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Is everybody HAPPY? Michael Irvin Pollard and Susan Maris have some agonizing reappraisals as after-dinner mints, in Robert Caisley’s drama going up at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. (photo by SuzAnne Barabas)
It’s been an effective device of stage drama since long before Banquo busted up Macbeth’s banquet: The Dinner Party — where guests get oiled, skeletons get rattled, toasts get testy and the plot gets thickened as lumpy gravy.
An invitation to dinner — with all the dramatic dyspepsia that entails — is at the heart of Happy, the new ensemble piece that makes its regional debut this week at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. In it, a well adjusted middle aged guy named Alfred and his wife Melinda are asked to break bread at the home of Alfred’s friend Eduardo — with the intent of meeting Eduardo’s new girlfriend, Eva, a “sexy 22 year old artist with a dark soul,” and an outlook that catalyzes the party into an affair where “truths get twisted, secrets get revealed,” and the whole soiree “becomes an evening that spins wildly out of control.”
Happy is being presented as a so-called “rolling” world premiere — a play that presents a series of separate “premiere” stagings in different cities, with different casts and directors — by the National New Play Network. Playwright Robert Caisley has been traveling the country, looking in on the previous productions in Montana, Florida and California — and the Idaho-based academic landed recently in downtown Long Branch, where director and NJ Rep co-founder SuzAnne Barabas has assembled a cast that he praises as top-notch.
The central character of Alfred is played here by an actor who’s a member of the NJ Rep stock company if ever there was one: the ever-versatile Michael Irvin Pollard, whose previous co-star turns have included roles as slightly surreal desk jockeys in Big Boys and Ten Percent of Molly Snyder; a wayward hubby in Apple; a couple of tactiturn strangers with dark secrets in Dead Ringer and Yankee Tavern; a suit ‘n tie patsy in Night Train, and a convicted pedophile in Release Point. He’s joined by Mark Light-Orr as Eduardo, Susan Maris as Eva and Wendy Peace as Melinda.
Will NJ Rep have another winner on its hands? Will Alfred forget Eva and find true happiness? And what about Melinda?? For the answers, your upperWETside correspondent dispensed with the questions, and let Robert Caisley fill us in on the origins, and the real meaning of Happy. Read on…
Tony nominee Michael Cumpsty (left) is at the center of a “vortex of neurosis,” as Noel Coward’s PRESENT LAUGHTER comes to Two River Theater in a production directed by FRASIER co-creator David Lee (right).
Just about one year ago, actor Michael Cumpsty — then a Tony nominee for his role as Judy Garland’s accompanist in the Broadway engagement of End of the Rainbow — stood on the stage of Red Bank’s Two River Theater and introduced the project that “will bring me back to Red Bank, which is where I want to be.”
The project in question is Present Laughter, the 1942 comedy by the multifaceted Sir Noël Coward, and a play that Cumpsty described as being about “an aging matinee idol, who throws everyone around him into a vortex of neurosis…kind of like (my) life.”
Beginning June 1 and for the next three weekends, the British-born veteran of more than 20 Broadway shows (and screen parts that include Nucky Thompson’s associate Father Ed Brennan on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire) steps into the role of Garry Essendine — frothy farceur, master manipulator, debonair devil, and a character written by Coward as “a bravura part” for himself.
Cumpsty, who shares a Middletown home with Two River Theater Company artistic director John Dias, made his Two River debut in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing in 2011. In Present Laughter, he lords over an unofficial family unit of Essendine associates that comprises secretary Monica (fellow Tony nominee Veanne Cox), producer Hugo (Mark Capri), manager Morris (James Riordan) and ex-wife Liz (Kaitlin Hopkins), inside his apartment domain, and on the threshold of a grueling African tour.
Serving to further complicate the proceedings are the appearances (anticipated and otherwise) of a gallery of supporting characters that include aspiring playwright Roland (Cole Escola of Logo TV’s Jeffery & Cole Casserole), ambitious female fan Daphne (Hayley Treider), her society aunt (Robin Mosely), as well as Garry’s secret affair — and Hugo’s wife — Joanna (Leighton Bryan). Directing the large cast is a master of ensemble television comedy, multiple Emmy winner David Lee of Frasier and Wings fame.
