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Al Letson scores more than he misses in one-man 'Sanctuary'

A 'dreadlocked savior' finds Sanctuary at NJ Rep
Mar. 14, 2012
Written by Tom Chesek

NPR radio host, performance poet and playwright Al Letson recaptures a "Summer in Sanctuary," in his solo show now onstage at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. / File photo

As Al Letson tells it, he was "not athletic, or even particularly smart" when he was growing up the son of a Baptist minister in a "paradise" called Plainfield — "but I could talk."

That gift for words, whether on the page or on the stage, would carry the young Letson from a childhood as a dyslexic underachiever, to national Poetry Slam championships and his own series on NPR, "State of the Re:Union." Still, as the performance poet and playwright professes, all his wordsmithing ways could never have prepared him for life in Jacksonville, FL, where he relocated with his family while in his teens.

It was in that northern Florida "annex of Hell" where Letson discovered that his close-knit "Cosby Family" upbringing and "too proper" way of speaking made him an outsider among local kids both black and white — and it was in Jacksonville's poverty-pummeled Springfield neighborhood where the part-time educator spent a "Summer in Sanctuary," the title of the one man show now onstage at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

The real deal

"Sanctuary" in this case is the real-life Sanctuary on 8th Street community center, where the man who sarcastically refers to himself as a "dreadlocked savior" endeavored to teach creative writing to a group of inner city teenagers in 2006. Whether he was ultimately successful or not (Letson appears to believe that he was not) is a subjective thing, shaded by the playwright-performer's peripheral perceptions of the violent "beast" that pushes its tentacles into each young person's life — and of the "fingers of gentrification" that threaten to uproot what fragile sense of community remains on the streets of Springfield.

Performed on a sparsely furnished set over the course of some 90 intermission-free minutes, "Sanctuary" invites comparison to Nilaja Sun's "No Child…," a solo show that enjoyed an extended run at Red Bank's Two River Theater last year. While Sun's similar tour de force (inspired by a semester spent teaching drama to kids in the South Bronx) was a linear story framed with more of an emphasis upon its various female and male characters, Letson shifts between the events of that Sanctuary summer and some significant scenes from his earlier days — his first fight, the football-game humiliation that cost him his first crush, his sobering recollections of a cousin lost to the streets.

Working here with director Rob Urbinati, Letson uses his vocal versatility to delineate such Springfield people as "gentle giant" Alonzo; big-mouthed Little Chris; "queen bee" Danita; unreachable Devon — and Biko, an African immigrant whose reluctant initiation into Springfield's culture of violence and retribution sits at the heart of this often moving solo.

Man in motion

Although an onstage desk brings to mind the works of the late Spalding Gray (whose monologues served as a major inspiration for "Sanctuary"), Letson remains a man in motion throughout; evoking crucial basketball games, chilling street scenes and frustrating classroom sessions with an ear for speech and the easy grace of the athlete he never claimed to be. The action is punctuated with projected stills and video images of the students (a movie project made by The Sanctuary's primary-school kids serves as a cute palate cleanser after some tense interludes), and recorded music is used intermittently (replacing the live DJ used in the show's New York run) — but the effect is ultimately just window dressing for a piece that ultimately draws its simple power from its author's way with words.

The veteran Slam poet, creator of several "Poetical" mash-ups of drama and verse, is at his best in several sequences — a riff on the poetry of basketball; a stylized account of a gun incident; a recognition of the "songs" that reside in all of us — that inject his award-winning performance game into the narrative. Facing the audience one-on-one, Letson dazzles with language, employs moves to keep us off balance, and ultimately scores far more than he misses.

'Summer in Sanctuary': Learning from failure

Published: Thursday, March 15, 2012, 7:41 AM
Al Letson re-examines his life in his one-man show, Summer in Sanctuary
at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

New Jersey has been called many things — but have you ever heard it called "paradise"?

You will at the New Jersey Repertory Company. "It was paradise," Al Letson insists, speaking of his childhood in Plainfield.

"We were the Huxtables, and I was Theo," he says in his arresting one-man show, "Summer in Sanctuary."

Of course, Letson didn't realize how lucky he was until his family had moved to a less desirable neighborhood near Jacksonville, Fla., where the 9-year-old Letson was forced to grow up in a hurry.

"I wanted to fit in," he says, so he turned to his new schoolmates with this request: "Teach me how." He quickly learned that just having black skin did not automatically endear him to his African-American classmates.

His youthful struggles make up the first third of his 90-minute presentation. (The N-word is used liberally.)

But this is no doleful lecture. As Letson goes on to high school and beyond, there's much fun to be had in hearing about his misadventures on the school's gridiron.

In addition to dabbling in sports, Letson becomes a poet — and after he makes a particularly dramatic recitation, he is approached by the director of the neighborhood settlement house known as The Sanctuary.

She asks him to work with the kids there, and he, with the best of intentions, agrees to spend a summer with 150 underprivileged youths.

He expected to become "the Dreadlocked Savior of 8th Street," he recalls — but what he encounters puts a few gray hairs among those dreadlocks.

Every day turns out to have an unexpected challenge, teaching him to unleash some pre-emptive strikes. "Every day, I have to win," he admits. "Or else I lose."

When he urged the kids to write, one girl flatly proclaimed, "I don't write." Letson, who expertly adopts the voices of the many young people that he taught, conveys that lass' haughty attitude that writing is beneath her.

While getting kids to put pen to paper during the school year is murderously hard, asking them to come up with poems and compositions during the summer strikes them as punishment.

He tries to relate to them through music.

How out of touch he is with music the kids enjoy makes for some hilarious confrontations.

Letson's efforts do not result in unmitigated success. Nevertheless, he proves a point that many in power need to hear again: The arts can empower kids and give them self-esteem.

While Letson doesn't promise that arts education will be a panacea — "You can't save everyone," he admits — the strengths and assets of such programs are well-detailed. At Sunday's matinee, Letson held the audience spellbound. Such remarks as "There's no turning the other cheek when someone already has a bruised face" received grunts of agreement from many.

But it was the rapt silence the crowd maintained for most of the afternoon that underlined how vivid a picture Letson was painting. reviews

Summer in Sanctuary
reviewed by Nita Congress

March 8, 2012

At its best, theatre takes you out of yourself. At its best, theatre takes you to a different place. At its best, theatre leaves you ennobled, enriched, enlightened.

Summer in Sanctuary is theatre at its best.

The summer of the title is 2006. The Sanctuary is a community center in a poor black neighborhood in Jacksonville, Florida. And the playwright before us, performance poet Al Letson, was there to teach creative writing to day camp kids.

“We are not the same.”

This statement, made early on, applies to the thirty-something Letson—who grew up the son of a pastor in what he remembers as a Cosby Showchildhood “when things made more sense than they do now,” a dyslexic who fell in love with words—as he confronts these hard, sad, tough, embattled, embittered, bewildered and bewildering children of poverty, crime, drugs, and marginalization.

Letson explains “I have to win.” Win their hearts and minds, teach them, reach them.

But as the ninety-minute odyssey he takes us on vividly shows, it isn’t as easy as Hilary Swank or Sidney Poitier make it out to be. Letson achingly confesses that he soon became “so tired of trying to help people who didn’t want to be helped.”

And does he try. Letson shows us how he used every tool, every trick, every angle to get to these kids: writing, talking, lecturing, admonishing, wheedling. And when those failed: basketball. Music. Video. A handshake. And a wild road trip. And love. And love. And love.

And he shows us those kids, effortlessly becoming the naïf Biko, the inscrutable Devon, the ultimate mean girl Danita. We watch transfixed as Letson takes us through innumerable shifts in time and personality.

And as we watch, we find out how we are all the same. How acceptance and tolerance and compassion and understanding and love can and do break down barriers.

Letson is a spellbinding storyteller, and when he segues into poetry, he is even better (see more of his work at His basketball poem literally soars, with its hip-hop rhythms and transcendent imagery. There are wondrous places this piece goes, in wondrous ways. Letson freezes and stops time to flash back to illustrative points in his past, then picks the action back up in the “present” in a manner that is nothing short of incredible.

And, as always, New Jersey Rep shines too, with Jessica Parks, Jill Nagle, and Patricia E. Doherty turning in solid and supportive scenic, lighting, and costume design work, respectively. Director Rob Urbinati keeps the show flowing seamlessly, steadily focusing on Letson and his magic.

Magic and wonder aside, Letson doesn’t believe he succeeded with these kids. And whether that’s true or not, the problems—and they are very big problems, of poverty, of racism, of access, of inequality—still exist. There in Sanctuary, as well as here, and throughout the United States. The gaping hole in these children is not easily filled.

But one way to start filling that hole is to bring them to this piece, and to the message of hope and healing that Al Letson so sincerely offers up.

A CurtainUp New Jersey Review

Summer in Sanctuary

The playroom has the distinct odor of feet, with a dash of sweat for good measure, and the bathrooms smell like, well like public bathrooms. You get the picture. And then there's the homework room where I teach a class on creative writing-and this room has it's own scent. And no matter how many times I'm here, I can never remember what it reminds me of. — Al

Al Letson

Al Letson's solo-play is not dissimilar from the raconteur style and informal format that defined the monologues of Spalding Gray (an acknowledged inspiration.) Gracing and embellishing an emotionally impacting real-life experience with poetry, rap and videos, as well as with exuberant demonstrations of hip body-language, the casually-dressed, good-looking Letson demonstrates with Summer in Sanctuary that he knows how to not only make words sing but also make them resonate with honest conviction. Although it is a rather sad dramatic song that he has written/composed to chronicle his unsettling, marginally effective experience working at a summer camp for disadvantaged children, it is also a realistic consideration of the difficulty that many outsiders have to make a difference to those who may have no idea that a difference is an option.

Letson was decidedly the outsider when, in 2006, he accepted an offer to teach creative writing at a community center in the economically challenged Jacksonville Florida neighborhood of Springfield. Just as the children, mostly young adults, were challenged to survive in an almost constantly life-threatening black ghetto, Letson was challenged to implant a love of words in his charges.

As the son of a Baptist minister, Letson was determined to bridge the educational, social and economic divide that separated him from the unreceptive students. Discouraged but not a quitter. He gives us a dramatic blow-by-blow account of a tumultuous summer in which his efforts are thwarted at every turn. A breakthrough occured during an unexpected encounter with the police while on a road trip with his supervisor and a group of students on Route 95 North. Not being a plot spoiler, I won't divulge what it is that Letson unexpectedly discovers and what it is that sparks in the students' a collective enthusiasm.

With Letson's talents, more recently turned towards playwriting and as host of the National Public Radio show State of the Re:Union, he seems to have found a very effective frame for his very individualized performance style, under the direction of Rob Urbinati. The rarely used single stage prop is a desk (a la Gray). He's a stand-up guy who lets his mouth, as well as his hands and feet, drive his concise prose, lyrical digressions, and the many vivid impressions that define his compelling presentation.

What it is about this good-deed-doer (pardon this cliché) who slowly, despite all odds, becomes committed to finding some way to activate the creative urge in his charges who otherwise openly mock, defy, and resent him for his role as a mentor? It doesn't take long to see what it is. While Letson losses little time convincing us that he is a darn good story-teller, focusing on the confrontations he has with the most belligerent students, particularly with one sassy young woman ("What attitude? I have no attitude!").

Often quite funny as he gives many of his students distinct voicse, he is even funnier when recalling his own youth and his lack of skill on the basketball court (unheard of for a black youth). The memory of his first romantic crush is a hoot. First and foremost, Letson always insures that he has the audience firmly in his grasp even with an occasional (unnecessary) aside ("You're normal.") This personable performer needn't worry that we might require more to win us over than his pungently poetic text.

As contender during the 1990s on the slam poetry circuit, Letson's ability to communicate is a given, and the audience at the performance I attended, were with him all the way. One plus for the close rapport with Letson is that he is performing in the 50-seat studio theater, smaller of the two spaces at NJ Rep. Despite Letson's proximity to the audience, lighting designer Jill Nagle works wonders in providing him with exactly the right atmosphere at the right time —often taking on a poetic tract of its own.

NJ Rep produces second show at 59E59 Theaters in Manhattan

New Jersey Repertory Co. takes the stage in Manhattan
Mar. 8, 2012
Written by Tom Chesek

John Little returns to the role of a prominent professor under attack in the New York production of New Jersey Repertory Company's "Poetic License" at 59E59 Theaters. / FILE PHOTO

A few years ago, the Long Branch-based professional stage troupe New Jersey Repertory Company made its first foray onto the New York theater scene, exporting one of its best-received world premiere properties, "The Housewives of Mannheim." Here in 2012, the company that's long made a specialty of focusing on new and original works returns to 59E59 Theaters in Manhattan, with a new production of Jack Canfora's drama "Poetic License" that starts previews Friday night (Feb. 10), opens Feb. 15 and continues through March 4.

First seen in Long Branch in the summer of 2008, "Poetic License" is being presented anew as a partnership between NJ Rep and NYC's Directors Company — with Evan Bergman, who directed the play in its Rep engagement (as well as Canfora's "Jericho," seen at NJ Rep in 2011) working with a cast of four professional players that includes Welsh-born Geraint Wyn Davies, best known for the vampire-cop TV series "Forever Knight."

Set in the household of a prominent academic and author (and a quite-possible appointment to the post of Poet Laureate of the United States), "Poetic License" details the slow-fuse explosion that occurs when Professor John Grier and his wife Diane — a woman who has effectively dedicated every ounce of her being to her husband's success — host a get-together with their adult daughter and her new boyfriend, a young man whose interest in meeting the professor goes far beyond making nice with the parents.

It goes without saying that by the end of Canfora's script — reportedly revised to a considerable extent since the play's premiere at NJ Rep — family skeletons are rattled, dirty laundry is aired, and both the pillar of the community and his supportive spouse find the foundations of their world turned to quicksand. The review that appeared in The Asbury Park Press found it "a play of complex emotions, with no guarantee of closure," and noted that "the cast, tight-lipped and far from exuberant at curtain call, seemed emotionally drained by the experience of wrestling with these deeply unhappy characters."

John Little, who starred as Grier in Long Branch, will be stepping into the role of the patriarch under siege, and the New York cast is completed by Ari Butler, Natalie Kuhn and Liza Vann. The NJ Rep design and tech team of Jessica Parks, Pat Doherty, Jill Nagle and Rose Riccardi lends its talents to the production at the performing arts complex at (as you might have guessed) at 59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison avenues.

NPR's Al Letson finds 'Sanctuary' at New Jersey Repertory

Mar. 8, 2012 Written by Tom Chesek

NPR radio host, poet, playwright and Plainfield native Al Letson recaptures a "Summer in Sanctuary," opening at the New Jersey Repertory in Long Branch. / NJREP

His documentary radio show "State of the Re:Union" is heard nationwide on NPR stations. His prowess as a Poetry Slam champion has gained him exposure in outlets ranging from the 2004 Final Four Pre-Game to cable's "Def Poetry Jam." He is, by most people's estimation, a success.

Al Letson's resumé boasts credits as an actor, playwright, producer and educator. But ask him about his latest play and he'll tell you that it's a work rooted in a sense of failure — a one-man show in which "the bad guy is me…the person named 'Al' is the anti-hero."

Speaking from Jefferson City, Mo., where the "Re:Union" crew is assembling an hourlong episode on the Ozarks, the 39-year-old Letson strikes a candid tone even as he expresses excitement over "Summer in Sanctuary," the solo stage piece that he brings to New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch for an engagement that opens on Saturday, March 10.

In preview Friday, March 9, "Sanctuary" (the title refers to the Sanctuary on 8th Street community center for inner city youth in Jacksonville, Fla.) details the poet's perspective on the three months in 2006 that he spent teaching creative writing to a group of kids from the southern city's Springfield section; a neighborhood wracked by poverty and its effects.

To the Plainfield native who grew up as the son of a Baptist minister in a close-knit family, the Sanctuary experience was "a real eye opener… my life was foreign to them; it became more about my having to learn where these kids were coming from, and understanding how poverty changes everything."

"Rather than think of myself as a dreadlocked Jesus, come to save their poor Negro souls, it helped to realize that I play just one part in a greater machine," says Letson of his students, a majority of whom came from households in which one or both parents were absent. "My job was to open the door of possibility…(their) job was to walk through."

As the playwright explains, it also helps to not expect the sort of neatly wrapped ending served up by such inspirational Hollywood product as "Dangerous Minds" and "Freedom Writers" — scenarios in which "everyone sings 'Kumbaya' at the end and paints a mural on the wall." "In real life, the kids just look at you when you're done like 'So?'…at the end of my time there I felt like I'd failed."

Poetry and song

That feeling of a job left uncompleted spurred Letson to develop "Summer in Sanctuary," an autobiographical piece told through monologue, poetry, song and multimedia and a self-described "poetical." The work joins such previous Letson stage endeavors as "Chalk" (a commissioned piece that examines relational aggression among a group of school-age girls), "Julius X" (an ambitious mash-up of Shakespeare's 'Julius Caesar' with African-American storytelling forms and the life of Malcolm X) and "Crumbs"(a comedy based on the author's experience "working undercover in a bread factory").

Inspired, according to its author, by the work of the late monologist Spalding Gray, "Sanctuary" premiered in Baltimore ("I finished the first draft an hour before I went onstage"), and enjoyed a New York exposure courtesy of Abingdon Theater Company and director Rob Urbinati. Regarding that engagement, Letson says, "By the end of the run I felt really good about it…I'm forcing myself not to fiddle with it anymore!"

Urbinati, who directed NJ Rep's controversial "Minstrel Show: or The Lynching of William Brown" a few seasons back, returns to work with Letson here in the show's Long Branch run, with all performances presented in the playhouse's intimately scaled Second Stage space.

"I still keep in touch with most of the boys I worked with that summer," says Letson, citing the example of an aspiring engineer who "just needed a little help getting there…I like to think I helped each of those kids, and that with loving people in their lives things can happen for them."


"Bakersfield Mist" a Clear Winner

December 6, 2011

The setup is simple enough. Maude Gutman has been led to believe that the painting she bought at a yard sale for three dollars might be a Jackson Pollock original. She sends an inquiry to an Art Foundation, which sends expert art appraiser Lionel Percy to evaluate the painting. The two characters comprise the cast of Bakersfield Mist.

Linda S. Nelson and John FitzGibbon clear up "Bakersfield Mist"

In the 100 minutes of Stephen Sachs's new play at New Jersey Repertory Company, Maude and Lionel discover more about each other – and about themselves – than they do about the painting. (Don't bother skimming down; the verdict isn't revealed here.)

The play is a Network World Premiere, with several scattered theater companies introducing it around the same time. It's difficult to imagine it better directed and acted. That doesn't mean it's perfect, but here its story unfolds naturally, with particulars of plot and character revealed in non-forced exposition. It's a damn interesting play.

Bakersfield is based on a real woman's thrift-store purchase of a painting that mimicked Pollock's "splatter" (or "action" or "drip") technique. The actual case, still undecided, is documented in the film "Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock." But playwright Sachs could just as well be motivated by any number of recent art-origin disputes. (New cases were detailed in the New York Times and the Asbury Park Press – on the very day the play opened.)

Maude (Linda S. Nelson), a woman of imposing girth, lives in a trailer, another superbly detailed, if overly tidy, setting by designer/furnisher Jessica Parks. Maude is unkempt but hardly slovenly…and she's no dummy. Neither is Ms. Nelson, of course, whose performance is spot-on. Her Maude is self-aware and, beneath a deceptively slapdash veneer, shrewd.

Lionel (John FitzGibbon) is Maude's polar opposite (dig their names). He's a sophisticate [pseudo] with social airs [pretentious] and an impressive art-appraisal background [questionable]. Mr. FitzGibbon nails all those qualities, including the ones in brackets. His wavering accent elides over consonants ('aht' for 'art,' for example), but his carriage and attitude are consistent. He's haughty, yes, but not quite snotty.

Two-character plays* are threesomes during rehearsal, with the director an equal partner until the actors bond as a couple. It seems clear that SuzAnne Barabas was very much in the mix and backed off at the appropriate time.

I attended the final preview, but pointing out two blemishes is legitimate criticism: Maude's dialogue is laced with more f-bombs than I heard in the Army. Why do emerging playwrights do that? Easy, because they can. The word can be a powerful device on many levels, but not when it's as commonly spoken as "the" or "and." Second, both characters down enough straight shots of Jack Daniels to put them on the floor. Them getting tipsy serves the narrative, but these two would be in the ER. Both factors detract and distract from an otherwise worthwhile play.

*Years ago, just before opening night of an under-rehearsed "Owl and Pussycat," director Gennaro Montanino gave Barbara Ann Teer and me sage advice. "Remember," he said, "when one of you shuts up, the other one better say something."

A CurtainUp New Jersey Review

Bakersfield Mist

"I gotta thank you. Taking my case. Flying all the way out here. Such an important, busy man. You must have better things to do." — Maude
"You have no idea." — Lionel

Linda S. Nelson and John FitzGibbon (Photo: SuzAnne Barabas)

Stephen Sachs's comedy-drama Bakersfield Mist is an out-of-the-ordinary, almost out-of-the-blue —, but more importantly, outstanding— two-hander. Based on a true story, the play pits Maude Gutman (Linda S. Nelson) a foul-mouthed, out-of-work, boozing bartender and rummage-sale collector against Lionel Percy (John Fitzgibbons) a snobby professional New-York-City-based art historian/connoisseur. Maude, who has remained living alone in the crummy trailer park since being deserted years ago by her husband and the death of their only son, has hopes for a better life.

Obligated to appraise the painting, Lionel is invited into Maude's cluttered living room (a work of cheesy artistrty created by designer Jessica Parks) only to believe after meeting her and looking at her collection of objects d'art that it is Maude who is more off-the-wall than the painting she wants him to validate as a genuine Jackson Pollock. It is clear that Maude has no taste for or knowledge of fine art. Yet, in a moment of folly she purchased what she considered to be a rather ugly painting for three dollars at a backyard sale as a joke on a friend.

Evidently spurred on by the opinion of a local art teacher, Maude now has hopes that the painting might be worth lots of money. She is depending on its authentication to change her life that is currently drowning in a sea of Jack Daniels.

As robustly played by Linda S. Nelson, the determined Maude is certainly no fool and is able to prove herself more than a match for the doubtful and demeaning expert. Lionel is marvelous played by John Fitzgibbon with an air of haughty condescension that goes a long way to make him the perfect target for the determined Maude. Their caustic interaction is a fine example of how two excellent, well-cast actors are able to spar, bait and tackle (literally) each other and also deliver two individually high-stakes performances.

Although the play is largely a verbal contest between a dismissive know-it-all and a desperate go-getter, it does segue into some very physical encounters .It quickly begins to delve deeper into the personal and private issues and losses that have brought Maude and Lionel to this juncture in their lives.

What is most delightful about their contentious battling is how many surprises arise as Lionel's expertise and background in his specialized field is challenged again and again by the no-holds-barred, standing firm resolve that is Maude's forum and her strength. Lionel won't even allow himself to consider the possibility that a genuine Pollock could ever find its way into this woman's home. With his supercilious smugness plastered on his face, Lionel is as determined to prove it a fake as the insistent Maude is to prove it the real thing — with her own evidence.

What also makes Bakersfield Mist so astute is how a potential work of art is used as the vehicle by which two people who couldn't be more different break through the barriers of class consciousness, intellectual prowess, and emotional pain. The laugh quotient is high. Half comes from Maude's combustible personality; half from the repressed nature of a teetotaler, soon to be unwittingly lured off the wagon. If Lionel's rigidity has been his fortress in the face of Maude's onslaught, he also captures our hearts as he delivers an increasingly wacky, almost spaced-out soliloquy about his first rapturous contact with a work of art. You could say that Maude has the viewers on her side as they see how she artfully and calculatingly breaks down Lionel's defenses and at the same time poignantly begins to break down herself.

This stringently funny play is laced with a snappy balance of down-to-earth and highfalutin dialogue, and buoyed by an undercurrent of bitter irony, a not-so-bad combination. Under the crackling direction of SuzAnne Barabas, it should create the kind of enthusiastic word-of-mouth that will keep the seats at the New Jersey Repertory Company filled for the entire engagement where Bakersfield Mist is having its world premiere as part of the National New Play Network

'Bakersfield Mist' at NJ Rep explores the complex world of art

A true-life 'Mist'-ery fuels the discussion in NJ Rep premiere

November 28, 2011

Linda S. Nelson and John Fitzgibbon share a scene in the New Jersey Repertory world premiere of "Bakersfield Mist.''

In the oft-revived ensemble play "Art," the purchase of a very expensive (and very white) painting is the catalyst that strains some lifelong friendships to the breaking point.

In "Bakersfield Mist," the purchase of a large and passionately paint-splattered canvas — for three bucks, and more or less as a gag — brings together a couple of strangers from completely different walks of life, when it's thought that the abstract painting might be an authentic Jackson Pollock worth more than $50 million .

Inspired by a stranger-than-fiction real world art mystery, the two-character dramedy by Los Angeles-based Stephen Sachs makes its Garden State debut in the first days of December, courtesy director SuzAnne Barabas and her team at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

Set in the mobile home of one Maude Gutman — heavy drinker, unemployed bartender, collector of yard-sale kitsch and dumpster-dive décor — "Bakersfield Mist" displays the dynamic between Maude (Linda S. Nelson) and the smug city slicker Lionel Percy (Rep regular John FitzGibbon), a curator at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and professor at Princeton who's traveled to this art-forsaken place to appraise what just might be the biggest find since Melvin Dummar produced the last will and testament of Howard Hughes.

"This is a play about a relationship between two very unlikely people," says FitzGibbon, the urbane character ace seen most recently as Erich Maria Remarque in NJ Rep's "Puma."

"It acquires a force as it goes along … and it unfolds quite nicely, taking some surprising turns."

Nelson, making her mainstage debut at NJ Rep, adds that "the playwright has done a terrific job, putting together these two characters from opposite ends of the world."

