lighting director Jill Nagle and sound designer Merek Royce Press turn day to night and back again, the maddeningly vague glimpses we get of the structure's interior only serve to reinforce it as a cool, dark place of mystery and secrets.

Wilder, a performer we've known largely in comic situations, takes on the challenge of this deceptively "easy" role with an intelligence that keeps pace with the complex machinations of the self-schooled, inscrutable woman behind the door. Pollard — another graduate from comedy parts, and now one of the finest dramatic actors in the NJ Rep stock company — lends authority to a conflicted character who dwells in his own prison of promises. In his Rep debut, Pedersen recalls the gangly 1960s Western actor Will Hutchins in his portrait of the seemingly nave and kind-hearted Dewey.

SuzAnne Barabas has wrangled a set of intense turns from her cast, a trio of characters trapped in a claustrophobic corner of big sky country. While there are any number of ways in which this tale (expanded by Dilorio from a 10-minute piece that premiered in Long Branch five years ago) might have played out, the production's violent, unsettling final moments make clear the director's intentions — NJ Rep has delivered to their audience a hell of a Halloween surprise.


 NJ Rep premiere puts cast through the 'Ringer'

NOT YOUR DADDY'S WESTERN By TOM CHESEK • CORRESPONDENT • October 16, 2009

The Rant
From left, Dwight (Christian Pedersen) and Ty (Michael Irvin Pollard), during a dress rehearsal of 'Dead Ringer' at the New Jersey Repertory Company. Long Branch, NJ. (Asbury Park Press/Michael Sypniewski)

Now here's a right peculiar notion — a drama set in 1885 Texas, on the porch of a horse rancher's house, making its world premiere in downtown Long Branch, New Jersey.

If you're wondering what business the founders of New Jersey Repertory Company — Hungarian-born Gabor Barabas and his Brooklyn-bred wife SuzAnne - have galavanting around the big sky country, look no further than "Gunsmoke: The Complete History," their still-in-print guidebook to TV's longest running Western series and a volume that has seen the West Long Branch residents recognized as the ultimate authorities on the subject (we are not making this up).

Then again, there's the historic home in Long Branch that NJ Rep uses to house its out-of-town actors during the run of a show — a place known familiarly as the "Buffalo Bill House," having once been owned by the business manager of Wild West showman William Cody.

It's even said that Sitting Bull himself stayed there overnight.

Of course, SuzAnne and Gabe may have tipped their hand five years ago, when they presented a festival of short plays organized under the theme of "The American Cowboy," and branded "My Rifle, My Pony and Me."

A three-night affair that drew upon the Rep's deep stock company of actors and writers, the event featured a playlet by Gino Dilorio, an odd little pocket drama by name of "The Hard Way."

An exercise in personal dynamics between the rancher, a young stranger who comes seeking his assistance with a horse, and the rancher's sister — an invalid who's confined by her brother to the root cellar of the house throughout the day — the well-received sketch became the basis for a full length script by Dilorio entitled "Dead Ringer." The play in its expanded form makes its debut on the Rep mainstage on Saturday, Oct. 17.

According to SuzAnne Barabas, the play's director, Dilorio "was originally reluctant even to write a 10-minute piece for us, in addition to not being interested in westerns."

Other members of NJ Rep's extended family — prominent among them actress and writer Natalie Wilder — were able to convince the playwright that he had the germ of something special, and later in 2004 Dilorio, Wilder and the Rep crew were able to do a staged reading of the new, longer "Hard Way." Somewhere along the line the title changed to the current "Dead Ringer," and elsewhere on the timeline the script was adapted for a prize-winning BBC radio drama.

Related 'Dead Ringer' at NJ Rep "It's changed quite a bit since then," says Barabas of the ever-evolving script. "But the basic story of the brother, the sister and the stranger remains at the heart of it — the dynamic among these three people is what makes it interesting."

Also of interest is the fact that Wilder, a frequent presence on the Long Branch stage and a performer of comic gifts and expressive range, is onstage throughout as a character who's locked away and largely unseen.

"There's a challenge to having one of your actors in a root cellar," the director says matter-of-factly. "Natalie has to work entirely with her voice, and her hands."

In another interesting bit of casting that speaks volumes about NJ Rep's propensity for shaking up expectations, the brother rancher is being portrayed by Michael Irvin Pollard, the very capable player of comic 'nebbish' parts who showed his considerable dramatic depth in last year's "Apple." The young stranger is played here by West Long Branch native Christian Pedersen in his first mainstage role for the Rep — but, despite the comedic skillsets of the cast, the director points out that the play tells a straightforward, dramatic story that unfolds over the course of a few days.

"I think it's a dark piece, with a fair amount of humor in it," Barabas maintains. "We're still discovering things about it, still exploring it - but it remains a linear story that everyone will be able to follow."


The Rant: Deft and Sophisticated Socio-Political Theatre

The Rant
Rahaleh Nassri and Mark Hairston
A sixteen-year-old black youth has been fatally shot by a police officer on the porch of his parental home in the East New York section of Brooklyn. The shooting was followed by a riot during which neighborhood residents threw rocks at police officers on the scene. Lila Mahnaz, an investigator for the civilian Department to Investigate Misconduct and Corruption, is conducting an inquiry into the incident. Sgt. Clark, the white officer who shot the boy, retired shortly thereafter. The boy's mother, Denise Reeves, tells Mahnaz that she saw a black policeman, Charles Simmons, hold her son down on the ground while Clarke shot him. Simmons, Clarke's driver, tells her that he never left his police vehicle and did not witness the shooting. Mahnaz, who believes Reeves' version of events, leaks her interview of Reeves to a newspaper reporter in the belief that its publication will bring this injustice to public attention and force the police department to uncover its own criminality.

This is the set-up for The Rant, the new play by Andrew Case which is being presented by the New Jersey Rep, a member of the National New Play Network, in one of three "rolling world premiere" regional theatre productions. What sets The Rant apart from run of the mill policiers is the complexity of the characters and its insightful exposition of the social foment and injustice promulgated by the deeply ingrained prejudices which poison too many of us. If you think that those of any particular race or political persuasion are immune to this poison, then The Rant will likely make you uncomfortable (and you need to see it).

Author Case has written an excellent, extended rant/monologue for the cynical newspaper reporter which begins by informing us that the Amsterdam News took a position when white Duke lacrosse players were accused of raping a black woman diametrically opposite from the position they took when Kobe Bryant was accused of raping a white woman. An all too true description of the no win situation that racial and gender animosities place us in is part of his monologue :

Tell me what you believe about these two cases and I will prove you are a bigot. If you believe that despite Ms. Faber's bruises Kobe was framed; and DNA be damned, the lacrosse players are guilty, you have decided ... that black voices are to be trusted more than white. If you believe Kobe is the rapist, if the semen from three different men in Ms. Faber's underwear gives you no pause; and you think the Duke lacrosse players hired two strippers for their drunken brawl and behaved like perfect gentlemen, you are a racist, believing the white accuser and the white accused. If you think both women are lying, you are a sexist, and if you take both women at their word, you are biased against men. That's it—there is no answer to get you off the hook. You believe the women, you believe the men, you believe the whites, or you believe the blacks.

Under the swift, sure-handed direction of Jesse Ontiveros, all of the performances ring true. Rahaleh Nassri as the Iranian-American investigator projects an honest, enthusiastic naivety which convinces us that she is unaware that her attitude toward the police is rife with prejudice. Maconnia Chesser plays the mother with a forthrightness and dignity that tells us that the bad decisions that she has made and her prejudice are the result of the rough road that she has had to hoe as a member of two under classes. Mark Hairston as Officer Simmons projects the anguish of everyone who has had to make a difficult, untenable decision. His decision (blue over black) offers us a thought-provoking conundrum which author Case presents nonjudgmentally. Bob Senkewicz nicely modulates the role of Alex Stern, the amoral, opportunistic reporter who has so found that he can get by with self-deprecating honesty and a casual smile.

Scenic Designer Jessica Parks has designed an arresting all-purpose set whose walls are covered with newspaper articles reporting on the people and events relevant to the play. Patricia E. Doherty's costumes and Jill Nagle's lighting complete the seamless design work.

The Rant is a very complex and tightly written play. The events under investigation are tailored to demonstrate that various witnesses can see the same events differently, and that there can be innocent reasons for witnesses not being fully forthcoming. The play is also constructed as a mystery in which audiences are likely to make assumptions which will be upended as the play races rapidly to its climax.

Much of what passes for serious socio-political theatre today is simply old-fashioned agit-prop which massages and stokes the preconceived prejudices of its audience. Such plays often present their villains as cruel, evil, venal, bigoted and stupid hypocrites with poor social skills and hygiene. However, The Rant is a thought-provoking and engrossing play in which hot button social issues and the people caught up in them are portrayed fairly and honestly. Still, the play has a clear point of view and is infused with passion. With The Rant, author Andrew Case has brought a welcome breath of fresh air to American socio-political theatre.


A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
The Rant

I have been afraid for my safety. — Investigator Mahnaz
You have. — Police officer Simmons You put my name on the Rant (a website blog). You said someone should kill me. Someone should rape me. Just for asking -- just for doing my job. — Mahnaz
So now you know what it's like.— Simmons

The Rang
MaConnia Chesser (Photo: SuzAnne Barabas)
The Rant by Andrew Case does what few exposition-driven dramas do successfully: keeps the audience riveted by a timely and incendiary situation, intrigued by provocatively nuanced dialogue and characters who resonate with the specificity of their reality. That it also builds towards a surprising, if also logical, denouement is also to this play's credit.

In it, four people — a citizen, a prosecutor, a policeman and a journalist — become entangled in a web of circumstantial and incomplete evidence in which the truth is suddenly relative, bias becomes a motivating force and guilt or innocence almost achieves irrelevance. As the play is primarily motored by the delivery of testimony and the delivering of information, it is incumbent upon the actors to make the dramatic sparks fly. Under the taut direction of Jesse Ontiveros they do.

Case, who spent seven years aside from his playwriting working as an investigator for the Civilian Complaint Review Board in New York City, dives into the muddy waters of truth-telling and the questionable reliability of witnesses, the police, the press and the prosecutors.

An unarmed black autistic teenager is shot and killed by a policeman while on the front porch of his Brooklyn, New York home. His mother Denise Reeves (MaConnia Chesser) provides a detailed account of the incident to Lila Mahnaz (Rahaleh Nassri), a city prosecutor. Based on the facts as presented to her, Mahnaz sees the shooting as a means to validate her long-standing, deep-seated assumptions about the NYPD and what she perceives as its fellowship of cover-up. Her attempt to ally herself with a tabloid journalist Alexander Stern (Bob Senkewicz) becomes as confounding in its convolutions as is her frustrating attempt to get the young African-American policeman Charles Simmons (Mark Hairston) to admit that his actions may not have been justified.