Your upperWETside correspondent spoke to Michael Cumpsty about following in the bedroom-slippered footsteps of the formidable Coward (plus dozens of other grand actors of stage and screen), as he explores the essence of Essendine. Read on…
Its performance spaces may have gone momentarily dark between mainstage productions — but this weekend, Red Bank’s Two River Theater becomes one of the newest participating hosts for an arts event that’s primed to connect with some new audiences: the annual Vision Latin American Film Festival.
A presentation of the Latino Coalition of New Jersey — the nonprofit organization that’s hosted the annual Latino Festival of Monmouth County in Freehold Borough since 2005 — the newly expanded program offers up a slate of seven feature-length dramatic and documentary films selected to increase the understanding and appreciation for the various Latino cultures that thrive in New Jersey.
“Through the eyes of the filmmakers, we will see Latino perspectives on relationships, politics, family, religion and customs that surround their lives,” the coalition says in its press materials for the filmfest, which will feature introductions by guest speakers as well as post-screening Q&A discussions.
The celebration of Latino cinema has forged a separate identity from the summertime festival in Freehold, with a two days/ three nights schedule of recent works from North and South America that screens this weekend in three different Monmouth County locations — including Two River Theater Company’s branded Bridge Avenue artspace.
The question was a tricky one, regarding the founding of the NHL, and the number of member teams at the time that the league came together in 1917. The correct answer (four) fairly flummoxed fans who were brought up on the legend of the hallowed “Original Six” franchises — prompting Quizmaster™ Jim Norton to observe with a dry drip of feigned arrogance, “To all of you who actually submitted ‘The Original Six’ as your answer…and who even underlined it, like I’m some kind of an idiot…well you’re wrong. Fuck you. YOU’RE the idiot!” It was just another Tuesday in Asbury Park — traditionally a day of rest for many local businesses, there in the drab foothills of the working week — and a day often given over to some creatively wacky pursuits; a fact hammered home by this Tuesday’s head-spinning Steel Cage Match of a city council election. But on May 7, a homegrown tradition returned to take root, as the pop-cultural force of nature known as Tuesday Night Trivia reappeared with a reassuringly familiar host (Gentleman Jim) and a new lease on life, at an all-new host venue — the atom-age retro rec room Asbury Lanes. (more…)
Fred Grandy (right, with Christian Pedersen) — he of both Gopher and US Congress fame — makes like Olivier in Anthony Shaffer’s SLEUTH now playing at Surflight Theatre in Beach Haven. Photos by CHASE HEILMAN PHOTOGRAPHY
Long-time supporters and observers of Surflight Theatre — Beach Haven’s can-do professional purveyor of crowdpleasing entertainments — might be forgiven for believing that the LBI landmark exists beneath some colossal jinx cloud, Job-like test of faith, or Richard Bachman gypsy curse.
The venerable venue very nearly entered the realm of bygone nostalgia a few years back following a bout with suffocating debt and bankruptcy — an interlude from which it emerged under the too-brief tenure of producing artistic director Roy Miller at the start of the 2011 season. Before departing Surflight the following year, Miller — whose sudden passing a few weeks back seems to be part and parcel of the theatre’s trials and tribulations — rolled out his great big Rolodex of connections and packed the playhouse’s “comeback” season with personalities that ranged from Justin Guarini to Judd Hirsch; Dawn (Mary Ann) Wells and Cindy (Shirley) Williams; Laugh-In’s Jo Ann Worley and Brady Bunch’s Eve Plumb.
A 2012 fire at a neighboring restaurant that also damaged the Surflight property would appear to have signaled the theatre’s ultimate phoenix-like rise from the ashes — but then along came Sandy. The Octo-pocalypse, its winds and waters of mass destruction — and the long dark aftermath of utility outages, inaccessible neighborhoods and transportation issues — put a piercing exclamation point on a lousy year; ensuring the cancellation of the Christmas production and casting all prospects for 2013 in deluge-dampened doubt.
Still, springtime saw the re-emergence of the Surflight brand under executive director Ken Myers with a newly rebuilt stage and shop, a work-in-progress renovation campaign (to which Broadway legend and serial Tony winner Tommy Tune contributes a benefit concert later this month), and a full slate of productions that kicked off in April with an earlybird salue to ABBA.
Beginning tonight and opening officially on Thursday, May 9, the 2013 Surflight season continues with a new staging of Sleuth, the Tony’d-up, twisted-inside-out, drawing room mystery by Anthony Shaffer that’s directed here by Clayton Philips and starring another familiar face from countless TV nights — none other than The Love Boat‘s affably goofy Gopher, Fred Grandy.