"Maude's a simple salt of the earth type … honest, funny, very gutsy," the actress says of her role. "She's a person who goes from knowing nothing about what she's found, to researching the fine details of the art business and art community."

As part of their preparation for taking on the Sachs script, the actors viewed the film "Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock?," a documentary on the real-life "Maude" (actually a former truck driver named Terri) and her still-ongoing struggle to have her thrift-shop find recognized as the work of the American abstract expressionist who pioneered the technique of "action" painting.

"Seeing the documentary reinforced my belief in her story," says Nelson. "Art experts have said it's not authentic, but they did so out of intuition and their own historical knowledge."

FitzGibbon, for his part, points out some of the credible evidence that's been put up against the claims of the Pollock-possessing granny — including the inconvenient fact that a leading Pollock imitator was based in the area around Bakersfield for years.

"It isn't as easy as you think to paint like Pollock," says the actor, recalling his time in an art gallery that once presented a retrospective of work by a convicted (and critically acclaimed) forger.

"It's said that as many as 40 percent of the paintings at the Met are fake," FitzGibbon observes. "The truth is that the world wants to be fooled!"

As for the tale of the "trailer trash" queen and her treasure, "the truth lies somewhere in between," according to Nelson.

"If a work of art moves you, does it really matter if it's done by Joe Blow or Michelangelo?" she asks, adding "This play lets the audience figure these things out for themselves."

In the Spotlight: Playwright Stephen Sachs

High culture collides head-on with low in "Bakersfield Mist," in which ex-bartender Maude Gutman tries everything — and we mean everything — to persuade a snooty art expert that a painting she bought for a few bucks at a thrift store is a long-lost Jackson Pollock.

Why did you write this play?

I loved the idea of bringing these two wonderful characters together — this bawdy, salty-tongued, boozy lady and this sophisticated art expert from New York — and have them butt heads. The conflict in the play is that both of these characters, who come from opposite ends of the social and economic spectrum, have a deep personal relationship with art. It means something very profound to both of them for very different reasons.

Were you a fan of Jackson Pollock before "Bakersfield Mist"?

I was a fan but didn't know much about him. Doing research for the play, I grew to appreciate him even more. His kind of demonic spirit, his inner storm, is very much a character in this play.

The play is getting a lot of attention. When you were writing it, did you ever think to yourself, "This is good"?

This was one of those instances when the characters really came alive for me. I was channeling them, almost like taking dictation. It's a blessing when that happens, because it doesn't always happen that way.

Have you ever been in a situation like Maude's, believing in something's value against all probability?

Doing theater at all — whether you're in Los Angeles or anywhere in this country — can be an uphill battle. Part of the energy goes into creating the art, and the other half goes into screaming to the world that the art matters.


Breaking Bread (and Walls) in  JERICHO

October 17, 2011

Corey Tazmania, Jim Shankman and Andrew Rein prep for a train-wreck of a Thanksgiving in JERICHO , the world premiere dramedy now onstage at New Jersey Repertory Company.

“Is this a tissue play?” the theatergoing ladies asked New Jersey Repertory Company’s SuzAnne Barabas at the door, during last Saturday’s opening night of Jericho — to which the NJ Rep artistic director replied, “It’s an issue play — but maybe keep a tissue handy.”

What playwright  Jack Canfora and director Evan Bergman have accomplished with Jericho, the ensemble piece now making its world premiere run in Long Branch, is ruin Thanksgiving — just as they previously made a shambles of New Year’s Eve (Place Setting) and whatever the happy occasion was supposed to be in Poetic License. But if the Bergman-Canfora partnership has proven itself adept at domestic dramas of agita-inducing devastation, then with Jericho the team turns in its strongest effort to date by balancing the truly gut-wrenching emotional fireworks with a bitterly snarky sense of humor.

If anything, it’s the most fun you’ll have this season with such rib-tickling topics as grief, guilt, divorce, depression, mental illness, religious dogma and 9/11.

Carol Todd and Jim Shankman sit and watch the walls of their marriage come tumbling down, in Jack Canfora’s JERICHO .

All issues and tissues aside, Jericho is really a people play — sharply written, rollercoaster paced and performed as a series of extended blackouts by a cast of pros who are repeatedly being called upon to relive one of the most hellish holiday dinners any of us have ever experienced. Set for the most part in the Long Island hamlet of the same name, and at least tangentially connected to the Holy Land sister city where the walls came tumbling down (the “fourth wall” between players and audience is breached numerous times), it all takes place on a stylized set by Jessica Parks; a precarious topple of tables, chairs, lampshades and drooping drop ceilings that, for the second time in as many NJ Rep productions, brings to mind this reviewer’s own home (note to self: make house not so like expressionistic production design).

The welcome injection of humor here derives organically from the show’s two lead female characters, blessed as they are with Canfora’s best lines and a pair of actresses who really make them sing. Beth (Corey Tazmania, sensational in NJ Rep’s Housewives of Mannheim) is a 9/11 widow of Palestinian-Irish heritage; a wisecracking Manhattanite who’s seeing a therapist, seeing her late husband Alec (Matthew Huffman) all over the place, and seeing Ethan (Andrew Rein), a nice young Jewish guy with monogamy issues and a mom (Kathleen Goldpaugh) who expects Beth at the Thanksgiving table.

Meanwhile, Jessica (Rep regular Carol Todd) is a woman whose penchant for wine and one-liners helps her to deal with the apparent end of her marriage to Josh (the ever-intense Jim Shankman) — a tormented 9/11 survivor who’s become obsessed with his own Jewish identity, to the point of planning a move to Israel without his wife.

The fact that Ethan and Josh are brothers — and that the looming Thanksgiving summit of ethnic culture clashes, Twin Towers horror stories and merlot-marinated bile is a slow-motion train wreck you see coming a mile away — still barely begins to prepare you for the tears, anger and confessions that are the tart and staining cranberries in the store-bought holiday stuffing.

The play does switch between heavy-duty drama and genuine laughs with disarming ease — Beth is “as fucked up as a Japanese game show,” while ghostly Alec remarks that her latest dinner-table bombshell has “invented the world’s most depressing drinking game” — and for every zinger that the actors toss out, there’s a line that “zings” the other way; wiping the smile from one’s face in a flash.

Standouts in an equally weighted cast include Shankman, rising to the demands of one of Canfora’s emotional-scapegoat characters; Todd, scary-good as always in a display of well-oiled extreme mood swings, and Tazmania, a solid (if admittedly unstable) center to it all. Only the play’s closing moments — the kind of late-innings stab at “closure” and cure best left to the movies — fail to hit the spot; so much syrupy pie filling, attempting to mask the bitter aftertaste.

But go; go see Jericho and let a team of talented grown ups show you how a bracingly adult, contemporary play can be a thrill-ride in itself. And if Bergman or Canfora ever invite you to one of their family get-togethers — then run the other way, long and far into the night. reviews

Riveting, Humane Jericho at New Jersey Rep
reviewed by Nita Congress


Jericho, the ever-helpful Wikipedia explains, "is known in Judeo-Christian tradition as the place of the Israelites' return from bondage in Egypt." Jericho is where the fabled walls came tumbling down: "The city was completely destroyed," notes Wikipedia's entry on the Battle of Jericho, "and every man, woman, and child in it was killed." Jericho is a hamlet in Nassau County, New York. Jericho by Jack Canfora is a smart, startling, and soul-stirring play that—not surprisingly—wrestles with issues of exile and return, apocalypse and peace, devastation and domesticity.

It's about 9/11.

It's also funny, sharp, bright, sad, and very thought provoking.

"There are some things it should be impossible to recover from," says protagonist Beth near the play's start. She tells us—actually she tells her therapist, Dr. Kim, who appears to her, and thus to us, as her late husband Alec who was lost in 9/11, leaving her lost after 9/11—that she is still numb: her "life coated in Lucite like a museum exhibit not to be touched."

But Beth has met someone. Four years after being widowed, four years of only intermittently being able to connect before drifting anew into pain and bewilderment, Beth has met Ethan. A nice Jewish boy. With a nice Jewish mother in Jericho. Beth accepts Ethan's invitation to a family Thanksgiving in the suburbs. She'll bring Alec along; he is her perennial baggage.

Ethan has no particular baggage, but he has a brother, Josh. Josh is a 9/11 survivor. Since those walls came tumbling down, Josh has spoken of little but his fervent desire to return to Israel. Not that he was ever particularly religious before, and not that this is in any way appealing or desirable to his wife Jessica. 9/11 has made Josh a different person, with different values and a different perspective. He, like Beth, has been upended, drifting too and unable to connect meaningfully. At least not here and not with the people who love—loved—him.

Canfora sets all this up in Act I, and then puts his six characters together to mix it up in Act II around the dining room table. Layers are peeled back, dots are connected, holes are filled in.

But with 9/11, as with any unreasoning tragedy, just understanding more doesn't make the understanding better.

I'm afraid I've made this sound a sad play. And it's not. It crackles with humor, wit, and sarcasm. The writing is smart; I would love to read this play to better savor its intricacy and intelligence. Ethan describes his family as a "kind of emotional pyramid scheme"; and familiar, funny conflicts of mother/son, brother/brother, mother-in-law/daughter-in-law, husband/wife are slyly presented. The pain and bewilderment wouldn't register were in not for the easy normality Canfora presents. For example, there is a very warm scene in Act I between Jessica and Josh, while they evade a call from Mother and talk of domestic things, that points up the bond of trust and friendship that exists between the two. Which of course makes the drifting apart all the more poignant.

The acting is uniformly excellent. Corey Tazmania as Beth evinces more than a little of the quirky, dissociative style of Mary-Louise Parker, which is quite in keeping with the complicated, conflicted character. Jim Shankman's Josh never loses our sympathy, despite his character's flaws, missteps, and foibles. And Carol Todd's Jessica, as the betrayed, embittered wife who has been widowed by the event every bit as much as has Beth, lets forth a howl of pain and rage and despair in Act II that brought the house down for me. Andrew Rein gives us a warm and funny Ethan. Matthew Stephen Huffman is an immensely likeable ghost, particularly when Beth sees Alec, but is actually interacting with someone else: Huffman evokes both characters in one—a neat trick indeed.

Canfora's play, is—as always at New Jersey Rep—exceedingly well served by both the director, Evan Bergman, and the design team of Jessica Parks, Jill Nagle, Patricia Doherty, and John O'Brien. In particular, Jessica Parks has established a perfect set. We walk in to the theatre and are confronted with a mish-mash of chairs, tables, rocks, shoes, desks, objects in a disarrayed stack occupying almost half the stage. It's the rubble of 9/11 of course, always there, always visible, never coherent. The metaphor is further developed by the fact that it is from this heap that the actors pull the props they need for each scene. So smart, so elegant.

In October 2001, an acquaintance of mine showed up at back-to-school night without his spouse. When I remarked on this, he explained that she had been at the Pentagon on 9/11. She wasn't killed, she wasn't injured. But a few days later, she left him.

That's the sort of 9/11 story that Jericho tells. That's the sort of story that surrounds us every day in everyday people up against big, scary, incomprehensible events. And it's because that pretty much sums up life in general that we need to see plays like this. They help us not understand, but maybe appreciate that we're all just muddling through best as we can.

'Jericho,' the new production at the New Jersey Repertory Company, outshines the rest

Published: Thursday, October 20, 2011, 7:23 AM
Carol Todd and Jim Shankman star in "Jericho" at the New Jersey Repertory Company.

Before each show at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, company producer Gabor Barabas offers witty observations about the world at large and theater in general. Even when he asks his audience to buy subscriptions or give donations, he has style and charm.

Barabas always mentions how many productions his company has presented.

“Jericho,” he points out, is the 85th show he’s produced in Long Branch.

And this play, by Jack Canfora, is the best of the bunch. Although the acting and direction here are almost always solid, Evan Bergman has seen to it that each reaches an even higher level.

“Jericho” has an attention-grabbing opening line; lead character Beth tells her analyst: “My husband’s being killed is the least of my problems.”

Audiences will soon see her point when they discover that Beth’s husband, Alec, died in the World Trade Center on 9/11. The ensuing years haven’t been easy.

For the past three months, Beth has been dating Ethan. With Thanksgiving coming, he’s asked her to meet his family in Jericho, Long Island. Beth, however, has spent post-9/11 Thanksgivings with Alec’s family.

If Beth knew how Ethan’s family was faring this year, she undoubtedly wouldn’t want to go. These aren’t good times for Ethan’s brother, Josh, and sister-in-law, Jessica. Ethan’s Mom will have some dynamic news to dispense, too.

writer at work

“Jericho” may not seem to be the play’s logical title. Canfora may be citing the famous Battle of Jericho in which Joshua fought, given that he chose that name for one of his characters. But at least metaphorically, the walls do come a-tumblin’ down in this two-hour play.

Canfora’s dialogue shows a true writer at work. Mother is said to clean “with a Howard Hughes intensity.” Ethan says he’s so inured to constantly keeping the truth from her that, “I lie to her about weather forecasts.” When Jessica complains about her mother-in-law’s answering machine messages, she gripes about their “Russian novel length.” Audiences only need to hear one of them — and Canfora mercifully includes only one — to find that they will nod and agree with Jessica.

And yet, Canfora doesn’t make this Jewish mother a stereotype. Rachel can be maddening, but in different ways from the ones to which inferior writers gravitate. Adding to the freshness of the character is the sincere and honest performance by Kathleen Goldpaugh.

Josh believes that he has every one of the answers to life’s questions. He too has had a traumatic, life-changing experience which has led him to this single-mindedness. Actor Jim Shankman shows us a man who staunchly believes in his decisions.

And those decisions greatly impact his relationship with his wife. Carol Todd is magnificent in showing all of Jessica’s many feelings toward her husband: impatience, anger and devastation. The way she delivers her question to Josh — “What’s the point of us if I can’t help you?” — brings tears to her eyes, and will undoubtedly yield many from the audience, too.

Andrew Rein provides an eloquent voice of reason as Ethan. Making an equally strong impression is Corey Tazmania’s Beth. She makes the 9/11 widow’s brave smile seem close to collapsing at any second. That’s true when she speaks about dealing with friends and neighbors: “People wonder why I don’t have the decency to go away.”

Luckily, “Jericho” will be with us for the next four weeks.

A CurtainUp New Jersey Review


"You know, there are times, if I’m honest about it, I think my husband being killed is theleast of my problems."— Beth

Jim Shankman, Kathleen Goldpaugh, and Carol Todd
(Photo: Jill Nagle)
In his opening night greeting, New Jersey Repertory Company’s Executive Director Gabor Barabas reminded the audience that the theater which he co-founded with his wife SuzAnne fourteen years ago was presenting its fiftieth world premiere with Jack Canfora’s Jericho. Even more significant is that Canfora’s sad, funny, and insightful play about loss, remorse, guilt, survival and recovery (yes, all that) is way at the top of the list of fifty. NJ Rep. has previously produced two of Canfora’s plays – Place Setting and Poetic License which due to open this February Off Broadway at 59E59.

My enthusiasm for Jericho stems from the clever, pro-active and impassioned way that the play’s four main characters seek to address their problems, mainly in dealing with their psychological and emotional blocks and traumas stemming from 9/11. Although it is 2005, Beth (Corey Tazmania) is still having a hard time dealing with the death of her husband Alec, who was unable to escape from one of the burning towers. She is so emotionally distraught and haunted by his memory that she isn’t able to physically consummate her several months-long relationship with the very patient and understanding Ethan (Andrew Rein).

Ethan would like to bring Beth to his home in Jericho, Long Island where his widowed mother Rachel (Kathleen Goldpaugh) lives and traditionally anticipates a reunion at Thanksgiving time with her boys Ethan and his brother Josh (Jim Shankman) and his wife Jessica (Carol Todd). Beth feels she isn’t ready to be introduced as Ethan’s girl friend and is hesitant about joining the family gathering. We begin to understand the extent of her hesitancy as well as a deep-seated guilt in relation to her marriage in scenes with her therapist Dr. Kim (Matthew Stephen Huffman), in reality a 43 year-old Korean woman, but whom she (and we) can only see as Alec.

Taut and engrossing, Jericho mainly revolves around Beth, who, as the central character and the catalyst for the familial dramatics, finds a surprisingly circuitous way to move forward. Beth may be trying, but she has not been successful in letting go of Alec.

The same can not be said for Jessica, who has completely given up on the self-absorbed Josh, and on any hope that their strained relationship/marriage is salvageable. Josh is not only consumed by guilt stemming from the way he survived 9/11, but has channeled his feelings into an increasingly fundamentalist approach to Judaism. Without regard for Jessica’s feelings, he has completely reconsidered his mission in life after a trip to Israel where he now plans to move.

At first unawares of the unstableness of Josh and Jessica’s marriage or that Beth is not ready to make a commitment to Ethan, Rachel proceeds to play the part of the welcoming Jewish mother. It only takes a few revelations like Beth announcing that she would like to visit Israel, by dropping a curve that adds another dimension to the familial fireworks.

It’s difficult, perhaps impossible for a play to have a Jewish mother who doesn’t conform to the stereotype. Praise to Canfora who has made Rachel a very sensible and rational character, one with whom Goldpaugh, seems to be completely at home. Tazmania is terrific as the hallucinating, emotionally tentative Beth. Ethan doesn’t have the over emotional baggage to carry yet Rein’s performance offers a good look at someone caught in the crossfire.

Todd meets the challenge of being both credible in her unhappiness and heart-breaking in her rage. She makes it easy for us to see how the once sturdy walls of her life, like those of Jericho in the Bible story, are crumbling in the wake of Josh’s irrational and irresponsible actions. The uncompromising intensity of Shankman’s performance, as Josh, is a bit unnerving, but it also serves the play. The metaphoric mountain-of-rubble setting by Jessica Parks suggests the aftermath of destruction.

Although Jericho, under the splendid direction of Evan Bergman, is often a very moving and compelling play, it could stand a little judicious pruning throughout, especially at the end with Beth’s extended and much too florid aside in a reverie in which she allows Alec to finally say “goodbye.” We would know everything we need to know, if she were just allowed to say a final and perfect “Shalom.”

Walls Come Down, Curtain Goes Up

Upper WET Side, October 9, 2011

Busy playwright, sometimes actor and even occasionally bar-band musician Jack Canfora is back at New Jersey Repertory with a new drama, JERICHO, kicking off its world premiere engagement in Long Branch beginning October 13.

He chuckles when we call him The Prophet of the Suburbs — but neither does Jack Canfora dispute the observation that he finds his dramatic subject matter behind the large and meticulously decorated doors of the upper middle class enclaves; the manicured exteriors that just barely conceal the lies and deceit and outright treachery that paid for these happy homes.

The last time that New Jersey Repertory Company invited the Long Island based playwright into their house, it was for the world premiere of a drama called Poetic License — an angst-filled domestic drama, in which a seemingly upbeat occasion results in a respected academic standing exposed as a fraud (and worse) to the family who thought they knew him. As directed by Evan Bergman, it was a study in unrelenting emotional brutality, in which characters are stripped clean of everything they held true and precious — in our review for the Asbury Park Press, we called it “a play of complex emotions, with no guarantee of closure…the cast, tight-lipped and far from exuberant at curtain call, seemed drained by the experience of wrestling with these deeply unhappy characters.”

About a year and half prior to that, Canfora invited NJ Rep audiences to a different sort of get-together — a dinner party for three couples, drinking, fighting, fucking and laughing in the face of uncertainty on New Year’s Eve 1999. Directed once again by Evan Bergman and featuring an ensemble cast highlighted by Carol Todd (as a scarily organized wife for whom even domestic upheaval must occur on a tightly delineated timetable) and Canfora himself, the seriocomic Place Setting elicited our observation that “the tag-team bugaboos of brutal honesty and lapsed inhibitions wreak havoc on this New Year’s Eve get-together…with guilt, despair and self-delusion pushing back from the other side.”

It’s enough to have sent most souls scurrying out of the suburbs and back to the relative safety of the Bard’s bloody battlefields — but here in the October Country of 2011, the Upper Wet Side’s only playhouse dedicated entirely to new and challenging works for the stage returns to Castle Canfora for a third time (and with Bergman manning the megaphone once more), with the world premiere of the drama Jericho.

While Place Setting had as its dramatic catalyst the foolishly fizzled fearmongering over the dreaded “Y2K Bug” (you remember…planes fell from the sky; markets crashed and took every desktop Dell with them), Jericho has at its heart a much more sobering catastrophe — the 9/11 attacks that many playwrights are even now just beginning to grapple with. In Canfora’s script, a handful of characters in and around Manhattan (i.e., the burbs) wrestle with their different reactions to devastating tragedy and senseless loss — and you could read the title as both a reference to the Nassau County hamlet, and to that Biblical place where Joshua set the walls to tumbling down.

Returning to the NJ Rep stage in this show (a so-called “rolling premiere” from the National New Play Network) is Carol Todd, one of our favorite actresses working the regional scene and one whose powerhouse performances have supercharged such Rep offerings as Apple and Whores. She’s joined in the cast by returning Rep veterans Kathleen Goldpaugh, Andrew Rein, Jim Shankman and Corey Tazmania, as well as relative rookie Matthew Huffman. Meanwhile, on the eve of Jericho’s first previews and opening weekend, upperWETside tracked down Jack Canfora for a glimpse behind its walls…

The sensational Carol Todd stars in Jack Canfora’s JERICHO — reuniting the two former castmates (third and fourth from left in group shot) from NJ Rep’s 2007 production of PLACE SETTING.

upperWETside: Good to have you back, Jack. We’re here to talk about JERICHO, which is a play about which I know next to nothing.

JACK CANFORA: Well, it’s basically about how different people deal with trauma in their personal lives…how we respond to grief and loss in different ways. Two characters in the play suffer direct losses from 9/11…they question the comfort and the consolation they get, and question the nature of their connections.

Sounds pretty sober and serious, right? But there are places where people deal with this sort of thing by using humor — sometimes it’s the best approach.

So, audiences will be leaving the theater humming the 9/11 jokes?

Well, not exactly. I didn’t start out trying to write a 9/11 play, but it became the thing through which the characters are forced to deal with inescapable, harsh realties. I’m talking about humor here in the sense of having that detached, glib, ironic outlook that so many people in my generation have gone through life with. For me, growing up in the 80s meant that most people worth knowing had that cool, ironic attitude — and if you were sincere about things, you were a sucker.

I’m very guilty of that myself, but as you get older, all that irony becomes kind of hollowing. And the character in Jericho finds that the ironic approach just doesn’t quite work in dealing with this situation, processing all the personal pain. Whereas another character has a reaction that’s as different as can be — he’s a man who was there at the Twin Towers; one of the lucky ones who made it out, and his way of dealing with the pain, of searching for authenticity, is with violent rage.

One of the things that’s most interesting to me is the fact that you’re working once more with Carol Todd, who’s just been so amazing in everything we’ve seen her in. She won me over with this one play, the name of which escapes me all of a sudden, in which she’s a jilted wife who’s dying of cancer. Every now and then you come across a performance that rings so true to you personally that it literally comes across as something aimed just at you…what she did on stage so perfectly captured this good friend of mine who went through the same thing, this almost elegant sort of serenity in her last days. 

You’re thinking of Apple, which New Jersey Rep did a few years back. Carol is absolutely on fire here…if you’re a fan of hers, you are not gonna be let down. She really takes the ball and runs with it, and she’s been closely involved with the script from the start.

You’ve worked closely with her in the past, both as a writer and a fellow cast member, so did you write this script with her in mind?

I can’t out and out tell you that I wrote the play with her in mind specifically, but I had a very early draft of the script together around the time that I got to act with her in Place Setting…I asked the cast if I could buy them all a beer, and if they could be so kind as to read this early draft of the play out loud around the table.

When she read it, something really clicked and I found myself thinking more in terms of Carol as that character, rather than this undefined person. In fact, originally the character was not quite within her age range; I found myself thinking how I could push it more towards something that would be perfect for her.

Being an actor yourself part of the time, and a musician; just being someone who knows what it’s like to stand in front of an audience — has that informed the way you write? Have you made a conscious effort to stay mindful of the rhythms of speech; how it all sounds rather than how brilliant it looks on the page?

Being an actor has helped me to write for people; to write not so much in a ‘writerly’ way, but in a way that actors can really make work on stage. Even when you’re talking to an interviewer, as I’m doing right now, you find yourself talking more thematically, in more conceptual sort of language than the words that you would put in the characters’ mouths.

But, yeah, it’s great to experience the process from the actors’ side of the equation, and it’s something I really should do more often. I think Place Setting was the last thing I did, and that was several years ago — I want to make it clear that I’m still available for work! It’s something I’d love to continue doing.

And, he’s available for kids’ birthdays, sweet sixteens and quinceañeros.

Well, you know what you have to do — write that one star vehicle that you and ONLY you can pull off. Anyway, it seems as though your writing work has been going forth and getting noticed outside the greater New York region. 

Well, this is a National New Play Network production; what they call a rolling premiere, so there are a few other theaters doing it…Phoenix Theatre in Indianapolis, Florida Studio Theatre. Place Setting, meanwhile, has had readings in London — and a very different version of Poetic License is coming to Off Broadway this winter.

Over the summer I got to work with the actor Harris Yulin on a program commemorating the centennial of Tennessee Williams, at Guild Hall out in Montauk — Tennessee at 100, it was called. We had people like Mercedes Ruehl, Eli Wallach involved, so that made for an interesting experience. Also over the summer, I worked with Evan Bergman, who we’ve got as director again, on a screenplay, which we’re shopping around now — such a different sort of experience; a new, fun, enjoyable sort of challenge.

I’m sure it’s no coincidence that you find yourself reunited with people like Evan Bergman, Carol Todd — and of course NJ Rep, who’ve always been great believers in your work.

There’s something to be said for working with people you’re comfortable with — it makes things easier. And the people at New Jersey Rep, SuzAnne and Gabe and everyone, are really like family by this point. It’s such an unusual place — I’ve been lucky to find harbor there.

That said, there are some creative people out there who thrive on conflict and tension; that’s how they prefer to get the results they desire. 