Reeves's rage toward the policemen who patrol the neighborhood is pronounced and unwavering. But why has she left out some pertinent background information? And how relevant was that 911 call that she made minutes before the shooting? Mahnaz's disgust with the corruption in the Police department is barely contained. She's on a vendetta. What consequences will there be to her almost reckless and flawed pursuit for truth that has put her own life in danger? Stern's dissemination of the facts is predictably self-serving. Are ethics something he has no use for when it comes to blowing the prosecutor's cover? Simmons is adamant about his arguably defensive actions during the incident. Are his climactic revelations the shock that we expected?

The truth is as malleable and adaptable as are the inevitable and incontrovertible biases that surface from each of these characters, often expressed in long expository speeches. "Truth is a kind of bias," admits Mahnaz, who, when asked if she is an American responds, "I'm a Persian." Nassri gives a plausible account of a head-strong prosecutor whose own racial biases make her vulnerable to major errors in judgment. Chesser is excellent as the mother with a resolve for retribution. Senkewicz's stringent performance as the glib, callously cynical journalist is right on the money.

Hairston, who is making a formidable debut at the NJ Rep., inevitably makes Officer Simmons the most emotionally engaging as well as the play's most conflicted character: one who not only has a completely different version of the story told by Reeves. His commitment and loyalty to the police force is consistently being put to the test in a dangerous and predominantly African-American neighborhood. Jessica Parks's scenic design, that includes some projections of various locations in New York, consists of a few chairs and tables and flats posted with blow-up of news stories about the killing are simple and effective.

Under close scrutiny, perceptive audiences are likely going to uncover holes and discrepancies in the plot as well as in the way most professionals might more normally follow protocol and procedure. Not being bored for a moment, however, allows for the few lapses in credibility. Except for its lack of irony, some may also see in The Rant a similarity to the film Rashomon, in which various people offer differing accounts of a rape.

'The Rant'

NJ Rep premiere "an indictment of what truth is"

By TOM CHESEK • CORRESPONDENT • August 21, 2009


According to Andrew Case, "There are two obstacles to certainty in an investigation — certainty in the facts, and certainty in the law."

As a former investigator who spent close to a decade working for the Civilian Complaint Review Board in New York City, the nascent playwright came to that assessment from his experience on the front lines of "this volatile environment where the public and law enforcement came into daily, and sometimes deadly contact."

Toiling in a gray area far from the sixty-minute resolutions of "Law & Order" or the scientific verities of "CSI," the aptly-named Case has observed that it is "often nearly impossible from real-life evidence to make a totally reliable finding of facts." It's a phenomenon that you might have heard referred to as the "Rashomon effect" — a reference to the classic Japanese film in which a violent incident is played out in several different ways, according to the recollections of various participants — and it plays a part in "The Rant," the drama that comes to the stage of New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch this weekend as part of a National New Play Network "rolling premiere" event.

In Case's script, a female Review Board investigator pulls down a particularly radioactive assignment — an inquiry into a highly charged tragedy, in which a police response to a domestic dispute call in Brooklyn ended with a boy's death. As the story unfolds, these few facts are about the only aspects of the case that haven't been called into question — and the presence of a tabloid newspaper reporter, pursuing his own parallel investigation, adds another dimension of difficulty to the job of the city caseworker; an effort that's complicated as much by her own personal prejudices as by the external layers of lies, silence and intimidation.

Featured in the four-person cast under the direction of Jesse Ontiveros are a couple of newcomers to the NJ Rep stage, Rahaleh Nasri as the conflicted, Iranian-American investigator and Mark Hairston as the cop accused by the boy's mother of murdering her son. Shore-based character ace Bob Senkewicz returns to the local stage as the sensation-seeking journalist, and MaConnia Chesser — acclaimed for her work in "And Her Hair Went With Her" at NJ Rep — plays the mother, whose accusations of police misconduct set the search for the elusive truth in motion.

Interviewed at the downtown Long Branch playhouse, Ontiveros characterized the play as "an indictment of what truth is — it's not something absolute; all of the baggage of our life experience influences what we remember as the truth."

Ontiveros, who discussed the play in detail with its author in the early stages of rehearsals, finds in its "search for that nugget of truth, that semblance of what really happened" an undercurrent of the racial discord that continues to pulse through all strata of society, despite the fact that both the officer and the dead boy in this story are black.

"We're all a little racist, no matter how much we try not to be," the director observes. "We really are tribal at our core, and it's an extremely human thing."

On the other hand, the Mexican-American theater professional maintains that "we've come a phenomenally long way in this country, and we've learned to get along to a great extent."

"Public transit is the great equalizer in New York, where I live now," Ontiveros says. "In Los Angeles, where I lived for a long time, you've got the same mix of people, but if you don't want to interact with others, you don't have to."

Of course, "The Rant" seems exactly the sort of work that invites interaction, whether in the forum of an officially scheduled "talk-back" between cast and audience, or on that awkward drive home from the theater - a quality that Ontiveros appears to relish.

"I doubt the story will please everyone," the director says with a smile. "Just the very nature of it will incite passions."


RANTING AND RAVING AT NJ REP (Red Bank Orbit)

The cast of THE RANT at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch includes (clockwise from left) Rahaleh Nasri, Bob Senkewicz, Mark Hairston and MaConnia Chesser (Photos courtesy of SuzAnne Barabas).

By TOM CHESEK

The Rashomon effect, they call it (after a classic Japanese film by Akira Kurosawa) — that phenomenon in which several people can be present at the same event, and each recall a wildly differing version of what they all swear to be “the truth.” Law enforcement professionals, journalists, counselors all know this big grey area very well — and, as Andrew Case maintains, it is “often nearly impossible from real-life evidence to make a totally reliable finding of facts.” 

The aptly-named Mr. Case ought to know — he’s a former investigator who spent seven years working for the Civilian Complaint Review Board in NYC, a high-stress, lightning-rod position in the battle-scarred No Man’s Land between the police and the general public (and surely an express ticket to career burnout). 

“There are two obstacles to certainty in an investigation,” writes Case, from the vantage point of his new identity as a playwright. “Certainty in the facts, and certainty in the law.”

Those obstacles — and more — litter the landscape of The Rant, the play by Case that opens this week at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. As with much of NJ Rep’s body of edgy new works, it’s an uncompromising drama in a season usually given over to frothy musicals; a story that pushes several hot-button issues and invites what can diplomatically be called a “spirited” level of talkback.

Although it makes no claim to being based upon any specific real-life incident, Case’s script has as its default protagonist a Civilian Complaint investigator — in this instance, a woman of Iranian ethnicity named Lila (Rahaleh Nasri) — who’s assigned to a tragic case out of East New York, in which a boy is shot and killed when patrolmen are called to respond to a domestic dispute. The boy’s mother (MaConnia Chesser, sensational in NJ Rep’s And Her Hair Went With Her) makes a convincing case as to gross misconduct on the part of the cop who fired his gun, leading Lila into tense conflict with the accused officer (Mark Hairston) — who of course has his own, very divergent account of the event. 

Complicating things further is the simultaneous investigation by a New York Post reporter (familiar character actor Bob Senkewicz), who, like everyone in this four-person play, carries a set of hidden agendas, personal demons, prejudices and emotional scars that color their every perception — and make that thing called Truth an entirely subjective concept. 

Directed by Jesse Ontiveros, the play is a National New Play Network “rolling premiere” work; one in which several stage companies across the country get together to each present their own production of a highly touted new script. The play’s previously been staged in Coral Gables, Florida and in Philadelphia — and, if you don’t mind spoilers, you can see a review of the Philly production here.

If spoilers tend to spoil things for you, however, stay with us and Continue Reading for our talk with director Ontiveros.

RED BANK ORBIT: THE RANT really invites comparisons to RASHOMON and the “effect” that most folks are at least vaguely aware of. But does it present multiple versions of the central incident, like the old movie did?  

JESSE ONTIVEROS: I would call it an indictment of what ‘the truth’ is…you get a couple of different versions of the story here, and when you try to interpret or dissect them, you realize that truth is not something absolute. It’s more malleable; all of the baggage of our life experience influences what we remember as the truth.

When I first read about this play, knowing only the very basics of the story and that prejudice plays a part, I was assuming a very racially charged scenario with a black kid and a white cop. Which turned out to be prejudiced on my part, as the cop in the story is black as well.  

Prejudice does figure into it — or at least the idea of people acting on preconceptions from their life experience. The woman who pursues the case for the Civilian Complaint board has some issues that affect her thinking, which will become evident when you see the play. The mom of the boy involved in the shooting brings her own prejudices, and the other characters, the journalist and the policeman, all do things and make choices that come from their own preconceptions. 

Well, does anybody NOT do that at some point?  

We’re all a little racist, no matter how much we try not to be. Even someone like me, I’m a Mexican American, who leans more to the left — my family’s much more conservative than I am — I’m probably guilty of the same thing. We really are tribal at our core. It’s one of our undoings, but it’s extremely human. 

We’ve come a long way in this country, however — a phenomenally long way. We have learned to get along to a great extent.

Until such time as the next hot-button incident comes along.  

I lived in LA for a long time, where you know we’ve had our incidents, and in LA you’ve got all the same racial mix that you have in New York City, where I live now. But if you don’t want to interact with other people, you don’t have to.

In New York, public transit is the great equalizer. Any huge metropolis like that, where people aren’t totally isolated in suburbs and living in their cars, has a blend that’s just beautiful to see. We all wind up borrowing the best of each other’s cultures.

I imagine that Mr. Case, the playwright, might take a less rosy view of the city based on his experiences.  

I’ve talked with him about this play, and while it’s not directly based on any one case — you could say it’s a compilation of his experiences — there’s a little bit of hope to be had from the process of trying to search for that nugget of truth, to get a semblance of what really happened. But things like memory, post-traumatic stress, the speed of life itself — they get in the way of that search.

In an age when just about everybody carries with them a hand-held camera and recording device, how current and realistic can a story like this be after a few years? I’m also intrigued by the playwright’s decision to have a newspaper reporter as a…well, not a protagonist, but as a character that kind of moves the story along. There’s a chance that the whole newspaper angle might make this a period piece not too many years from now.    

The journalist character is used here as an exploratory figure — and really, making the character a TV news person or a blogger just wouldn’t mean the same thing. A lot of people still look to newspapers for the investigative work that you really don’t find elsewhere. There’s also a tactile comfort to a newspaper; a black and white to it. 