It’s a decidedly different characterization for the actor — that of one Andrew Wyke, successful British author of detective novels and smoking-jacketed lord of a country manor that’s choked to the gills with bizarre antique toys, slightly sadistic games and potential traps around every rococo corner. It’s there in this house of mystery that the grandiose gentleman coerces his wife’s lover, playboy hairdresser Milo Tindle (Christian Pedersen, sensational in New Jersey Rep’s Dead Ringer) into a grand deception that twists and turns upon each of the principals in ways that can only truly be appreciated by losing one’s self in the deliciously nasty play’s world of murderously good manners and oppressively eccentric atmosphere.
It turns out that the regional theater thing is also a new twist to the Grandy resume. The Iowa-born Harvard grad — a lifelong Republican whose first widescale public exposure was his role as best man for the wedding of his friend David Eisenhower to Presidential daughter Julie Nixon — served four full terms as a United States Congressman, serving on the House Ways and Means Committee and stepping away from elective politics following an unsuccessful bid for the governorship of the Hawkeye State.
A career as a reliably right-wing commentator followed, on outlets that ranged from National Public Radio to D.C. area talk station WMAL — with the host of The Grandy Group program (an editorializer against Islamicization, for whom the phrase “Shariah-compliant” is an oft-wielded verbal cudgel) resigning amid a broadcast brouhaha involving statements made on-air by his wife Catherine Mann-Grandy. It was a kerfuffle during which supporters of Grandy (who serves these days on the executive staff at Frank Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy) branded even conservative WMAL as “Shariah-compliant.”
With a brief interview window between intensive rehearsals of Sleuth, Grandy and your upperWETside correspondent left the politics to fester like seaweed on the Ocean County beaches, and spoke of sitcom signatures and of Sleuth, the vehicle by which the GOPher emerges from the burrow of prolonged showbiz hibernation. Read on…
“That was the greatest ride,” says Lisa Kron — or rather, Lisa Kron as her own diabetic, heart-diseased, legally blind father — in “2.5 Minute Ride,” a rollercoaster that rambles up one track on an outing to a sun-baked Midwest amusement park, and swoops down another on a pilgrimage to the dark heart of Auschwitz.
The one-woman show, for which Kron won an Obie Award in its 1999 staging at New York’s Public Theater, is being performed by its creator for the first time in several years, during an all new engagement at Red Bank’s Two River Theater. It’s a production that re-teams the playwright with director Mark Brokaw — as well as with Two River Theater Company’s John Dias, who brought her play “Well” to Broadway a few seasons back.
The title notwithstanding, “2.5 Minute Ride” is an approximate hour and a half of high comedy, matter-of-fact tragedy, poignant fantasy — and the reality that life means having to drive many hours to get from one to the other. Framed as an unseen slide show on a sparsely appointed stage (designer Allen Moyer works with lighting director Philip Rosenberg and the audience’s own imagination to fill in the “missing” elements), the play finds Kron, laser pointer in hand, quantum-leaping from the slapstick sitcom of her aging family’s annual caravan to Cedar Point Amusement Park in Sandusky, Ohio — to the “malevolent ground” of the Birkenau death camp, where she accompanies her ailing father on a trip to the place in which his parents met their fate.
Delivered by the playwright in a largely breezy, conversational tone that doesn’t let the pace flag for a second, it’s a “Ride” that hurtles willy-nilly through time more so than space; a midway attraction that travels parallel tracks, branching off into unexpected detours — a strangely funny scene at a Winona Ryder movie, a Gestapo member’s thought-provoking words to his interrogators, a supermarket encounter with the ghosts of Kron’s grandparents — that somehow converge on a satisfying end point. It may take a moment to realize that the ride has reached its conclusion, but a conclusion has most surely been reached.
Kron is hardly the first performer-playwright to have collaged a solo show from a scrapbook of family memories (or to have used the spectre of the Holocaust as the glue that holds the images in place), but unlike too many “Journey to Me” theatrical pieces, the author is not the center around which the universe revolves — she’s an observer-participant who cedes the spotlight to her impressions of her notoriously picture-phobic mother; a crippled and contrary aunt; a cantankerous closet-case uncle and a lonely brother whose Jewish Singles explorations lead him to embrace the Orthodox faith. The implication is that all of these people reside within her to varying degrees — and that it takes an understanding of these (at times unsympathetic) figures to form a portrait of the storyteller.