I’ve worked with artists who I didn’t love as people — but of course, you don’t have to have zero conflict with everyone to make great art. Anyway, I’m internally conflicted enough as it is…I can create all the misery I want all by myself!

Well, misery loves company and all that, and while we look forward to opening night, we wonder just how much JERICHO is gonna bum everybody out with your 9/11 and your personal trauma…

I think it’s hopeful in a way; there’s a certain amount of humor sugaring the medicine. It’s been said that the perfect play is one where you’re laughing and feeling good while you’re watching it — and after you leave the theater, you realize that you’ve been stabbed!

Donna Orbits the Moon review
Nita Congress ·
September 8, 2011

Out of the dark, in a crackling, crashing thunderstorm, a brightly smiling pixie of a woman—Donna—appears. Her demure manner and good Midwestern upbringing are belied by her first sentence. She apparently slapped a woman at the Rainbow Foods, slapped this nice little old lady who had been reaching for the same grocery item as she. And now she has to shop much further away, where she doesn't even like the produce.

We are thus brought, intrigued, into the off-kilter world of Donna.

Donna is a mom. She drives a minivan, goes to church, does macramé, and loves the Mall of America. She's a bake sale celebrity, noted for her gooseberry blondies (a confection that—tellingly—sounds rather alarming).

In a long, friendly conversation with us, narrated from her comfy living room recliner or up among the photos in her attic, or floating in a starry night sky of what she calls motor oil, Donna tells us recent episodes of her life, drawing in and assuming all the characters as she goes: her handsome husband Gil, who's been working a lot of overtime recently; her slightly self-righteous daughter Terry; the obnoxious Meryl who covets her blondie recipe; her raucous friend Cheryl. She rhapsodizes over the Rainforest Café at the mall: "I imagine that's what the real Amazon is like." She longs for a good pair of sneakers. She bakes. She goes to rummage sales. She vacuums.

With affection, humor, and an indomitable cheer, Donna blithely talks about trips to the library, the school, the church. All perfectly normal destinations, all told in a perfectly reasonable manner.

But something is very definitely not right with Donna and her world. And we watch, rapt, as the truth cathartically emerges.

Writer Ian August, actor Andrea Gallo, and director Marc Geller have created a wonderful character. Donna is the lady next door, your friend's mom, a familiar presence you see all the time in lots of places—but when you come down to it, a total stranger whose inner life is a mystery to you.

And to her, it turns out.

Donna's orbit soars in the capable hands of the New Jersey Rep designers. From Jack Kennedy's opening storm sounds undercut with shards of broken glass, to Daniel Dungan's twinkling inky sky, to Jessica Parks's lovingly detailed, character-revealing knick knacks that line the outer edges of the set, to Patricia E. Doherty's spot-on perfect costume (sneaks, comfy pants, and a June Cleaver strand of pearls), every element reinforces the character and explains her world.

There is something sweet and vulnerable yet cosmic about Donna and her plight that reminded me of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's plucky Little Prince. And I think the production team intended this resemblance. The small protagonist, face upturned in the dark to a black sky studded with wondrous dots of light, adrift and floating—a beautiful image. It matters not at all that Donna is a woman of middle age, her spaceship an old recliner, and her universe lined with clutter. August tells us, and Gallo and Geller show us, that there is profundity in muddle and Middle America and midlife. This is a play that discovers and celebrates the cracks in the façade, the unknowable in the ordinary, the humanity in the humble.

A dark-side 'Moon' landing

Andrea Gallo shines in one-woman show at NJ Rep

Andrea Gallo is a housewife who's losing her grip on planet Earth in "Donna Orbits the Moon'' at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. / NJ Rep

Heartland, we’e got a problem. One of your native daughters — the sort of loving spouse, devoted mother and church volunteer who forms the very bake-sale backbone of this thing we call the Midwest — is apparently losing her footing on Planet Earth, and there seems to be nothing that anyone can do to bring her safely back home.

In “Donna Orbits the Moon,” the one-woman play now in its world premiere engagement at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, a middle-aged, empty-nester Minnesota homemaker lets down her guard and addresses a roomful of strangers with the details of a rather bizarre journey she’s just taken — a trip that, while it didn’t carry her any farther from home geographically than the Mall of America, stands as something of an epic odyssey across oceans of outer and inner space, starring a most unlikely voyager.

As envisioned by former NJ Rep actor (turned prolific playwright) Ian August, and made manifest by director Marc Geller and fellow Rep regular Andrea Gallo, it’s a journey that begins with some curiously uncharacteristic anger-related episodes for Donna — a supermarket slapdown, a road rage incident, a “bit of a moment” in church (and please don't get her started on that time she scrubbed the floor with a steak). Accompanied by telltale heartbeats and red lights, these hulk-out interludes are as disconcerting to Donna (one of a long line of women who proudly disdained the whole notion of therapy) as they are to the people in her orbit.

Inside a mind

You don’t need to study the set design by Jessica Parks — a rubble-strewn den decorated with broken appliances, bleach bottles, Christmas ornaments, car parts and other items that make cameo appearances in the text — to know that you’re spending some 110 intermission-free minutes inside Donna's mind, and that things are getting pretty rocky in Donnaville. Without that stock supporting character of the “therapist,” however, it’s entirely up to Donna — guided to some extent by that voice in her head — to “land” back on terra firma.

About that disembodied voice. It's neither a benevolent ancestral spirit, nor a quasi-mystical "Field of Dreams" plot shenanigan, but a Donna-fied version of a real-life (and really still very much alive) famous person — a person who, whether knowingly or not, holds the metaphorical key to the metaphorical box in the metaphorical attic.

Single-actor scripts — at least those that aren't about recognizable figures like Mark Twain, Golda Meir or Harry Truman — can often be as challenging and exhausting for the audience as they are for that brave lone performer, which is why it helps when the actor is one for whose rhythms, inflections and body language the play has been tailored. Fortunately, that's the case here with August and Gallo, friends and frequent collaborators who obviously worked very hard on making this brief but difficult piece function within linear time (and whatever passes for objective reality these days).

Phantom signals

It would seem almost a mater of policy to call this a "tour de force" for Gallo, but the diminutive dynamo actress really proves her mettle not with busy bursts of pantomime and mimicry, but in the heartbeats between words and bits of business — those patches of deep-space black velvet from which emerge phantom signals, and faint but palpable clues as to how we came to be where we are.

Adopting an accent not unlike the Marge Gunderson character in the film "Fargo," Gallo handles the comedic aspects of the script with expected flair — but any orbit of the moon necessitates spending some time on the dark side, and it's in the hidden shadows of her own bruised psyche and tragic family history that Donna ultimately finds resolution, closure, maybe even something resembling joy.

At this post-Space Shuttle moment in time — a moment in which too many Americans feel permanently grounded in lives spent fending off earthly catastrophes and marking grim anniversaries — August, Gallo and Geller have crafted a modestly scaled meditation on the devastation of despair and the power of hope; one that suggests we may have lost our cold and dusty moon, but we've regained the ability to wish upon a star.

Tightly scripted 'Donna Orbits the Moon' defies gravity

The Mirror

Ian August's one-woman show premieres at N.J. Repertory through Sept. 25th

Sunday, September 11, 2011

What happens when an otherwise normal midwestern housewife turns into a Raging Bull? Donna's gooseberry blondies win kudos from the PTO bake sale to the state penitentiary. Her house cleaning skills are exemplary -- until she nearly decapitates her daughter with a vacuum cleaner, and starts pummeling a fellow churchgoer with her Holy Bible.

Donna is more used to shopping at the Mall of America with her friends, than cursing at other drivers. But not only is she mad, she has certainly gone mad, and her reasons are very different than you might have guessed. For once, drudgery is not the enemy and Donna wouldn't mind going back to being a domestic goddess.

Donna Orbits the Moon is a seamless, well-written jewel that blasts off at New Jersey Repertory, in the intimate space that was formerly their main stage. It is playing though September 25 and Gallo, a veteran member of NJ Rep, once shared the stage with playwright Ian August in Tilt Angel, a surreal Southern gothic that bonded them as mother and son.

August and Gallo worked on his new play together from its conception, and this very much fuels the tight performance by Gallo. (The play, while it was in developmental production at Utah Contemporary Theater, won the Thomas Barbour Memorial Playwrights Award this year.)

Scenic designer Jessica Parks gives a hint to Donna's inner derangements even before we meet her: luggage, old lamps, and books explode against the back wall, while framed photos orbit the ceiling over a tidy recliner. Sound effects by Jack Kennedy and lighting by Daniel Dungan nicely unsettle the audience as the world transforms into a rocket ship. With these absurd effects we begin to get a glimpse of what ails Donna -- and its not all the dusting and crumbs she's had to wipe up.

So just what is ticking Donna off? Things move from funny to serious when Donna picks up a children's book from the library about Apollo-era astronaut Buzz Aldrin, and begins her own space journey. After she begins hearing Aldrin's voice that repeats over and over again like her own private mantra, "You have to go up, to be able to land."

Without giving too much away, August gives us many twists and turns. Larger than life in a frumpy string of pearls, Gallo's character falls just shy of obnoxious like a Betty Crocker commercial. We are at first almost sickened by her 1950s world dominated by the joys of Minnesota sprawl, and it seems her madness will be another tired tale of too small a life.

But under the tight staging and nuance to lines by Gallo and director Marc Geller, her vivid stories about her family, friends, and annoying neighbors bring August's words alive. Much of what she says becomes poetic rather than mere punch lines or commercial jingles, the starting point for this one woman moon flight currently orbiting Long Branch.

Donna Orbits the Moon gives this suburban mother, whose chief tools are feather dusters and baking sheets, a heft that caused many in the audience to shed a few tears. Donna's anger is well deserved but it's not getting her anywhere. A worthwhile afternoon or evening of theater from an actor turned playwright who, like Ibsen and Shaw, finds the humanity in small domestic corners.

Donna (and Andrea Gallo) orbit the moon…

Posted on September 12, 2011 by Philip Dorian

After seeing Andrea Gallo in the one-woman play Donna Orbits the Moon, I told New Jersey Rep Producers Gabor and SuzAnne Barabas that if I ever call them for Gallo's phone number, they'll know I've written a play. Later I learned that Ian August wrote Donna with her in mind. The play is good. It's mysterious and emotionally moving, with a generous smattering of humor. Ms. Gallo is terrific.

Donna is concerned about her own erratic behavior. She's not off her rocker, but she periodically loses control of her impulses, like when she slaps a woman in the supermarket for no reason. (Her altogether sensible solution to the attendant embarrassment? Change markets.)

When she drops a steak in the kitchen, she uses it as a floor-wipe before serving it to her husband. (At least she finally cleaned behind the fridge.) Later, smashing an uncooperative vacuum cleaner against the wall prompts her daughter to suggest therapy sessions.

Sometimes, the play seems to say, the best therapy for Donna's particular imbalance is coming to grips with whatever impairs that balance. In the course of one 80-minute act, Donna's therapy, both professional and within herself, takes shape. Telling much more of Donna's story would be a spoiler, so you'll learn little more here.

Ms. Gallo, alone throughout except for the disembodied voice of Buzz Aldrin, second man to walk on the moon, holds the audience in the palm of her hands. Hands that flutter some, point some, and go to her face occasionally as if to blindly identify herself. Gallo's face, and the ever-so-slightly lispy voice that emanates from it, are palettes upon which an infinite variety of expressions are drawn.

Donna's family is important to her story; Gallo impersonates them all. Her husband Gil, who handles life's 'stuff' differently from his wife, is especially vivid. (It's no spoiler to reveal that different people coping with the same challenge in different ways is a theme of the play.) Then there are Donna's concerned daughter Terry, her son Charley and her best frenemy Meryl, whom Gallo incarnates as a baritone Carol Channing. And her brief take on a four-year-old in the library is a gem.

It's a common misconception that directors are relatively unimportant in a one-person play. The opposite is true. Marc Geller's guidance is obvious – and invisible. (There's probably a better way to say that, but there it is.)

The play isn't perfect, although Ms. Gallo makes it seem so. The foreshadowing needs work, but the playwright's choice of Buzz Aldrin to co-star in Donna's imagination is inspired. How much easier it is to relate to the second to accomplish something special than to the first.

August Star, Sept. 'Moon' Rising at NJ Rep

upperWETside, September 5, 2011

Andrea Gallo keeps house at New Jersey Repertory Company, during the world premiere of DONNA ORBITS THE MOON, the one woman show by NJ playwright Ian August.

It was very nearly six years ago that New Jersey Repertory Company — the Upper Wet Side's only playhouse dedicated entirely to new and challenging works for the stage — hosted the world premiere of a "gritty, blues infused fairytale" called Tilt Angel.

A nightmarishly surreal, absurdist Southern gothic about a socially reclusive young man, his neglectful father, his pining for his lost mother (who somehow manages to get reincarnated as a large house plant) and a divine intervention in the form of a tattered, filthy seraph, the Dan Deitz play offered up such jarring imagery and literalized phobias as a giant black telephone, a home-crafted prosthetic claw, travel by telephone lines and an evil "garden" of seething tubes from which a big skeletal hand emerges to drag our hero to his fate.

Of course we couldn't rave enough about the show — still one of the most amazing things we've seen on local stages in our years as a professional theater critic — to anyone who wouldn't cross to the other side of the street when we approached. But, as NJ Rep executive producer Gabe Barabas noted with a wry chuckle years later, this Angel laid a big old deviled egg at the box office as nothing before or since. Like, TILT, game over.

We only dredge up these painful memories because the production, in its own way, served to plant the seed for Donna Orbits the Moon, a show that enters its world premiere engagement this week as the latest in the "neverending season" of original entertainments at the downtown Long Branch oasis of culture. Written by actor-turned-playwright Ian August and starring Andrea Gallo — respectively the son and the mother on Tilt Angel's family tree — the one-woman play goes up for two days of previews on Thursday, September 8; opens on September 10 and continues through September 25.

Directed by Marc Geller (who recently helmed an acclaimed NYC staging of Noir, by Middletown's own Stan Werse), Donna also serves to inaugurate the re-branded Second Stage performance space at NJ Rep — a space formerly named after local newsmaker Solomon Dwek (and sanded off in the tradition of things named after Michael Ritacco, Enron and Saddam).

For Highland Park resident Ian August, the new play would appear to launch the second stage of his career — but, far from representing a rookie effort by an earnest wannabe Williams or Starbucks Stoppard, Donna is one of FIVE full-length, award-winning scripts that the busy writer has completed and seen performed in public since he more or less retired from acting five years ago (this in addition to dozens of one-act playlets).

One of those previous plays, the drama Missing Celia Rose, was chosen for staging at NYC's prestigious Summer Play Festival from a field of more than a thousand submitted scripts — and another, the showbiz-insider comedy Submitted by C. Randall McCloskey, just wrapped a critically lauded stint at the New York International Fringe Festival in a production that starred Brian O'Halloran of Clerks and other Kevin Smith specialties.

As for Donna Orbits the Moon, well, it's being pitched like so: "Something is not quite right with Donna: She's a loving mother, a devoted wife, and a minor celebrity to all the bake sale planners in town — but something is making her spacey, and she's not sure what it is. Therapy is out of the question — and church isn't the place to share one's distress. Donna will need to pass through space and through time — all the while listening to an unlikely voice — and try to break free from her gravitational pull to learn just how she can land."

We reckon that the above description still only scratches the surface of this piece, and as for the author, well, he's only going to drop a few tantalizing hints as to what we can expect to see as we move beyond the namesake month of August and into a new moon of September. A few Qs and As with Ian August, coming right up.

Ian August the playwright (right) was once Ian August the actor — co-star, with Andrea Gallo, in NJ Rep's surreal oddity TILT ANGEL.

upperWETside: Well, Ian, it seems that since the first time we met you've lived a whole 'nother lifetime as a successful playwright — I'm sure you're having the time of your life too, but speaking both for myself and some other theatergoers, we're hoping that you haven't completely shut the door on stage acting. Seeing you in things like TILT ANGEL and ROBBER BRIDEGROOM, I can say that some of us miss Ian August the actor.

IAN AUGUST: And I miss acting sometimes — but as a writer I feel that I get the opportunity to play all of the roles in my head. Plus, I get to eat salty, fatty foods again! I still make myself available for voice work. But I love writing, to the extent that I literally can't wait til my next opportunity to do it. I work a full time job, and a lot of times I come home and immediately get down to working on a play. I'm also working on my first novel — oh, and I started working on a graphic novel as well!

Sounds like you got the bug, bigtime. Whatever happened to the archetype of the writer as embittered, frustrated alcoholic, burning his Great American Novel that he struggled with for thirty years?

What can I say — I love being prolific and productive. And the response that I've gotten for my writing has convinced me that it's really where I should be at this point.

All of my full length plays have had readings and won awards. My first play Missing Celia Rose was workshopped at the Summer Play Festival, at the Orlando Shakespeare Festival…and it got produced in Bermuda! They paid me to do my play, and they flew me out to Bermuda — then the next year, those same people wanted me to judge their festival, so they flew both me and my partner out to Bermuda! I've also done about 25 ten-minute plays, one of which, Le Supermarché, was published in 2007 — it went on to win a Samuel French award.

You've had some of those shortie works performed at New Jersey Rep also.

I wrote one for one of their "Theater Brut" short play programs in 2005 — the theme of the night was "Sacrifice," and I did something called Abraham on the Mount: The Week Before. It showed Abraham, prior to offering up his son as a sacrifice to the Lord, bringing a goat up the mountain as an offering. I played the Goat, as a Bugs Bunny sort of character who tells Abe, 'If you wanna really impress God, kill your son.'

NJ Rep also did a reading of C. RANDALL McCLOSKEY, as did Holmdel Theatre Company. In fact, if I'm not mistaken, pretty much everyone from the Holmdel company reprised their roles at the Fringe Festival.

Just about everyone; I got five of the six actors from the Holmdel show to do it in New York — Brian, Carol Todd, Bob Senkewicz, Rebecca Harris Flynn…the play was actually written for Brian, and with a lot of these actors in mind. I'm inspired by my friends, and I'm writing predominantly for my friends these days.

One of those friends being Andrea Gallo, for whom I'm assuming you wrote DONNA ORBITS THE MOON?

I had a phenomenal experience working with Andrea on Tilt Angel, which, you know, was a difficult play for a lot of people — I never knew if the audience was getting what was going on in the show. Then after one performance a woman came up to me and told me that she had lost her mother in an accident at sea — sort of similar to how my character loses his mother in the play; a strange, inexplicable accident — and she told me she understood exactly where everything was coming from; that this weird little play resonated with her on a very real level. It just reinforced for me how even a very stylized, surreal kind of story can have a deep emotional connection to the audience at its heart. I worked with Andrea several times — she performed a supporting role in my first Fringe Festival play, as an abusive mother, and she was brilliant. I did rewrites all through the rehearsal process, and she was able to work so well through all that pressure. When I started thinking about Donna, I immediately thought of her — I have no doubt she'll be sensational in this show.

I'm a little unclear as to what to expect with this show; what do you feel like telling us about it?

Well, Donna is a Midwest housewife, a loving spouse who discovers that she has anger issues, and she's not sure why…she begins to hear a voice inside her head. I don't want to give too much away, but this voice in her head is a specific individual's voice; not a heavenly voice. I don't write characters that don't take some sort of a journey, and Andrea and I talked repeatedly about what works in the play — we met in Central Park one day to discuss it, and she's been involved all the way in helping it all come together.

Well, we look forward to opening night, then, and we'll tell you to "break a pencil point" on this and McCLOSKEY and all the other projects you're currently juggling. We'll see what the next step will be. For now, I've been getting a great response to all of my writing, and I want to continue to focus upon it. I'm loving this!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

nj arts maven


judyhollidayThe idea that all blondes are dumb owes its existence to Judy Holliday, an actress in the fifties and sixties who, with her bleached hair, squeaky voice and fluttering eyelashes, created the stereotype we so quickly assign to every woman with golden tresses (be they natural or dyed). But how many people who use the epithet "dumb blonde" know that the original had an IQ of 172, loved to do crossword puzzles and play word games, and yearned to be a writer instead of an actress?

That irony is the premise of Bob Sloan's nifty musical play, Just in Time: The Story of Judy Holliday, receiving a winning and winsome debut production at New Jersey Repertory in Long Branch. Directed with great energy by SuzAnne Barabas and starring four talented actors (two of whom do yeomen's duty playing a myriad of roles—most of them recognizable famous people), Just in Time is a bittersweet comic drama. Bittersweet because Judy Holliday never realized her dreams; comic because, well, she was a funny lady and parts of her life are hilarious; and drama because the Hollywood star system doomed her marriage and stunted her talent by pigeon-holing her as a dumb blonde before she died at the age of 43 from breast cancer.

Born onstage—literally, at the Ziegfeld Theatre where she was delivered by Fanny Brice as her mother attended a performance—Judith Tuvim graduated first in her class from high school at the tender age of 16. When Yale Drama School rejects her because of her youth, Judith takes a number of menial jobs and teams up with Adolph Green and Betty Comden to justintime 3 reviewersform "The Three Reviewers," performing original material satirizing show business and Hollywood at the Village Vanguard, accompanied on the piano by Lenny Bernstein (yes, that Lenny Bernstein). Discovered by a talent scout, Judith is whisked to Hollywood, undergoes a name change to Judy Holliday (Tuvim means Holliday in Yiddish)  and wins the 1950 Oscar for Best Actress for “Born Yesterday.” Along the way, she is questioned by the House Un-American Activities Committee (and black-listed) and wins a Tony Award for Bells Are Ringing (written for her by Comden and Green) before being cut down in her prime. Her career was meteoric and all too short; unfortunately, she is remembered mostly for being a "dumb blonde."

justintime phoneLuckily for us, the very talented Pheonix Vaughn conveys the complicated psyche of Judy Holliday very well. With her adorable dimples, squeaky voice and big blue eyes, it's easy to think this Judy is really dimwitted, but in her character's private moments, Vaughn gives us a glimpse of the real woman inside, the woman who considered acting "a very limited form of expression," a woman who wanted to change the world with her writing. Vaughn is hilarious as she juggles three conversations at the switchboard of the Mercury Theatre (good training for Bells Are Ringing!) and learns the lines at a week's notice for Born Yesterday, when star Jean Arthur leaves the production. Her phone conversations with her son Jonathan are heartbreaking, as is her rendition of the only song in the show that isn't written by Nate Sloan, "The Party's Over," Judy's big hit.

justintime table

Bonnie Black as Helen Tuvim, Judy's mother, is appropriately controlling and very annoying; she is the quintessential stage mother, but her daughter has a mind of her own, which complicates their relationship. Mark T. Evans provides terrific piano accompaniment as Leonard Bernstein.

Adam Harrington (Adolph Green and 13 other characters) and Catherine LeFrere (Betty Comden and 12 other characters) are absolutely wonderful, morphing from a famous person into an ordinary person and back again in split-second costume (and accent) changes without blinking an eye! They tackle each role with relish! (Below: Harrington as Nick Ray and Pheonix Vaughn as Judy)

justintime nick raySloan's plot doesn't always proceed chronologically, but "The Three Reviewers" (top photo) act like a Greek chorus, providing bridges between scenes and commenting on the action. It's through their satiric songs that we learn about the havoc Hollywood's contract system wreaked on a young woman's sense of worth, self-respect and family relationships. It is not a pretty picture. 

Just in Time: The Judy Holliday Story had a brief introductory run last year at the New York Fringe Festival where it received top accolades and played to sold-out audiences. Playwright Bob Sloan's subsequent tweaking includes adding some new scenes and new songs to what one critic called "the best show I saw at the Fringe this year. . .the red carpet event of the Festival."

Judy Holliday may have been a star of a bygone era, but this luminous production makes us realize just what we missed when she left us too young and too soon. Take a ride to Long Branch (go early and walk a bit on the boardwalk) to recapture the magic that is The Judy Holliday Story. New Jersey Rep has a winner on its hands.

See a bit of “Just in Time: The Judy Holliday Story” here

Judging JUDY, at NJ Rep

Pheonix Vaughn (right) is the Oscar winning comic actress Judy Holliday — and Adam Harrington is anyone from Jimmy Durante to Orson Welles — as JUST IN TIME: THE JUDY HOLLIDAY STORY makes its Garden State debut at New Jersey Repertory Company. (photos courtesy SuzAnne Barabas)

It was just a few months ago that New Jersey Repertory Company — the Upper Wet Side’s only playhouse dedicated entirely to new and challenging works for the stage — premiered a little show called Puma; a look at the life, loves and legacy of the late Marlene Dietrich that the theater critic for the Asbury Park Press (ahem, us) hailed as “a brief and shining portal into a bygone world of backlit luster, sparkling repartee and extraordinary personalities who crackled with charisma…at the very least, it’s something to dress up for.”

Here in the season of dressing down for the weather, the NJ Rep team offers us get-a-life fans of golden-age Broadway and Hollywood another platinum-plated star to ooh and aah over — this one a portrait (in dialogue, memory vignettes and song) of a blonde (smart)bombshell who’s nonetheless not so much of a household name these days: the dynamic Judy Holliday.

The performer who took home a Tony (as Best Lead Actress in a Musical) for Bells Are Ringing may not ring too many bells with the millennials these days, but when you consider her most lasting legacy — the peroxide perennial Born Yesterday, and her role in turning the whole dumb-blonde archetype on its bleached head — the salvaging of Judy Holliday’s public profile comes just in time. As in Just in Time: The Judy Holliday Story, previewing this week and opening July 9 in Long Branch.

Stage mom Bonnie Black harangues young Judy Holliday (Pheonix Vaughn), as Adam Harrington and Catherine LeFrere look on, and Mark T. Evans plays on.