And “read all over.” So would you say this play is done in sort of a stylized way, so as not to favor one version of the so-called truth over another?

There’s some stylization involved, since we do have multiple scenes — we’re competing with episodic TV stories for the audience’s attention, after all, so we must remain visually competitive.

It seems on face value to be the kind of story that LAW & ORDER would have a field day with, although they’d be compelled to wrap it up one way or another by the end of an hour.  

The original Law & Order would do it much better than the other spin-offs! I’m a fan of the original; it gives you a good sense of what the police do, what the lawyers do. But here, as opposed to a TV show, there are a lot more questions than answers. I doubt it will please everyone, but it will get you thinking. Just the nature of it will incite passions.


'Evie's Waltz' offers a perceptive, if harrowing, look at teenage rebellion

by Peter Filichia/For the Star-Ledger

Tuesday June 23, 2009, 5:38 PM

Portraying the main characters in The Housewives of Mannheim are, clockwise, Corey Tazmania, Natalie Mosco, Alexandra Eitel, and Wendy Peace.

Kate Kenney, Warren Kelley and Andrea Gallo star in Carter W. Lewis' new play "Evie's Waltz" at the New Jersey Repertory Company.

 

As Ira Gershwin wrote long ago, "Summertime, and the livin' is easy." But that's not the case at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, where a most harrowing play will be on view for the next month.

Carter W. Lewis' "Evie's Waltz" quickly grabs the audience's attention, and director SuzAnne Barabas keeps the tension at swine flu fever-pitch for the last 70 of its 80 minutes. But if Hollywood ever gets around to filming this tale, don't look for it to be released as a summer movie.

It's the story of Clay and Gloria Matthews, whose teenage son, Danny, has become, to say the very least, a problem. He's been suspended from high school, and not for smoking in the boy's locker room. His infraction was so horrible that the police had to be brought in.

Lewis smartly orchestrates the parents so that Clay is indulgent and forgiving, while Gloria has all but washed her hands of the lad. As the embattled Clay, Warren Kelley sports a glassy smile and soothing voice when trying to convince his wife - and himself - that "He's only a kid," while Andrea Gallo, playing Gloria, is drop-dead frank when she announces, "I want to smother him in his sleep."

Many a parent who has suffered with an incorrigible child will recognize the look of anguish that floods Gallo's face, and the wild, unsubstantiated hope that finds its way onto Kelley's.

Then Evie arrives. She's Danny's girlfriend, and an unholy terror, from her cherry red-streaked hair to her combat boots. Tattoos abound, and her ears are pierced with more than mere earrings. Kate Kenney brilliantly brings to life this adolescent who believes herself both omnipotent and omniscient. She snarls, sneers and, of course, snarkily says, "Whatevvvvverrrr" to indicate her impatience with these two adults whom she regards as dolts.

Sarcasm is what Evie does best, though blame is only a whit behind. Lewis makes the point that children are quick to remind parents about an isolated incident that hurt their feelings years ago and how they'll never forgive it. And yet, they rarely hesitate to hurt parents' feelings now and forever.

Needless to say, through all of Evie's accusations and profanities, Clay and Gloria must seem unnerved, lest they be accused of what a teenager considers the worst of crimes: losing their cool. Watching both Kelley and Gallo struggle to stay calm and negate what they're actually feeling is one of the more heart-wrenching aspects of Lewis' play. "We need to keep everything normal," Clay says as he serves a light summer meal under very dark circumstances.

Lewis establishes that Danny has been harassed by classmates because of his funny looks and his voice. Issues of school bullying are more and more in the news, and Lewis was shrewd to indicate that a teen's peers are partly to blame for anti-social behavior.

But near the play's end, Lewis also includes a plot twist involving Clay that doesn't help his script. It does startle, but had this event happened to Clay, he would have acted very differently during the previous hour. This is not Kelley's fault, but Lewis'.

While Danny himself never appears, a theatergoer will know what he's up to through a clever stage device. In essence, he's there all the time, though a theatergoer may wish that he would just go away.

For that matter, some theatergoers will wish that the play had an intermission so they could go away, too. "Evie's Waltz" is admittedly effective theater -- for those who want to put themselves through such an emotional wringer.


A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
Evie's Waltz

You have a few years of invincibility left, Evie, but only a few. The process of dying is the bulk of your life and it's much more frightening than a bullet, because it's a subtle undetectable morphine-drip-of-a-fear that's always there - unless you're drunk or religious, which, by the way, are also two peas of the same pod. — Gloria
Evie's Waltz
Rear: Warren Kelley, Kate Kenney; Front - Andrea Gallo
(Photo: SuzAnne Barabas)
Although it's been ten years since the Columbine High School massacre, there has been a lot of subsequent speculation on what drove two angry and alienated teenagers to that point. In his 2003 film Elephant, film-maker Gus Van Sant coolly and brilliantly extracted aspects of that horrific incident without drawing any conclusions. Carter W. Lewis's fictional play Evie's Waltz is similarly committed, if not in the specifics to that very real and troubling event, to explore the potential for teenage rage. While this is a very harrowing and unnerving play, it has been well directed by SuzAnne Barabas with an eye on bringing credence to its characters (even an unseen antagonist) and creating and sustaining suspense to the bitter end.

The veggie shish kabobs may be ready to be placed on the patio grill, but Clay (Warren Kelley) and Gloria (Andrea Gallo) Matthews are not quite ready for the ordeal they are about to endure. Their immediate concern is how to cope with the increasingly incorrigible behavior of their son Danny, a junior in high school who has been suspended from school for possessing a gun. There's a familiarity to the kind of parental bickering they are engaged in as Clay tends to evade the darker side to Danny's behavior. Gloria is more sarcastic by nature and takes an angrier less forgiving stand with Danny who has become increasingly uncommunicative.

The question of what to do about Danny's clearly anti-social behavior becomes temporarily moot with the arrival of Danny's girl friend Evie (Kate Kenney), who arrives like a storm trooper in camouflage pants and combat boots, her tattooed arms, fuchsia streaked hair and bare midriff adding to her rebel look. Evie, who happens to live next door, has apparently not only abetted Danny in his purchase of the gun on the internet but also admits to Clay and Gloria that Danny has drawn floor plans of the school in his locker.

What gives the play its most illuminating if also disconcerting perspective is the way Evie takes on Danny's case— justifying, explaining, excusing and defending the young man she professes to love. As Evie, Kenney takes full charge of the drama's dynamics, using her body as an infuriated force of nature. She gives a wild and wacky depiction of hostility. But it is through her that we get to understand how the humiliations and frustrations that Danny has endured at school have provoked him. Soon enough, we realize Danny is watching these three from a critical vantage point and that their lives are endangered.

Both Kelley and Gallo are believable as the distressed parents who cannot come to terms with their son's behavior. Danny's love of Strauss waltzes adds an ominous touch to the climactic scene, but to explain more would undermine an important plot device. The play, which also includes the revelation of an off-stage tragedy and an extra-marital affair, has more than enough conflict and contrivance to sustain its 85 in real-time minutes.

Evie's Waltz is having its New Jersey premiere as part of a project "rolling premieres," in which several stage companies across the country present their own productions of new and worthy plays.

Kate Kenney finds her inner troublemaker in 'Evie's Waltz' at the N.J. Repertory Company

by Peter Filichia/For the Star-Ledger

Thursday June 18, 2009, 1:31 PM

Portraying the main characters in The Housewives of Mannheim are, clockwise, Corey Tazmania, Natalie Mosco, Alexandra Eitel, and Wendy Peace.

Kate Kenney, right, stars with Andrea Gallo and Warren Kelley in Carter W. Lewis' new play, "Evie's Waltz."

Kate Kenney had to do community service. "Not because I broke any law," the diminutive actress hastily says. "It's just that a teacher at my high school in Southwest Harbor, Maine, thought that students should do 30 hours of community service as a requirement for graduation."

Kenney estimates she wound up spending more than 1,000 hours at the place of her choice -- the Penobscot Theatre Company in Bangor, Maine.

Her interest in theater only grew from there. She attended the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University, and has been acting ever since. Now she's starring in Carter W. Lewis's "Evie's Waltz" at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

The irony is that she's playing a character who probably will wind up doing community service before long.

"Evie is one tough cookie," says Kenney. "She's only a junior in high school, but already she's got herself in a lot of trouble at school and with the police."

Thanks to her relationship with the easily led Danny, Evie's not well regarded by the boy's parents. They're surprised when Evie shows up in their backyard dressed in army fatigues and sporting a militant attitude.

"Evie's the type of kid who loves to challenge people, because she believes she's invincible," says Kenney. "She's able to make Danny's father feel bad for her, because she's the daughter of an alcoholic mother and an absent father. Danny's mother, though, feels that Evie has no excuse for the way she's been influencing her son."

Kenney, 26, knows that she has little in common with today's teenagers, so she's kept a keen eye on the adolescents in her Washington Heights, N.Y., neighborhood. "So many of them think they're so worldly, while they're really not," she says. "Maybe that's why they feel the need to do so many things to prove they're worldly."

It's a very different life from the one she experienced growing up in Maine. "I think one reason I was cast in this play is because I look like the girl next door," she says. "And this character is definitely not the girl next door."

While Kenney was growing up, she planned to be a jockey, because some relatives owned a horse farm. "But then I grew to be 5-foot-2," she moans. "That's too tall."

Suddenly, Kenney had no idea what she'd do with her life. So when her high school teacher invoked the community service clause during Kenney's junior year, it spurred her to look hard. She considered day-care centers and nursing homes, but felt drawn to the local theater. "I still don't know why," she says, shaking her head back and forth quickly, as if trying to rattle her brain for an explanation.

The powers-that-be at the theater told her that 30 hours wouldn't help them much, but they offered an internship. "Soon I was hanging lights, running follow-spots, costumes and sound boards," she says, still sounding excited by the tasks.

But Kenney confesses that being so near yet so far from center stage was a little frustrating. That problem was solved the next year, when the theater produced Lillian Hellman's "The Children's Hour." She played Mary, the lying, manipulating adolescent who tries -- and succeeds -- to ruin her teachers' reputations.

"Playing Mary was good practice for Evie," Kenney says. "You can even say that Evie is Mary all grown up. Well, not all grown up. Who knows what Evie will be like when she reaches adulthood -- if she even makes it that far."


Evie's Waltz' addresses big issues

Three characters, big issues in NJ Rep premiere

By TOM CHESEK • CORRESPONDENT, APP.com • June 19, 2009

Summer's almost here, and a million barbecue grills send their smoky signals wafting up from backyards all across America — even the artificial backyards of an indoor stage set.