An out lesbian in a clan that would just as soon never have to attend another wedding — and a self-appointed caretaker who’s often in need of directions herself — the Lisa Kron of the script uses keynotes like food to trigger jumps between memories, and goes from complaining about the Sandusky theme park to wishing that the hopelessly confusing real-world Poland of her travels was replaced by a more easily navigable “Poland World.”
Lisa Kron has the take-no-prisoners timing of a battle-tested standup comic, the sizing-up savvy of a seasoned sideshow barker, the laser-honed instincts of a photojournalist, and the entrancing oral-tradition skills of that one good friend whose stories are a joy to listen to. She’s no slouch as a playwright and a performer either, and for the duration of this “Ride” she’s got the audience strapped in right where she wants them.
“2.5 Minute Ride” continues with a mix of matinee and evening performances through May 12. Tickets ($20 – $65 adults) can be obtained by calling (732)345-1400 or visiting www.trtc.org.
Reunited once more for their most ambitious tour in over 25 years, Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong take it to the boards of the Count Basie on May 1, for an evening of mirth, music and munchie-inducing classic routines.
Is this any way to observe 420 Day? If you’re the elder stoner statesmen Cheech and Chong, you’ve spent that nationwide celebration of cannabis culture in seemingly uncharacteristic fashion — up before the sun, doing tightly scheduled rounds of press, and interfacing with fans on social media platforms that range from Facebook and Twitter, to Pinterest and everything short of Christian Mingle.
Truth be told, Richard “Cheech” Marin and Tommy Chong have a collective work ethic that’s seen them embrace new tech, new formats and new channels of distribution almost as fast as they’re dreamed up — and, with their first big tour in over 25 years now underway, the Grammy winning kings of most media have a lot of lost time to make up.
On the night of Wednesday, May 1, Cheech and Chong’s Third Reunion Tour finds the gold-plated “cult” stars of stage, screen and stereos heading into Red Bank, for an 8 pm appearance at the Count Basie Theatre in which the pair recreate many of the classic, bongwater-basted sketch routines from their smash comedy records of the 1970s — a post-Woodstock era that routinely saw single releases like “Basketball Jones,” “Earache My Eye” and “Sister Mary Elephant” crashing the Top 40 charts (and causing as much angst among radio programmers as among parents of the nation’s easily corrupted youth).
It’s a debut for the duo, in the borough that claims a couple of their spiritual offspring — Jay and Silent Bob — as “homegrown” favorites. It’s also a chance for the veteran comedy team to promote the first new Cheech and Chong project in a generation — the soundtrack to the feature-length Cheech and Chongs Animated Movie!, with nine all-new songs augmenting a cartoonified collection of vintage vignettes from such discs as Cheech & Chong’s Wedding Album, Los Cochinos, and Big Bambu (coincidentally, Jay & Silent Bob’s Super Groovy Cartoon Movie! kicked off its tour of screenings and podcasts on 4/20).
With Marin having stretched his mainstream chops in recent years (through projects that ranged from playing cops on network TV series, to producing a series of children’s music albums) — and with Chong’s intermittent screen appearances overshadowed by a controversial 2003 federal prison sentence (documented in detail here) for selling drug paraphernalia online — the stock characters of the street-savvy Chicano and the eternal hippie look to take on new dimensions of time and tide and life experience.
4/20 came and went without a scheduled phone interview — but an apologetic Chong called upperWETside the following evening to bring us up to date. Flip the record over for more, man…
In the hands of its creator, it’s a thrill ride unlike any other; a midway attraction that clatters up a rollercoaster track in Ohio’s Cedar Point amusement park — and hurtles down the other side on a grim pilgrimage to the concentration camps at Auschwitz.
Although it lasts a bit longer than its title suggests, 2.5 Minute Ride is an experience that’s more of a trip through time than space — a “funny, complex meditation on tragedy, grief and family” that unfolds exclusively through the spoken word performance of Lisa Kron, the play’s sole cast member and the author who netted an Obie Award during its inaugural Ride in 1999.