Although the latest Broadway revival (with Jim Belushi, the guy who plays Wilson on House and a semi-unknown Nina Arianda) didn’t make it past the end of June, the script by Garson Kanin (in which a corrupt tycoon hires a journalist to “smarten up” his ditzy showgirl moll, with unforeseen consequences to his wheelings and dealings on the Washington lobby-go-round) has long had legs in community theater circles, and even got adapted as a vehicle for then-marrieds Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson. But it’s Judy Holliday as Billie Dawn — the role that won her a 1950 Best Actress Oscar in her first starring flick —  who single-handedly fuels any continuing interest in Born Yesterday, and who you walk away remembering.

Although she’d do some fun turns in other pictures like It Should Happen to You and The Solid Gold Cadillac‬‏ — and no, that’s not her in ‪Singin’ in the Rain, but Jean Hagen doing her best Judy — Holliday didn’t leave behind a vast body of work, and her last Broadway production, the short-lived Hot Spot, was her flop final project (despite the contributions of Bob Fosse, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents) before cancer cut her down at the age of 43 in 1965.

Thus, Just in Time. The script (by Bob Sloan, among other things a prolific writer of cookbooks and detective thrillers) made its well-received debut as part of the 2010 NYC Fringe Festival, and two of the cast members from that production — Adam Harrington and Catherine LaFrere — are making the trip to Long Branch, portraying a parade of real-life figures who include Orson Welles, Katharine Hepburn and Jimmy Durante, to songwriting specialists (and Holliday pals) Betty Comden and Adolph Green.

Also in the company under the supervision of NJ Rep artistic director SuzAnne Barabas is Bonnie Black as Judy’s suffocating stage mother, Helen Tuvim, along with musical director/ accompanist Mark T. Evans — and cast in the title role is the dazzling Pheonix Vaughn, a frequent favorite of NJ Rep audiences whose past efforts have ranged from the frothy myth-o-musical Cupid and Psyche, to the paranoiac pub-crawl Yankee Tavern — to a sensational stint as a lonely WWII-era homemaker coming to grips with her sexual identity in The Housewives of Mannheim, a play in which she starred in New York, Indianapolis, Santa Barbara, and Long Branch.

Even as magnetic a performer as the rising star Pheonix has her work cut out for her in summoning Holliday’s level of skills, savvy, and genius (literally — the woman who redefined the “dumb blonde” possessed a Mensa-level IQ), and if the stars align as they did with Puma, NJ Rep will once again be offering classic film buffs a degree of magic they’ll never tap into at the mallside megaplex.

Previewing July 7 and 8 at 2 and 8pm ($35), and opening with a catered reception on July 9 ($60), Just in Time continues Thursdays through Sundays until August 14, with all regular performances priced at $40, and reservations available right here.

The Judy Holliday Story review

Nita Congress · July 14, 2011

Bonnie Black, Mark Evans, Pheonix Vaughn, Adam Harrington, and Catherine LeFrere in a scene from  <em>The Judy Holliday Story</em>

Pictured: Bonnie Black, Mark Evans, Pheonix Vaughn, Adam Harrington, and Catherine LeFrere in a scene from The Judy Holliday Story (photo © SuzAnne Barabas)

Bouncy, bubbly, and bright. Smart, sophisticated, and sweet.

These words describe to a T the latest offering of the New Jersey Repertory Company, The Judy Holliday Story. Not coincidentally, they could all be applied to the eponymous protagonist, the gifted singer and comedienne fondly remembered for her star turns in Bells Are Ringing and Born Yesterday.

Bob Sloan’s witty script lightly, lovingly, sketches in the friends, family, career highlights, and all-too-short life of Judy Holliday. And the appealing Pheonix Vaughn has captured Holliday’s trademark ditzy blonde intonations of slow dawnings, brisk retorts, and blithe bemusement.

The play weaves through Holliday’s life, progressing sequentially with flashbacks and flash forwards, stopping repeatedly at her earliest success at the Village Vanguard with co-performers and future legends in their own right, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and Oscar night 1950, arguably the pinnacle of Holliday’s career. We meet Judith Tuvim, high school valedictorian at sixteen and eager to make a difference in the world, follow her to her first job—switchboard operator at the Mercury Theatre, humorously absorbing the larger-than-life personages of John Houseman and Orson Welles—and from there to a stint as a union-extolling summer camp counselor meeting fellow counselor and friend for life Adolph Green as they rhapsodize on the non-anagramability of “Tuvim."

It is a dizzy, giddy, and glorious path to stardom, filled with clever songs and patter at the Vanguard, a short string of eligible bachelors and wolfish producers, and first-rate glittering talents including Peter Lawford, Tallulah Bankhead, Gloria Swanson, Dorothy Kilgallen, Arlene Francis, John Daly, Katharine Hepburn, Leonard Bernstein—a veritable who’s who of the 1940s and ’50s.

The play is well served—no, exquisitely served—by the extremely talented Adam Harrington and Catherine LeFrere, playing with vim, wit, and vigor some dozen notables between them. While it is initially disconcerting to see the pixie-ish Green portrayed by a skinny six-footer, and LeFrere similarly looks not one whit like Comden, these actors quickly eliminate the need to rely on outward resemblances as they build believable and recognizable characters with a few deft strokes. And droll Bonnie Black keeps Judy’s mother Helen from caricature through a deeply displayed mother’s love—cut through with a sharp sense of humor—for a precious only child.

Director SuzAnne Barabas brings a lively, snappy pacing to the clever dialogue, and keeps the transitions flowing clearly and seamlessly through the flash forwards and back in time. Costume designer Patricia E. Doherty has outdone herself with a beautiful and bounteous display of flattering fifties clothes—stylish, elegant, and mood-evoking. Jessica Parks has created a snug, predominantly backstage set that, like the play itself, takes us behind the scenes of the Judy Holliday story. A standout effect of lighting designer Jill Nagle’s is the camera flashbulb that harkens back to an earlier, simpler era with bigger, clumsier technology. And through it all, musical director and pianist Mark T. Evans effortlessly summons the accompanying soundtrack of these more glamorous, more sophisticated times.

Ultimately, that is what The Judy Holliday Story celebrates: a time when wits were sharper, songs sweeter, clothes and manners lovelier, celebrities more celebrated. Whether that was really the case or not, this play makes it seem so. And for a couple hours, it’s nice to go to a time and place when smart, talented kids who passionately loved words and music could thrive, blossom, and prosper.

Throwing drama from the 'Train' at NJ Rep

Michael Irvin Pollard (left) finds his ride on the "Night Train" interrupted by uninvited stranger Philip Lynch, in the play now making its
world premiere run at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. / Photo courtesy of NJ Rep

Written by TOM CHESEK

LONG BRANCH — Several months back, the people at New Jersey Repertory Company staged a noirish thriller called "The Tangled Skirt," a claustrophobic little duet set in a desolate, dead-of-night bus station. With "Night Train" — the world premiere play now on the track at the Long Branch playhouse — NJ Rep has taken that same kismet-deadly fatalism, added a fair amount of laughs, and sent it hurtling down the rails on the sort of long, strange trip in which all weird things come to he who waits patiently in his assigned seat.

Set entirely within the confines of a first-class train compartment, during a nocturnal journey between two unspecified (but vaguely European) points, the script by New Orleans playwright John Biguenet places two unlikely fellow passengers in uncomfortably close proximity: the uptight, well-dressed banker (Michael Irvin Pollard) who paid for the travel arrangement, and the chatty, unruly and unwelcome stranger (Philip Lynch) who makes himself at home in that same space.

"One hears stories about these night trains," offers the wild-bearded interloper Max, a refugee from the second-class car who lugs an ominously heavy suitcase, a picnic basket with a big knife inside, and a hip flask full of cheap whisky that only seems to find its way down the hatch of bald, bespectacled businessman Alex. Himself the possessor of more baggage than is stashed in the overhead, Alex reveals himself as a man of conflicted relationships, compromised ethics and concealed secrets when the mismatched companions inevitably get to talking.

From the outset, the man with the nice watch and tailored suit is no match for his wilier counterpart, a self-professed smuggler (and possible pimp) whose inscrutable agenda comes to a head with the introduction of his "cousin" Marta (Maria Silverman) — she of the unplaceable accent and assurances that "I make you to forget everything, you'll see."

What Alfred Hitchcock might have made into "Strangers on a Train" diverts instead onto a "laugh" track, under the direction of black-comedy sorceress SuzAnne Barabas and her three-player cast.

In the course of their extended first-act dialogue, Rep regulars Lynch and Pollard riff beyond their basic Odd Couple characterizations, into exchanges that carry trace elements of some classic comic duos — a little Abbott/Costello here; a bit of Groucho/Chico or even George/Kramer there.

Add newcomer Silverman for a kiss of Gracie Allen, and Pollard (who's onstage from the play's first moment to its last) is one busy foil — although of course, only a performer of his proven comedic skills can truly grasp the greatness of a superior "straight man."

Unanticipated stops

This is not to suggest that it's all "throw drama from the train" time here. Biguenet's script carries with it a smoldering undercurrent of class-warfare anger that's all but ripped screaming from today's headlines. That comes home to roost without waking up the neighborhood on arrival (it ought to be noted that Lynch is so perfectly attuned to the play's peculiar rhythms that he stakes absolute ownership of its final moments).

It's no spoiler to suggest that "Night Train" makes more than a few unanticipated stops, and that by the time it reaches the end of the line it will probably conjure thoughts of Hitchcock once more — not features like "North by Northwest" or "The Lady Vanishes," but the sardonic humor and plot twists that were a specialty of The Master's old TV anthology series. Just don't ask about the "MacGuffin" in the suitcase.

Set designer Jessica Parks' impressive cutaway railroad car — its deco-ish outer layer creating a proscenium that frames the action within — becomes a cinematic experience with the addition of videographer John Breitzman's passing-lights projections, and the hypnotic beat of a real-time train trip soundtrack; the actors choreographed to its every glitch, screech and stagger.

Amazingly Deceptive Night Train Speeds into Long Branch

Tangled Skirt
Michael Irvin Pollard, Philip Lynch and Maria Silverman

The less that you know about Night Train before you board the better that you will enjoy it. Even telling you how or why it works, or even the genres which it encompasses, will reduce your pleasure. It is extremely intelligent fun. The fun is of the variety which derives from watching the sleight of hand and brilliant quirkiness of a master magician. You certainly don't want to know in advance how it is done, and I'm not going to give a lot away. However, if you are in a position to get to NJ Rep this month, I suggest that you just go without reading further because anything said about Night Train has the potential to remove some of the edge from the proceedings. This world premiere play by New Orleans playwright John Biguenet was developed on a Studio Attachment at the National Theatre of Great Britain, which you may want to take as a further endorsement.

This is the story of three people in a first class compartment on a European style train in the middle of the night. Nothing happens that you haven't seen before, and you have a reasonable chance of figuring out what is going on here. However, if or when you do, you will have to be very steely to keep your compass. It is more likely that your compass will move in the right direction from time to time, only to veer wildly off course again.

The well dressed and well heeled Alex Hampton is joined in his first class compartment by a dodgy Max who is seeking refuge from the overly crowded and uncomfortable second class. Max is a smuggler, and is carrying bags filled with contraband from which he attempts to make some sales to Alex. It develops that Alex is a high finance banker with the National Bank. Max brings in his niece (she call him "Uncle Max"). She is ....

Under SuzAnne Barabas' astute direction, Michael Irvin Pollard (Hampton), Philip Lynch (Max) and Maria Silverman (Marta) each give necessarily tricky, complex performances. Most impressive is their intricate interaction which amuses us with its improbabilities as their identities and characters shift along with the ground under them without ever tempting us to throw up our hands and mentally disengage from the ride. Night Train likely would play best without an intermission.

As she does with uncanny regularity, resident set designer Jessica Parks has designed a crackerjack set which hurtles Night Train right into our laps. Parks has created a plush, anamorphic compartment with an effectively enormous width and narrow depth, and a sense of real presence to the corridor and train window and outside night. The result is that the auditorium feels as if it is an extension of the compartment. The illusion is completed with what appears to be digital projections simulating the area outside the train being passed in the night. The excellent work of Lighting Designer Jill Nagle is an integral part of the outstanding design. The costumes of Patricia E. Doherty are central to the delineation of the characters. In the case of costuming Maria Silverman (Marta), the costume designer combines with her canvas to define character.

Night Train is a Harold Pinter-esque nightmare with more than a soupçon of pulp fiction.

A CurtainUp New Jersey Review

Night Train

Well, you probably noticed this car is nearly deserted. Just you and me and that old couple in the compartment down at the other end. It's always the same. There's never anybody in first class at night. Like I said before, if you can afford the best, then why not wait until morning? And let me tell you, the thieves knowhow empty these cars are at night. What if you were to fall asleep and the conductor — or whoever, I don't mean to spread rumors — were to slip a little gas in here. — Max
Yankee Tavern
Maria Silverman making her New Jersey Repertory Company debut in Night Train (Photo: Suzanne Barabas)
he stage at the New Jersey Repertory Company is set for an old fashioned, enjoyably hokey mystery melodrama. It is most likely the present. The scene is an exceptionally roomy 1st class sleeping compartment on a train moving through the night to some unknown destination presumably somewhere in Eastern Europe. The elegance of first class is designated by the plush red velvet daybeds. The effect of the train in motion is created by the passing lights and shadows that flash by from the countryside (thanks to Jill Nagle's expert lighting effects). Nicely atmospheric, this is a nifty frame for the unsettlingly eerie doings that are about to happen on this Night Train a new play by John Biguenet. 

Alex (Michael Irvin Pollard), a well-dressed American business man isn't destined to be the compartment's sole occupant for very long. Max (Philip Lynch) a bearded, poorly attired man, presumably a native of the region, intrudes. The eyes of this admittedly second class passenger have a look of desperation as he suddenly proceeds to prompt and provoke responses from the unassuming and somewhat bewildered Alex. We can sense that his full-steam-ahead rather digressive chatter seems to be a ploy to put Alex off guard. Are they meant to be a devious conduit to entrapment? It is apparent to us, if not to Alex, that Max is a master at drawing the unsuspecting into a carefully woven web of subterfuge from which there may be no escape. 

We can, of course, detect from the outset that there is some sinister plot afoot. But what can it be? And what is Alex to do when Max brings Marta (Maria Silverman), an unhappy woman with a thick Polish (?) accent to his compartment. Left alone with Alex, Marta wastes no time, however, complicating matters by entreating, beguiling and seducing him. Are we surprised when Max returns to find Marta and Alex in . . . well, you know where this is going under SuzAnne Barabas's commendably abetting directing. 

This is exactly the kind of we-are-one-step-ahead-of-you-everybody's-in-on-it plot (except the antagonist) that fueled many B-movies during the 1930s and 1940s. Produced to accompany the main feature, those films were more often than not little more than an hour in length, modestly creepy and devilishly diverting. To be sure, it was a class of films that pre-dated and later defined the beginning of the Film Noir. 

The Night Train as written in dramatic form by Biguenet isn't the first or will it be the last to pay homage to that genre that also includes such vintage radio dramas as I Love a Mystery and Suspense. I was very conscious of Biguenet's deliberately synthetic writing style, its vivid implausibility being its main characteristic and also it main source of amusement. 

Lynch is standout as the slippery-tongued provocateur/perpetrator/enabler/survivor who has figured out every angle to make his life better for himself and his family in a country where life is undoubtedly hell. Silverman, who made her Broadway debut in Michael Mayer's revival of A View from the Bridge and now is making her N.J. Rep. debut, is terrific as Marta, an alluring conspirator without a conscience. Pollard's fine performance as the incomprehensibly susceptible Alex makes us suspect that what is happening to him may well be a dream. 

Biguenet, best known as an award-winning (O'Henry Award) author of short stories, has devised a nightmarish diversion that may not be as spine-chilling a mystery as we might prefer, but he has afforded us the opportunity to think about locking our compartments at night, especially when traveling on a night train.

On an airplane, many of us have found ourselves seated next to a fellow passenger who talks incessantly to us during the entire flight. At most, the situation is no more than a major annoyance; the plane is usually full of other people, and a flight attendant is just a button signal away should things get out of hand. Not so for Alex Hampton, the dapper banker at the heart of John Biguenet's engrossing comic-thriller, Night Train, now receiving its world première at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

Alone, late at night, on an old-fashioned European-style train, Alex Hampton finds his first class compartment invaded by Max, a disheveled, bearded, long-haired traveler who has left his crowded, noisy second class compartment for Alex's, there to ensconce himself for the rest of the journey. No use calling the conductors; Max informs him that they are probably asleep and, besides, they could be behind the gassing and robberies that often occur on night trains. Speaking nonstop, Max identifies himself as a "native of these parts," a member of the lower classes who doesn't have it as "cushy" as Alex, with his London-tailored suit and Argentine leather shoes. He stokes Alex's fears of robbery, suggests that Alex's young second wife is cheating on him with the gardener, and tells wildly contradictory stories about himself, his aspirations and his occupation.

With Alex's confidence in himself and his way of life quickly ebbing, Max brings his sultry, sexy "niece" Marta into the compartment to keep Alex company: "No point in living in a fool's paradise," he tells Alex. Multiple twists and turns ensue as the story speeds along before coming to an abrupt, and surprising, stop where all of our expectations—and Alex's—are stood on end.

Like the train that chugs along at a steady pace, SuzAnne Barabas has directed this surreal play so that the suspense never flags. Set designer Jessica Parks's spacious—yet claustrophobic, given the malevolent goings on—train compartment; Merek Royce Press's effective sound design; and Jill Nagle's atmospheric lighting add to the verisimilitude.

Barabas has assembled a first-rate cast to portray the trio involved in this intricate, bizarre dance. Michael Irvin Pollard's Alex Hampton morphs from a smug, rather snooty bourgeois banker into a cringing victim right before our eyes. He's ripe for the web of uncertainty and doubt deftly woven by Max. Philip Lynch's portrayal of his chameleon-like nemesis is nothing short of masterful. I got a headache just listening to him jabber on, jumping from one pronouncement to another, but his transformation from harmless chatterbox to malicious occurs in increments, thus taking us by surprise. Indeed, listen carefully to his yammering, for playwright Biguenet has sown his script with several clues as to what will eventually happen. And as Marta, Maria Silverman is surprising, as well. We feel sympathy for her at first but soon realize that she's not a woman to be tangled with.

This was my first visit to New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. Billing itself as "a Boutique Theater for Passionate Theater Goers," the tiny auditorium (if it can be called an auditorium, with fewer than 100 seats!) enhanced the feeling that we were stuck on the Night Train with Alex Hampton, with no way out. It's a chilling thought.

'Puma' review: Portrayal of celebrities is on target

Published: Wednesday, March 02, 2011, 8:00 AM
By Peter Filichia/For The Star-Ledger


SuzAnne Barabas     

Chris Vettel as James Stewart, John FitzGibbon as Erich Maria Remarque and Ylfa Edelstein as Marlene Dietrich in Puma.

F. Scott Fitzgerald believed that “The rich are different from you and me.”

Playwrights Julie Gilbert and Frank Evans aren’t so sure about that — even if the rich in question are celebrities.

In “Puma,” their play at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, the scribes show us Marlene Dietrich, James Stewart, Erich Maria Remarque and Paulette Goddard, all acting oh-so-civilized about the partners they’ve been bedding.

They’re not the only stars of yesteryear portrayed in a not-so-flattering light. Quite a few other famous names are matter-of-factly mentioned in the recitation of this quartet’s salacious pasts: “Tyrone and Spencer,” says Dietrich, “are last year’s models.”

But pretty soon, there’s an end to the civility. Ultimately, these star get as jealous as anyone else. Well, who knows how to handle love?

Younger theatergoers may need an explanation as to who these glamorous lovers are. Dietrich and Goddard were once movie stars — although the former was far more celebrated than the latter. Remarque wrote one of the world’s best anti-war novels, “All Quiet on the Western Front.” Those unaware of Stewart don’t have their TV sets on the right channel during Christmas season, when his most famous vehicle, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” is inescapable.

The playwrights give Remarque’s side of the story. He’s turning 65, and current wife, Goddard, is throwing him a party. Hitting that significant birthday makes Remarque assess his life, and that leads him to remember “my favorite poison: Puma” — which is his pet name for Dietrich.

Since the story focuses on stars of the black-and-white era, Jessica Parks’ handsome Art Deco set and costume designer Patricia E. Doherty’s sleek outfits use those colors, too. Only Dietrich gets colorful ensembles — so many, in fact, the company could probably mount another play with the budget they spent on her wardrobe.

Ylfa Edelstein is worth it. Under SuzAnne Barabas’ tasteful direction, she makes Dietrich a person, eschewing a camp variety show impersonation. Edelstein speaks with a sublte German accent. She has that oh-so-slow bat of the eyes that tells a man “I’m interested,” followed by the intense gaze that says “Do you dare?”

Gilbert and Evans have characterized her well. This Dietrich knows that sex will get her what she wants, so she hands it over with the same emotion she uses in removing a ketchup bottle cap. And yet, she goes to church almost as often as she goes out with men.

Christopher Vettel avoids doing a Jimmy Stewart “impression,” too. While he calmly lays out Stewart’s vocal tics and mannerisms, Vettel shows us a Stewart who isn’t performing for the camera; he’s off-duty, and just being himself. Vettel’s performance alone is worth the price of admission.

John FitzGibbon has been a mainstay of N.J. Rep for years, but here as Remarque, he gives his best performance yet. He’s a suave narrator — until he’s drawn into the action. Then he shows all the frustrations of a man in love with a woman he wishes he’d never met (on certain days of the week, anyway). “She will not be faithful to me,” he says with a brave and resigned smile. The look that follows shows how powerless he is.

As Goddard, Natalie Wilder doesn’t quite convey a siren who “took the starch out of Chaplin’s shorts.” Yet she does have a nice way with a line.

And there are so many funny lines that “Puma” threatens to become a comedy, if not a bedroom farce. It also feels crammed full of facts that the authors felt they just had to include. “Puma” ultimately may have succeeded better as a doorstop-thick biography — but FitzGibbon, Edelstein and Vettel ultimately make the experience worth watching.

"Puma" is a class act at NJ Rep

Mar. 2, 2011


John FitzGibbon and Ylfa Edelstein share a scene in "Puma," being staged in Long Branch by the New Jersey Repertory Company. / STAFF PHOTO: BOB BIELK

Written by TOM CHESEK

Time was, a first-night at the theater conjured visions of fur stoles and tuxes; of one's best jewels and top-shelf cocktails. While things haven't been that way for a while — not on Broadway, not anywhere — the folks at New Jersey Repertory Company have managed to open a brief and shining portal into a bygone world of backlit luster, sparkling repartee and extraordinary personalities who crackled with charisma. It's called "Puma" — and at the very least, it's something to dress up for.

That the fantasy land of this world premiere production exists in real-world space within the hard-luck downtown of its host stage is impressive enough. What's more amazing still is the realization that "Puma" is drawn as much from fact as from fantasy, if we're to take the play's lead character and inspiration at his word.

"Since this play is based on my diaries, I reserve the right to tell it my way," declares Erich Maria Remarque (John FitzGibbon) at the outset of the ensemble piece by Julie Gilbert and Frank Evans. "And since I'm a writer, I may take some license."
The author of "All Quiet on the Western Front" and other best-selling novels was a refugee from Nazi Germany who made his way to Paris, New York and ultimately Hollywood; a chronicler of a continent and a generation uprooted by two world wars — and, over the course of many years, a lover and "soul mate" to the great Marlene Dietrich (Ylfa Edelstein).

The screen goddess and stage chanteuse famously claimed some 5,000 male and female partners in her long life, and any one of her personal or professional relationships (actors Jean Gabin and Yul Brynner, director and mentor Josef von Sternberg) would have made a play in itself — but this is the story of Remarque and the points at which his life intersected with that of Dietrich, the very private public figure he liked to call "Puma," A name he also gave to his favorite car).

It's "Daddy" Remarque of whom the larger-than-life star says "you keep me mortal" — although that scarcely stops her from trysting with co-stars like rising young leading man James Stewart, a familiar figure who plays a prominent role in this decades-spanning story.
Christopher Vettel has the unenviable task of channeling the aw-shucks, all-American Jimmy Stewart; conveying the complex nature of the man behind the household face and voice, without lapsing into Rich Little casino impressionist shtick. It’s an assignment at which the actor succeeds on all counts — and he excels as well in a brief but memorable bit as a German passport agent.

As the equally iconic Dietrich — the kind of character who could only be credibly scripted by real life — Edelstein conguers a similarly daunting task with breathtaking panache. Looking every inch the radiant and glamorous ideal in her formal wear, lingerie and studio costumes, she’s also entirely comfortable as the apron-clad “very loyal mistress” who fusses with the schnitzel in the kitchen. Under the direction of SuzAnne Barabas, the formidable performer captures all facets of this unique gem — from her devil-may care sophisticated wit, to a jealousy and vulnerability that few were likely privy to.

Natalie Wilder, another frequent flyer in the NJ Rep stock company, appears here in three very different roles — as Remarque’s “sour-faced buttermilk Belgian waffle” of a first (and second) wife, as Stewart’s wife Gloria, and as the vivacious starlet Paulette Goddard, seen first on a “studio date” with Stewart and ultimately as the final Mrs. Remarque. The scene in which Wilder-as-Goddard dances with (and professes an encyclopedic knowledge of) the debonair man of letters is a particular high point in a play that’s engorged with them.
Since the real Remarque’s face and voice are hardly as stamped upon the cultural consciousness as those of the movie stars in his life, FitzGibbon has sufficient license to craft a characterization that plays to his strong points — not the least of which is an easy elegance and a marvelous voice that would not have been out of place on a golden age Hollywood sound stage.

There’s another star-quality ensemble at work here, and its presence is felt the moment the audience sets eyes upon the grand, deco-infused set by Jessica Parks — a representational (but somehow quite luxurious) environment in which the shimmering gray curtains and plaforms come alive with color under the lighting of Jill Nagle, who bathes her stars in otherworldly glows and sheens that would have seemed impossible outside of the movies.

Patricia Doherty — in perhaps the finest work of her long career — dresses the cast in a dazzling array of stylish and sophisticated period evening wear and casuals, and recreates the work of big-studio costume departments on what’s surely a tiny fraction of their budget.