On the back patio of Clay and Gloria's suburban home, there's more heating up than just the chicken kebobs — there's a slew of long-simmering domestic tensions between the two parents and their troubled teenage son Danny, and an uninvited visitor is about to pour lighter fluid on the embers.

In "Evie's Waltz," the play by Carter W. Lewis now in its world premiere engagement at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, the smoke emanates from the strained relationship between Clay (Warren Kelley), Gloria (Andrea Gallo) and their son — a bullying victim whose increasingly antisocial behavior has escalated into threats of violence and a police investigation. The sparks come from Danny's girlfriend Evie (Kate Kenney), an angry, sociopathic child of an alcoholic single mother — and the focus of much of the exasperated parents' blame.

Clay and Gloria's idea is to meet with Evie's mom, Sandy, to discuss their kids' increasingly out-of-control relationship. But it's Evie who shows up in advance of her mother, promising to help and carrying an obscure agenda that suggests she's not there simply to talk. Danny, who remains offstage throughout, manages to hover over the action, aiming for the center of attention with some fairly emphatic ways of making a point.

It's a dark comedy, according to the show's marketing — and if the above described doesn't seem so funny, bear in mind that NJ Rep's productions often take in a lot of mayhem and moral turpitude in the name of comedy. NJ Rep artistic director SuzAnne Barabas directs the production, which is being presented without intermission (and is not recommended for anyone younger than 16).

The director, who also helmed the company's acclaimed and successful previous production "The Housewives of Mannheim," calls this "Waltz" a "kind of energized piece" that "brings up a lot more questions than it answers."

"It's like a five-character play, really," Barabas says. "You learn a lot about Danny and Sandy, the mom — those unseen people move things along."

Lewis has seen his latest work produced as a "rolling world premiere" by theatrical troupes across the continent, with at least one reviewer of an earlier production calling it a "tense, frightening thriller."

"There's a mystery that unfolds in front of your eyes," says Barabas' husband, NJ Rep executive producer Gabor Barabas. "It's like an alienated Romeo and Juliet."

You don't have to brush up your Shakespeare to know that things ended harshly for the Bard's star-crossed lovers, but the director stresses that the playwright's pitch-black comic sensibility manages to manifest itself, albeit in some peculiar ways.

"It's certainly a drama, a thriller, but I can't say that it's not fun," SuzAnne Barabas says. "It's fun to watch the dynamics of the characters — to watch things come to a climax."


A GARDEN OF GOOD AND ‘EVIE’

It’s not a waltz per se, but Evie (Kate Kenney) has some moves to put on Warren Kelley and Andrea Gallo, as EVIE’S WALTZ takes over the stage of New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

By TOM CHESEK, Red Bank Orbit

You want edgy? Something in a more sophisticated cut than the run of suburban stripmall culture? Something that tells you that you’ve made the right decision by planting it here in the greater Red Bank orbit; that it’s not all about the Crispy Orange Chicken Bowl at Applebee’s and a Special Edition Blu-Ray of Stepbrothers?

Edgy you got — in fact, you’ve had it in your back yard for some ten years time now, courtesy of New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. That’s the little professional stage company dedicated to spawning, developing, experimenting with completely new, completely untested, often very weird works for the stage — none of which you’ve ever heard of before. Which is precisely the point.

No, you never quite know what to expect from a “typical” NJ Rep production. We’ve been to nearly everything they’ve done and we’re still reeling over some of what we saw on that little shadow-box of a stage, embedded deep in the heart of lower Broadway. Sailor-blue language that’d peel the paint off Jackie The Joke Man. Adult situations and sights that we never thought feasible within 50 kilometers of a school zone. Enough full-tilt surrealism to choke a Rhinoceros. Things like full-frontal male nudity with onstage prostate exam (Love and Murder); bawdy vaudeville spun from a real-life murdered-nuns story (Whores); priests behaving badly, people killing themselves and each other.

Also seen on the NJ Rep stage? Emotional honesty; sweetness and uplift; hard-earned laughter and tears; absolute dedication to craft and invention, and that jolly nagging notion that none of this is even supposed to make any sort of economic sense — otherwise get ready for opening night of Nunsense 2!

Don’t believe us? Check out some of the people who went out of their way to be able to say they’ve performed there. Guess you must have missed that night.

Anyway, among the many specialties of the NJ Rep stock company is a vaguely defined genre known as “dark comedy;” a brand that sounds like the sort of snickering satire and headline-hustling irony that currently wins Emmys. Only in the hands of Rep founders SuzAnne and Gabor Barabas, “comedy” can get very dark indeed; taking in all manner of pain, abuse, and spiritual devastation. 

In fact, the recent (extremely successful) offering The Housewives of Mannheim was marketed as a “comic drama” — when in fact what audiences saw was a sensitively acted, even tender study of friendships torn asunder and alliances thrown off balance, when a woman professes her longstanding love and desire for a beautiful, dutiful wife and mother who lives in her building. And Zayd Dohrn’s Sick was a bloody, negative “black comedy” about an isolated family whose hyper-allergic kids have made them prisoners in their unhappy home. Not a “laff” in either of them.

This week sees the opening performances of Evie’s Waltz, a play by Carter W. Lewis (whose Women Who Steal was a successful part of the 2008 season) in which the frustrated parents (Warren Kelley, Andrea Gallo) of a sullen, antisocial teenage son are drawn into the obscure schemes of the boy’s girlfriend — a diminutive sociopath in camo pants named Evie (Kate Kenney), whose apparent talent for head games is the stuff of budding genius. It’s a script that folds in violent interludes, heavy-duty adult themes and a general fish-in-a-barrel sense of hopelessness — and it’s being marketed as, you guessed it, a dark comedy.

It’s also a “rolling premiere” work; one in which several stage companies across the country get together to each present their own production of a highly touted new script. That means there have been a few stagings of this material already — and, if you don’t mind spoilers, you can see reviews of those other productions here and here and here.

If spoilers tend to spoil things for you, however, stay with us and Continue Reading for our talk on Evie’s with director SuzAnne Barabas.

RED BANK ORBIT: Here it is summer, and New Jersey Rep is once again preparing to put on another downer of a play, when by rights it ought to be a summer-stock revival of THE MUSIC MAN...

SUZANNE BARABAS: It’s not that much of a downer! It’s a kind of energized piece, about the alienation of a kid who doesn’t get along with his family or peers. It’s a play that brings up a lot more questions than answers — in fact, we’ll be having a talk-back with the audience after the 2:00 preview on Friday.

It’s also one that we’re not recommending for anyone under 16. It’s being done without an intermission — and we’ll be having a barbecue for the opening night.

Now, even though this play is “about” the kid and his relationship with his parents, we actually don’t ever see the character of the son onstage?

No, but you learn about Danny, the son, as well as Sandy — Evie’s mother. It’s like a five-character play really; those unseen people move things along. 

Sandy is a single mom who drinks and works at a hair salon; when the play opens we see Clay and Gloria, who are the parents of the boy, getting ready to meet with Sandy at their home. They’ve invited her over because their kids have gotten involved in a police matter — Danny’s been suspended from school, and they blame Evie for a lot of what’s been going on with their son.

So Evie is someone who they regard as a bad influence on their son; the idea is that he was a good kid before she came along and led him astray?

They’ve actually known her since she was a sociopathic little kid — they watched her do things like shave her head and get a pierced lip, and Clay and Gloria, who are good parents that love their son, are just exasperated by this long series of events involving Danny and Evie.

They’re waiting for Evie’s mom to arrive, when Evie herself shows up, on her own. She’s there basically to talk about what happened before her mom gets there.

From what we’ve been able to pick up about the play, it seems more of a drama, even a thriller, than anyone’s idea of a comedy…

It’s certainly a drama, a thriller — but I can’t say that it’s not fun! It’s fun to watch the dynamics of the characters — to watch things come to a climax.

GABE BARABAS (joining the conversation): There’s a mystery that unfolds in front of your eyes — it’s like an alienated Romeo and Juliet. Although I suppose you could say that Romeo and Juliet were alienated themselves.

As were the two main characters in HOUSEWIVES OF MANNHEIM, and arguably every character who’s ever stepped out onto your stage!

SUZANNE: We did very well with that play — I was actually surprised that so many people accepted it. Young people in particular loved it; they accepted the characters’ actions — I know a young man, a sophomore in college who told me, ‘That’s my story — I was Billy (the female character who comes out to her friend); I was in love with my best friend and that’s exactly how everything happened.’

Well, HOUSEWIVES, which of course you also directed, SuzAnne, hit just the right pitch from the start. It resonated in some way with just about everyone who saw it. But here you are starting work on another challenging script, while the other one was still playing. Did you realize all that you were taking upon yourself when you put together this schedule?

Directing two in a row is not something I would normally want to do. But this year, of course, economic factors are even more of a concern than they usually are with everyone in the arts, and you’re seeing more companies assigning directors from in-house rather than hiring freelancers.

But the real reason I took on both of these projects, is that I really felt for these plays. When I read them, I just had to be the one to do them — and once I make that decision, I can’t let anybody else talk me out of it. I don’t want to give away my babies!


Click Here for New York Times Review of The Housewives of Mannheim


At NJ Rep, a great play grows in Brooklyn

By TOM CHESEK • CORRESPONDENT, Asbury Park Press • April 22, 2009

Portraying the main characters in The Housewives of Mannheim are, clockwise, Corey Tazmania, Natalie Mosco, Alexandra Eitel, and Wendy Peace.

Pheonix Vaughn (left) and Corey Tazmania rehearse a scene from "The Housewives of Mannheim," now being staged at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.
(STAFF PHOTO: BRADLEY J. PENNER)

Defying expectations is kind of what it's all about, or ought to be anyway.

In the case of "The Housewives of Mannheim," the world premiere drama now onstage at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, what looks to be a nostalgia-infused ensemble piece of World War Two-era Brooklyn takes off in some fairly unexpected directions, even while keeping its footing in the Waldbaums-and-clotheslines world of its city kitchen setting.

This correspondent admits to having approached the play by Alan Brody with some wariness. After all, yet another script set in the greatest-generation days of home-front rations and make-believe ballrooms is hardly the way to attract a younger clientele to the theater. Some of the other themes at work here — the character who escapes a humdrum existence through the healing powers of art and culture; the quest for one's sexual identity set to a piped-in hit parade soundtrack — are straight out of the playwright's playbook.

Something happens here, however, between Brody's sharply etched characters and the keenly choreographed direction of SuzAnne Barabas. The story takes flight on the efforts of a quartet of skilled actresses, and the clothesline is set high for the honor of the year's best play on the local stage.