Returning to the one-woman show for the first time in five years — and reuniting with Mark Brokaw, who directed that 1999 production at NYC’s Public Theater — Kron comes to Two River Theater for a new staging that opens this weekend and continues through the second week in May. Going up inside the mainstage Rechnitz Theater at the Bridge Avenue artspace, it’s a Ride that also re-teams the Tony nominee with Two River Theater Company artistic director John Dias, who co-produced the Broadway production of her play Well in 2010.
Antoinette LaVecchia, Nick Lehane, Lizbeth Mackay, Lucy DeVito and Steven Skybell in THE ELECTRIC BABY, the ensemble drama by Stefanie Zadravec now onstage at Two River Theater. (Photos by T. Charles Erickson)
The TV/film actor turned playwright found herself spending even more time in the city when one of her twin sons was referred for treatment to the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh — and Zadravec writes eloquently here on how being the parent of a seriously ill child served to illuminate the development of what was then a work-in-progress script. Opening officially with a sold-out performance this Friday, April 19, The Electric Baby is one of two shows running through the early part of May at Two River — and part of an exciting slate of events as the 2012-2013 season enters its heated homestretch.
Troma Studios multi-media mogul (and barnstorming Barnum) Lloyd Kaufman — seen here with studio mascot TOXIE on the steps of Asbury Lanes — returns to the Shore’s atom-age rec room for the 14th TromaDance Film Festival, Friday night and all day Saturday.
In an interview with Dorothy Creamer on our old Red Bank oRBit site (archived here on the upperWETside), Troma Studios‘ merry mogul Lloyd Kaufman described his ultra-underground, infra-indie empire as “the jalapeño peppers on the cultural pizza” of a fastfood entertainment industry…a resolutely outsider paragon of poverty-row pedigree, now closing in on 40 years’ worth of a decidedly vintage-vaudeville approach to “creating movies of the future.”
The film production and distribution marque that gave us The Toxic Avenger hasn’t mega-morphed too far beyond its 1980s roots as a video-age inheritor of a proud drive-in tradition; a successor to all of those sub-American International outfits that were little more than a stogie-chomping would-be mogul with a three-line phone and an art-metal desk. Under the leadership of Yale-educated businessman Kaufman and co-founder Michael Herz, the Troma brand would accrue a library of cult favorites that numbered among them Class of Nuke ‘Em High, Sgt. Kabukiman NYPD, Surf Nazis Must Die!, and Poultrygeist (for which our own Mike Black contributed to the score).
Armed with both a gore-drenched Herschell Gordon Lewis sensibility AND an extra edge of “strong social satire,” the “Toxie” franchise made mainstream inroads with a trio of sequels, Marvel comics adaptations, a Saturday morning kidtoon and an off-Broadway musical that boasted music by Bon Jovi’s David Bryan. And, in the tradition of Roger Corman and his various proteges, several Troma epics would see some of the earliest screen work by Samuel L. Jackson, Vincent D’Onofrio and director James Gunn.
What Kaufman and Troma appear to have done best is to remain a boil on the butt of the industry — both the one-dimensional dumbdowns of the MilkDud multiplexes, AND the predictable pretensions of the fair-trade-tea festival circuit. It’s a dynamic that inspired Kaufman and kompany to crash the annual Sundance Festival to establish the pirate-satellite celebration of all things inconveniently indie known as the Tromadance Film Festival — and it’s extended to an ongoing online crowd-funding campaign to invade the 2013 Cannes Film Festival for the purpose of producing a documentary (“about how independent art must fight corporate conglomerates to stay alive”) with the working title of Occupy Cannes.
Before anyone gets to go sunning their bikini lines away on the French Riviera, however, the time has come for TromaDance, an event that’s moved from the snowy slopes of Utah — to Asbury Park; specifically the atom-age tenpins taproom turned retro-rocking rec room that is Asbury Lanes. The fightin’ Fourth Avenue landmark — pretty much the only thing left standing on a block characterized by vacant lots, boarded-up bars and the skeletal carcasses of bankrupt condo projects — has provided snug harbor for the freakishly free of charge filmfest, and on Friday and Saturday, April 12 and 13, the center Lanes once more welcome the distinguished ambassador of the alternative arts for the 14th edition of the event that’s turned the Asbury waterfront into a “trash Cannes” for slumming cinephiles, unrepentant rockers and Fat Guys who go Nutzoid for vaudeville that remains verboten even in a post-ironic age where the concepts of the underground and the taboo have been rendered moot.