Together with sound designer Merek Royce Press, the veteran NJ Rep family of designers and tech artists has puller out all the stops; enbracing this project with evident passion and transforming the modestly scaled stage into a brilliant escape from a grim and gritty Jersey Shore winter.

Puma review

Nita Congress · February 25, 2011

Pictured: John FitzGibbon and Yifa Edelstein in a scene from Puma (photo © SuzAnne Barabas)

“Rubies always put me in such a good frame of mind,” purrs Ylfa Edelstein as Marlene Dietrich, languidly admiring the latest loot from suave lover Erich Maria Remarque, smoothly played by John FitzGibbon.

That tells you everything you need to know about Puma, the 85th offering of the New JerseyRepertory Company: it’s hot, it’s dishy, it’s voluptuous.

Puma, in fact, sizzles. This true-life story of tempestuous, misbegotten lovers Dietrich and novelist Remarque (All Quiet on the Western Front) drips with passion and is staged with cool elegance. With four actors and one set, we span two continents, three decades, and innumerable licit and illicit love affairs.

The story is told from Remarque’s point of view. He narrates and comments on the action, then, through seamless theatrical magic, steps back in time to take part in the proceedings. In this way, he shows us scenes of his long relationship with Marlene -- whom he calls “puma,” for her careless, wild catlike manner—beginning in 1938 and ending with his death in 1970. Along the way, we meet in the flesh his current, then ex-, then next wives; and another of her lovers (Jimmy Stewart) and his wife. Implied is a whole passing scene of Hollywood in its Golden Age—Garbo and Davis, Jack Warner and Olivia de Havilland, Ingrid Bergman and Tyrone Power are among the many legends who parade by, primarily as the gleeful objects of Marlene’s pillow talk “shmutz” to Erich.

Against this glamorous backdrop, these two landsmann (Marlene’s characterization) in permanent exile from their native Germany, come together to shtup (again, Marlene’s characterization), shop, cook, eat, gossip, and—increasingly over the years—antagonize and upbraid. From the start, their relationship is unconventional and chaotic: both are married to other people, a circumstance they casually accept and do little over the years to change. They catalogue this unseen but acknowledged entourage shruggingly in their conversations: “the husband” (hers), “the child” (hers), “the mistress” (her husband’s).

The play fluidly, brilliantly, illuminates the arc of their relationship. Drawn to each other in Europe by pure sexual attraction, they come together in America as strangers in a strange land, sharing strudel and a cosmopolitan sensibility. As they acclimate and settle down and in, their differences come to the fore. Ostensibly, the arguments are about love and commitment. He calls her his “favorite form of torment” and tells us how he is “loving every hateful moment of it.” While she taunts him with her many amours—“I don’t sleep with a new one each night: I double up!”—it is she who gets to the crux of their problem, astutely telling the hard-drinking playboy (who earlier had ruefully noted that “Puma was still making movies, and I was still making love to movie stars”) that “where we disagree is work.” Ultimately, there is no sympathy in the Prussian Dietrich outlook for Remarque’s Young Werther, and they move on. But oh, when they burned!

Many talents have come together to make this smart, sexy, and sophisticated play work as beautifully as it does. First credit must go to the playwrights: Julie Gilbert (whose great aunt was Edna Ferber) and Frank Evans have written an intelligent, incisive, and insightful play, firmly based on Remarque’s diaries. Director SuzAnne Barabas, New Jersey Rep’s artistic director, has created a magical place for the drama where just a few steps downstage takes us to the mountains of 1930s Switzerland, a half-turn upstage takes us to a Hollywood bungalow of the forties, a sigh and a step stage left take us to Cartier’s. Barabas does wondrous things with time and space, but never does the time lag or the space lose us. The designers serve her exceedingly well, reinforcing my impression of New Jersey Rep’s consistently high-quality design work: The team of Jessica Parks (scenic design), Jill Nagle (lighting), and Patricia E. Doherty (costume) create a glorious art deco–flavored time of black, white, and chrome, sleekly complementing the action. And Merek Royce Press’s evocative Marlene Dietrich soundtrack played before curtain and during intermission had many of the audience singing “Falling in Love Again” as they left the theatre.

But it is the actors who bring this all to life, through seemingly effortless effort. A more debonair and charming European lover, shot through with perhaps a touch of self-loathing and despair, would be hard to find than John FitzGibbon in the central part. Ylfa Edelstein creates an utterly seductive, desirable, and unobtainable Marlene Dietrich. Their chemistry is palpable. They are ably supported by the quite remarkable Christopher Vettel, who has Jimmy Stewart’s boyish yet shrewd demeanor (and voice) nailed, and Natalie Wilder, who tackles several female roles including Paulette Goddard and Gloria Stewart. 

Puma: A Sophisticated, Adult Entertainment

Tangled Skirt
Chris Vettel, Ylfa Edelstein and John FitzGibbon

Puma is the title of the new play by Julie Gilbert and Frank Evans which depicts the three decade long passionate and tempestuous love affair between "All Quiet on the Western Front" author Erich Maria Remarque and international film star and chanteuse Marlene Dietrich. According to the play, Puma, the Latin name for the feline cougar or American mountain lion, was Remarque's affectionate nickname for Dietrich.

Puma is based upon the diaries of Remarque, and is told through his eyes. We are warned right up front that Remarque will fashion the story as he chooses to remember it. This disclaimer allows the authors the creative license to bend events and character to heighten the dramatic and emotional impact of their story. They accomplish this with remarkable effectiveness without undermining our belief.

The play begins in 1964 at the Ritz Towers Hotel in New York where Remarque is reluctantly partaking in a party celebrating his 65th birthday. He directly addresses the audience, taking us back to his remembered first meeting with Dietrich in the early 1930s at a cafe on the Lido in Venice. Both are married to others, but, within a short time, the pair are soon cohabitating in Paris and Switzerland, exiles from Germany and avowed enemies of its fascist Fuhrer. As the 1930s came to an end, Remarque and Dietrich had emigrated to the United States and settled in Hollywood where Dietrich had already become a reigning screen star and Remarque contributed to screenplays and continued to write novels.

Although they did not marry, in effect, throughout all their years together, the form of their relationship was that of an "open marriage" with both having many affairs and, in the case of Dietrich, extended to members of both sexes. Most predominantly featured in Puma are Dietrich's dalliances with her Destry Rides Againco-star James Stewart and Remarque's relationship with a coquettish Paulette Goddard, who is likely best remembered today for her role in Chaplin's The Great Dictator.

I am certain that many people, and not exclusively those under middle age, are not aware of these and later events in the lives of these former icons of our popular culture, so I'll refrain from any spoilers as to the ensuing years of their relationships. Suffice it to say that Julie Gilbert and Frank Evans recount the tale with sophistication, humor, pain and dimensionality. Dietrich and Goddard each get the short end of the stick. Dietrich and Remarque's strong attraction is mutual, but it is Dietrich who has the voracious sexual attitude that determines their relationship and combines with a streak of cruelty to undermine it. Goddard is depicted as a calculating, money hungry predator vixen. On the other hand, Remarque is a sophisticated, albeit hard drinking, gentleman who loves and is supportive of all the women in his wife. Even Jimmy Stewart is pretty much shown with his nice fella, unsophisticated screen persona as he apologizes to Remarque for getting into the sack with Dietrich. Remember, this is putatively the world according to Remarque.

Director SuzAnne Barabas has assembled an unusually strong cast whom she has directed in high theatrical style. John FitzGibbon brings continental charm and the sweetest German accent to the role of Remarque. He subtly shows us the pain in his voice and eyes which his passion brings him without ever abandoning the smooth facade with which Remarque presents himself. Ylfa Edelstein fully conveys the reserved, mysterious-appearing seductive beauty of the silver screen Dietrich. This is, believably, a Dietrich whose screen persona accompanied her through her private relationships.

Christopher Vettel is quite a pleasure as he successfully walks a very thin tightrope in recreating the distinctive voice and "ah, sucks" speech pattern and gestures of the real Jimmy Stewart while providing a dramatic persona which goes beyond being a mere impression. He also briefly plays an immigration officer. Natalie Wilder plays three featured roles, carving out distinct portrayals for Paulette Goddard, Jutta (Remarque's first wife) and Gloria (Stewart's wife).

A glamorous bedroom and sitting room set (Jessica Parks) with built-in art deco style lighting effects (Jill Nagle) serves for Puma's various locales. It simultaneously provides a sense of Hollywood and high style European glamour which enhances the production.

Remarque and Dietrich provide one another "schmootz"—scandalous stories about celebrities of the day—but Pima is not "schmootz". It is a stylish and sensitive account of the painful complexities of freewheeling, glamorous lives.


at New Jersey Repertory Company

Reviewed by Erik Haagensen, BackStage

FEBRUARY 28, 2011

  Photo by SuzAnne Barabas

"Puma" was German writer Erich Maria Remarque's nickname for his on-again, off-again lover of more than 30 years, Marlene Dietrich. Remarque's diaries have only recently been translated, after being kept in a bank vault since his death in 1970. Playwrights Julie Gilbert, author of several acclaimed biographies and a niece of "Show Boat" scribe Edna Ferber, and Frank Evans have used them as the basis for this new play, currently at New Jersey Repertory Company, in Long Branch. The promising script is in need of focusing and cutting, but thanks to SuzAnne Barabas' confident and seamless direction, a talented cast of four, and the imaginative work of design team Jessica Parks (set), Jill Nagle (lights), Patricia E. Doherty (costumes), and Merek Royce Press (sound), "Puma" is already a diverting experience.

When Remarque and Dietrich met—in Venice in 1937, according to the play—he was already the internationally lionized author of "All Quiet on the Western Front," an antiwar novel dramatizing Remarque's experiences fighting for the Kaiser in World War I. She, of course, was well on her way to becoming a film goddess. He was a restless exile, his views unwelcome in Nazi Germany, and she would soon join him in that status. Both were married, but that was no hindrance to their pursuit of sexual pleasure, especially for Dietrich, virtually voracious in taking endless lovers of both sexes, frequently simultaneously. 

The two live together in Paris until Dietrich can help Remarque get into the U.S., then must separate for appearances' sake in socially conservative America. He writes screenplays and becomes known in Hollywood. But after he suggests her for the lead in "Destry Rides Again," she responds by starting a serious affair with co-star Jimmy Stewart. Remarque and Dietrich periodically talk of marriage, but in the end neither really seems to want it. Ultimately, he divorces his first wife, weds fading film star Paulette Goddard, and returns to Europe, though he maintains a correspondence with the woman he considers to be the great love of his life.

Gilbert and Evans tell their story in flashback, setting the opening scene at Remarque's 65th birthday party. This allows the excellent John FitzGibbon to play the role, which he does with style and subtlety, navigating faultlessly between delivering narration and playing scenes. Effortlessly convincing in Remarque's European sophistication and piercing intelligence, FitzGibbon also excels at charting the character's journey from vibrant youth to health-challenged old age. He is matched by Ylfa Edelstein, as Dietrich. She has the unenviable task of playing a legend as a human being and succeeds admirably. Though she sounds uncannily like the star and physically evokes her to great effect, Edelstein's specific choices prevent any lapse into caricature.

Christopher Vettel is an intriguing Stewart, whose behavior here is considerably at odds with his public persona. Vettel employs the star's famous vocal cadences while highlighting an intriguing selfishness and darkness that suggest some of the actor's rather neurotic late-career work in films such as Hitchcock's "Vertigo." As Remarque's two wives and Stewart's eventual spouse, Natalie Wilder differentiates her characters cleanly.

The show's central problem is that the playwrights haven't decided why they are telling this story. Though these are fascinating people living in turbulent times, that's not enough. To properly soar, "Puma" needs to be more than just another showbiz tale. Still, kudos to the intrepid New Jersey Rep for giving Gilbert and Evans the opportunity to see what they've got. This scrappy company has produced 85 shows in 14 seasons, most of them original scripts. Judging from the packed and devoted audience at the show I attended, it is clearly doing something right.

'Puma' preview: Relationships of the rich and famous examined

Published: Friday, February 25, 2011, 7:56 AM
By Peter Filichia/For The Star-Ledger


SuzAnne Barabas     

John FitzGibbon as Erich Maria Remarque and Ylfa Edelstein as his longtime lover, Marlene Dietrich, in "Puma," at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

Here’s a question for women.

How would you feel if the man in your life had the same cute little nickname for you that he had for his car?

According to playwright Julie Gilbert, Marlene Dietrich, the former star of stage and screen, knew the feeling. “Erich Maria Remarque,” she says, citing Dietrich’s longtime lover, “called his Lancia ‘Puma’ — and called Marlene that, too.”

To add a second insult and injury to the first insult and injury, Remarque called the car “Puma One” and Dietrich “Puma Two.”

One would think that Remarque’s nicknames would mean that, to paraphrase the name of his most famous work, all would be not quiet on the western front. “Yes,” Gilbert simply says, making that one word sound definitive and speak volumes.

But conflict is what makes the stuff of good drama, which is why Gilbert and her writing partner Frank Evans have written a play about the notorious couple — called, fittingly enough, “Puma.” It’s the current attraction at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

The seed for the idea was planted in Gilbert’s head a few decades ago. In 1978, she had finished writing a biography of her great-aunt, Edna Ferber, the novelist (“Show Boat”) and playwright (“The Royal Family”). Harriet Pilpel, who had been Ferber’s lawyer, suggested that Gilbert next tackle another of her former clients: Erich Maria Remarque, best-known as the author of “All Quiet on the Western Front.”

“I didn’t do anything until 1990, when I stumbled on the obituary of Paulette Goddard,” Gilbert says, citing the Hollywood actress who had a flourishing career from the ’30s through the ’50s, and who once had been married to Remarque.

The obituary spurred Gilbert to further research Goddard. “I was the first person allowed to see her diaries,” she says. They contained so much fascinating information that Gilbert soon was working on a biography of the two. “Opposite Attraction” was published in 1995.

“What I found in the diaries,” she says, “is that while Goddard was married to Remarque, he had never got over his feelings for Marlene Dietrich.”

Further research showed that Dietrich and Remarque had a turbulent 45-year relationship. They had met while she was filming arguably her most famous film, “The Blue Angel,” in 1930.

“Starting in 1935, they lived together in Paris when they were already both rich and famous — and when she was already married,” Gilbert adds drolly. “Her husband Rudolf Sieber knew all about it, too. Marlene was a person who did everything she wanted.”

Gilbert then discovered that in the late ’30s, Remarque talked to his friend, movie producer Joe Pasternak, who was planning a film version of Max Brand’s novel “Destry Rides Again.” Remarque suggested Dietrich for the role, and Pasternak took the advice.

“The irony,” says Gilbert, “is that Paulette Goddard was originally sought — although Remarque didn’t know her yet, and certainly had no idea that she’d be his future wife.”

“Destry” is where the plot substantially thickens. “Dietrich met James Stewart, and they fell in love, too — and Stewart was seeing Olivia de Havilland at the time,” says Gilbert.

Now Dietrich, Remarque, Goddard and Stewart are all represented in “Puma.” The play starts at Remarque’s 65th birthday party in New York. There are flashbacks that take the audience to Paris, Germany, Beverly Hills and Hollywood. Befitting a story about people who worked in film, the approach is cinematic.

Says Gilbert: “And don’t think that everyone’s as civilized as Dietrich’s husband was about Remarque. Dietrich and Goddard hated each other.

“And I mean hated,” she says, hissing the verb with a sound worthy of a puma.

"Puma" brings Marlene Dietrich back in the flesh

From left: "Puma" features Christopher Vettel as Jimmy Stewart, Ylfa Edelstein as Marlene Dietrich and John FitzGibbon as Erich Maria Remarque. / STAFF PHOTO: BOB BIELK

Her films of the 1920s and 1930s stamped her indelible image and distinctive voice upon the cultural consciousness of two continents. Her concert audiences ranged from crowned heads and heads of state, to battle-weary GIs at the front lines of the Second World War.

She was hissed in her native Germany as a traitor. She was awarded the highest honors in her adopted American homeland. Her talents included the musical saw — and she numbered among her collaborators, co-stars and alleged conquests everyone from John Wayne, Joe DiMaggio and JFK to Burt Bacharach, Yul Brynner and David Bowie.

She was Marlene Dietrich (1901-1992) — and while we'll most certainly never see her like again, we're forever fortunate to have dozens of classic recordings from her signature "Falling in Love Again" to three different language versions of "Where Have All the Flowers Gone." There are, as well, such silver screen treasures as "The Blue Angel," "The Scarlet Empress," "Touch of Evil" and "Marlene," the amazing 1984 documentary produced with her full, if unseen, participation.

As proof of the iconic entertainer's power to reach across the decades, one need look no further than SuzAnne Barabas, artistic director and co-founder of New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. Young SuzAnne was present, seated next to her grandmother, at one of Dietrich's Tony-winning Broadway concerts in the 1960s — and nearly 20 years after the star's passing, Barabas pays tribute to Marlene, as director of the world premiere play "Puma."

Scripted by the play writing partners Julie Gilbert and Frank Evans (whose previous collaborations include a musical version of the 1930s hit "Dinner At Eight"), "Puma" presents a portrait of the private Dietrich, spanning the years in which the star transitioned from Hollywood goddess to tireless supporter of the Allied war effort, to New York based and internationally revered star of cabaret, casinos and concert halls.

"It was a very intriguing, bygone era," says Barabas about the carefully cultivated mystique maintained by the public-yet-private legend. "Nowadays of course, no celebrity can do anything without it going all around the world in seconds."

As aloof and secretive as Dietrich could often be, her star was not the sort to be dimmed by the rumors of lesbian liaisons, or of sexual partners that reportedly numbered more than 5,000 during her long life. To make things even more interesting, those one-night stands are placed into perspective by her 50-year marriage to assistant director Rudi Sieber, and her long-running relationships with the great filmmaker Josef von Sternberg and French actor Jean Gabin.

Still, when it came time to write about Dietrich, the playwrights referenced not their own imagination and conjecture, but a reliable first-person source — the diaries of best-selling novelist Erich Maria Remarque, Marlene's lover.

Remembered for his classic anti-war novel "All Quiet on the Western Front," Remarque came to the United States as a fellow German in exile. He was a dashing and celebrated man of letters whose 30-year affair with Dietrich would run from their first meeting in 1938, through his marriages to German actress Jutta Zambona and American screen queen Paulette Goddard.

Julie Gilbert, who previously drew from portions of the author's diaries for a book on Remarque and Goddard, came into possession of the unpublished journals as a member of a literary family (her great aunt was novelist and playwright Edna Ferber of "Showboat," "Giant" and Algonquin Round Table fame).

For this premiere production of "Puma" — the title refers to Erich's nickname for Marlene — Barabas cast New Jersey Rep newcomer Ylfa Edelstein as the dazzling Dietrich. She's joined by Rep regulars John FitzGibbon in the role of Remarque and Natalie Wilder doing triple duty as Zambona, Goddard and the wife of Jimmy Stewart.

Yes, that Jimmy Stewart — the all-American, good-guy Hollywood legend who co-starred with Dietrich in "Destry Rides Again." He figures prominently in "Puma" as well. He's portrayed by Chris Vettel in a way that the director characterizes as "doing justice to the man, without necessarily doing Jimmy Stewart the way that an impressionist would."

"I've learned a lot about these people, directing this play — a lot about Remarque, about Dietrich and Jimmy Stewart," Barabas adds. "They got along — let's put it that way!"

A small theater with a big mission

New works launched on NJ Rep stage
BY ANDREW DAVISON Staff Writer, Atlanticville

LONG BRANCH — A small theater on lower Broadway, the New Jersey Repertory Company (NJ Rep), continues to bring small plays with big ideas to a wide audience.

The company’s latest production, “Puma,” a play about the romance between Hollywood icon Marlene Dietrich and author Erich Maria Remarque by Julie Gilbert and Frank Evans, will have its world premiere at NJ Rep’s Lumia Theatre on Feb. 24.Producing world premiere plays is at the core of NJ Rep’s mission, according to Executive Producer Gabor Barabas.“We started a professional theater whose mission is to develop and produce new plays,” Barabas said.Every popular classic began its run as an original, unknown play.“If there were no theaters that focus primarily on new plays, then sooner or later the American theater would get anemic and begin to wither,” he said.

The company receives 750 domestic and international script submissions every year, according to Barabas.He and his team sort through these submissions and select six plays for full production and 25 plays for developmental readings, he explained.The chosen productions are extremely eclectic, Barabas said, and the team ultimately chooses whatever speaks to them.“We don’t adhere to any genre or any specific type of play,” he said, adding that the company has performed everything from dark comedies to musicals, the surreal to the straightforward.“We like plays that have big ideas or are breaking ground in some way.”

“We are looking for something that’s a bit different, because when you get 750 scripts, you get a lot of scripts that deal with the same thing in the same way.“We really enjoy a play that takes you somewhere you haven’t gone before or didn’t expect to go.”Before a play is optioned for full production, Barabas said, the company often conducts developmental readings where audiences can see a play come to life for the first time and talk to the playwright about it.“Aplay might read wonderfully, but it may not work on stage as well as you thought. Or a play might read a bit clunky, and yet when you see it on stage, it works much better than you imagined,” he said.

If the developmental readings go well, the company may commit to producing the play the following year, Barabas said.“Puma” went through such a process, artistic director SuzAnne Barabas said, including a table reading, script-inhand reading, and revisions throughout the rehearsals.“Every day we are in rehearsal, we make changes as well with the playwrights,” SuzAnne said.“You learn whole new things when you have people moving around on stage, and the actors themselves have questions.“It’s all part of the development process of the play,” she said.“That’s what’s very exciting, as opposed to doing a play that’s been done that is set in stone, … you can’t work on [things like] the dialogue, and here we still have that opportunity.”

Pursuing a mission of new plays, Gabor Barabas said, is not always easy.“There are some risks involved in focusing your season almost entirely on new plays,” he said.“At least on the surface, it’s an easier path if you’re doing established works.”He said that these well-known plays are easier to market because they already resonate with the audience and theatergoers largely know what to expect.“It’s another issue when you have a play whose title is totally unfamiliar to an audience and where the audience doesn’t have a full sense of what that play is about,” he said.

Despite these hardships, Barabas said the company has attracted a dedicated following in its 13 years.“We’ve gradually built an audience that is adventurous and enjoys seeing new works come to life,” he said.“It takes time to build that kind of audience.”Barabas said the company has about 600 subscribers who see every play

Eighty-five percent of their audience, Barabas said, travels between 45 minutes to two hours to the theater, and 9 percent trek down from New York City.“We’ve been here 13 years, yet there are a lot of people in the community who are not aware of this resource of having great theater in your own backyard,” Barabas said.This is not due to a lack of publicity, Barabas said, since the theater is often featured in local publications as well as The New York Times and Variety.

Many of the NJ Repertory Company’s plays incubate and grow in Long Branch before emerging onto the national, and sometimes international, theater scene.“It’s a remarkably good launching point,” Barabas said.“We really are making a contribution to the American stage, which was the intention all along.”Many of their developed plays, Barabas said, are picked up by theaters throughout the country, including stages in New York City, Indianapolis, Texas, California and even Australia.

“[Guests] are amazed to see that here we are kind of out of the way and yet we have this extensive reach and ability to really propel plays,” he said.“Engaging Shaw,” a play by John Morogiello about George Bernard Shaw, is one such success story.After NJ Rep developed and produced the original play, Abingdon Theater in New York City then produced it, Barabas said.“Now it’s at the Old Globe Theater in California, a huge theater, and it all started on our small stage,” he said.“We developed it, we produced it, we gave it the push, and now it’s being done around the country.”

In addition to catapulting fresh plays onto the national stage, Barabas said that NJ Rep also serves as a catalyst for Long Branch.Barabas, who practiced at Monmouth Medical Center as a neurologist for 30 years, said he knew the neighborhood quite well.“We felt that a theater would do the most to help revitalize lower Broadway and the community,” he said about choosing the theater’s location.“When we began, we were really the only thing, so it’s not like we had a lot of foot traffic from restaurants, clubs, a movie house or art galleries.

“Here, we truly draw people in and act like an economic engine, where we’re sending our guests to the local restaurants that they may not know about.”

Click Here for NY Times Review of The Tangled Skirt

Dark Doings In A Deserted Depot

"The Tangled Skirt" at New Jersey Rep

By Philip Dorian

The term "noir" was originally applied by French film critics to American black-and-white movies of the 1940s and early 50s with themes of menace and mystery. ('Noir' translates as 'black' - more loosely, 'dark'.) Generally featuring stoic tough-guys and glamorous, conniving women, many noir films were clearer in style than in substance. (Try recounting the plot details of The Maltese Falcon.)

The Tangled Skirt, having its world premier at New Jersey Repertory Company, is Steve Braunstein's attempt at true 3-D noir; that is, flesh-and-blood on stage. By and large, Braunstein succeeds in recreating the tone of the old flicks. He doesn't parody or plagiarize the genre; his characters, dialogue and setting smack of originality.

It's 2 a.m. in a dingy bus station in upstate New York (another excellent Jessica Parks-designed set). Self-proclaimed "teller of stories" Bailey Brice (Vince Nappo) is waiting for the bus to Thunder Bay, Ontario, when Rhonda Claire (Carmit Levité) walks in. She's everything a noir dame should be: tall, sultry and seductive in black pencil-skirt and stiletto heels, with scarlet-slash lips and fingernails to match. She's trouble, no doubt, long before she informs Bailey "I've been despicable longer than you have."

Neither Ms. Levite nor Mr. Nappo is despicable even for a minute. They - and the playwright - obviously did their homework. Under Evan Bergman's astute direction, Nappo and Levite spit out the clipped dialogue and navigate the bus station's angles like a cat-and-mouse encounter, with frequent role reversals. Nappo's natty Bailey is deceptively easy-going, and Levite captures Rhonda Claire's tough veneer to a tee.

There's a probable murder in the past, and one a few hours old in the town. The audience is hooked from the start, wondering who did what to whom and why. Not knowing for sure isn't just part of the fun; it is the fun.