In last winter's "Cupid and Psyche," at NJ Rep, Pheonix Vaughn was merely bright and gorgeous and fun; here, she's equally radiant (while showing real depth and emotional complexity) as May, a young wife and mother who's as aware of her own good looks as she is cognizant that something is missing in her life, with or without the presence of her serviceman husband, Lenny. It's a performance that's all the more impressive when you consider that Vaughn was an 11th-hour replacement in the play's lead role.

May, who muses sometimes about what it would be like to be a man, has a friend named Billie (Corey Tazmania), a tart-tongued, entrepreneurial sort who runs a linens business out of her apartment, sports masculine-style hats, goes to bohemian parties and makes no effort to disguise her contempt for her dentist husband. Even if you can see where this is all going from the get-go, there are countless variables at work here that make this play's central story line — the radically changing relationship between two close friends — a compelling thread that seldom falls just where we'd expect it to be at any given point.

The catalyst that sets things in motion is the arrival of new neighbor Sophie (Natalie Mosco), an older, more sophisticated Jewish refugee from Europe who offers a tantalizing glimpse of a larger world beyond the fire escapes of Flatbush. Sophie's polar opposite, building busybody Alice (Wendy Peace), rarely if ever leaves the neighborhood, and is apt to invite herself into her neighbors' homes, seeing as to how she's in the business of everybody else's business.

While the characters of Sophie and Alice aren't quite as fully delineated as May and Billie, they are nonetheless not drawn in black and white. Alice isn't played as an evil schemer, and Sophie is more of a representative emissary of the outside world than simply a lady who introduces May to things like the "Vermeer" painting from which the play takes its name. Peace and Mosco each do fine work with their roles, eliciting laughs and tears and all that good stuff.

At heart, though, the story is that of May and Billie — and returning NJ Rep players Vaughn and Tazmania do the sort of work here that elicits not cheers but the sort of priceless silences that indicate an audience that has become completely engrossed in the story. May's too-late insistence that she is "just a housewife," one who "can't afford to go around thinking all the time," is as heartbreaking to watch as tough-gal Billie's confessional breakdown, a strong woman nearly pulled apart on the rocks of her own raw honesty.

There are times when "Housewives" veers toward preaching its points rather than trusting the finely tuned instincts of its cast, but by and large, Brody and Barabas have crafted the sort of intimate drama that this company does best, with a perfect little ending that leaves you wanting more.

And it just so happens that the playwright has penned not just one but two sequels: a "Victory Blues Trilogy" that we're anxious to see take shape on the NJ Rep stage.


Variety.com
Posted: Tue., Apr. 21, 2009, 2:51pm PT

The Housewives of Mannheim 

By ROBERT L. DANIELS

In Alan Brody's lovely new play, "The Housewives of Mannheim," premiering at the New Jersey Repertory Company, four Brooklyn women on the home front during WWII create a warming bond of friendship that manages to endure through unexpected conflicts. What seemingly begins as a banal, gossipy kitchen-sink comedy turns into a keenly constructed and beautifully acted romantic drama.

May Black (Pheonix Vaughn) is the mother of a 10-year-old boy; her husband is fighting overseas. Her neighbors include enterprising merchant Billie Friedhoff (Corey Tazmania), who markets linens from her home; gabby Alice Cohen (Wendy Peace) and worldly Holocaust survivor Sophie Birnbaum (Natalie Mosco).

Afraid of being considered a snob, May conceals her discovered passion for great paintings, her pilgrimages to the museum and her precious art books. Eventually she shares her newfound appreciation with the older, sophisticated Sophie, a Jewish widow and former concert pianist.

But when Billie makes an unexpected sexual advance, the joy and dignity of May's comfortably structured life are suddenly threatened by shame and guilt. But resolve is revealed in an emotional finale that finds the women in common pursuit of survival during a time of worldly crisis.

The performances are keenly drawn, notably Tazmania as the aggressive Billie, Mosco's wise Sophie and especially Vaughn, who stepped into the role of May at a week's notice. She balances a deeply ingrained sense of decency, dangerous naivete and the concerns of a protective, caring parent.

N.J. Rep artistic director SuzAnne Barabas has staged the piece with great insight into the war years, skillfully harnessing the restlessness, longings and frustrations of vital women deprived of the comfort and support of their men.

Final curtain draws inspiration from "Sunday in the Park with George" as the ladies position themselves at a tenement window only to freeze and dissolve into a huge scrim recreation of Vermeer's painting of four Dutch women gathered around a kitchen table. The flavorful sound design accompanies scene changes with recordings by artists like the Andrews Sisters, Glenn Miller and Harry James, their nostalgic tunes helping to define the long-ago era.
 
Set, Quinn Stone; costumes, Patricia Doherty; lighting, Jill Nagle; sound, Merek Royce Press; production stage manager, Rose Riccardi. Opened, reviewed April 18, 2009. Runs through May 17. Running time: 1 HOUR, 45 MIN.


'Housewives of Mannheim' takes provocative look at female bonding

by LIZ KEILL/Independent Press
Saturday May 30, 2009, 5:11 PM

Issues of propriety and raw emotions are entwined in this moving drama set in Brooklyn in 1940.
"The Housewives of Mannheim" is completing a successful run at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. It deserves an after-life and will, hopefully, come to a theatre near you.

The four women in the play show their fangs as well as their gentler qualities. May is the central character, a pretty wife and mother, who wants to do everything the 'right' way. But there is a part of her yearning to break free of her self-imposed, safe existence. She invites a new resident, Sophie, into her apartment and is drawn to her love of art and music, her European view of the world.

Then we have May's neighbor Alice, easily shocked and offended by anything beyond the status quo. That leaves Billie, a married but independent woman who runs her own business. She's not afraid of the hard sell, but her emotions are continually on edge. In the long run, she challenges May and forces her to acknowledge depths she had denied.

The crux of the matter, and a searing revelation, is playwright Alan Brody's ability to show how a few generalizations can lead to distortion and cruelty.

The cast in the small, 65-seat theater is superb. Phoenix Vaughn gives May the innocence and excitement of someone just reaching out for life. Natalie Mosco is stunning as Sophie Birnbaum, a Jewish immigrant who had been a concert pianist in Europe. She has lost much, yet fully understands what these young housewives are going through.

Corey Tazmania as Billie Friedhoff demonstrates the hurt and anguish of someone who riles against the constrictions of accepted behavior.

Wendy Peace, as Alice Cohen, has the least sympathetic, and least complex, role. Yet the contrast is startling, as she refuses to acknowledge change among her friends.

This play, directed by SuzAnne Barabas, is fascinating on every level. The title is taken from a Vermeer painting of four Dutch housewives in the 17th century. A simple sheet on a clothesline, at the beginning and end, becomes the background for an image of the painting, implying that life was just as complex in earlier centuries as it is today.

Quinn K. Stone's scenic design and Jessica Parks' properties are a trip in nostalgia themselves, with a real sense of a 1940s kitchen, from the gas stove to the sink with spigots, open shelves for dishes...and none of the sleek appliances that came along later or for those who were wealthy enough to afford them. Music and sound design by Merek Royce Press bring back those big band melodies of the era. Costumes by Patricia E. Doherty reflect the period, right down to the hats, gloves and seamed stockings. Jill Nagle's lighting enhances the late night scene between Billie and May and provides smooth transitions from scene to scene.

And for those who haven't ventured to Long Branch in recent years, the excursion makes for a lovely day of boardwalks, restaurants and Pier Village shops.


Solid Drama In Long Branch
"The Housewives of Mannheim" at New Jersey Rep

Corey Tasmania (left), Wendy Peace, Pheonix Vaughn and Natalie Mosco, (seated) are the Housewives of Mannheim at New Jersey Repertory Company.

 

For the cover art of Alan Brody's The Housewives of Mannheim at New Jersey Repertory Company, some skilled techie digitally blended four Jan Vermeer paintings of different women into a single image that captures 17th Century Dutch housewifery. Brody's play does the same for four apartment-neighbor women in Brooklyn in 1944.

Housewives covers a multitude of topics, but it's not scattershot. Its themes of loneliness, frustration, tolerance and love are all distinct, but each influences the others. It's the same with the women. They could not be more different from one another, nor could they mesh more smoothly, both characters and actors. May Black (Pheonix Vaughn) is the play's center; how Alice Cohen (Wendy Peace), Billie Friedhoff (Corey Tazmania) and Sophie Birnbaum (Natalie Mosco) behave toward her - and vice versa - makes for a solid drama. (Not without its share of laughs, I might add.)

May and Alice's husbands are away at war; Billie's is at home, but is "missing the part of the brain that sustains human conversation." May is a restless beauty who is torn between enjoying her independence and pining for her husband's return; Alice is an openly nosy gossiper; Billie is the brash potty-mouth stuck in an empty marriage. Into their comfort zone pops Sophie, a widowed refugee from Nazi-dominated Eastern Europe, whose experience and outlook have a profound effect on May and the others.

Brody's play succeeds on two levels. The story line holds interest throughout, and the relationships elevate the play well above soap opera. Under SuzAnne Barabas's finely tuned direction, the production gives equal weight to both components. She and her cast are under the skin of these housewives. (And Quinn Stone's set, May's kitchen, could not be more realistic.)

The women change - grow - in the course of the play, and it is remarkable what the actors accomplish in the two-hour two acts. Rising like a phoenix from the vapid Cupid and Psyche, Vaughn is a marvel. Pulling off the line "I'm a beautiful woman" without alienating at least half the audience is a feat in itself. It's true of the actress, no question, but via her sensitive interpretation, May Black is even more beautiful than Pheonix Vaughn.

There's a lot more to Billie than her brassy exterior, and Ms. Tazmania lets us in on it all. Her performance is every bit as layered as her character. Newcomer Sophie is guarded at first, but May wins her over. Playing the refugee's gradual thaw from remote coolness to open-hearted warmth, Ms. Mosco wins over the audience as well. Alice resists change, but as craftily acted by Ms. Peace, sympathetic qualities peek through the rigid-minded busybody, indicating that Alice will eventually make peace.

Brody's play is not perfect, of course. (Is any?) There are a few lapses into melodrama, and the final scene wraps everything up too easily. Also, equating some of the women's behavior toward one another to the Holocaust diminishes the horror in Sophie's past and diverts attention from emotional aspects, which we all share, to physical ones, which we can only imagine. The comparison would be better implied than stated.

What is implied as well as revealed (and so well acted) about the four housewives of Brooklyn brings them up close and personal - to one another and to the audience. Did I mention that this is the play's World Premiere? Good for NJ Rep.