That fun flags when the plot thickens and a more conventional mystery story unfolds. Noir has always been more about tone than topic, and while Tangled Skirt does end cryptically, it's only after Too Much Information.

Also, besides changing that awkward title, Bergman might re-consider the format. No 90-minute noir movie includes a mood-killing intermission. This play, even shorter, does. Having to rev up twice to the slick pace the script demands isn't fair to the audience...or to the actors. Once that pace is attained, twice if need be, the play offers a neat excursion into a late, lamented film-form. Skirt is a minor literary work, but it's not fluff.

The Tangled Skirt
: Stylish Hard Boiled Pulp Fiction with Tongue Planted Firmly in Cheek

Tangled Skirt
Carmit Levité and Vince Nappo
A sharply dressed man enters a small, deserted bus depot in the wee small hours of the morning, pulls a small voice recorder from his overnight bag, switches it on, and speaks into it:

There was no moon on this dark, dank night. The rain-slick streets a relentless reminder that this is indeed a slippery world. The faint light inside the teetering bus depot offered little illumination, emitting, instead, the fatal glimmer of dread. He sat alone in the deserted station, his isolation looming as its own unnerving threat. A prelude, a warning perhaps, of what this moonless night had in store for him. He wondered, if he vanished that night, never to be seen or heard from again, if anyone would know. If anyone would care. He knew the terrible answer, but was more concerned about getting a proper burial. Everyone should get a proper burial. Even people like him. But he knew, more likely, some overly curious kids, poking around where they shouldn't be poking, will find his bones, fifty years from now, brittle and nameless in the dirt. They'll be too dumb to know at that tender age that things you touch, especially things you shouldn't, become part of you forever.

Thus begins The Tangled Skirt, a world premiere play by Steve Braunstein which expertly and deliciously both honors and sends up the great hard-boiled stories and novels of such masters of the art as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and, later, John D. MacDonald.

Without going beyond its stylistic boundaries, Braunstein recreates the genre at its most purplish and overripe edge. The result is the highest form of literary satire, that is satire which clearly loves and respects its target. Both the format and essential subject here is the genre of pulp fiction itself.

Bailey Bryce, the dapper man who has entered the bus depot, is shortly followed in by Rhonda Claire (as she is addressed throughout by Bryce), who is a curvaceous, glamorously dressed, and surely deadly femme fatale. Rhonda Claire and Bailey are both awaiting a bus that will take them from this unnamed, dreary, tired tiny burg across the Canadian border to Thunder Bay. Rhonda Claire doesn't know Bailey and, at first, he doesn't appear to know her. We are kept guessing just who Bryce is and what he intends to accomplish. Given that this is a two-character play, it is amazing that there are so many twists and turns, and genuine surprises, to which Braunstein delightfully treats us in this tale of passion, greed, deceit and murder. Just when you think that you have it all figured out, The Twisted Skirt may add (I'm thinking, I'm thinking) an at-the-buzzer twist to further tickle the brain.

Carmit Levité is an amazing find for the role of Rhonda Claire. She gives the role her best Double Indemnity Barbara Stanwyck, and tops the screen legend with looks that make her a ringer for the painted redheaded femme fatale featured in the poster art for the Larry Gelbart/ Cy Coleman/ David Zippel City of Angels. To paraphrase Gelbart, Levité's legs are so long that they would go on forever if they weren't stopped by the floor. Vince Nappo gives a solid noirish performance as Bryce.

The scenic design by Jessica Parks is extraordinary. As I've noted before, the narrow, relatively deep stage has frequently provided well solved scenic challenges. However, Parks' work is unique in that it provides a sense of a large, complexly realistic area which appears to expand into the auditorium. Both sides of the stage are angled from near center stage at the rear out to the far corners at the front of the stage. However, there are alcoves and a part of a hallway at stage left beyond this framing that actually widen the playing area to full stage width, and also create a sense of additional space beyond. Strategically placed doors and windows add to the sense of spaciousness. There is a look of concrete solidarity to all of this which suggests an improbably high design budget. In any event, this set would be a valuable and fascinating study for students of set design.

Director Evan Bergman has deployed his actors well about the complex, deeply angled set so that the play never becomes visually static, and directed them to always maintain the stylization that the play requires. Patricia E. Doherty's stylish costumes also enhance the genre. This is particularly true for Rhonda Claire's black leather jacket over a black skirt with a dark red scarf at the neck and a matching dark red travelling case. When the jacket is removed, Rhonda Claire is seen to be wearing a white blouse. I would have thought that a black blouse would better fit her image, but that may be only an addition to the many reasons I do not design costumes.

I've been re-reading those opening lines from The Tangled Skirt quoted at the top of this review. They keep putting a smile on my face. If your reaction is the same, then you are bound to have a really good time now through January 23 at the New Jersey Rep.


'Tangled' up in blood, at NJ Rep

By TOM CHESEK • CORRESPONDENT • December 8, 2010
Pheonix Vaughn and Corey Tazmania<br>
in <i>The Housewives of Mannheim</i><br>
(© SuzAnne Barabas)
Carmit Levite and Vince Nappo are two strangers waiting for the last bus out of town in "The Tangled Skirt," the thriller now in its world premiere engagement at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. (PHOTO: SUZANNE BARABAS)

It's not far removed from something you half-remember in an early morning "Twilight Zone" episode — in fact, someone even alludes to the possibility of its being the waiting room of Hell. Then again, considering its proximity to the Canadian border, it might just be some Yooper town in Michigan.

Wherever it may sit on the map, the desolate and dirty bus station that forms the setting for "The Tangled Skirt" is one of those forgotten corners that exist almost outside of time and place - or at least a few steps behind the rest of the contemporary world, decorated as it is with pay phones, candy stands, analog wall clocks and (ahem) newspapers.

In the two-character thriller by Steve Braunstein (now onstage in its world-premiere engagement at New Jersey Repertory Company), this godforsaken nexus of Noir and Nowhere becomes temporary home to a pair of strangers, each of whom has their own compelling reason to be on that late-night last bus out of town. Given the way they look and talk, these lost souls could have escaped from the pulpy pages of a 1950s potboiler paperback — and indeed, Braunstein's taut script takes a great deal of its caffeinated energy from the sort of dime-novel tales that travelers might have enjoyed back when this dingy depot last had a coat of fresh paint.

First seen dictating some Spillane-style prose into a tape recorder, Bailey Bryce (Vince Nappo, who once portrayed Shakespeare's "Richard II" on a trapeze) is "a well-dressed weaver of tales, waiting for a bus or something greater" — the kind of small-town hustler who "would do a lot better with women if I were the last man on Earth." Ostensibly headed to Thunder Bay on business in the middle of the night, this too-talkative townie asks a lot of questions, jumps to a lot of conclusions, and always seems to be working some not-quite articulated agenda.

Then, as if called into being like a character conjured onto a microcassette, She walks in out of a murky night of barking dogs and wailing sirens — she being Rhonda Claire (Carmit Levite of the film "Zombie Strippers"), a stiletto-svelte redhead with "a mouth like a knife" and a need to "go home" in a hurry to a place that she makes no secret of detesting.

Taking high-ground advantage from her co-star in to-die-for heels, delivering her world-weary but wordly-wise dialogue in a voice that mixes classic Forties Femme Fatale notes with an alluring lisp (lending an unfortunate Looney Tunes lilt to her enunciation of the word "despicable"), the drop-dead gorgeous Levite seems to have slinked straight from the cover of a Jim Thompson novel — while Nappo, her worthy opponent in this round of head games, could well be the account rep in the next cubicle.

The whole genre of thrillers — at least ones that aren't strictly comic by nature — has been woefully under-represented onstage in recent years, and Braunstein displays an obvious affection and affinity for the Noir form, while the actors under the direction of Evan Bergman handle their dialogue-heavy parts with flair. Like the most sharply written Noir novels and screenplays, the script offers up plenty of quotable lines — with more than a modicum of laughs — and it wouldn't take much to camp this material up to the extreme, if so desired.

Trapped as they are by the vagaries of Destiny and the bus schedule, Rhonda and Bailey spend two real-time acts invading each other's space, delving into each other's sordid pasts, confessing sins, and working up to a shared secret that would be horrifyingly outlandish if it weren't so on-the-money for the genre. No, they don't talk or act like real people — and no, the story, when you get right down to it, doesn't make a whole hell of a lot of sense — but in the hands of Bergman (NJ Rep's "Place Setting" and "Poetic License"), "The Tangled Skirt" maintains a tense, sleepless dynamic that seems somehow comfortable within its claustrophobic night-owl world.

Set designer Jessica Parks has used the similarly claustrophobic dimensions of the NJ Rep stage to great advantage, boxing the actors into the grimy grey-green walls of her marvelously seedy station in a way that heightens the anxiety and makes their need to escape this place truly palpable. Lighting designer Jill Nagle has done some of her best work ever here — you'll believe it when that late bus finally pulls in, and if you look fast you'll get a kick out of that ominously prescient "candies" sign.

While the atmosphere may be thick with the ghosts of the past, "The Tangled Skirt" is as refreshingly removed from "A Christmas Carol" or any other holiday humbug as a theatergoer could wish for in this sickly-sweet stage season. The show continues until Jan. 23, 2011 with performances Thursdays through Sundays (holiday scheduling applies; no performances December 23 through Jan. 2).

'The Tangled Skirt': New drama weaves a 'Tangled' web

by Peter Filichia, The Star Ledger

We’ve heard of Southern accents and Boston accents. But is there such a thing as a Washington State accent?

Vince Nappo, a former resident of “The Evergreen State,” swears there is. “For example,” says the actor, “people there say ‘college’ very differently. ‘KAWL-edge.’ ”

Nappo is a graduate of Western Washington University in Bellingham. So he knows that the way he speaks — with an accent that comes from Woodhaven, Mich. — was not the reason he was chosen to play a native Washingtonian in “The Tangled Skirt.”

This new drama, written by Steve Braunstein, has its world premiere at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch this weekend. Nappo portrays Bailey Bryce, a self-proclaimed storyteller who is waiting at a bus stop just south of the Canadian border at midnight. Then a pretty young woman named Rhonda Claire saunters by.

“Actually,” says Nappo, “Rhonda is a genuine knockout — the type of woman who entices a man into killing her husband just to have a chance with her.”

In other words, a film noir siren. “Yes,” says Nappo. “It’s a contemporary version of film noir. There’ll be a lot of exciting and chilling things happening before its 90 minutes are up.”

Given that Bailey is a storyteller, Nappo wouldn’t mind if director Evan Bergman cast him for his abilities as a raconteur. Right now, Nappo is putting together a one-person show about growing up south of Detroit, where his mother “understood me from the day I was born” and his father was an assembly-line worker for Ford.

“He thought I’d wind up doing that, too,” says Nappo. “Of course he only wanted the best for me, which meant a steady paycheck. But then in high school, I got involved with the drama club and …”

He purposely lets the sentence trail off. Nappo knows he needn’t offer any additional explanation.

In the play, Bryce hasn’t had much of an education or a life, and that’s where he and Nappo part company. After he was graduated from Western Washington University, Nappo headed to the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff, Wales. Then he received his Master of Fine Arts at the National Conservatory in Denver.

Nappo’s work at both places helped him secure one of his most gratifying roles: Lorenzo, the Gentile suitor who wins the hand of Jessica, Shylock’s daughter in “The Merchant of Venice.”

“Not the one that’s on Broadway now with Al Pacino,” he says. “The one that was done off-Broadway three years ago with F. Murray Abraham as Shylock. In February, we’re reviving it New York. A little later, we’ll take it to Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles.”

With a name such as Nappo, one might assume that the actor has Italianate looks that would make him right for portraying a Venetian.

“Not at all,” he says. “I’m rather blond, and I get my looks from my mother, who’s from Hungarian and Scottish stock. In that way, I may be just right for Bailey Bryce.”

NJ Rep Puts Long Branch Center Stage in World of Theater

New Jersey Repertory Company is a fun experience for theater-goers

By Robert Kern, Long Branch Patch

If Gabor Barabas has his way, Long Branch may become the center of the universe for new playwrights looking to get their first exposure to an audience.

Thirteen years ago, Barabas and his wife, SuzAnne, decided there was "a paucity of theaters dedicated to new works." He walked away from a career as a pediatric neurologist and they went to work creating New Jersey Repertory Company, which was to be an anchor for an arts and entertainment district in Long Branch.

New Jersey Repertory Company is located at 179 Broadway in Long Branch.

The Barabases decided from the beginning to focus exclusively on world premiere productions to add a counterweight to the glut of plays produced over and over on stage.

"We look at a thousand scripts a year," he explained, "to produce only six or seven in a season. We have no particular genre or philosophy when selecting a play. We look for a unique voice and an engaging subject. We run the gamut."

The current show, "The Tangled Skirt" by Steve Braunstein, delves into the film noir genre. A two-character piece, it is filled with double meanings and wisecracks as two characters keep the audience guessing which one may (or may not) be the villain of the piece. Who walked in guilty and who walks out alive keeps the audience guessing up to the end.

It's relatively straight-forward, Barabas, explained, compared to the more experimental "Tilt Angel" done at the theater in 2005 and described by the playwright, Dan Dietz, as a "deadpan Tennessee fairy tale."

Barabas is obviously proud to report that many of the world premieres at NJ Rep have gone on to have additional productions elsewhere. "Out of the 60 or so productions, 20 have gone on to be published or produced in theaters in this country and abroad."

He pointed specifically to a recent production of "The Housewives of Mannheim," a nostalgic comic-drama set in a Brooklyn tenement in 1944.

It deals with "four women on the home front, living without their men, discover new dimensions of love, friendship and tolerance. They also discover that the freedom that comes with the end of the war and their returning men is a double-edged sword."

Barabas said that the play has gone on to productions in Indianapolis, Santa Barbara and 59E59 Theater in New York City.

"It's now under consideration for a larger New York theater," he said.

In addition to the Main Stage productions, they offer staged readings that give writers a chance to hear their works and get feedback from audiences.

Artistic successes like "Housewives" make the practical side of the business worth it.

When they started building their dream, the Barabases needed a home. At the same time Margaret and David Lumia had a building in Long Branch they were looking to donate to a nonprofit.

According to Barabas, "I met with them and they listened as I outlined our vision. After about half an hour and he stood up, shook my hand and said 'You have a home.'"

Hence, NJ Rep's home is gratefully named The Lumia Theater.

'Character Assassins' review: Writer and critic face off in comedy premiere

by Peter Filichia, The Star Ledger
Published: Thursday, September 30, 2010, 8:09 AM    
Updated: Thursday, September 30, 2010, 3:16 PM

At last! A play that shows how silly, inconsequential and vindictive theater critics can be! (And how playwrights can be exactly the same.)

Charlie Schulman, whose “Character Assassins” is enjoying a solid, comic production at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, does what the best playwrights do: He is fair to each party, examining both of his characters’ strengths, weaknesses and points of view.

The conflict starts immediately when playwright Jonathan Burns smashes his way into the apartment of critic Simon Frank — who recently panned his new opus. Jonathan is armed, but not dangerous. He’s more upset than vicious, so he’s soon wallowing in self-pity.

“It took me three years to write the play,” he moans. “You missed the point. You shouldn’t be a theater critic. You don’t know what you are talking about.”

Although Simon is initially scared by the gun, he soon sees that Jonathan isn’t a killer. And wouldn’t you know that he starts immediately criticizing the guy — insulting “the cloying banalities of your mind.” He also has some advice: “Most people abandon working in the arts,” he says in a no-nonsense, down-to-brass-tacks voice. Jonathan rebuts with one of Schulman’s best lines: “I gave up on giving up a long time ago.”

The playwright reasons that after newspapers and TV broadcast reports of his assault, there will be another assault — of morbidly curious ticket buyers storming the box office.

The conversation that ensues includes a raft of theater world clichés, including Simon’s insistence that “Critics don’t close plays, producers do.” (Yes, but producers wouldn’t close them if the critics hadn’t eviscerated the productions.) Jonathan indicts Simon for being clever at his expense. “It’s humiliation as entertainment,” he accurately states.

Both agree that “A good two-character play is hard to find” — but “Character Assassins” is one.

And yet, “Character Assassins” would soon run out of gas if it were just a polemic. But Schulman and able director Dana Benningfield purposely let the Long Branch audience know they’re just having fun. Every now and then, one or both of the actors will look out at the crowd to underline what’s just been said. While this sounds as if it could become pretentious, it’s very much in keeping with the light tone and surprise ending that Schulman has devised.

As Simon, Warren Kelly has the perfect unctuousness and supercilious air of one who always believes he’s correct. Brad Fraizer gives Jonathan the perfect sad-sack demeanor in the first act. In the second, Fraizer is asked to show a completely different side of Jonathan’s personality, and does it splendidly.

Simon mentions that many times “a theater critic must explode with enthusiasm” for a play he likes but doesn’t love. The reason is that readers need exciting adjectives and lavish praise to get them out of their homes and to a box office.

He’s right. Critics have indeed been known to over-praise in order to help a production.

But this is not one of those times.

'Assassins' aims to knock 'em dead

By TOM CHESEK • CORRESPONDENT • September 24, 2010

The scene is the tastefully appointed, book-lined apartment of a big-city theater critic — a figure of enormous influence; one whose merest shrug can ignite a star, or strangle a career cold in its cradle. A figure whose smug reverie is about to get interruptus, when a disappointed playwright comes knocking at the door.

Well, "disappointed" is hardly the word. Neither, for that matter, is "knocking."

Hold that thought for a moment — and consider a world in which there are such things as kick-ass dramatists; a world in which theater reviewers are actually taken seriously, let alone treated with deference at Motor Vehicles. Who writes this stuff, anyway?

A celebrated playwright, as it turns out — and in the case of New York City native Charlie Schulman, his script "Character Assassins" takes the artist-and-critic relationship to a place where just about every writer has dreamed of going at some point, even if they ultimately couldn't summon the guts to commit their personal revenge fantasies to paper.

Schulman, whose produced works include the award winner "The Birthday Present" and a merry musical called "The Fartiste," has not only cut in on that delicate dance, but taken it 10 steps beyond, as "Character Assassins" prepares to make its world premiere this weekend on the stage of New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

The two-character show is directed by longtime Rep regular Dana Benningfield, a performer whose warmth, intelligence and (apparently effortless) elegance have shone through in such past productions as "Winterizing the Summer House" and "Lemonade." While she remains offstage for this project, Benningfield (who made her directorial debut at NJ Rep in 2005) has staked a personal interest in its progress, having helped shepherd it through development since presenting the script as one of the company's Monday evening reading series.

"Charlie's been really great throughout the whole process," says Benningfield of the playwright, who paid a house call during rehearsals in Long Branch. As the director tells it, Schulman began writing 'Assassins' during a time in which "he was frustrated trying to mount a musical; frustrated with the business — he wanted to write something that the business would be interested in."

What resulted was not, as Benningfield stresses, so much a story of revenge (although it does boast "doors torn from their hinges, police sirens, calls to 911, and a gun") as it is "a dialogue about what makes a good play — but it's not just two talking heads either."

"There's some suspense to it," observes the director in likening it to such deliciously brainteasing duets as "Sleuth" and "Deathtrap."

The scene is the tastefully appointed, book-lined apartment of a big-city theater critic — a figure of enormous influence; one whose merest shrug can ignite a star, or strangle a career cold in its cradle. A figure whose smug reverie is about to get interruptus, when a disappointed playwright comes knocking at the door.

Well, "disappointed" is hardly the word. Neither, for that matter, is "knocking."

Hold that thought for a moment — and consider a world in which there are such things as kick-ass dramatists; a world in which theater reviewers are actually taken seriously, let alone treated with deference at Motor Vehicles. Who writes this stuff, anyway?

A celebrated playwright, as it turns out — and in the case of New York City native Charlie Schulman, his script "Character Assassins" takes the artist-and-critic relationship to a place where just about every writer has dreamed of going at some point, even if they ultimately couldn't summon the guts to commit their personal revenge fantasies to paper.

Schulman, whose produced works include the award winner "The Birthday Present" and a merry musical called "The Fartiste," has not only cut in on that delicate dance, but taken it 10 steps beyond, as "Character Assassins" prepares to make its world premiere this weekend on the stage of New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

The two-character show is directed by longtime Rep regular Dana Benningfield, a performer whose warmth, intelligence and (apparently effortless) elegance have shone through in such past productions as "Winterizing the Summer House" and "Lemonade." While she remains offstage for this project, Benningfield (who made her directorial debut at NJ Rep in 2005) has staked a personal interest in its progress, having helped shepherd it through development since presenting the script as one of the company's Monday evening reading series.

"Charlie's been really great throughout the whole process," says Benningfield of the playwright, who paid a house call during rehearsals in Long Branch. As the director tells it, Schulman began writing 'Assassins' during a time in which "he was frustrated trying to mount a musical; frustrated with the business — he wanted to write something that the business would be interested in."

What resulted was not, as Benningfield stresses, so much a story of revenge (although it does boast "doors torn from their hinges, police sirens, calls to 911, and a gun") as it is "a dialogue about what makes a good play — but it's not just two talking heads either."

"There's some suspense to it," observes the director in likening it to such deliciously brainteasing duets as "Sleuth" and "Deathtrap."

"It's a play that mocks itself; comments upon itself — it's a real comedy mystery; the kind of play where you could come back again and see something totally different."

Charged with realizing this "comic thriller with more twists and turns than the Colorado winding its way through the Grand Canyon" is Brad Fraizer — a newcomer to NJ Rep who co-stars as Jonathan Burns, a once-lauded playwright driven to drink (and the brink) by the relentless panning of his work. He's joined by Warren Kelley, a familiar face on the Long Branch stage ("Evie's Waltz," "The Little Hours"), as the man with the pan, critic Simon Frank.

Do we detect a sideswipe at the legendary New York reviewers John Simon and Frank Rich? While Benningfield allows that "there was a day and age when a John Simon could take a play down," these days it's more common to find "critics being champions for writers — there's a relationship there, a common interest."

Indeed, in the world of Schulman's play, very little is reportedly as it might first appear — even Simon Frank, who is described by the director as "not simply a judge, but someone with a real philosophy, a passion for theater" (none of which is to suggest that he doesn't get off a couple of acerbic zingers at the expense of the humiliated scribe). review

Nita Congress · September 23, 2010

It is a dark and stormy night, and a writer is typing at his keyboard.

Thunder, lightning, a loud knock at the door. An intruder in a ski mask. An altercation, an accusation, a revelation. The game is afoot.

Against a backdrop of every hoary cliche in the book, Character Assassins marries thriller to comedy in the temple of the Theatre, in the process eviscerating writers and critics alike. It is a literate and clever piece, evoking Sleuth, Mamet, and all things dark and twisty in between. As the press materials state, it's a "knowing backstage play that skewers knowing backstage plays."

And it's very funny.

Miserably failed playwright Jonathan Burns has decided to take revenge on fabulously successful theatre critic Simon Frank, who has savaged his latest play. The tables turn, and turn again, and maybe thrice more, in a 90-minute arm-wrestle between these two very sharp—in all senses of the word—protagonists.

Not too much more can safely be said about the plot, but much praise needs to be heaped on the two very skillful actors who carry it out. Warren Kelley plays Simon Frank with an air of affected disdain redolent of theatre critics who only exist in movies and plays—think Addison DeWitt and Sheridan Whiteside—and yet avoids making him a caricature. And Brad Fraizer's worm effortlessly turns, swiftly powering back and forth from desperate drunk to Gordon Gekko. Director Dana Benningfield keeps the play moving quickly and tightly, ratcheting up the suspense as the play moves toward what the characters, talking shop, praise as an inevitable ending that is nonetheless surprising.

Playwright Charlie Schulman draws on an obvious wealth of theatrical familiarity. Crackling observations and dry digressions evoke, invoke—and likely provoke—Chekhov, Beckett, Ibsen, O'Neill, Shakespeare, and their ilk. (A drunken Jonathan Burns muses as to where Nora was going at that hour of the night anyway?) The art and craft of making theatre are smartly dealt with (Notes Jonathan, plaintively reflecting on the advantages of heightened dramatic time in a play, where actions can unspool swiftly or slowly: "In life, things last too long or not long enough."), along with the relentless politics, personalities, and general cluelessness of the whole play-making enterprise. But counterbalancing the arch and the wry is a genuine appreciation of the theatre and what it can do when it's at its best: lift us up, take us away, and bring us back ennobled and enlightened.

This comic thriller may not do all that, but it makes for a thoroughly entertaining evening, with high production values and strong acting. Particularly deserving mention is the terrific lighting design by Jill Nagle; her opening thunderstorm rivaled any seen on the shore this week. And Jessica Parks's set—Simon Frank's tony uptown apartment—is tasteful, intelligent, and interesting, lightly underscoring the character's pretensions and love of creature comforts.

"Assassins" is a comedy thriller

By TOM CHESEK • CORRESPONDENT • September 29, 2010

It's a "cheaply constructed house of mirrors." A "self-indulgent, masturbatory exercise."

That's not this reviewer talking. It's the eminent (and fictional) drama critic Simon Frank — and he's savaging a play called "Character Assassins," a script that he himself happens to have authored. It all takes place within a real-life play that's also called "Character Assassins," a fun little show now in its world premiere engagement at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

As to the question of why Simon (NJ Rep company regular Warren Kelley) is being so unkind to his own creation — or why he chooses to retain someone to front as the actual author of the play - well, that's complicated. Or rather, it's "twisty" — which can be infinitely more entertaining than "complicated," provided you don't think about it too terribly much.

In Charlie Schulman's script, a very upset playwright named Jonathan Burns (Brad Fraizer) kicks in the door to Simon's Upper West Side apartment one dark and stormy night, armed with a potentially loaded handgun and a scheme of sorts (something about taking the critic hostage, thereby bumping up publicity for his failing show); a scheme that's unfortunately as well thought-out as the plotline to his critically panned play.