The Housewives of Mannheim

Review by Bob Rendell, Talkin' Broadway
 
The Housewives of Manheim
It is early spring, 1944, and we are in a kitchen in an apartment house on Kings Highway in a middle-class Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn. It is in the apartment of May Black. Here she schmoozes with her two long-time friends who also live in the building. Each of these thirty-ish women is very different from the other. Billie Friedhoff is a bit hoydenish; she buys and sells on the black market and is sometimes given to vulgar, straight-forward speech. Alice Cohen is a judgmental, self-appointed, moralist busybody. It is the warm, easygoing, not given to self examination, May who is at the center of this tripartite relationship. All are married, with May and Alice's husbands in the army overseas, and Billie's dentist husband, whom she despises, at home ... As The Housewives of Mannheim begins, Sophie Birnbaum, a 60-year-old concert pianist who had escaped Europe and lived with her artist husband in Connecticut until his recent death, is in the process of moving into the building. May is on the verge of expanding her intellectual horizons, having recently taken an interest in the paintings of Vermeer. Sophie will be drawn to her in a maternal way and encourage her to further educate herself.

With Glenn Miller's recording of "It's Make Believe Ballroom Time" leading off a hit parade of World War II popular music, references to contests for recipes and advertising slogans, food ration books and the black market, and war bonds, it seems that we are in for homey, nostalgic memories of the homefront in Brooklyn during World War II. As things turn out, this could not be further from the truth.

On a mundane, prosaic level, the central subject that will emerge in The Housewives of Mannheim is the female version of what Oscar Wilde's Lord Alfred Douglas called "The love that dare not speak its name". However, on a deeper and more exalted level, author Alan Brody has delivered a powerful play which, in a fully fleshed out, unpedantic, and dramatically satisfying manner, examines such matters as unexamined lives, personal growth, loyalty, friendship, prejudice, gender discrimination, self acceptance and education. Not to say that it is small potatoes to write a play which strongly arouses the viewer's empathy for those who had (and still have) to hide their sexual identities to survive among their family and friends. Author Brody is a professor at M.I.T. where he is the Associate Provost for the Arts.

Guided by the splendid, unobtrusive direction of SuzAnne Barabas, the four women are vividly brought to life. Natalie Mosco brings out enourmous depth and dimension in the newly arrived Sophie. The beauty, dignity and heartbreak brought Mosco brings to this role is quite rare. Corey Tazmania embraces the harsh edges and mannishness that author Brody has provided for the closeted and needy Billie, and makes us truly care for Billie's bruised soul. Pheonix Vaughn subtly conveys the turmoil which May is experiencing while maintaining, in so far as she is able, the mild, compromising persona that is being reduced to a façade. Wendy Peace does a fine job in bringing out the reality and humanity of Alice, the most ridiculed and least dimensional of the women.

Quinn Stone's richly detailed set and Patricia E. Doherty's period costumes contribute strongly to the production's feel for time and place.

The play's title comes from a composite "fictional" 17th century attributed here to Vermeer. It actually features paintings of four Dutch women "lifted" from four separate Vermeer paintings. These women appear to be living cloistered lives which would make it impossible for them to contemplate the relatively larger scope for growth which later generations of women would have. Unlike them, May wants to be able to contemplate the increasing freedoms which would be available to generations of women yet to come.

This world premiere production of The Housewives of Mannheim clearly demonstrates the importance of the New Jersey Repertory Theatre. It is outstanding


Women stretch limits in a wartime drama 'The Housewives of Mannheim'

by Peter Filichia/The Star-Ledger
Monday April 27, 2009, 12:06 PM

 


Pheonix Vaughn and Corey Tazmania perform a scene from Alan Brody's "The Housewives of Mannheim" at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. The play is set in the early 1940s.

The Housewives of Mannheim. Where: New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch. When: Through May 17. Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 3 and 8 p.m. Sunday at 2 p.m. How much: $40. Call (732) 229-3166 or visit njrep.org.


 

 
Novelist Ira Levin wrote "The Stepford Wives" in 1972, but playwright Alan Brody is here to remind us that subservient spouses existed long before that.

In "The Housewives of Mannheim," his incisive new play presented at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, Brody takes us back to the early 1940s, when wives not only "knew their place," but thought they felt comfortable in it. When the lights come up on May Black, note the satisfied smile she has on her face as she folds the laundry.

May's husband is overseas at war, and though she must tend to their son, Bobby, she now has more time to spend on herself, the most since she was wed. She's surprised how good this semi-freedom feels, and even dares ask her neighbor, Alice Cohen, "Don't you find yourself happy to be on your own?"

Alice has no idea what she's talking about.

However, another housewife, Billie Friedhoff, does. Billie has started her own black market business -- "a career, not a job," she stresses. May doesn't disapprove, but she can't understand why Billie doesn't want children. Doesn't everyone?

Billie is more interested in encouraging May to become her own person, but a Vermeer painting turns out to have a greater influence. May would have enjoyed it even more had she not felt so ashamed for going to a museum on a weekday. Nevertheless, the painting has allowed her to see life in a new way.

May will get many more chances to question her life -- whether she wants to or not. Sophie Birnbaum, a Viennese Jew who emigrated to America, becomes a new neighbor and another new catalyst. Until now, May has only assessed herself through her great beauty that made her quite the catch. As Sophie tells her, "People think that someone beautiful cannot do anything else."

In fact, Pheonix (yes, that's how it's spelled: Pheonix) Vaughn can do substantially more than just be beautiful. She turns in a stunning performance. No matter how much Brody's character vacillates, Vaughn beautifully maneuvers each twist and turn. Watch as she dares to feel good about herself, and then almost immediately feels bad for feeling good. Vaughn must also get through such tricky lines as, "I can't go around thinking all the time" and "I'm just a housewife." Delivered by a lesser actress, they could come across as trite and laughable. Not here. Only the hardest-hearted theatergoer won't be moved when Vaughn says them.

Given that Alice is the most satisfied of the bunch, Wendy Peace has the least interesting role, so give credit to the actress for getting us to pay attention to her. Far more compelling are Billie and Sophie, and director SuzAnne Barabas, who's staged the show with sensitivity and style and has found two excellent actresses to play the parts.

Corey Tazmania enjoys portraying the foul-mouthed, utterly unconventional Billie. But the character has her problems, too, and Tazmania does splendidly when she reveals them in a powerful second-act monologue.

Natalie Mosco excels as Sophie, who was born much too early for the concept of "tough love," but delivers a good deal of it to May. Mosco's best moment comes when she pulls herself up and says to May, "You cannot expect me to clap every time you have an idea."

We, though, can applaud Brody for the ideas he's given in "The Housewives of Mannheim."


A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
The Housewives of Mannheim


A couple of weeks ago Dorothy and Dick had this man from the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the radio and he was telling how they had just gotten this famous painting of these Dutch women by this painter, Vermeer. It's called "The Housewives of Mannheim" and Dorothy was describing how you could see the way life was back then just from this painting. And I was so impressed I went to see it. — May


Corey Tazmania, Pheonix Vaughn, Wendy Peace and Natalie Mosco
Look carefully at the four women in the mock Jan Vermeer painting projected at the beginning and end of Alan Brody's "memory play" The Housewives of Mannheim and you will undoubtedly recognize at least two them: The Milk Maid and Young Woman with a Water Jug. They have been as cleverly and significantly integrated as are the women who congregate and commiserate in May Black's kitchen in 1944.

As beautifully realized in its realistic dramatic composition as it is in the inventive conceit of the painting, this play, now having its world premiere, revolves around the changing and evolving relationships of four Jewish women, all of whom live in the same working-class Brooklyn apartment building. Far be it from me to gush, but just being in the company of these four deeply affecting characters proved to be one of the more memorable evenings of the New Jersey theatre season.

Both May (Phoenix Vaughn), a wide-eyed blonde beauty, and Alice Cohen (Wendy Peace), the neighborhood busy-body, have husbands overseas fighting the Nazis. Billie Friedhoff (Corey Tazmania) is married to a dentist but their marriage is an unhappy one. Billie has, out of desperation, become entrepreneurial and sells linens from her home. She keeps the gals amused with her crude language and her "bohemian" streak. Billie and May each have a son of grade-school age, although it is May's son whose memories and recollections are evidently those of Brody, the playwright. Brody's gift for making the talk among the women ring with an uncanny truthful resonance is more than commendable; it's a grand achievement.

When a new tenant, Sophie Birnbaum (Natalie Mosco), an elegant-looking German widow and former concert pianist, moves into their building their shared, long-standing camaraderie is suddenly strained and put to the test. Sophie has escaped the Holocaust, and is at first reluctant to tell the women the truth of what is going on in Europe. However, her aura of sophistication and her European inclination for "ceremonies" intrigues May who feels the rumblings of something within her that makes her want to enrich herself and reach beyond her insular predictable life. It is the Vermeer painting she sees that prompts her to consider going to college and studying art.

The play, that begins with the women amusingly dealing with such every-day issues as rationing and shopping for bargains at Waldbaum's and Loehmann's, soon evolves into deeper intellectual, sexual and psychological territory that plays havoc with them as individuals and as a group. The actors, under the excellent direction of SuzAnne Barabas, have done a lovely job of recreating the attitudes, temperaments and the cultural specificity for the times. Vaughn is splendid as May, whose deep-seated yearnings ("something's happening inside me") and unresolved life result in conflicted signals to her best friend Billie.

Tazmania is heart-breaking as Billie, who is cruelly victimized when her true feelings are revealed. Peace is amusing as Alice, who spends as much time collecting labels off soup cans and entering contests as she does being judgmental. As the worldly Sophie, Mosco creates an indelible impression as a survivor who maintains her grace under fire, but mainly serving as a catalyst for these women, as they learn to be open and receptive to what they may not always understand.

The authenticity and meticulous detail that has gone into the scenic design by Quinn Stone deserves praise. The old stove with a pilot that is lit with matches, the vintage pots and pans, radio, tea kettle, the sink on legs, may seem almost obligatory. In this play, they contribute to a reality that reflects these meaningfully realized lives in a very real time. The costumes by Patricia E. Doherty are also period-perfect delights.

The Housewives of Mannhanm (taken from an article in the New Jersey Jewish News) has been a recipient of a number of awards including the Rosenthal Award in 1989 and the 1990 Eisner Award from the Streisand Center for Jewish Culture. It was also cited as Best Play at the Harvest Festival of Plays and subsequently won the Reva Shiner Award at the Bloomington Playwrights Conference. Housewives of Mannheim is the first of a trilogy in progress (and the first to be produced).

If ever a new play deserved a long and prosperous life, this is the one. For whatever my word is worth, it would be a splendid addition to the Manhattan Theatre Club season. It deservedly won cheers from the audience at the performance I attended and its run has already been extended twice.

NJ Rep premieres "Housewives"

Great group of women assembles at NJ Rep

By TOM CHESEK • Correspondent, Asbury Park Press • April 17, 2009

As Alan Brody sees it, it is possible for a man to be able to write some great roles for women.

"When you're a child, you're around your mother, and probably other women as well," explains the author whose play "The Housewives of Mannheim" sees its world premiere this weekend at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

"At that age, you're not socialized to not see things — you see the relationships between women in a different way than you might when you're an adult."

While the playwright and professor concedes that the turn of the new century has seen some changes in regard to family dynamics and gender roles, it's his own childhood during the Second World War that serves as the inspiration for "Housewives." It's a "memory play" that draws from the people and events of a time that he describes as "a goldmine for me."

Set in 1944 Brooklyn, the ensemble comedy-drama — the first of a work-in-progress series called the Victory Blues Trilogy — takes place at a time "just on the cusp of when the men started coming home from the war," according to Brody.

As neighbors in an apartment building, May, Alice and Billie are part of an insular little world in which everyone knows everyone else — as well as everyone else's business. As bored beauty May and self-righteous gossip Alice count off the days until their husbands return home, Billie attempts to further her family's lot by starting a small business out of her home.

While life on the wartime homefront seems to exist in a sort of stasis for these housewives, the appearance of new neighbor Sophie — an older, more worldly woman and a war refugee from Europe — throws their small society for a loop. The "delicate equilibrium" of their routine is jeopardized, and their eyes are opened to the horrors that exist in the war-torn world beyond their building.

NJ Rep artistic director SuzAnne Barabas directs a four-woman cast divided between Rep veterans: Corey Tazmania (who co-starred in "A Child's Guide to Innocence") and Pheonix Vaughn (the stunning Psyche of last winter's musical "Cupid and Psyche"), as well as newcomers Natalie Mosco and Wendy Peace.

A professor of theater at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Brody came to the famed science and engineering school more than 20 years ago to assist in the development of a drama curriculum.

"They needed to build up the humanities and arts there," says Brody of his responsibilities at MIT. "It's designed to introduce scientists to what it's like to be in the world as an artist."

The veteran academic, who confesses to be "still trying to figure out how to get young people into the theater," has nothing but praise for the Shore-based company that's developed and produced this personally significant work.

"This place is one of the few that can do a reading of a new work and then follow through each step of the way to a finished production," Brody says of the entity founded by SuzAnne and Gabe Barabas. "Their commitment to new plays, and to good writing, is terrific."


THE REAL ‘HOUSEWIVES’ OF 1944, Red Bank Orbit

Disparate Housewives: Corey Tazmania, Pheonix Vaughn, Wendy Peace and Natalie Mosco star in THE HOUSEWIVES OF MANNHEIM, the play by Alan Brody making its world premiere on the stage of New Jersey Repertory Company this weekend.

By TOM CHESEK

Brooklyn, 1944. A time of ration cards and shortages. A life that centered around radio programs and Waldbaum’s and waiting for the men in your world to maybe make it home from the war. Even the big-league talent pool was so diluted that the St. Louis Browns actually won the pennant, for the first and only time.

For the bored bombshell May (Phoenix Vaughn), the building busybody Alice (Corey Tazmania) and the budding businesswoman Billie (Wendy Peace), a more or less orderly existence is about to be shaken up by a new arrival to the apartment house — Sophie (Natalie Mosco), an older, more sophisticated refugee from the turmoil of the European front.

That the self-contained world of the building surely gets shaken to its foundation probably goes without saying, as The Housewives of Mannheim captures that moment when a couple of faraway wars forced every American household to adapt — and the first tricklings of returning servicemen came home to households that, in many cases, had been irrevocably changed.

Such is the setting for Alan Brody’s ensemble comedy-drama, a “memory play” that makes its world premiere this week at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. It’s directed by company co-founder SuzAnne Barabas, and it presents an all-female cast equally divided between a pair of NJ Rep veterans (Ms. Vaughn you might recall as the gorgeous mortal half of the recent musical Cupid and Psyche) and a couple of players making their mainstage debuts on the Shore stage.

Brody, by day a professor at MIT — a school not generally known as a training ground for the dramatic arts — dropped in at Long Branch during an electrically hectic week of rehearsal. Red Bank oRBit was there to catch him.

MIT professor and playwright Alan Brody has been dropping by Long Branch to look in on SuzAnne Barabas’s realization of his HOUSEWIVES OF MANNHEIM.

RED BANK ORBIT: At first glance, your play fits into what I guess we could call the STEEL MAGNOLIAS syndrome, in which a male playwright scripts a play with an all-female cast. Were you confident going into this project that you could get a convincing grip on the ways that women talk and interact with each other?

ALAN BRODY: I was willing to take that risk. It’s possible for men to write great roles for women, since when you’re a child you’re around your mother, and probably other women as well. At that age, you’re not socialized to not see things — you see the relationships between women in a different way than you might when you’re an adult.

Supposedly things have changed — I’m not sure how much they have — but this is certainly true of my generation. This play is a memory play; set in a time that’s been a real goldmine for me — the period when I was between six and twelve, thirteen years old. So I ended up trusting my ear.

The character of Billie is my best friend’s mother. I adored her; I always wanted to capture her — and here I found a structure that would make her happen on stage. She’s an energy source here.

With the understanding that the second world war worked its way into every aspect of American life, how big a role does it play here?  

Well, this play is the first in what I call the Victory Blues Trilogy — there’s this one, then all the characters are in the one called Victory Blues, where the men come home from the war. And then the latest project is called Are You Popular?  — it’s got all the characters from the second play plus three more, and it’s about what happens to these couples when they move to the suburbs.

In Housewives of Mannheim, which is the only one of the three plays to be produced so far, I deal with the underlying sense of fear that comes from the war taking place overseas. The roots of all that’s happening now; the seeds of everything we’ve known were planted back then. We won the war, we believed we were invincible — we still do, really; there’s that mindset at work.

I guess that’s something you’ve probably discussed many times with your young students. Tell me about your work at MIT — I wasn’t even aware they had theater professors there! 

They brought me there to start a theater program; they needed to build up the humanities and arts there at MIT. The thinking is, it’s designed to introduce scientists to what it’s like to be in the world as artists. 

Have any of your students caught the theater bug from you and ditched the career in science and tech? 

If they have, I’d consider those to be my failures! It’s the ones who are able to practice their work, and to get that perspective that the arts programs provide, who get the most out of the program. On the faculty we have an understanding of what our mission is; we’ve been able to put together a great curriculum that’s meaningful to the students.

I still love teaching; it feeds my writing. And it feeds me — in order to be able to write what I want to write, I need the job. It’s the only way because you can’t make a living as a playwright. You can only make a ‘killing!’

Not to get all these-kids-today on you, but there’s as big a generational divide now in the ways that we communicate, as there’s ever been. What are some ways in which that works its way into your exchanges with students? Do they speak to you differently; do they write differently than you’ve been used to seeing in the past?

What’s peculiar to MIT, I guess, is that they’re all writing science fiction! Their language of metaphor — it’s a way of avoiding being emotionally involved sometimes. But at the same time there’s an expectation that everything has to have an interactive element to it.

The sense of structure has become very fragmented — whether by MTV, the internet, that sense of the unit is very different now. It’s hard to get students to understand the pleasure of sustaining a scene.

Yet when you look at some of the filmmakers with younger followings, who came up in the 1990s — Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino are good examples — these guys are all about the long, sustained scene. So much of their screenplays are lengthy conversations, and you stick with them because they’re often so much more interesting than a tired-looking action sequence. 

I suppose what I’m saying is that generationally there’s a different sense of literacy — we are all very literate people in our way. I remember when I was a young turk, telling myself that when I get old, I’m not going to be as closed-minded as the old folks were then. And now I look at my students and I realize that there’s an entirely different sky they live under than mine.

You’re certainly not the only person who’s grappling with the question of how to get younger audiences to come to the theater. 

We’re all still trying to figure that out. I suppose that one way to do it is to have that sort of commitment to new plays, like they do here. This place, New Jersey Rep, is one of the few that can do a reading of a new work and then follow through each step of the way to a finished production. Their commitment to good writing is terrific. To develop a new generation of theatergoers, we need to give them a sense of that commitment. And we need to make it all look easy!


ZAZZI, ZAYD AND ONE ‘SICK’ COMEDY

Germ of an idea: Zayd Dohrn is the author of SICK, the dark comedy making its bow on the stage of New Jersey Repertory Company this weekend.

By all accounts, Zayd Dohrn has acquitted himself well in the role of family guy. 

The 31-year old writer and educator, a faculty member at both Columbia University and The Juilliard School, has set up house with his wife, actress and teacher Rachel DeWoskin, and their two young children. Other than the fact that Mom was once the star of a wildly successful Chinese soap opera, there’s nothing unusual to see here; move along. 

But introduce the topic of Dohrn’s parents, and you’ll get not just a nod to the values they instilled in their oldest child, but a couple of disclaimers to the effect that he’s “always been more about art than about activism,” and that he and his father have “different priorities…different outlooks.”

Such is life as the son of 1960s Weather Underground members Bernardine Dohrn and William Ayers — the same Bill Ayers who became a human talking point of the slightly surreal 2008 presidential campaign. Young Zayd, whose namesake was the Black Liberation Army member (and Tupac uncle) Zayd Shakur, lived his first few years “hiding in plain sight” in Harlem with his parents, then wanted by the FBI in connection with a 1970 bomb blast. 

Although his father was never tried, Dohrn watched his mother go off to prison for a year when he was six — and his relatively low-key persona belies a man who’s spent his days in close proximity to people of fame and notoriety.

Family figures prominently in Sick, the play by Dohrn that debuts this week at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, as part of National New Play Network “rolling premiere” event. It’s a portrait of the Krebs family, a college professor and his brood who live in fear of germs and disease, and who isolate themselves within a sterile environment of plastic sheeting and air filters. When a grad student comes to visit from the outside world, complications ensue in ways that bring to mind everything from The Glass Menagerie to You Can’t Take It With You.

Described by its author as “darkly funny, but not comic throughout,” and directed by Benjamin E. Klein, the play puts forth a cast that features four actors (Meredith Napolitano, Rusty Ross, Kevin Sebastian and Jim Shankman) who are being seen on the NJ Rep mainstage for the first time — along with a genuine Rep regular.

Featured as the matriarch of the Krebs clan, Liz Zazzi assumes her place as the dame of the unofficial stock company, adding to a winning streak of characters that include recent co-starring runs in Women Who Steal and (as the goddess Venus) the mythbusting musical Cupid and Psyche.