This matters not a bit, as Jonathan's scheme is quickly tabled in favor of an alternate plan from Simon. Seems that the reviewer (who adamantly denies the observation that "nobody actually grows up wanting to be a theater critic") has penned a play of his own; a two-character "comedy thriller with a heart" that he'd love to see produced — although to put his own name on it would make him fair game to an army of enemies, real or imagined. The solution? Salvage Jonathan's wounded reputation by presenting him as the author of this brilliance, and then call a press conference in which the reviewer stands revealed as the true artist. In the process, nobody gets shot, nobody goes to jail - and the Bialystock-Bloom partnership could not have engineered a more airtight strategy.

Of course, none of this really needs to make any sense whatsoever, as Schulman and director Dana Benningfield waste little time in making it clear that these two characters are very aware of the fact that they are themselves actors on a stage. Referencing and commenting upon itself in some often inventive ways, "Character Assassins" does for theatrical convention what the "Scream" movies did for slasher flicks — such as a reminder that "a gun introduced in the first act must be fired in the third act."

But wait, isn't this just a two-act play?

Don't tear down this wall

Relax, and let Schulman and company carry you along their twist-kissed path. The people in charge have it covered — and while things don't exactly run too deep here, they do go broad, early and often. With the "fourth wall" of the stage left in the same tattered condition as Simon's front door, the floodgates are open for Fraizer and Kelley to shoot quizzical glances at the audience, invite reactions and otherwise step outside themselves to an extent that's often silly and downright surreal (which is not to suggest that the most telegraphed gags always get the biggest laughs). In that respect, one can view it as a crazy person's "Deathtrap" — or a slightly more rational person's "Accomplice," the Rupert Holmes shaggydog tale that reappears in October at Beach Haven's Surflight Theatre.

Benningfield, herself a Rep regular as an actor, manages to dial back the dumbness in time for her two-man cast to conjure a consistent groove in the play's second half. With the balance of power and the mojo shifting back and forth between the critic and the playwright, Kelley and Fraizer find their marks as characters who transition from smarmy controllers to desperate plotters. And don't even bring up the unseen girlfriend that the two apparently share — a device that allows "Assassins" to fulfill its self-ordained destiny as "a two-character play with a twist — a third character!"

To spoil out any more of the show's twists — and twists again — would be as punishable by death as it would be pointless. Packed as it is with sly winks at the whole self-important theater game, "Character Assassins" ultimately is all about the ride — and, in the end, quite possibly critic-proof.

NJ Rep takes "Housewives' to NY

Shore stage company takes its most acclaimed play to New York


Placed in the heart of 1940s Brooklyn — a setting in which the men are away at war, and the women are engaged in their own alliances and battles — "The Housewives of Mannheim" tells the story of a young wife and mother whose entire existence is thrown off its axis when she's given a glimpse of the world that lies both beyond and within the kitchens, clotheslines and fire escapes of Flatbush.

The memory play by Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Alan Brody received its world premiere in the spring of 2009 at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, in a production that was an across-the-board hit with audiences and the subject of superlative reviews from the media — including the Asbury Park Press.

It was a production that the forever forward-thinking NJ Rep and artistic director SuzAnne Barabas took an exceptional amount of pride in — and, in an echo of the yearnings experienced by the character May, it was a show that looked beyond the neighborhood of its birth, to the big world beyond.

Earlier this year, Barabas traveled to Indianapolis to direct another production of "Housewives" for that city's Phoenix Theatre. Beginning Friday, May 6, the original NJ Rep cast of "Housewives" convenes once more when the play comes to 59E59 Theaters in Manhattan as the first-ever New York production in NJ Rep's 11-year history.

It's a momentous occasion for the Rep regulars — as well as a step toward the sort of endeavor that famed troupes like Chicago's Steppenwolf company specialize in — and it traces its genesis back to discussions that SuzAnne and her husband, executive producer Gabor Barabas, had with Elysabeth Kleinhans, founder of the performing arts complex that's located (as you might have guessed) at 59 East 59th St., between Park and Madison Avenues.

While the producers didn't immediately settle upon "Housewives"as their maiden vehicle in New York City — the NJ Rep resume boasts dozens of new offerings, including one ("Engaging Shaw") that's currently on view off-Broadway — the ensemble drama increasingly made sense as a calling-card for the company, particularly in light of the rave reviews coming out of Indianapolis.

"The play really resonated with the Midwest audiences, every bit as much as it did here in Long Branch," Barabas explains. "All audiences seem to really enjoy it, and to find something to identify with here." With Barabas back at the helm and playwright Brody refining and strengthening the script, the production briefly flirted with the prospect of casting one or more well known actresses — a set of discussions that broke down when the director realized that the name players all had "certain demands that had to be met — there were calls for us to build up the roles beyond what we were comfortable with."

The only logical solution was to go with the quartet of actors who originated the parts back in Long Branch — including Pheonix Vaughn, who steps back into the role of May immediately after finishing her stint this weekend in the current NJ Rep production, the dark comic thriller "Yankee Tavern." Lauren Briggeman replaces Vaughn for the remainder of the run.

Vaughn is joined in New York by "the four actors are so into their roles, so protective of who they are — they own them," explains Barabas.

"It's an unusual chance for us," she said. "We can dig deeper into these characters than ever before."

A gut-wrenching play of raw emotions — and the kind of rapt, appreciative silences that are even more priceless than cheers — "The Housewives of Mannheim" opens May 6 and continues through June 6 with performances Tuesday through Saturday evenings (plus selected Sundays), plus Saturday and Sunday matinees. Ticket reservations, showtimes and additional information is available by calling (212)279-4200 or visiting .

The Housewives of Mannheim

Reviewed By: Sandy MacDonald · May 15, 2010  · New York

Pheonix Vaughn and Corey Tazmania<br>
in <i>The Housewives of Mannheim</i><br>
(© SuzAnne Barabas)
Pheonix Vaughn and Corey Tazmania
in The Housewives of Mannheim
(© SuzAnne Barabas)
Jessica L. Parks' set for Alan Brody's nuanced 1944-set-drama The Housewives of Mannheim, now at 59E59Theaters, is so true to the movie norm of the day you half expect the actors to materialize in black and white. The tidy Brooklyn kitchen, with its gas stove and new-fangled "fridge," belongs to May (Pheonix Vaughn), who is as Betty Grable-pretty as she is unsophisticated.

We first see her sneaking a peek at an oversize book, which she's quick to hide when a neighbor, Alice (Wendy Peace), comes kibitzing, hoping to cadge some spare labels. Alice fancies herself a contest queen, even if the winners are "always from someplace in South Dakota." She's also the self-appointed neighborhood snoop: unprompted, she provides an itemized list of the furniture -- including a grand piano -- being funneled into a turned-over apartment.

The complex's new tenant, Sophie (Natalie Mosco, true to character but nonetheless affected), an elegant German widow whose career as concert pianist was quashed by Nazism, will soon put in an appearance -- but not before May's closest friend, Billie (Corey Tazmania), blows in, peddling linens and using language that would make a sailor blush.

Billie's an original, no doubt about it, and the atmosphere starts to crackle the minute she shows up. Not only does Tazmania defy you to take your eyes off her, but her Billie is aboil with as yet unexpressed passions, and not just for selvage and Chantilly lace.

Meanwhile, Sophie proves a catalyst for May. During her husband's long absence overseas, May has begun to develop some cultural curiosity and personal ambition. After hearing about the fictional Vermeer painting that gives the show its title discussed on a radio talk show, she has actually taken the initiative to go into Manhattan and visit the Metropolitan Museum -- and she's now eager to broaden her horizons further before resuming the role of dutiful spouse. May gloms onto this visitor from a far more rarefied milieu like a schoolgirl with a crush, and her new allegiance proves a tipping point for Billie's own long-suppressed obsession.

Brody and director SuzAnne Barabas handles the ensuing seduction scene -- and its chastening aftermath -- with extraordinary sensitivity, even if it somewhat schematically draws parallels between anti-Semitism and the intolerance that continues to surround sexual preference. May is revealed to be more clued-in than she lets on; still, it's difficult to imagine someone quite so gushily naïve to begin with.

The Housewives of Mannheim

Review by Tulis McCall (15 May 2010), New York Theatre Guide


If you are following my reviews then you will know that there is a passel of good story telling going on around town. May Black (Phoenix Vaughn) is fresh from visiting an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is a trip about which she is reluctant to speak, because going all the way into Manhattan, alone, is not something a woman like May is supposed to do in 1944 (unless of course she had a job, which anyway was only to last until her husband got home). A solo trip to Manhattan was especially not the thing to do if the expressed purpose of the trip was to see a painting that was hanging in a museum. If women who lived near Kings Highway wanted to see art, they could look at a movie magazine. That was plenty good enough.

So when our gal May makes it to the Met to see the rare Vermeer painting called The Housewives of Mannheim (a fictional painting that is s composite of several Vermeers)– she is bowled over by her own daring, and then bowled over by the painting itself. These were real live women, not movie stars, and they must have felt trapped in their lives because they only see the present. The future is unimaginable. May knows this because that is how she feels, and somehow the 400 year old painting opens a window in her life and lets in new light.

With new light comes new observations. They start tumbling out of May faster than she can speak. This frightens one neighbor Alice (Wendy Peace) but thrills another, Billie (Corey Tazmania) and her newest neighbor Sophie (Nantalie Moscco). May’s life picks up speed. She thinks about attending college. She buys an art book. She attends a Bohemian party. Then she takes one step too many and life spins out of control.

Alan Brody does a pretty good job of defining these women for us. (If you want another example of this subject see Swing Shift, with Goldie Hawn and Christine Lahti, directed by Jonathan Demme.) Housewives of Manheim has a story line that is not only refreshing, it is provocative, and it is way past time for this subject was examined without the cheesecloth filter over the camera lense. These are our mothers and grandmothers. Their stories deserve our attention.

While our nation’s chroniclers go bonkers defining and honoring The Greatest Generation, it is the men about which most of the hooplah is written. The women who greased the wheels of the war machine, who put down roots and created stability while men were off making war, who raised families and held down full time jobs simultaneously – these people get short shrift. The history books would have us think that the country was on Pause while men, and let us not forget the thousands of women service personnel, were fighting in WWII. This is simply not so. But the myth as accepted makes the glass ceiling for millions of women all over the world stronger.

So congratulations to Alan Brody and New Jersey Rep for giving this story legs. While most of the acting and text may not overwhelm you, the story will stick to you like white on rice.

One quibble regarding the title: Housewives of Manheim is a sucky title. Number one – Vermeer never referenced his subjects as housewives – “Woman”, “Lacemaker”, “Maiden”, “Girl” but not housewife. Mr. Brody goes to great lengths to make these women three-dimensional but his title makes this show sound like a reality series and undermines that effort and leads him away from his goal. Number two: I resent the term housewife. Women marry other people. They don’t marry houses.

The Housewives of Mannheim
By: Stewart Schulman

Pheonix Vaughn, Wendy Peace, and Corey Tazmania. 
Photo credit: SuzAnne Barabas 
When we look at an image, a scene in a painting for instance, how often do we take the time to wonder what the truth of that moment might have been when it was initially captured... perhaps some four-hundred years ago? That’s the question playwright Alan Brody asks us to ask ourselves as we watch the New York premiere of his compelling new play The Housewives Of Mannheim, currently running off-Broadway as part of the Americas Off Broadway festival at the 59E59 Street theaters.
The time is 1944. World War II is in full throttle thousands of miles away. In the kitchen of an apartment in a high-rise building on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, three Jewish women, May, Alice and Billie, patiently wait for the safe return of their soldier husbands from overseas. The rhythm of their lives is slow. Children are cared for. Homes are maintained. They gossip, borrow coffee, trade ration cards and shop at Waldbaum’s and Loehman’s. Everything is status quo... till May, (a pretty, earnest, and subtly emotional Phoenix Vaughn), takes a step that forever changes her world. 
May has heard about a new Vermeer painting “The Housewives Of Mannheim”, currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In her desire to satisfy a budding curiosity about life’s possibilities beyond the walls of her modest two-bedroom home, she ventures out to see it. Quite to her surprise, as she views the Dutch Baroque painting, she begins to reflect upon who these women really were and what their  lives were like. And in that moment, something in the (fictitious) painting jump-starts a sense of wonderment and adventure in her. Suddenly, she understands that a whole new world of possibilities exists. Suddenly she’s full of questions. Suddenly May finds herself on a journey of self-discovery that will leave her questioning the very fabric of everything she believes to be right and true.
As May struggles to redefine herself and the direction of her life, her once solid friendships with Alice and Billie, the two women closest to her in her daily life, begin to redefine, as well. ‘Homemaker’ Alice (a prissily conservative Wendy Peace) grows threatened by May’s burgeoning lust for knowledge and experience; while ‘jokester’ Billie (a tough, brassy Corey Tazmania), grows increasingly intrigued and emboldened by May’s newfound adventurous spirit. This is all further complicated by the entrance into their quiet simple universe of cultured and worldly Sophie, (a flawlessly Parisian-Viennese-accented Natalie Mosco), a woman who has fled the Holocaust. It is Sophie’s appearance in May’s apartment that ultimately shifts the balances of power and friendship between the women and forces their lives to spiral off in new directions. Or does it? 
To give more away of the plot might undermine one’s fundamental enjoyment of the play. But suffice it to say, it is a piece worth seeing. “The Housewives Of Mannheim” is a thoughtful examination of perspective and the importance of vantage point. It is a play whose characters are asked to discover how drastically one’s views of the world can change simply by shifting where one stands. The women in that Brooklyn kitchen—who lead seemingly straightforward lives—experience great upheavals in their friendships, and are asked to brutally examine their loyalties, fears, jealousies and betrayals.
And it is interesting to realize—as one is given some insight into the moments in these women’s lives—how immensely different people’s existences truly are from the ‘snapshot’ impressions we form of them from but a cursory glance at their lives. And so, as we watch their stories unfold, beyond that ‘snapshot’, we begin to speculate about the lives of their predecessors too. We consider, just as May did, the existences of those women who lived four-hundred years before our Flatbush gals. The Dutch women performing their routine chores in a time before “The Great Wars”. Those women in the painting of the same name: “The Housewives of Mannheim”. And we attempt to imagine what their experiences and dreams might have been back then—before and after that ‘snapshot’ froze them forever on a canvas by Vermeer. But unfortunately... we’ll never really know. So we ask: Can we ever in fact judge anyone or anything fairly, from just a cursory glance? 
Which brings us to the most compelling question Brody’s play wants us to examine. It is in regard to the concept of “willful ignorance.” Early in the play the phrase is used to define the complicit inactions of the German and Austrian populations who turned blind eyes to the sufferings of their Jewish, homosexual and gypsy brethren. Later it describes those ordinary Americans—not unlike these housewives in Flatbush—whose unwillingness to grow past their own fear-based ignorance renders them deaf and mute to their own sufferings, as well as the suffering of others. And all throughout his affecting and demanding play, Mr. Brody is challenging us to ask ourselves if we are at all like them. And we do wonder. 
The production is beautifully directed by SuZanne Barabas. (It originally premiered at New Jersey Rep.) It has a marvelous realistic 1940’s kitchen set designed by Jessica Parks. Patricia E. Doherty’s ‘spot-on’ period costumes are brilliantly created to exist within the color palate of the set as well as the actual Vermeer painting itself—yet somehow you’d never notice this. The lighting design by Jill Nagle is lovely—especially the cool romantic blues she employs for the delicately directed seduction scene on the fire escape at the end of Act One. Even the sound design by Merek Royce Press is notable. The period music is well chosen and has been tweaked to emit the quiet haunting echo of a distant time.
There are many lovely moments throughout this production. For instance, the way May, in one simple gesture at the top of the show, removes dry clothes off a clothesline and the audience is swept back sixty-six years to a time not only before ipods... but before even the dream of a washer and dryer in every home. Or Sophie’s “Fourth Nocturne” recital reverie, where as she and May listen to her old recording, Sophie relives her glory days with a few simple gestures of piano ‘air fingering’. And where, with these gestures, we are transported back with her to a time in Vienna when life was still cultured and beautiful, and a hideous “willful ignorance” had not yet begun to rear its ugly head.
And of course there’s the final tableau, where the painting “The Housewives of Mannheim”, comes to life on stage. And in that glorious moment we realize that we’ve now ‘seen’ these ‘simple’ Flatbush housewives outside of their own ‘canvas’. And we begin to understand that beyond our initial snapshot impressions of them, these women lived immensely diverse and unexpected lives. As do we all. And then, as we’ve begun to understand and appreciate the intricacies of their struggles... we realize we’re all just creative souls yearning for that much more... each of us struggling every day to perfect the art of fully living our own lives. Stunning!

Adam Brody's play The Housewives of Mannheim Tackle the Female Identity

script by
Corey Tazmania, Pheonix Vaughn, Wendy Peace and Natalie Mosco

There are plays you see that make you question everything. They delight you, make you reminisce, as they bring up past memories and make you think. Alan Brody's, The Housewives of Mannheim, does all this and more. Set during World War II in a kitchen, in the suburbs of Brooklyn, The Housewives of Mannheim tackle the female identity, both sexually and intellectually. It is surprising that a man has such insight into women’s personal growth, friendship and innate prejudices. The 59E59 street Theatre B, has been transformed into a typical Brooklyn kitchen, where the dramas of four women’s lives unfold. May Black, thirty, beautiful and awakening for the first time, to who she is, has spent her entire life living up to everyones expectations, including her own. Alice Cohen is a narrow minded busybody, who represents society. The close-mindedness, the repressed, the critical, self-appointed, judge of morality. Billie Friedhoff is a women who makes jokes to cover up her feelings and speaks to shock, with the mouth of a sailor. Billie, is like those of us who want what we want, because we are damned if we do and damed if we don’t. All three are married, with husbands overseas, except Billie, who despises her still at home, dentist husband. They have become each others life supports, though each is drowning. Enter Sophie Birnbaum, a Jewish concert pianist who has escaped both Europe and Connecticut. She has moved to Brooklyn to start again. Her entrance into the fray has stirred up emotions, wills and things that have become stagnant, though it began before she arrived with May’s discovery of the Vermeer painting The Housewives of Mannheim. Act 1: cumulates as Billie throws caution to the wind and May, hesitantly explores. Act 2: The fear of going against the norm and being different, backs May into a corner, as emotions, brought forth with personal growth make her afraid of her own feelings and she attacks. Sophie, becomes the voice of reason, the hurt, the creativity that becomes stifled when forced to face the reality, that the human race is unkind and will kill what it does not understand. We all are all four women and the question becomes in what degree. Together their personalities make up the four corners of a box that society deems proper and normal and those who don’t fit are unjustly persecuted.

The cast is first rate. Pheonix Vaughn, as May is blissfully naive and we see her growth, as she subtly conveys the inner turmoil. Wendy Peace plays Alice’s faults, like a red badge of courage. Corey Tazmania, from the moment she walks on, commands us to see into her soul and Natalie Mosco’s Sophie, is the quintessence of dignity still held high nomatter the disappointment. Through SuzAnne Barbaras, direction these four women are given depth. Jessica L. Parks set, Jill Nagle’s lighting, Merek Royce Press’s sound and Patricia E. Doherty's period costumes contribute to the production's feel and drop us into the world of the 1940’s. But it is Mr. Brody’s words, that are the language that you want to wrap your mind around. He convey’s so much in what is not said. It is like watching an Albee Play.

For those who have the courage to examine themselves and the world around you, this play will thrill you.

The Housewives of Mannheim

Written by Alan Brody

Directed by Suzanne Barabas

59E59 Theaters

59 East 59th Street

Review by Iris Greenberger

Show Business Weekly theater review

Lost In Flatbush
Phoenix Vaughn and
Corey Tazmania in The
Housewives of Mannheim
(photo: SuzAnne Barabas)

New York theater lovers have cause to cheer. A beautifully acted production of The Housewives of Mannheim has arrived on the Upper East Side, courtesy of the New Jersey Repertory Company.

Set in an apartment house in Flatbush, Brooklyn, in 1944, the story centers around three housewives: May Black (Pheonix Vaugn) and Alice Cohen (Wendy Peace) — whose husbands are away in the service — and Billie Friedhoff (Corey Tazmania). The delicate balance of their friendships is upended with the arrival of Sophie Birnbaum (Natalie Mosco), their new neighbor.

Vaugn is perfect as May, the beautiful housewife who realizes she has gotten by so far on her looks and is “used to being good.” Feeling trapped in her current, safe life, she begins to explore with trepidation what lies beyond her sheltered existence. In another standout performance, Tazmania is first funny, then heart wrenching in the role of the street-smart, foul-mouthed Billie, May’s best friend. Unhappily married, she laments that her dentist husband is “missing the part of his brain that helps you sustain human conversation.” She’s been an outsider her whole life and has learned to rely on her sharp wit to survive. Mosco is haunting as Sophie, the Viennese concert pianist and widow who escaped the Nazis. Sophie eventually becomes a role model to May, who is fascinated by her European sophistication. As Alice, Peace is the least developed character in this fine ensemble; however, she is convincing as the building’s judgmental yenta who appears incapable of changing.

The character of Billie is based on the mother of playwright Alan Brody’s childhood best friend. Brody has a keen understanding of the way women think and feel, and his rich dialogue demonstrates insightfulness as he examines the themes of loneliness, friendship, loyalty, tolerance and the struggle for self-fulfillment. Jessica Parks’s wonderful scenic design and Patricia Doherty’s lovely costume choices enhance this engrossing drama.

Audience members who are curious as to what happens when the men come home and the families move to the suburbs will be pleased to know that Housewives is the first play in a trilogy, following with Victory Blues and Are You Popular?

New Jersey Repertory Company's Lovely Production of Alan Brody's Housewives of Mannheim Is A Stellar addition of 59E59's Americas Off Broadway
By Elyse Sommer

Original Review by Simon Saltzaman

I don't know anything anymore. Everyone around me tells me what it's right to want and to feel. And when I think something different, it frightens me. — May
Corey Tazmania, Pheonix Vaughn, Wendy Peace and Natalie Mosco
Simon Saltzman's did not go overboad in his enthusiasm for Alan Brody's The Housewives of Mannheim. Yes it's another World War II drama with music, costumes and scenic details to take us back to an era that seems to be a never ending source for dramatists and novelists. But it is indeed a standout, and New York theater goers are fortunate that they now have a chance to see the sensitively directed, beautifully detailed New Jersey premiere production with the actors who originally made each character a real, distinctive and unforgettable human beings.

Coming as it does at the end of a New York season that's been notable for being awash in gay-themed plays, both newly-conceived revivals and brand-new plays, the arrival of Brody's play in New York is especially timely. Unlike these plays, The Housewives of Mannheim tackles the much less explored subject of female sexual identity. Unlike any of these other plays bringing "the love that dare not speak its name" into the mainstream, this is not a Lesbian play — well, it is, in that it does address the women loving women issue. However, it does so as part of a much broader, more fully fleshed out story that examines matters of personal growth, friendship and prejudice. It uses the microcosm of a kitchen like millions of other kitchens to view the macrocosm of a world war which would change those on the home front and those in the forefront of the battle.

I'm not familiar with the layout of Ms. Barabas' theater where Simon saw and reviewed the play, but all those authentic details of May Black's kitchen have transferred just fine to 59E59's Theater B. — including the sheet on the clothesline so ingeniously used to project the Flemish painting from which the play takes its title and which the playwright subtly uses to remind us the centuries its taken for the daily little kitchen sink dramas of women's lives to evolve.

If I would add one quibble's to Simon's otherwise right on the mark review, it's that a sophisticated refugee like Sophie Birnbaum would be unlikely to move into a working class apartment building in Flatbush. In 1944 apartments between 90th and 110th street or further up in Washington Heights where many European refugees lived were no more expensive than apartments in Brooklyn and a more believable escape from Greenwich anti-semitism. But without Sophie's arrival to stir up the dormant emotions of the other women, we wouldn't have had as powerful a play so I guess Brody can be allowed this bit of poetic license.

As I became more and more involved with these women's lives, I found myself hoping that Mr. Brody was working on a follow-up that would extend this story to after the war so we could see what happens when the war ends and the men come back — something like Arlene Hutton's Nibroc Trilogy which followed its characters from the 1940s into the post War era, which began life a play at a time but is currently being frequently re-revived as an all-in-one event. Leafing through my press kit after the play ended I discovered that the playwright has anticipated my wish. The Housewives of Mannheim is, in fact, the first of a trilogy. The story will continue with Victory Blues about the husbands' return and "Are You Popular?" which moves them out of Brooklyn and into the suburbs. But don't wait for these still unproduced plays. This installment has enough power to stand on its own and shouldn't be missed.

The Housewives of Mannheim - Golden Girls meets The Goldbergs Off B'way

Oscar E. Moore “from the rear mezzanine” for Talk

What does it take to get a naïve woman to think for herself? What does it take to have a wife not miss her husband who is off fighting for his country? What does it take for a woman to be free enough to speak the truth about her innermost feelings for another woman?

To help you discover some very intriguing answers, go get yourself a ticket to a modest new play with some immodest ideas by Alan Brody - “The Housewives of Mannheim” that is sensitively directed by Suzanne Barabas and finely acted by the cast of four which has just opened at 59 E 59 Street Theaters. Originally produced by the New Jersey Repertory Company it has arrived in Manhattan with its original cast intact. And what a wonderful cast it is.

Four Jewish women, living in Brooklyn, during WWII. Husbands have gone off to war, leaving their wives behind to take care of the kids and wait for things to return to normal. Will they ever? After a new tenant – Sophie Birnbaum (Natalie Mosco) moves in with her piano that busy body Alice (Wendy Peace) can’t wait to describe to innocent and beautiful May (Pheonix Vaughn) over coffee in the richly detailed kitchen set by Jessica L. Parks we start to wonder.

The about to blossom May has begun to think what it would be like to be independent. She has uncharacteristically gone off to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan to see a painting attributed to Vermeer – The Housewives of Mannheim - women that appear to her to be trapped in their lives. So she is ripe for some new pleasures and even goes so far as to fill out an application to apply to college.