Praising the actress as a “truly amazing” performer who “grounds the play in a nice reality,” Dohrn explains that the script (which was composed in Beijing in the wake of Asia’s SARS epidemic) can be construed as a metaphor for the ways that people tend to “protect themselves from upsetting trends” and block out troublesome ideas from their lives.

Minutes after we spoke to Dohrn, Red Bank oRBit conducted a Q&A with Liz Zazzi on Sick and her many other projects on the NJ Rep stage. Continue Reading for the dirt.

Liz Zazzi, headshot at center, is pictured in her past NJ Rep productions (clockwise from top left) LOVE AND MURDER, WOMEN WHO STEAL, CUPID AND PSYCHE and THE ADJUSTMENT.

RED BANK ORBIT: It’s been quite a whirlwind for you lately; going from Venus in the one show while prepping for Sick

LIZ ZAZZI: I literally had one day off between the two shows. It was a bit of an overload for me, but every actor should be so lucky, right? As an actor it’s a great gift to be able to work in a place like this.

And have you been staying at the NJ Rep house in town while you’ve been working on these projects?

No, my husband, Gary Martins and I live in Montclair — he also acts, and he holds down a real job. But last year we bought a little house, just a beach bungalow really, down in what I understand is now called Lake Como. So I stay there for about half the week while I’m appearing in a show in Long Branch.

So did you realize these two shows would be running so close to each other when you went out for them?

Sick was the one that really jumped out at me, and then they added Cupid and Psyche late in the season. I hadn’t sung on stage in quite some time, but I had a great audition song and I thought I’d give it a shot. Plus, in high school I was quite a devotee of mythology.

What was your great audition song?

It’s called “The Jealous Aria,” and it’s something I co-wrote myself, when I was with a stage group called Bad Attitudes. It’s about a woman who can’t cope with her boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend still being in the picture.

Well, you were a standout in the show. You owned the part of Venus.

Thank you. I had so much interaction with the audience in that show — I deviated from the script here and there, and with the intimacy of New Jersey Rep you’re literally right on top of the audience; that fourth wall is completely broken.

What was your first show for NJ Rep? Was it The Adjustment, where I first saw you?

No, my first was The Girl with the High Rouge, from one of their first seasons. That was a strange, almost epic piece — they built a boat; a full-length boat that stretched from where the stage usually was right over to the tech booth. They arranged the audience on either side, and we had all kinds of hatches and doors so that we could go beneath the stage. If only they could do the show now — people didn’t know what to think of it at the time.

After that was Naked by the River, a wonderful romantic comedy by Mike Folie. Then The Adjustment, Love and Murder, Women Who Steal and Cupid and Psyche.

You did Tour De Farce, where you and Ames Adamson each played five different parts — only you didn’t do it here!

That was exhausting. But in a good way.

And now you’re cast in another unusual ensemble piece, in the role of the matriarch. It’s a play that Zayd Dohrn told me was darkly funny, and not comic throughout…

There’s plenty to laugh at here, but it’s also going to provoke you. It’s not slapstick, and it’s not high tragedy — I’d certainly call it dark comedy, black comedy. And at the heart of the comedy there’s food for thought; something that you could take away from it.

There seems to be kind of an Addams Family vibe here; a family that creates their own insular little world inside their home and has trouble dealing with the world at large. 

There’s a dynamic in this family — the things they say to each other seem almost hurtful, but that’s just how they relate to each other. I don’t think there’s a villain in this piece — at the heart of it are two parents who deeply care about their children. So there’s a sense that this is a loving home, with something ‘off’ about the way they live. There’s a certain paranoia to what my character perceives as being harmful to her children.

You could say that about Venus, also; trying to shield her son Cupid from those mortal temptations.

My maternal instincts absolutely kick in for Sick. Two of the actors in the show are young enough to be my kids, so I definitely ‘get my mother fix’ here.

Although you’re not a mom in real life?

You just need to tell the truth about who that person is that you’re playing. Comedy comes from truth — it comes from the richness of the character and their relationships. Our director, Benjamin Klein makes sure we have these rich relationships established for the characters we play.

It’s interesting to hear this kind of theory from you; you’re obviously a thinking person’s actor, and yet a lot of what you do seems to come so effortlessly, although I’m sure you work hard at it. But just tell me you’re having fun up there.

I feel so blessed. How many people do you know that love their job? I get to do something I love — and I get paid for it! How could I possibly complain?


'Sick' at home in Long Branch

To playwright Zayd Dohrn, it's all about the family

By TOM CHESEK • Corresponden, Asbury Park Presst • February 13, 2009


As Zayd Dohrn has explained it, he's always been "more about art than activism," having never been under any particular pressure from his parents to inject political themes into his writings.

photo

Meredith Napolitano, Liz Zazzi and Rusty Ross rehearse a scene from "Sick" at the New Jersey Repertory in Long Branch. BOB BIELK/Staff Photographer

All well and fine, and only anything of a surprise when you consider his parents, the academics Bernardine Dohrn and William Ayers.

Yeah — that Bill Ayers. The man who became a human talking point on a hundred thousand pundit-casts; an issue unto himself (as was the Reverend Wright) in the campaign against Barack Obama, and still likely a blood-boiler for those who can remember back as far as last Labor Day.

When the inevitable elephant-in-the-living-room topic is introduced to the conversation, Dohrn (whose first name was inspired by murdered Black Panther Zayd Shakur) offers that he and his dad "have different priorities, different outlooks."

"I don't know that I ever try to keep up with him," the younger Dohrn says of Ayers, who's just announced his first foray into the medium of the graphic novel. "It's hard enough to keep up with all the media craziness surrounding him."

Dohrn, who lived under assumed identities with his parents in the days when they were both wanted members of the Weather Underground organization, has staked out a more traditional family-man existence for himself, his wife and two young kids — or at least as traditional as can be when Mom's a tremendously popular TV star in China.

It was while residing in Beijing that Dohrn (who teaches these days at Columbia University and The Juilliard School) penned the first draft of his play "Sick," a dark comedy that opens this weekend at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, as part of a National New Play Network "rolling premiere" event.

The family unit figures prominently in "Sick" — specifically the Krebs family, an insular clan whose members are obsessed with germs and cleanliness, to the point of living in isolation within a plastic-sheeted, air-purified environment.

Naturally, the introduction of an outsider (a gentleman caller named Jim, in a nod to "The Glass Menagerie") initiates a set of complications both comic and otherwise.

Benjamin Klein directs a cast of NJ Rep newcomers that includes Meredith Napolitano, Rusty Ross, Kevin Sebastian and Jim Shankman — and, as the family matriarch, the stock company regular Liz Zazzi, star of such memorable Rep productions as "Women Who Steal" and "The Girl with the High Rouge."

"Liz is truly amazing," Dohrn says of the actress who very recently played Venus in the musical "Cupid and Psyche" at NJ Rep. "The play rises and falls on that role, and she grounds it in a nice reality."

While the play was written during the height of the SARS epidemic in Asia, the author allows that the feared germs and impurities could be seen as stand-ins for the introduction of troublesome and unwanted ideas into the household; "the explicit notion that you can protect yourself from upsetting trends in the popular culture."

The playwright, whose other full-length works include "Haymarket" (a historical piece on the 1886 Chicago bombing that invites parallels to the 1970 incident that sent his parents into hiding) and the hippie commune-revisited piece "Magic Forest Farm," sees these days as "scary times for the arts" — an interlude in which many established theaters, seldom on solid ground even in the best of times, are in danger of losing their traditional subscriber base.

"From the creative side, it's important to do shows for younger crowds, but you have to trust in your audience overall," he maintains.

"As long as there are those still making theater and making it well, taking those risks, people will respond to it."


MORE SICK DAYS AT NJ REP (Red Bank Orbit)

If you think there’s nothing doing on a Monday evening, New Jersey Repertory Company has some surprising stuff to send your way. And if you think the subject matter of Zayd Dohrn’s new play SICK is going to push some buttons with the local theatergoing audience, wait till you find out who his mom and dad are.

Honestly, the folks at New Jersey Repertory Company must thrive on danger. How else to explain their mission-statement policy of presenting only new, largely unknown and often controversial works for the stage, when they could have played it safe from the start and packed the house with variations on the Nunsense franchise all year round?

It was just a little more than a year ago that NJ Rep founders Gabe and SuzAnne Barabas found their Long Branch playhouse a lightning rod for a lot of ill will in the local community, courtesy of their production Minstrel Show, or the Lynching of William Brown. Max Sparber’s drama, inspired by an all-too-real horrific incident in 1919 Nebraska, was advertised with posters that featured imagery of blackface performers and lynching nooses, and, well, suffice to say that the promotional campaign was changed by the time opening night rolled around.

In the ten seasons that NJ Rep has been pushing the envelope of what was previously thought viable and permissible on suburban stages, they’ve presented a risque black comedy based upon an actual murder of missionary nuns in South America (Whores), a nostalgia piece set in the golden age of the Times Square porn district (Adult Fiction), and a surreal exercise that featured not just full-frontal male Monty, but an onstage proctological exam for the price of admission (Love and Murder).

It’s not all shock and awe for shock’s sake, of course. In fact, much of what the company has done is more along the lines of sweetness and light — witness the current offering Cupid and Psyche, a fun little musical that continues its run through January 18.

Many of the dozens of mainstage offerings at NJ Rep’s Lumia Theatre trace their origins back to the troupe’s intermittent series of Monday evening script-in-hand readings — a fascinating feature which, as detailed in a story on oRBit a couple of months back, has drawn the participation of some surprising talents.

It’s a series that continues tonight at 7pm with the drama Degage (Disengage), and on January 12 with a first look at a new musical called Stage and Screen. Then in February comes a “green comedy” by the name of Sick, from the pen of Zayd Dohrn — a young playwright whose name may not strike much of a chord with the general public, although a glance at his family tree may raise more than a few eyebrows.

As the son of 1960s Weather Underground members Bernardine Dohrn and William Ayers — yeah, that Bill Ayers — young Zayd spent the first few years of his life on the run from the feds with his famous folks. Now, depending upon whether your cable-news proclivities trend toward the Bill-O or the Keith-O, you may look upon the whole Ayers affair as either the great unaddressed issue of Campaign ‘08 or a complete non-starter. Either way, you’ve got to admit that the timing is tops for this play’s “rolling world premiere,” which rolls into Long Branch on Lincoln’s Birthday.

Both Ayers and Ms. Dohrn have since segued from bomb-tossing radicalism to elbow-patched academia, and in Sick, it’s the way-dysfunctional family of a college professor that hurls the laughs, as a student meets a brood of relatives who are obsessed with cleanliness and environmental disorders, real or imagined. More on Sick in this space as the sickness progresses; in the meantime tickets can be advance ordered right here.