The arrival of the worldly wise widow Sophie (who has fled the Nazis and who was a concert pianist) is the catalyst that sets off a series of events that have been percolating for the past ten years. Billie (Corey Tazmania) sells fine linens to try to escape with her son from Brooklyn and an unhappy marriage to her dentist husband who remains on the home front. She’s the funny one. On the outside. Inside she harbors deep set feelings and fears that slowly emerge and culminate in her seductive dance after coming home tipsy from a Bohemian party with the newly thinking for herself and equally tipsy May. It’s one of the most sensitively directed and tasteful seduction scenes that you will ever see. All season long I have seen so many homosexual plays that I began to wonder, when will women get their turn. Well, this is it.

The dialogue by Alan Brody is rich in detail and humor. It’s a pleasure to hear these people speak with one another. His structure is also strong as are his characters. There is good story telling going on here. He makes all his points while keeping us interested throughout.

The use of period music between scenes is just another Midas touch.

How does May treat Billie after that fateful night? Will she accept Billie as she was before or reject her? It’s fascinating how this all plays out. And what will happen when the men finally do come home? For that we’ll have to wait for the next two installments of this trilogy of plays.

Wartime ‘Housewives’ Forge New Paths

Exposure Time
Phoenix Vaughn, Natalie Mosco and Corey Tazmania star in Alan Brody’s “The Housewives of Mannheim.”

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

by Ted Merwin

They may not all have turned into Rosie the Riveter, but women’s lives certainly changed once their men went off to battle. Alan Brody’s new play, “The Housewives of Mannheim,” focuses on four Jewish women living in the same apartment house in 1944 Flatbush who find different paths to growth and fulfillment in the absence of their husbands. When “Housewives” ran last year with the same cast at the New Jersey Rep in Long Branch, Robert L. Daniels of Variety called it a “keenly constructed and beautifully acted romantic drama.”

Directed by SuzAnne Barabas, “Housewives” revolves around a (fictitious) painting by Vermeer that shows four 17th-century Dutch women as they work together in the kitchen. May Black (Phoenix Vaughn) finds the painting at the Met and identifies with the figures who seem imprisoned in the domestic sphere.

The more conventionally minded Alice Cohen (Wendy Peace) cannot appreciate May’s dilemma, but May finds a ready listener in middle-aged Sophie Birnbaum (Natalie Mosco), a former Viennese concert pianist who has fled from the Nazis. But when May’s neighbor, Billie Friedhof (Corey Tazmania), tries to start a sexual relationship with her, May questions just how liberated she wants to be.

The playwright, who is a professor of theater at MIT, grew up in Brooklyn before moving to suburban Philadelphia in the 1950s and then returning to New York to study acting at Columbia with Uta Hagen. His first novel, “Coming To,” published in the 1970s, was hailed as the first feminist novel written by a man. His later work, including many plays, has often dealt with Jewish themes.

Among these dramatic works are “Inventions for Fathers and Sons,” about four generations of Jewish men in Brooklyn, and “The Company of Angels,” about a Yiddish theater company that toured the displaced persons camps after World War II. “Housewives” is the first play in a trilogy that continues with “Victory Blues,” which shows what happens when the husbands return, and “Are You Popular?,” which follows the families as they make the move to the suburbs.

In a telephone interview, Brody told The Jewish Week that the play is about “what happens when men were away and women discovered that they didn’t need to identify themselves only through their husbands.” When May visits the museum, he said, she “discovers a whole world of history and art that she never knew existed.”

Brody based the character of Billie on the mother of his best friend from childhood. “I could never find the way to realize her; then I found it and a lot of things coalesced.”

Like the building that his characters inhabit, Brody recalled that the apartment house where he grew up was a “high-rise village” for which the word “community” had not yet been invented. “We didn’t need to use that word,” he said. “It’s only when something dissipates that you put a name to it and try to get it back.”

  Click Here for The New York Times' Review of Yankee Tavern

'Yankee Tavern' stage review: Long Branch play something to toast about

By Peter Filichia/For The Star-Ledger

April 22, 2010, 4:04AM
Yankee Tavern
SuzAnne Barabas Jim Shankman as Ray and Pheonix Vaughn as Janet in Yankee Tavern at NJ Rep in Long Branch now thru May 23.

So why did noted playwright Steven Dietz name his new drama “Yankee Tavern”?

The nearly excellent play, presented in its world premiere at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, has nothing to do with Americans living in the Northern stretches of the country.

That world championship baseball team isn’t part of the plot, either.

And while the fascinating script does take place in a watering hole, it could just as easily be set in any place where people congregate.

What’s really on Dietz’s mind is the 9/11 tragedy. Ray, a barfly who spends an inordinate amount of time in this tavern, incessantly listens to talk radio. He even wears a headset lest he miss a morsel.

That apparatus also gives Ray the opportunity to call the program at a moment’s notice. He constantly feels the need to “correct” both the talk show host and other listeners who call in.

Ray is the loosest of cannons as he dispenses his version of the truth. He has opinions on everything, including this howler: “The fall of communism was a Communist plot!”

And yet … and yet … only the rarest of theatergoers won’t feel that every now and then, Ray has a plausible theory or a believable take. That’s the main fascination with “Yankee Tavern.” Who knows for sure what’s true and what isn’t? Can we trust what the politicians tell us?

Adam, portrayed in a low-key fashion by Jason Odell Williams, owns the bar. He’s more concerned about the chance the city will condemn it than with the big wedding his fiancée, Janet, is planning.

These two get the play off to a shaky start. Certainly Williams and Pheonix (that’s the way she spells it) Vaughn, who plays Janet, make a cute couple, but what does that ultimately mean where a marriage is concerned? Janet grills Adam as to why so many of the “save-the-date” cards she mailed were returned; he admits that he made up the names just to seem as if he has more friends. While this establishes Adam as an unstable character — one who may be inclined to fudge the truth as much as some government leaders — Janet gets over this lie much too easily. Don’t blame either Vaughn or director SuzAnne Barabas; the trouble is in the writing.

Another complication comes courtesy of an ominous-looking stranger who enters, sits at the bar, and orders two beers. This unnamed person doesn’t have much to say for the entire first act, but he certainly becomes loquacious in Act Two — with more information about 9/11 than even Ray could imagine. Michael Irvin Pollard excels in making us believe that this man has better-informed answers, and that he’s someone who should not be challenged.

Jim Shankman is best of all as the grizzled hothead Ray. He’s reason enough to see the play.

Whether or not Ray is spouting fiction, Shankman makes certain that all his emotions are real and raw. The actor stalks across the floor of Jessica Parks’ too-neat set as if he’s staking his claim to the entire operation.

One of the more arresting moments arrives as the lights come up on Act Two, Scene Two. The bar is covered with baskets of flowers. Were they sent to celebrate Adam and Janet’s wedding — or out of respect for someone who died?

“Yankee Tavern” always keeps the audience guessing.

Stop, children . . . What's that sound?
"Yankee Tavern" serves a deceptively light blend of revelation & paranoia
Anne Sherber, Tuesday, April 27, 2010

When it comes to conspiracy theories, most people land somewhere between the extremes. Perhaps they believe that Oswald acted alone, but the Apollo space landing was a hoax. Or they implicate the CIA in killing Martin Luther King, but accept Princess Diana’s death as a tragic accident.

Exposure Time
Jim Shankman testifies to Pheonix Vaughn in Yankee Tavern, through May 23 at New Jersey Repertory.

But at the very ends of that spectrum, you’ll find the nuts and the hopelessly naïve: Those who believe that nothing happens without a hidden (and, more often than not, malevolent) subtext; and those who insist on believing that things are exactly as they appear, regardless of the contrary evidence.

Yankee Tavern, a new play by Steven Dietz at New Jersey Repertory Company, is all about those extremes, and what happens when the ground beneath closely held positions shifts.

Adam is a serious young grad student, working on a dissertation about urban myths and their role in perpetuating dangerous, elaborate conspiracy theories. He is angling for a job with the CIA when he graduates. Meanwhile, he is stuck tending the bar in his late father’s tavern while he waits for the city to condemn the place. Adam’s fiancée Janet works at an unnamed foundation and is knee deep preparations for their wedding.

The play’s beating heart is Ray, a clever but very crazy homeless man who was once the best friend of Adam’s father. Ray sees conspiracies everywhere he looks. He is chock full of doomsday predictions, unprovable assertions and half-baked speculations about everything from the occult Starbucks logo to the real story behind those notorious hanging chads.

It is the events of September 11, 2001 for which Ray saves his most zealous theorizing. Obsessed by questions about who knew what and when, by which parts of the tragedy constituted coincidence and which were the result of covert schemes, his rantings are eloquent quackery.

But Ray’s crackpot notions suddenly seem less implausible when a mysterious stranger sits down at the end of the bar. In the midst of one of Ray’s rants, the newcomer finishes one of Ray’s sentences. And he proceeds to reveal a surprising intimacy with the details of September 11 and, even more menacingly, with Adam’s research. Suddenly, all of the odd details of the World Trade Center tragedy, which so preoccupy Ray, are seeming much coincidental.

SuzAnne Barabas directs the first act as black comedy. Despite the dark topics, Ray’s rat-a-tat tirades are both silly enough and true enough to be very funny, and even the entrance of a mysterious stranger supplies a kind of Gunfight at the OK Corral campiness.

But that good-natured bemusement is completely absent in the play’s second half. With Adam off to Washington, D.C. for a round of secretive meetings and Ray off in search of a suit to wear to the couple’s wedding, the mysterious stranger returns to find only Janet behind the bar. The simmering menace of the first act erupts into a rolling boil.

Jim Shankman chews the scenery as Ray, delivering twice as much dialog as the other characters in half the time. He manages to make his rants at the same time self-deprecating and egomaniacal, completely conveying the incontrovertible proof of hundreds of conspiracies, everywhere he looks. In the second act when Ray is largely offstage, the play seems to deflate a little.

Despite being deliberately upstaged by Shankman, Pheonix Vaughn and Jason Odell Williams are both very good as the couple whose center cannot hold when their facades begin to disintegrate. Michael Irvin Pollard carries a tortured menace as Palmer, the mystery man who knows too much,

Barabas’ crisp direction steers the play along briskly enough to gloss over any small plot holes. Yankee Tavern is a surprising and effective piece of theater that is both funny and suspenseful.

A CurtainUp New Jersey Review

Yankee Tavern

Vigilance, Adam. Eternal vigilance. And, hey, some guy heard my theory about Yoko Ono and the Bay of Pigs, and he wants me to do a blob. What's a blob, anyway? — Ray
Yankee Tavern
Jim Shankman as Ray and Pheonix Vaughn as Janet
(Photo: SuzAnne Barabas)
Steven Dietz, one of America's most prolific contemporary playwrights, has written a humdinger of a play, a suspenseful, thought-provoking thriller that is above all else vastly entertaining. Part of the National New Play Network Rolling World Premieres, Yankee Tavern is giving New Jersey theatergoers a real treat, one that should also make them tremble enough to say, "Is this really possible?"

I have to admit that I am a sucker for conspiracy theories. I am still not completely convinced that there isn't something a little too patently coincidental between the exacerbated grief at Toyota and the longtime accumulating resentment by the American automobile industry. It is a wonder that among the litany of conspiracies that Ray (Jim Shankman) carries on about that he doesn't mention the above while he paces frenetically about the run-down almost derelict Yankee Tavern on lower Broadway. His target audience at the tavern, that is when he isn't speaking to the ghosts who reside in the empty hotel rooms above, is Adam (Jason Odell Williams) the current proprietor/son of the deceased owner and Adam's fiancée Janet (Pheonix Vaughn).

Ray is not only a diehard conspiracy theorist but also (as he calls himself) the "itinerant homesteader" at the Yankee Tavern which he uses as his soap box. If Adam is basically willing to listen to Ray's theories, it is Janet who senses in them the potential to create a schism in their relationship. Listening to Ray carry on about weddings being "a conspiracy — a brutal and pervasive strategy to empty the pockets of guilt-ridden parents and tie up the good hotels in the month of June," is just one of a slew of amusingly theoretical notions that serve almost as a trap to his more ominously convincing theory regarding what and who really brought down the Twin Towers.

After some motor-mouth rants on how Disney participated in the fall of communism and who really rigged the elections that would send Al Gore on the road to save the planet, Ray settles down just enough to pose his often scarily logical accumulation of data and facts about the events on 9/11. Pieced together they make just enough sense to make us wonder.

But what are we to make of the sudden appearance of Palmer, a mysterious stranger (played with an unnervingly effective smirk by Michael Irvin Pollard.) With the anticipated demolition of the old building, Adam, a graduate student, has set his sight on joining the CIA upon the counsel of a college mentor/professor with whom he makes furtive little side trips and with whom he also apparently shares a somewhat secret alliance.

The increasingly agitated Janet finds it discomforting to listen to Ray's theories but even more concerned about how Adam's life appears influenced by the unseen professor. Things get really scary when she unwittingly becomes a party to a conspiracy.

The performances, under the taut direction of SuzAnne Barabas, are a confluence of excellence. You don't have to ascribe to Ray's arguably nonsensical diatribes to be totally won over by frenetic Shankman's impassioned delivery. It is the Hitchcockian ordinariness of both Adam and Janet, as convincingly portrayed by Williams and Vaughn that keep us on our guard.

I was especially impressed with the jukebox in Jessica Park's evocation of a shabby bar. I suppose it was Jill Nagel exemplary lighting that made it spring to blinking life at a climactic moment. The play is enhanced and cleverly underscored by a delightful synthesis of themes by Hitchcock's favorite composer Bernard Hermann, Philip Glass and others. All other technical credits were top notch.

It's Happy Hour, sort of, at NJ Rep's "Tavern"

By TOM CHESEK • CORRESPONDENT, Asbury Park Press • April 16, 2010

There's the dramatic setting — a lower Manhattan building scheduled for a date with the wrecking ball. A young man is caught in "a web of intrigue" as he comes to grips with his late father's hidden legacy. Plus, his father's friend, a dealer in outlandish conspiracies, may just be a paranoid schizophrenic. And add "a mysterious stranger who appears to know far more than he should about the 9/11 attacks."

Not only is "Yankee Tavern" a comedy, it's one of those devilishly dark comedies regularly served up as the specialty house cocktail at New Jersey Repertory Company.

The play by Steven Dietz makes its regional debut this weekend at the company's Long Branch playhouse — part of a "rolling world premiere" from the National New Play Network, and an effort that director SuzAnne Barabas maintains "should have a long life, way beyond NJ Rep."

Barabas, who will transfer her NJ Rep production of "Housewives of Mannheim" to New York for a May 6 to June 6 engagement at the 59E59 Theaters (more about that in a future edition), confesses that it was the irresistible lure of the conspiracy theory that attracted her to the script by the Texas-based playwright — noting "When I started to hear the sort of stories they were telling, it made my hair stand up; it was that creepy."

Of course, as one of the rolling premieres, the play can be staged in many places at once — it's already been read and performed in at least three other cities, and a successful stand here could ensure that this study in "outlandish theories" and "dangerous realities" may not be easily escaped in the months to come.

Coincidence? Perhaps. Bear in mind, however, that "Yankee Tavern" is being brought to you by the same folks who staged such sardonic snickers as "Old Clown Wanted," "tempOdyssey," "Ten Percent of Molly Snyder" and "Sick" — paranoid fantasies all, from a troupe about whom it could be said nobody does it better.

"Many things are going on in this play," Barabas said. "Who's behind what; that sort of thing.

"It's a lot of fun to listen to, a little ridiculous — until it starts to go beyond," she says.

The bulk of the play's humor, Barabas asserts, comes from the conspiracy chatter — brought center stage by "Sick" veteran actor Jim Shankman as Ray, the "itinerant homesteader" whose only permanent address is his bar stool at the Yankee Tavern.

Jason Odell Williams plays Adam, the graduate student whose stewardship of his father's failing business is cast in an unexpected light. Also in the cast are two welcome NJ Rep regulars. Pheonix Vaughn, a sensation as May in "Housewives" and a role she'll reprise in New York, who plays Adam's practical fiance Janet — the show's only character not in danger of slipping into the "Twilight Zone." Also, on hand as the enigmatic Palmer is Michael Irvin Pollard, an actor who's segued in recent seasons from broad comedy ("Big Boys") to some awe-inspiring dramatic work in "Apple" and "Dead Ringer."

"I'm grateful to be working with this cast," director Barabas observes. "They've been off-book for weeks, and they're ready to do this thing."

Just announced by NJ Rep is a new season's worth of shows commencing in July with Sharr White's "Sunlight," a drama touching on the events of 9/11, followed in September by Charlie Shulman's "Character Assassins" and in December by Steve Braunstein's noir-ish thriller "Tangled Skirt."

The 2011 calendar year is highlighted by "Puma," a based-on-fact play by Julie Gilbert and Frank Evans, in which actors portray Marlene Dietrich, Jimmy Stewart, Paulette Goddard and Erich Maria Remarcque, author of "All Quiet on the Western Front."


Exposure Time
Sitting pretty: John FitzGibbon, Andrea Gallo, Jessica Howell and Adam Jonas Segaller star in EXPOSURE TIME, the play by Kim Merrill that makes its world premiere in Long Branch this week. (Photos by SuzAnne Barabas)


Who says Alice doesn’t live here anymore? As movie audiences look forward to director Tim Burton’s star-studded, three-dimensional riff on Alice in Wonderland, interest is once again heightened — as it’s periodically been since 1865 — in the concepts and characters created by the parson, poet and portrait artist who wrote under the pen name Lewis Carroll.

Meanwhile, on the intimately scaled but expansively visioned stage of New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, the story of Alice gets viewed through an altogether different looking glass — the glass plates and heavy lenses of the Victorian camera — in a drama that centers around the competition between Carroll (a/k/a Charles L. Dodgson) and the pioneer photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. The prize? The favor of the girl who would serve as the real-life inspiration for Alice.

Yes Virginia, there really was an Alice — Alice Liddell, a clergyman’s daughter who grew up to be a noted society hostess (and who died in 1934 at the age of 82). In Exposure Time, the play by Kim Merrill that kicks off its world premiere engagement with a pair of preview performances this Thursday, she’s a maturing young thing (portrayed by Jessica Howell) who becomes something of a muse to Dodgson/ Carroll (Adam Jonas Segaller) — the daughter, in fact, of Dodgson’s superior, and a figure who fascinates the man who’s torn between his church career and his artistic impulses.

Andrea Gallo, who co-starred in a couple of previous shows at NJ Rep (including a weird and wonderful show called Tilt Angel that pretty much no one saw) plays the amazing Cameron, and the cast (under the direction of Alan Souza, who helmed the Rep musicals The Little Hours and Cupid & Psyche) is rounded off by another stock company stalwart — John FitzGibbon, whose plummy-toned vocal prowess and grand characterizations (as everything from The Butler to train-wreck poet Delmore Schwartz) have graced many a local production. He’ll be playing the famed Charge of the Light Brigade poet Lord Alfred Tennyson — a match-up that already hits the spot, sight unseen.

Red Bank oRBit spoke with New York-based playwright Merrill — a sometime actor, mother of two, and otherwise author of contemporary dramas with names like Criminal Acts and Sex, Death and the Beach Baby — about the seemingly miraculous process through which this picture of bygone people emerged. Read on. 

RED BANK ORBIT: Like so many of the mainstage productions at New Jersey Rep, your play was first seen there as one of their little script-in-hand readings. Has it changed much since that time, or were you pretty well satisfied with what you had?

KIM MERRILL: I’m not one of those writers who think what they’ve got is perfect from the start, so I’ve done a fair amount of rewriting since they presented the reading, back in August of 2008, I think it was. We had a two week workshop in Minneapolis also — I even made some more changes before rehearsals started.

It’s been interesting, revisiting these characters that I began writing years ago. Going back to an old play is like going back to someone you broke up with!

Take us back to the beginning of the project — what was it about Julia Cameron and Lewis Carroll that struck you as a worthwhile dramatic subject?

I read an article about a display of Carroll’s pictures — I hadn’t even known he took photos before that; he really considered himself a professional, and he was meticulous about archiving his work — and in this article there was a mention of Julia Cameron. I thought she’d be an interesting subject, not only because she was a woman who was very involved with the early days of photography, but also because of the impact that photography had on the Victorian era.

I’ve always been interested in that era, when the seeds of our current culture were affected by all this new technology. A comparable thing would be the introduction of the internet to our society. 

So you must have done a fair amount of homework before starting in on the script.

I researched it for about a year. This is my only historical play, so even though I made a lot of it up — in particular, I pumped up the competition aspect for the sake of the story — it’s based on things that actually happened. 

One of the things I looked into was the whole process of photography as it existed back then — I found a woman who’s an expert on Julia Cameron, and I spent a day with her taking my portrait as it would have been done back then. I learned how complicated the chemicals were; how time consuming the whole process was…

We’re talking about the days before film, when she and her contemporaries were using, what, daguerrotypes? Glass plates?

She used what was called the wet collodion process, which involved glass plates and a silver nitrate solution; a lot of dangerous chemicals — it was a pretty difficult method of taking pictures, but it was popular for a while.

There was an argument going on back then over whether photography should be considered an art or a science, given how complicated the process could seem at the time. Ever since she was rediscovered around the 1940s, Julia is known primarily in art circles; a lot of her work wasn’t archived but the photo albums that have survived are well known with collectors and museum people. 

One of the more interesting things about those early photos is that, because of how they were produced, they’re really not captured moments in time — they’re actually very orchestrated events.

Those old photos look weird to us because they’re so staged and constructed — personally I find them to be very orderly and creepy! I also admire the Alice books, but they’ve always been scary to me!

There’s also a creepy undercurrent to the whole story of Lewis Carroll and the real-life Alice, if you believe a lot of the more recent biographical material. Do you address that here, in the midst of this story about the two photographers who are kind of competing for the attention of this girl Alice? 

The play’s not realistic, although I stay true to their story — they did actually meet, and both of them photographed Alice Liddell. Most of the fictionalizing here is in Carroll’s relationship with Alice.

I’m aware of the stories of pedophilia that have circulated about Lewis Carroll, but in the course of my research I found that there was this aesthetic back then for taking pictures of naked kids. Julia took these too, but being that she was a middle aged woman I guess that she hasn’t come under the same sort of scrutiny. I think there was an idealization of innocence in the way that many photographers portrayed children back then, although our modern eyes would see things differently.

I’m more interested in them as artists anyway — I did my best to make this a story about aspiration. Julia Cameron was obsessive about photography.

I know that you’ve taken an active interest in watching this production develop, as it were — so how’s it been seeing the show come to life on the stage? And working with a director who specializes in musicals?

I think in an ideal world I’d love to be able to do this on a big stage, with big projections of photos behind the actors. But working with New Jersey Rep has been a great experience, just as working with Alan Souza — the play as I said is not realistic, so it does present some of the same directorial challenges that a musical can present. We received an American Play Award, which allows for extra collaborative time, so we had some extra weeks to work with Alan. And I’ve learned a lot from the rehearsal process.


NJ Rep develops "Exposure Time" for world premiere

Asbury Park Press, February 12, 2010

As a big-budget new screen treatment of "Alice in Wonderland" prepares to open nationwide next month, New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch offers up an entirely different take on the Alice saga — one that, while it's based in fact, is equally surreal, and also in 3-D.

The real life Alice Liddell, who died in 1934 at the age of 82, may have inspired some fanciful adventures under the ground and through the looking glass. "Exposure Time," the play by Kim Merrill that makes its world premiere this weekend at NJ Rep, peers through a different sort of glass — the photographer's lens — to create a study of the young woman and her relationship with two prominent citizens of Victorian England; one a pioneering female photographer, the other a man who would come to write under the pen name of Lewis Carroll.

It's actually the lenswoman Julia Margaret Cameron who's at the heart of "Exposure Time," a play that the New York-based Merrill was inspired to write upon becoming fascinated with this prominent portrait artist of the 19th century.

"I've always been interested in that era, when the seeds of our current culture were affected by all this new technology," the playwright explains. "A comparable thing would be the introduction of the internet to our society."

Those pioneer days of photography — a time when there was some debate over its being an art form or a science — were defined by heavy glass plates, dangerous chemicals and lengthy exposure times that made an old photo portrait something more "staged and constructed" than spontaneously captured. In researching Cameron, Merrill investigated the techniques used by the early professionals, even spending most of a day sitting for a recreation of a formal portrait session.

"This is a story about aspiration," says Merrill of the play that was written several years ago, and which, like so many offerings at NJ Rep, developed from one of the theater's popular series of script-in-hand readings.

"It's based on things that actually happened, but it's not a realistic play," the author maintains. "I made a lot of it up — in particular, I pumped up the competition aspect for the sake of the story."

That competition - between Cameron and her fellow camera enthusiast, the young clergyman and poet Charles L. Dodgson — becomes a thing of Mozart-Salieri proportions in Merrill's hands. The two contemporaries vie not just for supremacy in the marketplace, but for the favor of the girl to whom Dodgson would come to dedicate his pseudonymous "Alice" stories.

"Most of the fictionalizing here is in his relationship with Alice," says Merrill in reference to the recent and controversial speculation regarding the Dodgson-Liddell connection — adding that "there was an idealization of innocence in the way that many photographers portrayed children back then, although our modern eyes would see things differently."

Andrea Gallo, a veteran of several past productions at NJ Rep, stars as Julia Cameron, with Rep newcomer Adam Jonas Segaller as Dodgson. Jessica Howell makes her company debut as Alice, and another familiar figure on the Long Branch stage — the estimable character man John FitzGibbon — portrays one of the "A-list" figures of the era, the celebrated poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson. In the director's chair is Alan Souza, whose previous credits at NJ Rep include the musicals "Cupid and Psyche" and "The Little Hours" (a show that he'll be reprising in New York this spring).

For Merrill, who's workshopped and revised her script considerably in the years leading up to this world premiere run, it's "been interesting revisiting these characters—going back to an old play is like going back to someone you broke up with!"